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529 Plans: A Tax-Free Way to Save for College

As ConsumerAffairs.com recently reported, the cost of sending your child to college has escalated faster than practically any other family expense....


As ConsumerAffairs.com recently reported, the cost of sending your child to college has escalated faster than practically any other family expense.

These days, many families are forced to choose between money set aside for retirement or dipping into, or even depleting, those funds to pay for their children's education. It doesn't appear that college costs are going to come down any time soon. So what can you do to prepare for this ever-increasing financial burden?

One solution that appears to be gaining in popularity is the state-sponsored 529 college savings plan. This plan allows you to save money free of state and federal taxes and to use it tax-free, providing you use it for a qualified form of higher education, such as public or private colleges and universities. Clown school might not pertain.

If you wonder where the "529" came from, that's the number of the section in the Internal Revenue Code describing the tax advantages of state-sponsored college savings plans. While 48 states and the District of Columbia each have their own 529 plan, there are actually only two distinct types.

The first is a prepaid plan that lets you buy tuition credits at today's rates and then use those credits when your child goes to college. The idea here is to head off tuition inflation.

The second type is a savings plan that allows you to put money into an account and to have that money grow tax free over time.

Both work best when you start the plan early, such as when your child, or grandchild, is in pre-school, or even still in the crib.

Twenty seven states and the District of Columbia even allow residents to deduct part of what they contribute to their home state's plans on their state income tax returns. Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Maine offer up-front state tax deductions for 529 contributions.

How much these tax benefits help will depend on your tax bracket as well as what you invest in. If the investment option, such as a mutual fund you're putting money into isn't growing more than 5%, you may want to shift to a fund with a better return.

Muddy Waters

Created by Congress ten years ago, 529 plans were slow to attract attention at first, possibly because there was so much confusion over how much the plans cost in terms of fees and what they had to offer in investment options. To further muddy the waters, each state has its own plans and some plans are more attractive than others.

But the combination of skyrocketing education costs and Congress' recent action to make permanent the plans' tax-free element as long as the money is used for education is prompting more parents to consider them.

By the end of last year, assets in 529 savings plans reached nearly $91 billion. The consulting firm, Financial Research, says by 2011, those assets are expected to nearly triple to more than $257 billion.

Many plans are offering more investment options and have even lowered their fees by as much as 50%. This reduction is important because high management fees could erase any gains from the tax benefit. According to savingforcollege.com, low-cost plans tend to charge under 0.6% in annual fees on their cheapest options that invest in equities. Ohio has the lowest fee of 0.25%. New York's 529 Savings Plan charges 0.55%.

It may be surprising to learn that you don't have to live in the state that sponsors the plan you use. Since each state's plan is slightly different, with varied investment options and differing costs, it pays to shop around for the right plan.

However, to attract residents to their plan, some states offer extra incentives, so make sure you check those out as well.

Check out your own state's 529 plan first because 31 states and the District of Columbia offer benefits such as tax deductions to residents for investing in their plan. If you live in a different state, chances are your state won't offer a tax break if you invest in another state's plan.

Then compare the tax breaks to the investment costs. If your state plan offers a tax break without low-cost investment options, you may want to look at other plans. Other states still have high fees and poor investment options and some don't offer the same tax breaks. To do this comparison shopping, go to www.savingforcollege.com or www.collegesavings.org.

If you didn't start saving when your child was a toddler, that's OK. Parents of high school seniors can still take advantage of 529 plans. That's because they can deposit up to five years' worth of contributions, or $120,000, without getting hit with gift taxes provided they don't add any more money for the next five years.

Other Options

Keep in mind there are other college-savings options to think about. There's something called a "Coverdell Account" and custodial accounts for minor children created under the Unified Gift to Minors Act. Coverdell accounts have been around as long as 529 savings plans; custodial accounts have been around much longer.

An advantage for 529 savings plans is that they allow you to change the account beneficiary. If one child doesn't need it because they receive a scholarship or decide to make a career out of auditioning for "American Idol," you can use the account for another child.

Some states let you shift the funds into a retirement account and use it yourself; by contrast, money in custodial accounts technically belongs to the child, who could take control of it once he or she reaches legal age, which, depending on the state, is either 18 or 21.

Lately, grandparents have been putting money into 529 plans for their grandchildren. The benefit here is that by removing assets from their estates, it could mean less tax for their heirs to pay when the grandparent dies.

One last cautionary note: some brokers have been caught selling clients more expensive out-of-state 529 savings plan rather than an in-state plan with tax breaks as a way of boosting their commissions. The lesson here is to deal with someone you trust who will help you work through the maze of plans, each with different investment options, costs, and features.

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Congress Fails to Curb Magazine Sales Abuses

The NCL and the CLC are calling on Congress to enact protections for the thousands of teenagers and young adults who are abused and cheated by the travelin...

February 27, 2007
The National Consumers League (NCL) and the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) are calling on Congress to enact protections for the thousands of teenagers and young adults who are abused and cheated by the traveling magazine sales industry.

The organizations cited a recent New York Times article that documented the abuse and mistreatment young people commonly encounter when they are roped into traveling magazine sales schemes.

The groups said they welcomed the Times story but were disappointed at Congress' failure to act.

"Why hasn't Congress acted," asked Darlene Adkins, NCL vice president and CLC coordinator. "There's been legislation introduced year after year that addresses this problem and the reaction has been disinterest and a shrug."

Two decades ago, in 1987, a Congressional investigation of the magazine sales industry uncovered a track record of abuse, fraud, and indentured servitude involving its often teenage or young adult salespersons. Nothing came of it.

As the Times article put it: "More than two decades after a Senate investigation revealed widespread problems with these itinerant sellers, and despite several highly publicized fatal accidents and violent crimes involving the sales crews in recent years, the industry remains almost entirely unregulated. And while the industry says it has changed, advocates and law enforcement officials say the abuses persist."

In the 20 years since those hearings, the Young American Workers Bill of Rights (in 2003 renamed as Youth Worker Protection Act) has been introduced in Congress nine times.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D_CA), the bill would revise the nation's child labor laws to include a prohibition on minors under the age of 16 from working in door-to-door sales. This bill has never made it to the floor for a vote.

In both 1999 and 2001, the Traveling Sales Crew Protection Act was introduced. The lead sponsor is Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI). This bill would regulate the industry, close loopholes, and better protect salespersons in door-to-door sales. This bill has never made it to the floor for a vote either.

"We do applaud the members of Congress who have valiantly raised this issue," says Adkins. "Despite their efforts, Congress has proved to be unwilling to step up to the plate and pass legislation that is sorely overdue."

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Subprime Lending Out Of Favor At Freddie Mac

Subprime Mortgage Money Dries Up, Putting Downward Pressure on Real Estate Prices

Subprime Lending Out Of Favor At Freddie Mac...

Freddie Mac, one of the nation's largest buyers of home mortgages, has taken the first step to distance itself from subprime lending, as are other lenders large and small. Shutting off the mortgage spigot is likely to further cool the already chilly housing market.

The company has announced a series of tough new standards for the loans it purchases, and makes it clear it plans to pass on a number of riskier types of loans that have been linked to increased default rates.

Subprime loans are targeted to homebuyers with little or no established credit. They often offset the increased risk with much higher rates, making it even harder for consumers to keep up their payments. They are often blamed for recent increases in the foreclosure rate.

"First, Freddie Mac will only buy subprime adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) -- and mortgage-related securities backed by these subprime loans -- that qualify borrowers at the fully-indexed and fully-amortizing rate," the company said in a statement. "The goal is to protect future borrowers from the payment shock that could occur when their adjustable rate mortgages increase."

Freddie Mac said it will also limit the use of low-documentation underwriting for these types of mortgages to help ensure that future borrowers have the income necessary to afford their homes.

In addition, Freddie Mac will strongly recommend that mortgage lenders collect escrow accounts for borrowers' taxes and insurance payments.

Consumer advocates reacted positively. Martin Eakes, CEO of the Center for Responsible Lending, said Freddie Mac was "leading the way toward better underwriting practices in the subprime market."

"Freddie Mac's announcement represents a major step toward ensuring that homeowners receive loans they will be able to repay. With home foreclosures rising in every region of the country, Freddie Mac's action could not be more timely," he said.

Other lenders are also cutting back on subprime loans, and with less subprime mortgage money in the pipeline, the real estate market is increasingly relying on borrowers who have well-documented income and enough cash to make a substantial down payment.

The effect is to shut lower-income consumers out of the housing market, thus driving down real estate prices even further. That's good news for higher-income buyers but bad news for sellers, and for those lower-income consumers hoping to get a toehold in home ownership.

Freddie Mac's Timetable

In keeping with its statutory responsibility to provide stability to the mortgage market, Freddie Mac said it will implement the new investment requirements for mortgages originated on or after September 1, 2007, to avoid market disruptions.

As an alternative for consumers with impaired credit, the company said it is also developing fixed-rate and hybrid ARM products that will provide lenders with more choices to offer subprime borrowers. For example, in contrast to the payment structures of many of today's "2/28" ARMs, Freddie Mac's new hybrid ARMs will limit payment shock by offering reduced adjustable rate margins; longer fixed-rate terms; and longer reset periods.

Freddie Mac will require originators to underwrite these products at the fully indexed and amortizing rate. The company plans to commit significant capital to purchasing these loans into its retained portfolio.

"Freddie Mac has long played a leading role in combating predatory lending and putting families into homes they can afford and keep," said Richard F. Syron, chairman and CEO of Freddie Mac. "The steps we are taking today will provide more protection to consumers and enhance the level of underwriting standards in the market."

Freddie Mac's new requirements cover what are commonly referred to as 2/28 and 3/27 hybrid ARMs, which currently comprise roughly three-quarters of the subprime market. Specifically, the company is requiring that borrowers applying for these products be underwritten at the fully-indexed and amortizing rate, as opposed to the initial "teaser" rate. The company also will limit the use of low-documentation products in combination with these loans.

For example, the company will no longer purchase "No Income, No Asset" documentation loans and will limit "Stated Income, Stated Assets" products to borrowers whose incomes derive from hard-to-verify sources, such as the self-employed and those in the "cash economy." There will be a reasonableness standard for stated incomes.

In addition, Freddie Mac will require that loans be underwritten to include taxes and insurance and will strongly recommend that the subprime industry collect escrows for taxes and insurance, as is the norm in the prime sector. Because the maintenance of escrow accounts requires significant infrastructure and is not widely used in the subprime sector, Freddie Mac does not believe it is practical to unilaterally mandate it as a purchase requirement at this time.

"Escrowing for taxes and insurance clearly provides an added layer of consumer protection," Syron said. "It is our hope that this universal practice in prime lending today becomes the universal practice in subprime lending tomorrow."

Freddie Mac is a stockholder-owned company established by Congress in 1970 to support homeownership and rental housing. It purchases residential mortgages and mortgage-related securities, which it finances primarily by issuing mortgage-related securities and debt instruments in the capital markets.

 

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Industrial "Food" a Growing Menace

Eating out in the U.S. a scary experience for British tourist

One of the drawbacks of being a vagabond writer is the health risk that constant travel entails -- bandits with guns on third world borders....

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Drug May Help Down Syndrome

Drug May Help Down Syndrome...

February 26, 2007
A once-a-day, short-term treatment with a drug compound substantially improved learning and memory in mice with Down syndrome symptoms, say researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. What's more, the gains lasted for months after the treatment was discontinued.

The researchers are now considering a clinical trial to test whether the compound has a similar effect in humans with Down syndrome.

"This treatment has remarkable potential," said Craig Garner, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and co-director of Stanford's Down Syndrome Research Center. "So many other drugs have been tried that had no effect all. Our findings clearly open a new avenue for considering how cognitive dysfunction in individuals with Down syndrome might be treated."

There is a catch, though. After some brief, inconclusive studies on cognition enhancement in elderly or mentally impaired people in the 1950s, the FDA withdrew approval for the use the drug -- pentylenetetrazole, or PTZ -- in humans in 1982 because no clear clinical benefit had been established. Until now, that is.

The research, published Feb. 25 in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience, was conducted by Fabian Fernandez, a graduate student in Garner's laboratory.

Fernandez found that affected mice were significantly better able to identify novel objects and navigate a maze -- tasks that simulate difficulties faced by children and adults with Down syndrome -- after being fed 17 daily doses of milk containing a compound called pentylenetetrazole, or PTZ. Treated mice performed as well as their wild-type counterparts for up to two months after drug treatment was discontinued.

"Somehow the drug treatment creates a new capacity for learning," said Garner, who cautions that this new ability may decay over longer periods of time as older, drug-experienced neurons are replaced by younger cells.

The researchers believe that the key to the improvement lies in the fact that PTZ blocks the action of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called GABA. Normal brains maintain a precise ratio between neuronal excitation and inhibition that allows efficient learning. In contrast, it's thought that Down syndrome patients have too much GABA-related inhibition, making it difficult to process information.

"In general, learning involves neuronal excitation in certain parts of the brain," said Garner. "For example, caffeine, which is a stimulant, can make us more attentive and aware, and enhance learning. Conversely, alcohol or sedatives impair our ability to learn."

"My idea was that it might be possible to harness this excitation effect, which at higher doses can be pathological, to benefit people with Down syndrome," said Fernandez.

More than 300,000 people nationwide have Down syndrome, which is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. It is the leading cause of mental retardation in the country, and it is also associated with childhood heart disease, leukemia and early onset Alzheimer's disease.



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Irradiation Debate Flares Amid Food Poisoning Outbreaks

Critics say safer food handling would be even better

Irradiation Debate Flares Amid Food Poisoning Outbreaks...

Irradiation of food would save hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives annually by reducing the incidence of Salmonella, E. coli and other toxins food. Or would it?

A consumer group says irradiation is "expensive, ineffective, and impractical" technology for addressing food safety and claims it could harm the texture, taste and nutritional value of food.

Who's right?

Consumer reporter John F. Stossel, co-anchor of the ABC News show "20/20" is promoting a new book, "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity," in which he skewers anti-irradiation activists for blocking widespread adoption of technology that most food scientists believe could have stopped some or all of the latest food poisoning episodes that have shaken Americans' confidence in their food supply.

"The irradiation process would give consumers wonderful new options: strawberries that stay fresh three weeks, and chicken without the harmful levels of salmonella that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says kill six hundred Americans every year, and cause countless cases of food poisoning," says Stossel.

Agreeing with Stossel is Dennis G. Maki, M.D., author of a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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

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

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

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

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

Irradiation increases the shelf life of foods, while decreasing losses resulting from spoilage and pests; irradiation also controls pathogens and parasites, and inhibits the sprouting of vegetables, another to an earlierNew England Journal of Medicine article.

Irradiation is cheap, costing consumers less than five cents per pound for meat or poultry, when done on large volumes of food products.

Not the Answer

But Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based organization, contends that irradiation is not the answer to food safety problems.

"That 5,000 people in the United States die every year from foodborne illnesses is tragic," said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. "Food producers need to address the source of the problem -- too fast processing lines and dirty conditions at plants -- not promote an expensive, impractical and ineffective technology like irradiation."

Irradiation does not kill all the bacteria in food and may undermine other food safety efforts by masking filthy conditions and encouraging improper handling, Hauter said.

She said irradiation can mask filthy conditions in today's mega-sized livestock slaughterhouses and food processing plants. Slaughterhouses process up to 400 cows per hour or 200 birds per minute, posing an enormous sanitation challenge where E. coli, Salmonella and other potentially deadly food-borne pathogens can be spread through feces, urine and pus.

"Americans do not want to eat feces and pus even if it has been irradiated," Hauter said. "Instead of encouraging expensive treatments like irradiation, USDA should give meat inspectors the tools to test products at the plant and ensure that contaminated meat never reaches restaurants or supermarket shelves."

Food & Water Watch also argues that irradiating the U.S. food supply would be extraordinarily expensive, requiring about 80 multimillion dollar irradiation facilities.

Although the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has approved irradiation of many foods, Food & Water Watch claims the supporting data were "paltry and flawed."

Weighing in to support irradiation is the American Council on Science and Health, which yesterday said irradiation "could greatly reduce illness from foodborne pathogens and make our already safe food supply even safer."



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Passengers Applaud Airline Measures Against Unruly Kids

Passengers sympathize with AirTran's recent action

Passengers Applaud Airline Measure Against Unruly Kids...

Even when they don't have to deal with lost luggage, interminable tarmac delays, or charges of surly service, airlines have another issue to add to their growing list of problems: children who won't obey flight attendants, parents, or rules of decent behavior.

AirTran seized the bull by the horns in December by forcibly disembarking a Massachusetts couple whose 3-year-old daughter refused to take her seat, buckle her seat belt, or stop screaming.

The family got seats on another flight to Boston plus three free seats on any future AirTran flight. They took the first offer but declined the second.

What happened next boggles the mind: AirTran got 14,000 calls and emails endorsing their action.

Fourteen-thousand!

If George W. Bush had won Florida by that many votes seven years ago, Al Gore supporters could stop singing Hail to the Thief.

The bottom line is that most airline passengers pack little patience for little kids. Syndicated columnist Eileen Ogintz, whose "Taking the Kids: column has a website of the same name, said she received emails from passengers who wanted to ban all children under age 5.

Worcester Telegram writer Dianne Williamson, who broke the story of the AirTran incident, also received enormous feedback -- mostly from people who sided with the airline.

"I guess people really don't like kids on planes," she conceded.

Since parents with children board first, perhaps the problem can best be addressed by seating them in the same general section, in the back of the plane. They would be close to the restrooms they need so frequently but far from most of the adults who prefer to sleep, read, or travel in whatever peace is possible on a plane.

Grouping traveling children -- rather than spreading them all over the aircraft -- would provide inflight playmates as well as inflight peace. It would also help prevent screaming kids from running up and down aircraft aisles when they need to use the facilities.

In addition, since families with kids invariably carry extra paraphernalia that requires more time to store above and below their seats, boarding them in the back should speed up the boarding process and make quick turnarounds and on-time departures more likely.

To be sure, air travel is difficult these days. Heavy security checks, with rules that seem to change daily, raise the stress level for passengers long before they board. Then there are noisy airport seating areas -- rife with inane cell-phone chatter and a constant cacophony of noise from the omnipresent CNN Airport Channel -- and the overpacked planes. Airplane seats are cramped and food, if available at all, comes with a price. And did anyone mention the word delay?

Unruly passengers of any age only compound the felony. When they won't listen to reason, the results can be unreasonable.

AirTran insists the involuntary bumping of Julie and Gerry Kulesza was a safety issue: federal regulations require all passengers over the age of 24 months to sit in a seat with seat belt fastened during takeoff and landing.

The Atlanta-based discounter also admitted it could have handled the situation better. The 14,000 people who applauded its action don't necessarily agree.

 



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Rats! New York KFC Store Has A Problem

Rats in the Colonel's belfry ... and kitchen

A TV news crew has photographed rats scampering across the floor of a KFC and Taco Bell store in Manhattan's trendy Greenwich Village. Rats have been an on...

A country already shaken by salmonella in its peanut butter has another food worry. A TV news crew has photographed rats scampering across the floor of a KFC and Taco Bell store in Manhattan's trendy Greenwich Village.

The footage, aired locally in the New York market, sent city health inspectors scurrying to the scene. It also produced a contrite statement from parent company Yum! Brands, which called the incident "completely unacceptable."

The footage, shot through a window of the restaurant, shows several rats running around on the floor.

Local restaurant officials said construction was going on at the time, and may have attracted the rodents. The restaurant was closed at the time of the taping.

In fact, the restaurant may be closed for some time. City health inspectors ordered the facility to shut its doors pending further investigation.

Rats have been an ongoing problem in New York City. While they're a common sight in subway tunnels, some New Yorkers expressed shock as seeing them running freely through a fast food restaurant.

 



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Salmonella Confirmed in Peanut Butter, CDC Reports

At Least Two Deaths Blamed on Tainted Peanut Butter So Far

Salmonella Confirmed in Peanut Butter, CDC Reports...

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it has confirmed the presence of Salmonella in peanut butter produced by ConAgra Foods' Georgia plant. At least two people are believed to have died and hundreds have been sickened.

The agency says it has confirmed the presence of Salmonella in opened jars supplied by consumers who were sickened in New York, Oklahoma and Iowa. The question now, said CDC spokesman Dave Daigle, is how the contamination occurred.

Dirty jars and equipment are the most likely suspects. Since the peanut butter itself is heated to high temperatures that would normally be expected to kill any germs, the containers and packaging equipment are the prime suspects.

CDC investigators noted that a similar outbreak in Australia during the mid-1990s was blamed on unsanity plant conditions.

An elderly Chicago area man may be the second person to die after eating tainted peanut butter. George Baldwin was said to be in relatively good health just before his recent death from complications of food poisoning. His family believes he was killed by his fondness for Peter Pan peanut butter.

"He puts the peanut butter on toast, eats the toast, in six hours he develops fever, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting -- all of which are signs of salmonella poisoning," Baldwin family attorney Don McGarrah told WBBM-TV.

A 76-year old Pennsylvania woman's death last month is also allegedly linked to the salmonella-tainted peanut butter. Roberta Barkay of Philadelphia died from complications of food poisoning, and family members contend she too ate peanut butter shortly before her death. The family has hired an attorney who has filed suit against the manufacturer, ConAgra.

Company Contrite

ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin vowed the company will take "all reasonable steps to remedy the situation."

"We are truly sorry for any harm that our peanut butter products may have caused," Rodkin said.

The plant was last inspected by the Food and Drug Administration in February 2005 and no problems were found, according to the FDA.

The Sylvester plant is the sole maker of the nationally distributed Peter Pan brand, and the recall covers all peanut butter produced by the plant since May 2006. Shoppers are being asked to toss out jars having a product code on the lid beginning with "2111." The jars or their lids can be returned to the store where they were purchased for a refund.

So far, at least 329 cases of illnesses have been linked to the outbreak, although one attorney who had already filed a class action lawsuit claims to have been contacted by more than 2,000 alleged victims.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received more than 70 complaints from consumers who say they became ill. Many did not seek medical care and those who did were often misdiagnosed.

Potentially Fatal

Most of the consumers who have written to ConsumerAffairs.com have "toughed it out," taking over-the-counter medications and hoping for the best, but doctors warn that Salmonella is dangerous and requires medical attention.

"Salmonella is nothing to be taken lightly. It's very serious and it's potentially fatal," said Henry J. Fishman, M.D., ConsumerAffairs.com's medical correspondent.

Consumers who think they may have it should, "call a doctor or go to an emergency roomm" Fishman said. "People with a depressed immune system would be at an even greater risk. That includes the very young and elderly people, chemo patients and those with HIV."

Fishman, a practicing internist and allergist in Washington, D.C., warned that intense vomiting and diarrhea can cause not only dehydration, but also an electrolyte imbalance, possibly leading to a fatal heart arrythmia.

Consumers who have fallen ill need to drink lots of fluids to counteract that but, more importantly, they need to seek medical attention and may require IVs to administer high doses of antibiotics and to maintain fluid balance.

Misdiagnosed?

But going to the emergency room or to one's private physician doesn't guarantee appropriate treatment. Wilma of Mooresville, N.C., said she went to the emergency room after being sick for several days.

"I was feeling dizzy, still nauseated, and numb on the left side of my face. I thought I might be having a stroke. The ER did a CAT scan and came back with the general idea that I was suffering from a sinus infection due to the fact that they saw that my nasal passages were clogged," she said.

"They gave me prescriptions for antibiotics, and decongestants for my lungs which did not help at all, since I did not have a sinus infection," she said.

Patricia of Spirit Lake, Fla., became alarmed after she and her four children became ill after eating the recalled peanut butter. She called and emergency room and was told there is no test for Salmonella poisoning.

In fact, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, salmonellosis is diagnosed through serological identification of culture isolated from stool.

Physicians and public health officials are concerned by reports that consumers are trying to "tough it out" and are not seeking medical care for Salmonella, especially when the ill person is a senior, a child or has an existing medical condition.

"Individuals who have recently eaten the affected Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter and who have experienced any symptoms of Salmonella infection should contact their health care provider immediately," according to the FDA.

"Symptoms include fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. For persons in poor health or with weakened immune systems, Salmonella can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections."

The tainted peanut butter was marketed under the Peter Pan and generic Great Value brands and was sold after March 2006. The company says the suspect jars can be identified by a number on the jar lid that begins with the number 2111.

Great Value peanut butter is a Wal-Mart Stores house brand made by several manufacturers. Great Value peanut butter that does not have the "2111" code is not included in the recall.

 



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FDA Wants Stronger Warning for Asthma Drug

Xolair may cause severe allergic reaction

FDA Wants Stronger Warning for Asthma Drug...

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has requested that Genentech, Inc. add a boxed warning to the product label for omalizumab, marketed as Xolair.

The drug was approved in 2003 to treat adults and adolescents (12 years of age and above) with moderate to severe persistent asthma who have tested positive for a perennial allergen -- like pollen, grass or dust -- and whose symptoms are inadequately controlled with inhaled steroids.

The boxed warning emphasizes that Xolair, used to treat patients with asthma related to allergies, may cause anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis may include trouble breathing, chest tightness, dizziness, fainting, itching and hives, and swelling of the mouth and throat.

In addition, FDA has asked Genentech to revise the Xolair label and provide a Medication Guide for patients to strengthen the existing warning for anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis was reported following administration of Xolair in clinical trials and was therefore, discussed in the initial product labeling. The cases were reported at a frequency of approximately one in a thousand patients (0.1%).

Due to the nature of continued reports in the post-marketing experience, including their life-threatening potential, frequency, and the possibility for the delayed onset of anaphylaxis, FDA has now requested that Genentech, Inc., add the boxed warning and strengthen the existing warning.

The strengthened warning includes the possibility of a patient developing anaphylaxis after any dose of Xolair, even if there was no reaction to the first dose. Also, anaphylaxis after administration of Xolair may be delayed up to 24 hours after the dose is given.

Health care providers should be prepared to manage life-threatening anaphylaxis following Xolair administration and observe patients for at least two hours after an injection. Following administration of Xolair, patients should also carry and know how to initiate emergency self-treatment for anaphylaxis.

 



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Second Death Linked To Tainted Peanut Butter

Doctors Warn Salmonella "Nothing to be Taken Lightly"

Death Linked To Tainted Peanut Butter...

An elderly Chicago area man may be the second person to die after eating tainted peanut butter. George Baldwin was said to be in relatively good health just before his recent death from complications of food poisoning. His family believes he was killed by his fondness for Peter Pan peanut butter.

"He puts the peanut butter on toast, eats the toast, in six hours he develops fever, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting -- all of which are signs of salmonella poisoning," Baldwin family attorney Don McGarrah told WBBM-TV.

An independent lab is reportedly testing the jar of peanut butter from the Baldwin household. A family member says its lid bore the code number 2111, marking it as among the potentially tainted product.

A 76-year old Pennsylvania woman's death last month is also allegedly linked to the salmonella-tainted peanut butter. Roberta Barkay of Philadelphia died from complications of food poisoning, and family members contend she too ate peanut butter shortly before her death. The family has hired an attorney who has filed suit against the manufacturer, ConAgra.

So far, at least 300 cases of illnesses have been linked to the outbreak, although one attorney who had already filed a class action lawsuit claims to have been contacted by more than 2,000 alleged victims.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received more than 70 complaints from consumers who say they became ill. Many did not seek medical care and those who did were often misdiagnosed.

Potentially Fatal

Most of the consumers who have written to ConsumerAffairs.com have "toughed it out," taking over-the-counter medications and hoping for the best, but doctors warn that Salmonella is dangerous and requires medical attention.

"Salmonella is nothing to be taken lightly. It's very serious and it's potentially fatal," said Henry J. Fishman, M.D., ConsumerAffairs.com's medical correspondent.

Consumers who think they may have it should, "call a doctor or go to an emergency roomm" Fishman said. "People with a depressed immune system would be at an even greater risk. That includes the very young and elderly people, chemo patients and those with HIV."

Fishman, a practicing internist and allergist in Washington, D.C., warned that intense vomiting and diarrhea can cause not only dehydration, but also an electrolyte imbalance, possibly leading to a fatal heart arrythmia.

Consumers who have fallen ill need to drink lots of fluids to counteract that but, more importantly, they need to seek medical attention and may require IVs to administer high doses of antibiotics and to maintain fluid balance.

Misdiagnosed?

But going to the emergency room or to one's private physician doesn't guarantee appropriate treatment. Wilma of Mooresville, N.C., said she went to the emergency room after being sick for several days.

"I was feeling dizzy, still nauseated, and numb on the left side of my face. I thought I might be having a stroke. The ER did a CAT scan and came back with the general idea that I was suffering from a sinus infection due to the fact that they saw that my nasal passages were clogged," she said.

"They gave me prescriptions for antibiotics, and decongestants for my lungs which did not help at all, since I did not have a sinus infection," she said.

Patricia of Spirit Lake, Fla., became alarmed after she and her four children became ill after eating the recalled peanut butter. She called and emergency room and was told there is no test for Salmonella poisoning.

In fact, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, salmonellosis is diagnosed through serological identification of culture isolated from stool.

Physicians and public health officials are concerned by reports that consumers are trying to "tough it out" and are not seeking medical care for Salmonella, especially when the ill person is a senior, a child or has an existing medical condition.

"Individuals who have recently eaten the affected Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter and who have experienced any symptoms of Salmonella infection should contact their health care provider immediately," according to the FDA.

"Symptoms include fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. For persons in poor health or with weakened immune systems, Salmonella can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections."

The tainted peanut butter was marketed under the Peter Pan and generic Great Value brands and was sold after March 2006. The company says the suspect jars can be identified by a number on the jar lid that begins with the number 2111.

 



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JetBlue CEO Wins Top Grades for Crisis Management

Ice storm put his airline in the deep freeze

JetBlue CEO Wins Top Grades for Crisis Management...

The chief executive of beleaguered JetBlue is winning kudos from crisis management experts less than 10 days after the ice storm that put his airline into the deep freeze.

A contrite David Neeleman has issued profuse public apologies on network television, on the video-sharing site YouTube, on newspaper front pages, and on the JetBlue website.

He's not only offered millions of dollars in compensation but issued a consumer-friendly Passenger Bill of Rights, retroactive to cover the victims of the newest St. Valentine's Day massacre, with vows to enforce it.

He's told employees -- the prime target of customer wrath -- to put on the friendly face JetBlue patrons experienced prior to the Feb. 14 fiasco.

Most importantly, Neeleman has looked and sounded sincere in all his public appearances.

Crisis management experts have noticed.

"People see through it when the typical CEO hides behind the podium or the press release," said Bernstein Crisis Management president Jonathan Bernstein. "(Neeleman) gave the public ample face time and did so with passion in his voice. He talks the talk of everyman, which is exactly what he needed to do."

Fellow Californian Alex Anolik, a San Francisco attorney who represents travel agents and tour operators, agreed. He called JetBlue's Passenger Bill of Rights "a good PR move."

Richard Levick, president of the Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications, went even further. "JetBlue has run to the crisis, taking responsibility not just for itself but for the entire industry."

According to Levick, JetBlue's CEO met all five key tenets of sound crisis management:

1. Run to it. Avoid "duck and cover."
2. All companies will have a crisis. Be prepared.
3. Know your crisis team. Now.
4. Make a sacrifice. Companies often want to win it all.
5. Avoid saying "no comment." A crisis abhors a vacuum.

"The critical role is to run to the crisis," he said. Accepting responsibility with sincerity also may defray legal consequences.

"People don't want to sue people they like and trust," Levick noted. "What happens so often is that CEOs lawyer-up and say nothing."

Such actions often hurt the company, he said, because media reports are based solely on the reactions of victims and their elected representatives.

For his part, Neeleman admitted to being "humiliated and mortified" by the weather-caused snafu that kept seven flights on the JFK airport tarmac for times that ranged from six-and-a-half to nearly ten-and-a-half hours. Food, water, working toilets, and patience ran out.

It took six days -- and a total of 1,000 cancelled flights -- to get JetBlue's schedule back to normal.

Neeleman swears that won't happen again. Now he has to hope that prospective passengers believe him.

 



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Mysterious Computer Theft Hits Mystery Shopping Company

Mysterious Computer Theft Hits Mystery Shopping Company...


Speedmark, a marketing services firm that employs "mystery shoppers" to observe employee behavior for client companies, was hit with a data breach when thieves stole computers containing some shoppers' personal data from the company's Woodlands, Texas office.

Several computers were taken, one of which contained a database with personally identifying information on mystery shoppers working for Speedmark. The information included names, addresses, e-mail accounts, and Social Security numbers of Speedmark employees and contractors.

The theft was discovered on Dec. 16, 2006, but many shoppers contracted to Speedmark did not receive letters notifying them of the breach until mid-February, 2007.

Many shoppers for Speedmark were frustrated at the length of time the company took to disclose the breach, and by the fact that the letters were mailed as standard postage rather than email or overnight mail, according to comments posted on Volition.com, an online message board that caters to mystery shoppers and independent contractors.

"I received my letter today, over two months after this happened!" fumed shopper "NatashaM." "In my opinion, two months is entirely too long to hear about this. I agree with another poster that stated an e-mail should have been sent immediately (as in the same week of the event) and then they could follow it up with this badly xeroxed letter mailed substandard class."

One reader posted a transcript of the notification letter from Speedmark president Scott Hiller. In the letter, Hiller said that the information on the computer was password-protected, and that the company had notified local law enforcement of the theft.

"Speedmark takes the security of your personal data seriously," Hiller said. "Accordingly, we have taken steps to ensure the security of our premises and equipment to the best of our ability, including security guards during non-business hours until further notice."

Another shopper contacted Speedmark's customer service to get more information.

The company replied that breach notification had taken so long because they company had to "first restore the data from back-ups, identify those who were possibly affected, and contract with a vendor to produce and mail 35,000 letters."

"Notice was provided via mail because we did not have agreements from our shoppers to use email as an acceptable mode of notification," the company said. You must actually stipulate that email (or fax) is acceptable notice to you, or any formal notice must be delivered via US Postal Service in order to be considered a valid delivery attempt of the notice. Without the stipulation, email would not have been sufficient legal notice."

However, an attorney consulted by ConsumerAffairs.com said there was nothing stopping the company from sending emails as a courtesy and following up with a letter.

"It is the height of absurdity to say that because postal mail is the specified form of legal notification, the company's managers couldn't take five minutes to send everyone an e-mail telling them about the theft and alerting them to watch their mail," said the attorney, who asked not to be identified because she did not have first-hand knowledge of the case.

Speedmark representatives refused to comment on the case to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Don't Mess With Texas Data

Under Texas state law, disclosure of data breaches must occur "as quickly as possible," unless law enforcement requests a delay while investigating the incident or "or as necessary to determine the scope of the breach and restore the reasonable integrity of the data system."

William Ballard, the detective assigned to the case, told ConsumerAffairs.com that after two months, the case had "no leads and nowhere to go."

"We have no suspects, the fingerprints we got from the scene aren't usable, and no information," he said. Ballard was investigating the possibility that the Speedmark break-in was part of a ring of computer thefts in the Dallas and Houston areas, as he claimed he had seen a "rash" of cases in recent weeks.

"They just vanish into thin air," Ballard said.

The Mysteries Of Mystery Shopping

The Speedmark case is not only the latest example of a data breach arising from computer theft, but also an indicator of how affected customers and employees can have difficulty addressing the problem.

Mystery shoppers are often employed to work for big companies by third-party vendors such as Speedmark. As such, they are treated as independent contractors, and have to furnish personal information to the hiring vendor for tax purposes -- even if they never get any offers to work for a client.

In addition, mystery shoppers are often easy prey for scammers and con artists looking to cajole cash out of the unsuspecting, often through unneeded "fees" or phisher e-mails.

A mystery shopper who asked to remain anonymous tipped ConsumerAffairs.com regarding the breach. The person noted that the non-disclosure agreements mystery shoppers sign when working for clients would make it difficult to notify authorities and media regarding the theft.

"Are they violating [non-disclosure agreements] with others by admitting they are a mystery shopper?" they asked. "Of course, they blow cover if they appear publicly and can no longer work. You see the conundrum the shoppers are in?"

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Safety Agency Denies It Ignored Lead in Children's Lunch Boxes

Safety Agency Denies It Ignored Lead in Children's Lunch Boxes...


The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is denying an Associated Press report that pointed to potential flaws in the agency's testing procedures of children's vinyl lunch boxes, despite actions by New York and Connecticut to remove the lunbh boxes from store shelves.

The AP story suggests that the CPSC may have hidden the true levels of lead found in the lunch boxes, a charge the agency denies.

A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the AP yielded 1,500 pages of documents that show the CPSC tested 60 vinyl lunch boxes in 2005 and that one in five of those boxes contained hazardous levels of lead.

Yet after the testing process, the CPSC publicly said that it found "no instances of hazardous levels."

In November 2005, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer reached an agreement with Fast Forward, LLC, a wholesaler of consumer products, to recall thousands of children's lunch boxes containing lead. Wal-Mart and Target said they had voluntarily pulled those lunch boxes from their shelves.

In December 2005, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal demanded that stores immediately stop selling the lunch boxes.

"Lead, lunch and children are a perilous mix," Blumenthal said. "The discovery of lead -- 12 times the allowable limit -- in children's lunchboxes is appalling. Our law is clear: Lead-laden lunchboxes are illegal.

CPSC's Tests

The CPSC's scientists used two tests: One that tested the percent of lead found in dissolved chunks of the vinyl and another that tested how much lead would rub off the exterior.

With the first test, one in five contained more than the federal minimum for paints and other products. One bag contained 16 times the acceptable percentage of lead.

But the results of those tests were not used. Instead the agency focused on the second tests, which yielded lower levels of lead, especially after the scientists changed their testing protocol.

The scientists originally tested the boxes with a few swipes, but then found that if they swiped the same spot over and over, the average result was lower. The CPSC went with the average result for their final verdict.

"The more you wipe, the less lead you actually find," CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese explained to the AP. "With fewer wipes, we got a higher detection of lead presence. We thought more wipes was closer to reflecting how you would interact with your lunch box. It was more realistic."

Also, the scientists tested only the outside of the vinyl boxes. Vallese said this was because food in lunch boxes "may be" contained in foil or a bag.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had a different opinion when the CPSC shared its previously secret results. The FDA sent letters to the vinyl lunch box manufacturers warning them that their products may contain dangerous levels of lead.

Outside researchers have agreed with the CPSC's original results that the levels of lead in the lunch boxes are dangerous.

In reaction to the thousands of newspapers and websites that have syndicated the AP's story, the CPSC responded yesterday saying, "Recent news reports and postings on special interest group Web sites have provided information that incorrectly interprets the findings of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in testing vinyl lunchboxes."

"Under CPSC Federal law, total lead does not dictate action. Instead decisions must consider the real world interaction of child and product and the accessibility of lead from the product," the statement continues. "No matter how the data are analyzed, the staff risk assessment would still conclude that the lead exposure from vinyl lunchboxes does not present a risk to health for action under CPSC's law."

The statement also notes that "more recently, the CPSC began rulemaking to consider banning lead from children's metal jewelry."

However, as ConsumerAffairs.com has reported, the commission currently cannot proceed on any rulemaking because there are not enough commissioners to constitute a quorum. Also, in an interview last week, Vallese told ConsumerAffairs.com that the commission was still in the research phase of the children's jewelry issue and nowhere close to a rulemaking.

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JetBlue Unveils "Passengers Bill Of Rights"

Airline stranded passengers for hours after big storm

JetBlue Unveils Passengers Bill Of Rights...

Before the St. Valentines Day ice storm that froze operations at New York's JFK Airport, JetBlue had a good reputation with consumers, who liked its high level of service and low fares.

But after the airline stranded passengers aboard jetliners for eight hours or more and cancelled many of its flights, the airline is scrambling to recover from a PR meltdown.

Perhaps anticipating Congressional action spurred by its highly publicized problems, JetBlue has introduced a "Passengers' Bill of Rights" that it says it will observe. Lawmakers are currently drafting their own version for the entire industry.

Under the JetBlue version, passengers will be compensated when a flight lands but is delayed in taxiing to the gate by more than 30 minutes. Passengers aboard flights delayed in deplaning between one and two hours will receive a $100 travel voucher.

If two hours pass and the plane still hasn't deplaned, passengers will receive a voucher equal to their one-way fare. After four hours, the airline will refund the entire roundtrip ticket. There will be lesser penalties paid to passengers for ground delays on departure.

"This was a big wake-up call for JetBlue," said JetBlue founder and CEO David Neeleman. "If there's a silver lining, it is the fact that our airline is going to be stronger and even better prepared to serve our customers."

"In addition, I want to publicly apologize to JetBlue's crewmembers -- the best in the industry -- and I promise to get the right resources, tools and support for them going forward, so that they in turn can deliver the JetBlue Experience you have come to expect from us."

Part of the airline's Bill of Rights requires the airline to notify customers when there are delays prior to a scheduled departure, of when there are cancellations or diversions of flights. If a plane is ground delayed for five hours or more, the airline said it will take the necessary action to deplane passengers, though captains will have discretion if the aircraft is positioned and almost ready for take-off.

In addition, the airline said it will form a customer advisory council, who will be consulted with regarding ongoing improvement programs.

JetBlue also said it is taking immediate actions to address inefficiencies in its response plans. Actions already taken include new communication strategies with inflight and pilot crewmembers in the event of a system disruption, so that the airline can reset the operation faster, after the external disruption event ends.

The provisions to the Passengers' Bill of Rights have been made retroactive to February 14, 2007.

 



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Salmonella Outbreaks: A Recent History

There was a time there when Salmonella was associated largely with chickens and eggs

There was a time there when Salmonella was associated largely with chickens and eggs but the potentially deadly pathogen can show up in all kinds of foods....

There was a time there when Salmonella was associated largely with chickens and eggs, but as the last few years have shown the potentially deadly pathogen can show up in all kinds of foods.

A few of the more recent examples:

Peanut Butter Peter Pan, Great Value peanut butter blamed for sickening an unknown number of consumers nationwide.

Tomatoes In November 2006, tainted tomatoes served in restaurants caused 183 reported cases of illness in 21 states.

Cadbury Schweppes Chocolate Bars British food company Cadbury Schweppes recalled one million chocolate bars over salmonella concerns in June 2006.

Hershey's Chocolate In November 2006, Hershey recalled a number of candy products made at one of its Canadian plants. Candy produced in the U.S. was not affected, the company said.

"Wild Kitty" Cat Food Earlier this month, FDA said it detected Salmonella in frozen raw Wild Kitty Cat Food.

Basil In April 2005, Majestic International Spice Corporation of Montebello, CA, recalled its dried "Extra Fancy Basil."

Orange Juice In July 2005, FDA warned against drinking unpasteurized orange juice products distributed under a variety of brand names by Orchid Island Juice Company because of Salmonella incidents.

Soft Cheese In March 2005, FDA said some cheeses that are made with raw milk present a health risk, especially to high-risk groups such as pregnant women, newborns, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.

Raw Milk Following a 2005 outbreak in the state of Washington, FDA warned the public against drinking raw milk because it may contain harmful bacteria that can cause life-threatening illnesses. Raw milk is not treated or pasteurized to remove disease-causing bacteria.

Almonds In 2004, Paramount Farms extended an earlier recall of natural raw almonds sold under the Kirkland Signature, Trader Joe's and Sunkist brands. Paramount said that from now on it would "pasteurize" all almonds before shipping.

Frozen Chicken In April 2005, USDA said it had linked cases of Salmonella infections in people to stuffed frozen chicken products sold in Minnesota and Michigan.

Perhaps surprisingly, there have been no recent major incidents involving chicken eggs.

 



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JetBlue Wants to be Travelers' Valentine Once More

Offers Profuse Apologies, Passenger Bill of Rights

JetBlue Wants to be Travelers' Valentine Once More...

Within the space of a week, JetBlue is trying to spring from the source of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre to its former role as the airline industry's leader of the pack.

The seven-year-old carrier, once known as a master innovator and paragon of customer service, seems so determined to recapture that reputation that it has issued a passengers-rights doctrine heavily loaded in favor of consumers.

The document, issued earlier this week, should not only soften threatened Congressional hearings but should also reverberate in the offices of other airlines, who don't want to be categorized as not caring about their customers.

Planes packed with passengers have sat on airport tarmacs for interminable stretches of time -- often without food, working toilets, or adequate communications from carriers.

The problem peaked on Valentine's Day, when nine JetBlue flights sat within sight of gates at the airline's John F. Kennedy International hub. The outbound flights were trying to wait out an ice storm without losing their places in line, while the inbound flights were waiting for gates occupied by other aircraft. Although JetBlue is the largest airline at JFK, it did not have the gate space to accommodate so many planes at once.

It took six days -- and multiple cancellations -- for the discounter to resume its regular schedule.

By then, pundits were calling it JetBlack-and-Blue and CEO David Neeleman was trying to explain himself to David Letterman on national television.

Lots of Company

Although JetBlue's February 14 fiasco was the most notorious of the trapped-and-stranded incidents because it involved so many planes, it wasn't the only one.

Less than two months earlier, an American Airlines plane sat on an Austin tarmac for nearly nine hours after it was diverted from Dallas by thunderstorms.

United Express passengers diverted from Denver to Cheyenne, Wyo. by a winter storm Dec. 20 were left stranded when their planes left without them.

The same thing happened again on Feb. 8, when Denver-bound United Express and American Connection flights (both operated by Trans States Airlines of St. Louis) were diverted to Scottsbluff, Neb. Both left without passengers six hours later. In both the Dec. 20 and Feb. 8 diversions, passengers eventually reached Denver by bus -- but without kind words for their carriers.

Although an ancient Chinese proverb suggests that those who forget the lessons of history are designed to repeat them, the airlines seem to have a short memory.

Less than eight years ago, Northwest passengers sat on the Detroit tarmac for nine years while a winter storm raged. The airline eventually paid a seven-figure, court-imposed settlement but admitted no wrongdoing.

That was hardly the case with JetBlue. The same airline that started with a Declaration of Independence seven years ago has now added a Passengers' Bill of Rights it intends to enforce, according to its CEO.

Among the provisions are a $25 voucher to arriving passengers whose planes are delayed on the tarmac for 30-60 minutes; a $100 voucher for delays of 3-4 hours; and a voucher equivalent to the roundtrip ticket cost if a runway delay lasts longer than four hours.

Arrivals kept from gates for two hours will receive vouchers for their one-way fare, while incoming passengers kept from deplaning more than four hours will receive vouchers valid for the value of their roundtrip tickets. Outbound passengers would also receive vouchers of varying amounts for tarmac delays.

All customers caught in the Feb. 14 ice storm would be eligible for those and other benefits, since JetBlue decided to make its new rules retroactive.

"This was a big wake-up call for JetBlue," said Neeleman, whose Bill of Rights also includes full refunds for passengers on flights cancelled within 12 hours of departure for reasons within the carrier's control. "(I promise that) our airline is going to be stronger aned even better prepared to serve our customers."

Neeleman not only apologized to passengers but also to employees, whom he called "the best in the industry."

"I promise to get (them) the right resources, tools, and support for them ... so that they in turn can deliver the JetBlue Experience (passengers) have come to expect from us," he said.

Customer Council

Toward that end, Neeleman noted that JetBlue would create a Customer Advisory Council that will be the first of its type in the airline industry. It will have input into customer improvement and future airline operations.

Better communications -- both with passengers and crew -- will be a priority, he said.

JetBlue cancelled 250 of 505 scheduled flights on Feb. 14 but might have avoided the tarmac problems by cancelling more rather than relying on uncertain weather forecasts. One plane wound up sitting on the tarmac for nearly 11 hours.

Returning to its regular schedule required the discount airline to scrap another 750 flights through the President's Day holiday on Feb. 19. Estimated losses, including the free travel doled out as compensation, could top $30 million.

Before the ice storm that gave it so much bad publicity, JetBlue was the envy of the airline industry: a startup so successful that it was named "Best Domestic Airline" five years in a row by members of the North American Travel Journalists Association [NATJA].

The JFK-based carrier, which serves more than 50 destinations, features planes with leather seats, ample legroom, 36 channels of free DirecTV for every passenger, and XM Satellite Radio on many flights. There is no charge for soft drinks, snacks, or exit-row seating and no requirements for Saturday night stayovers to ensure the lowest fares.

In addition, both inflight and airport personnel working for JetBlue tend to be polite and professional -- at least in normal circumstances.

Those circumstances may have changed forever on Feb. 14, for both JetBlue and other carriers. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) both promise legislation mandating a three-hour limited for passengers to be kept on grounded planes, guaranteeing food and sanitary conditions aboard planes, and requiring airlines to provide regular updates regarding delays.

JetBlue hopes its self-imposed rules will make such legislation unnecessary. They might -- but only if other airlines fall into line as quickly as they do when one proposes a fare increase, and only if FAA rules are modified to allow aircraft to return to the gate without losing their place in line.

 



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Salmonella: What It Is

Incidence Rising in Western Nations

Salmonella Increasingly Common...

Food contaminated with Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, one of the most common bacterial foodborne illnesses, estimated to afflict from 2 to 4 million Americans annually.

The disease is widespread in animals, especially in poultry and swine. Environmental sources of the organism include water, soil, insects, factory surfaces, kitchen surfaces, animal feces, raw meats, raw poultry, and raw seafoods, to name only a few.

Foods generally associated with Salmonella include raw meats, poultry, eggs, milk and dairy products, fish, shrimp, frog legs, yeast, coconut, sauces and salad dressing, cake mixes, cream-filled desserts and toppings, dried gelatin, peanut butter, cocoa, and chocolate.

Various Salmonella species have long been isolated from the outside of egg shells. The present situation is complicated by the presence of the organism inside the egg, in the yolk.

As few as 15 cells can cause the disease, depending on the age and health of the infected person and the strength of the various strains. Onset time is usually 6 to 48 hours.

Acute symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, minal diarrhea, fever, and headache. Arthritic symptoms may follow 3-4 weeks after the onset of acute symptoms.

Acute symptoms may last for 1 to 2 days or may be prolonged, again depending on host factors, ingested dose, and strain characteristics.

Diagnosis is through serological identification of culture isolated from stool.

The incidence of salmonellosis appears to be rising both in the U.S. and in other industrialized nations. The strain known as S. enteritidis has shown a dramatic rise in the past decade, particularly in the northeast United States, and the increase in human infections is spreading south and west, with sporadic outbreaks in other regions.

Safety Tips

The USDA recommends cooking poultry products to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Farenheit. Egg yolks should be cooked thoroughly so that they are not "runny."

Food preparation surfaces must be kept clean and cooking instruments, including sponges and dish towels, must be washed thoroughly after each use.

Consumers with food safety questions can phone the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE. The hotline is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time), Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

Ready to Cook, Not Ready to Eat

Products labeled with phrases such as "Cook and Serve," "Ready to Cook," and "Oven Ready" are intended to convey to the consumer that the product is not ready-to-eat and must be fully cooked for safety. Although products may appear to be pre-cooked or browned, such products should be handled and prepared no differently than raw product.

Many frozen entrees containing stuffed poultry products, such as a poultry product stuffed with cheese and other ingredients, typically are not-ready-to-eat and must be fully cooked as if they were raw.

Consumers must always follow the microwave instructions completely.

If using a microwave oven to cook meat and poultry products, be sure to take multiple temperature readings at different locations throughout the product due to the non-uniformity of the heating process and the creation of "cold spots."

Because a microwave oven typically cooks product at non-uniform rates, it is important to ensure that the product is covered sufficiently for steam to build in the product, and that the product is set aside for a sufficient time for the heat to uniformly spread throughout the product at the completion of the microwave cycle. This will ensure that there are no "cold spots."

Sources: USDA, FDA

 



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Rheem, Ruud, Richmond Tankless Water Heaters

Rheem, Ruud, Richmond Tankless Water Heaters...

February 21, 2007
Tankless water heaters sold under the Rheem, Ruud and Richmond brands are being recalled because of a carbon monoxide poisoning risk.

Components inside the water heater may shift during transit, causing an air filter door switch to operate improperly. If the switch fails and the air filter door is out of place, the water heater could continue to operate and dust and lint could build up, posing a carbon monoxide poisoning hazard.

The recall involves indoor models of the Power Vent 199,900 BTUH tankless water heaters. The brands and model numbers included in this recall are listed below and are located on the front of the unit and the rating plate. The water heaters have a cream jacket or gray jacket enclosure with the piping on the top and bottom of the unit. The rating plate is a silver label located the front of the unit, in the lower right hand corner.

BrandModels
PalomaPTG-74PVN; PTG-74PVP; PTG-74PVN-1; PTG-74PVP-1; PTG-74PVNH; PTG-74PVPH; PTG-74PVNUH; PTG-74PVPUH and PH-28RIFSN; PH-28RIFSP; PH-28RIFSN-1; PH-28RIFSP-1; PH-28CIFSN; PH-28CIFSP; PH-28CIFSN-1; PH-28CIFSP-1
RheemRTG-74PVN; RTG-74PVP; RTG-74PVN-1; RTG-74PVP-1
RuudRUTG-74PVN; RUTG-74PVP; RUTG-74PVN-1; RUTG-74PVP-1
Rheem-RuudGT-199PV-N; GT-199PV-P; GT-199PV-N-1; GT-199PV-P-1
RichmondRMTG-74PVN; RMTG-74PVP; RMTG-74PVN-1; RMTG-74PVP-1; RMTG-74PVNH; RMTG-74PVPH; RMTG-74PVNUH; RMTG-74PVPUH

The units were sold by retailers nationwide and through plumbing wholesale distributors to plumbers, contractors and consumers from May 2004 through December 2006 for between $800 and $1,300.

Consumers with the recalled water heaters should stop using them immediately, if the air filter door is not in place. Consumers who have not already been contacted by an authorized contractor should immediately contact their installer or Rheem Manufacturing Company to arrange for a free, on-site repair. Consumers are reminded to use the air filter door for these water heaters to avoid a carbon monoxide hazard.

Consumer Contact: For more information, contact Rheem toll-free at (866) 369-4786 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. CT Saturday and Sunday, or visit the firm's Web site at www.tankless-recall.com

Note: Regardless of the type of water heater that is used, every home should have a CO alarm outside all sleeping areas, and consumers should ensure that their CO alarms have working batteries.

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

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IRS Warns of Common Income Tax Scams

Inflated Telephone Excise Tax Refunds Top the List

IRS Warns of Common Income Tax Scams...


Fraudulent telephone excise tax refunds top the list of income tax scams this year, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

This year the IRS' "Dirty Dozen" highlights five new scams that IRS auditors and criminal investigators have uncovered. Topping off the list are fraudulent refunds being claimed in connection with the special Telephone Excise Tax Refund available to most taxpayers this filing season. The IRS is actively investigating instances of this scam involving tax preparers who are preparing inflated refund requests.

Also new to the Dirty Dozen this year are abuses pertaining to Roth IRAs, the American Indian Employment Credit, domestic shell corporations and structured entities.

"Taxpayers shouldn't let their guard down," IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said. "Don't get taken by scam artists making outrageous promises. If you use a tax professional, pick someone who is reputable. Taxpayers should remember they are ultimately responsible for what is on their tax return even if some unscrupulous preparers have steered them in the wrong direction."

Involvement in tax schemes leads to problems for scam artists and taxpayers. Tax return preparers and promoters risk significant penalties, interest and possible criminal prosecution.

The IRS urges taxpayers to avoid these common schemes:

1. Telephone Excise Tax Refund Abuses: Early filings show some individual taxpayers have requested large and apparently improper amounts for the special telephone tax refund. In some cases, taxpayers appear to be requesting a refund of the entire amount of their phone bills, rather than just the three-percent tax on long-distance and bundled service to which they are entitled. Some tax preparers are helping their clients file apparently improper requests. The IRS is investigating potential abuses in this area and will take prompt action against taxpayers who claim improper refund amounts and against the return preparers who help them.
 
2. Abusive Roth IRAs: Taxpayers should be wary of advisers who encourage them to shift under-valued property to Roth Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs). In one variation, a promoter has the taxpayer move under-valued common stock into a Roth IRA, circumventing the annual maximum contribution limit and allowing otherwise taxable income to go untaxed.

3. Phishing is a technique used by identity thieves to acquire personal financial data in order to gain access to the financial accounts of unsuspecting consumers, run up charges on their credit cards or apply for loans in their names. These Internet-based criminals pose as representatives of a financial institution or sometimes the IRS itself and send out fictitious e-mail correspondence in an attempt to trick consumers into disclosing private information. A typical e-mail notifies a taxpayer of an outstanding refund and urges the taxpayer to click on a hyperlink and visit an official-looking Web site. The Web site then solicits a social security and credit card number. It is important to note the IRS does not use e-mail to initiate contact with taxpayers about issues related to their accounts. If a taxpayer has any doubt whether a contact from the IRS is authentic, the taxpayer should call 1-800-829-1040 to confirm it.

4. Disguised Corporate Ownership: Domestic shell corporations and other entities are being formed and operated in certain states for the purpose of disguising the ownership of the business or financial activity. Once formed, these anonymous entities can be, and are being, used to facilitate underreporting of income, non-filing of tax returns, listed transactions, money laundering, financial crimes and possibly terrorist financing. The IRS is working with state authorities to identify these entities and to bring their owners into compliance.

5. Zero Wages: In this scam, which first appeared in the Dirty Dozen in 2006, a Form 4852 (Substitute Form W-2) or a "corrected" Form 1099 showing zero or little income is submitted with a federal tax return. The taxpayer may include a statement rebutting wages and taxes reported by the payer to the IRS. An explanation on the Form 4852 may cite statutory language behind Internal Revenue Code sections 3401 and 3121 or may include some reference to the paying company refusing to issue a corrected Form W-2 for fear of IRS retaliation.

6. Return Preparer Fraud: Dishonest return preparers can cause many headaches for taxpayers who fall victim to their schemes. Such preparers make their money by skimming a portion of their clients' refunds and charging inflated fees for return preparation services. They attract new clients by promising large refunds. Some preparers promote filing fraudulent claims for refunds on items such as fuel tax credits to recover taxes paid in prior years. Taxpayers should choose carefully when hiring a tax preparer. As the old saying goes, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." Remember that no matter who prepares the return, the taxpayer is ultimately responsible for its accuracy. Since 2002, the courts have issued injunctions ordering dozens of individuals to cease preparing returns, and the Department of Justice has filed complaints against dozens of others. During fiscal year 2006, 109 tax return preparers were convicted of tax crimes and sentenced to an average of 18 months in prison.

7. American Indian Employment Credit: Taxpayers submit returns and claims reducing taxable income by substantial amounts citing an American Indian employment or treaty credit. Although there is an Indian Employment Credit available for businesses that employ Native Americans or their spouses, there is no provision for its use by employees. In a somewhat similar scam, unscrupulous promoters have informed Native Americans that they are not subject to federal income taxation. The promoters solicit individual Indians to file Form W-8 BEN seeking relief from all withholding of federal taxation. A recent "phishing" variation has promoters using false IRS letterheads to solicit personal financial information that they claim the IRS needs in order to process their "non-tax" status.

8. Trust Misuse: For years unscrupulous promoters have urged taxpayers to transfer assets into trusts. They promise reduction of income subject to tax, deductions for personal expenses and reduced estate or gift taxes. However, some trusts do not deliver the promised tax benefits. There are currently more than 150 active abusive trust investigations underway and 49 injunctions have been obtained against promoters since 2001. As with other arrangements, taxpayers should seek the advice of a trusted professional before entering into a trust. 

9. Structured Entity Credits:  Promoters of this newly identified scheme are setting up partnerships to own and sell state conservation easement credits, federal rehabilitation credits and other credits. The purported credits are the only assets owned by the partnership and once the credits are fully used, an investor receives a K-1 indicating the initial investment is a total loss, which is then deducted on the investor's individual tax return. Forming such an entity is not a viable business purpose. In other words, the investments are not valid, and the losses are not deductible.

10. Abuse of Charitable Organizations and Deductions: The IRS continues to observe the use of tax-exempt organizations to improperly shield income or assets from taxation. This can occur when a taxpayer moves assets or income to a tax-exempt supporting organization or donor-advised fund but maintains control over the assets or income. Contributions of non-cash assets continue to be an area of abuse, especially with regard to overvaluation of contributed property. In addition, the IRS is noticing the return of private tuition payments being disguised as charitable contributions to religious organizations.

11. Form 843 Tax Abatement: This scam rests on faulty interpretation of the Internal Revenue Code. It involves the filer requesting abatement of previously assessed tax using Form 843. Many using this scam have not previously filed tax returns and the tax they are trying to have abated has been assessed by the IRS through the Substitute for Return Program. The filer uses the Form 843 to list reasons for the request. Often, one of the reasons is: "Failed to properly compute and/or calculate IRC Sec 83-Property Transferred in Connection with Performance of Service."

12. Frivolous Arguments: Promoters have been known to make the following outlandish claims: the Sixteenth Amendment concerning congressional power to lay and collect income taxes was never ratified; wages are not income; filing a return and paying taxes are merely voluntary; and being required to file Form 1040 violates the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination or the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. Don't believe these or other similar claims. These arguments are false and have been thrown out of court. While taxpayers have the right to contest their tax liabilities in court, no one has the right to disobey the law.

IRS Still Watches Scams That Fall Off the List

Five of last year's Dirty Dozen tax scams rotated off the list for 2007. While the IRS has seen a decline in the occurrence of some of these scams abusive credit counseling agencies, for example other problems, such as offshore abusive transactions continue to be an area of particular concern for the agency. The absence of a particular scheme from the Dirty Dozen should not be taken as an indication that the IRS is unaware of it or not taking steps to counter it.

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Hackers Map Phishing Expeditions with Google Maps

Identity thieves have shown a new level of technical expertise, spreading malicious code through spam email, then using Google maps to identify the locatio...


Identity thieves have shown a new level of technical expertise, spreading malicious code through spam email, then using Google maps to identify the physical location of the hijacked computers.

The attack has been launched against computer users in Australia, Germany, and the U.S., according to a report in PC World.

In Australia, victims have been enticed to download a Trojan and backdoor code by clicking a link to read a false news story claiming Australian Prime Minister John Howard had suffered a heart attack. Once installed, the code allows the hacker to log the users' key strokes.

The code gives the hacker the precise number of infected machines around the world, and links to a corresponding Google map to reveal the physical location. The report said the maps server is used to translate each IP address into an actual physical address.

Some security experts believe the physical address could be a key piece of information for the hacker, helping him steal the infected computer user's identity. They say knowing the physical address may make it easier to access bank accounts and other sensitive information.

It's possible that the hackers will change the subject matter of the email to information more relevant for U.S. computer users as the scam gains ground. Currently, users who click on the link will see a "404 Error" page but that may also change as the scam develops.

John Howard is the latest in a long line of public figures to be used as bait by malware authors and hackers. Politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and P.W. Botha have been have been used in the past.

Also, the promise of glimpses of glamorous celebrities like Halle Berry, Anna Kournikova, Julia Robers and Britney Spears have previously been used to help viruses spread.

"It seems the hackers are back to their old tricks of spamming out sensational headlines in the hope that computer users will forget to think before they click, and visit the website hosting the malignant code," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos.

"The scammers have registered several domain names that appear to be associated with 'The Australian' newspaper, and have gone to effort to make people think that they really are visiting the genuine site by pointing to the real error page. Everyone should be on their guard against this kind of email con-trick, or risk having their PC infected."

More Scam Alerts ...

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The Amphetamine Connection: How Meth is Driving the Identity Theft Pandemic

How Meth is Driving the Identity Theft Pandemic

The Amphetamine Connection: How Meth is Driving the Identity Theft Pandemic...


How does a driver's license stolen from a St. Louis, Missouri, man end up in a cheap motel room hundreds of miles away?

That's a question that initially baffled investigators when they found the ID in the Merriam, Kansas, flophouse.

But it didn't take long for police to solve the mystery once they learned the motel room doubled as an identity theft laboratory -- filled with computers, scanners, printers, and dozens of stolen ID's -- and the masterminds behind the operation were methamphetamine addicts.

"There's a close link between methamphetamine use and identity theft," says Prosecutor Vanessa Riebli, head of the Johnson County, Kansas, District Attorney's Economic Crime Unit. "ID's are traded or sold for drugs across the country, and drug users are supporting their habit with identity theft."

And they're making good money. The husband-wife team involved in the Merriam, Kansas case netted $60,000-$100,000 in their scheme, Riebli says.

"Identity theft is so much more profitable than other crimes," she says, adding the husband made the phony checks and the wife passed them using the fake ID's. "And if the defendants get caught, they know the penalties for identity theft are less severe than other crimes."

Riebli charged the couple involved in this 2003 case with identity theft, but neither served much time behind bars. Thirty-seven-year-old Owen Samuel Barlow, a former computer programmer at Sprint, received a two-year sentence. His wife -- 41-year-old accountant Teresa A. Barlow -- received an 18-month sentence.

Story continues below video

Riebli says this case illustrates why methamphetamine addicts have turned to identity theft -- the fastest growing crime in the country -- to support their habits.

"Why would you rob a bank when you can walk inside a bank, commit check fraud, get more money, and -- if you get caught -- receive a much less severe penalty?"

100% Free Financing

 

Owen & Theresa Barlow
Source: Kansas Department of Corrections

Detective Byron Pierce of the Overland Park, Kansas, Police Department has investigated scores of identity theft cases.

And he's noticed a sharp increase in the number of methamphetamine users stealing or assuming someone else's identity to finance their addictions, which can cost hundreds of dollars a day.

"When our officers bust meth labs, they're seeing stolen personal information like credit cards, driver's licenses, Social Security cards, checkbooks, employee ID's," says the veteran detective with the department's Financial Crime Unit.

"There's a direct correlation between drugs and fraud. When drugs are involved, fraud is involved. When fraud is involved, drugs are involved. The two are almost synonymous. And there's no question that there's a correlation between methamphetamine use and identity theft," he said.

What's the driving force behind this criminal phenomenon?

"Identity theft is 100 percent free financing for their drugs," Pierce says. "When you finance your drugs with other peoples' personal information, there's no risk associated with buying any amount of drugs because it's not affecting your bottom line.

"Identity theft is also an easy crime to commit, and if you get caught the penalties are less severe than those associated with other crimes," he adds. "The people involved in these crimes know that. Everyone talks ... there's a lot of collaboration and they'll say 'that's a good idea, let's try it.'"

"Time to plot out a plan to get money"

Methamphetamine addicts are also excellent candidates to commit identity theft because of the effects the drug has on their systems, medical experts say.

A meth user, for example, can stay awake for days and do such repetitive tasks as piecing together shredded documents or testing credit card numbers to buy merchandise online.

"These users can be up for days and that gives them time to plot out a plan to get money," says Jim Philipps with the National Association of Counties. His organization studied the criminal effects methamphetamine has on communities. "They'll come up with ways to get money ... usually by stealing mail or credit cards."

Twin Scourges Intertwine

Law enforcement officials say the connection between methamphetamines and identity theft has become a nationwide problem -- one that started in the West and is rapidly moving across the country.

Consider:

• Two Oxford, Georgia, women who ran an identity theft scheme pleaded guilty in November 2006, to possession of stolen mail. The women confessed they dealt methamphetamines and their customers paid them with stolen mail. The women would then use the financial information in the stolen mail -- including paychecks, credit cards, and bank statements -- to commit identity theft. "This case demonstrates that the twin scourges of meth and identity theft often intertwine -- multiplying their damaging effects on the public, since one crime is used to fuel the other," said United States Attorney David E. Nahmias.

• Postal inspections in 2005 tracked down an Arizona woman -- who had eluded them for than a year -- in a Phoenix apartment. Investigators found personal information belonging to 400 potential identity theft victims, a stash of methamphetamine in the kitchen, and merchandise purchased with stolen credit cards.

• The San Diego, California, District Attorney's Office reported that cases involving methamphetamine and identity theft jumped 35 percent from 2002-2005. Law enforcement officials in San Diego also noted that 75 percent of the suspects in local identity theft cases showed evidence of methamphetamine abuse. San Diego officials called the connection between meth and identity theft "a clear danger to both the public and business community."

• In 2006, The National Association of Counties examined the criminal effect of methamphetamine on communities. Of the 500 sheriffs who responded to the survey, 31 percent reported an increase in identity theft-methamphetamine related crimes.

One of the sheriffs who participated in that study is Patrick Hedges of San Luis Obispo, California.

"Our experience with meth users is that they often steal mail," he says. "There are people who go around almost every night and look for mailboxes that have the flags up. They take the mail and if they find checks, they'll doctor them and make the checks payable to themselves. Or they'll apply for a credit card using the stolen information."

He adds: "These meth users are usually people on the street who have to support their habit. They're the ones who lift mail, get involved in stolen checks and credit cards, or copy down someone's personal information at a restaurant or gas station. They're involved in less risky types than someone on heroin."

"A Wave of Identity Theft

This growing methamphetamine-identity theft problem has captured the attention of U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, (D-Wash.).

In 2005, Cantwell introduced a bill that asked the Justice Department to investigate the link between ID theft and methamphetamine use. The measure was referred to the Judiciary Committee, but never came up. Cantwell's office says the senator plans to reintroduce the bill this year.

When she introduced the measure in 2005, Cantwell said: "The meth epidemic is creating a wave of identity theft."

Her bill has the support of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

"In recent years, we've seen the number of meth labs seized and reports of identity theft shoot up," Feinstein said in 2005. "Law enforcement officials are reporting that this is not just a coincidence. These two crimes can turn people's lives upside down and threaten entire communities. It's time to take a closer look at the connection between meth use and identity theft."

Identity Theft Capital

One of the hotbeds of identity theft in the country -- and a state where methamphetamine is widespread -- is Arizona.

The Federal Trade Commission in 2006 even named the Grand Canyon State the identity theft capital of the United States. The FTC reported Arizona had 156.9 identity theft victims per 100,000 people.

U.S. Postal Inspector Bob Maes says there's a good chance the criminals who stole those victims' identities were hooked on meth.

"In the West it seems like methamphetamine abuse runs hand-in-hand with identity theft," says Maes, who worked in Phoenix until 2004 and then transferred to Utah. "These meth addicts all know someone who will trade drugs for Social Security numbers. One meth addict will know someone who does dumpster diving, one knows someone who steals mail, and another knows someone who is into home burglaries.

"The issue is not the ID, it's the date of birth, Social Security, or identification number on that ID," he adds. "That's what they want. And when you talk to these meth users, they'll know the going rate for a checkbook or a credit card."

Detective Pierce with the Overland Park Police Department says a good ID in Kansas has a street value of $100-$500.

But some ID's go for much more.

"I've learned through interviews with people I've arrested that these guys love checkbooks with Ph.D, CEO, or doctor on the checks. The ID's of a Ph.D. or doctor is much higher and worth a lot more on the street."

Pierce and other law enforcement officials say methamphetamine users will stop at nothing to get someone's ID and other personal information.

"What we're finding is these meth users are committing burglaries themselves and looking for personal data and information they can turn into something usable," Pierce says.

But there are other unsuspecting ways methamphetamine users can obtain your personal information to support their drug habits:

• A clerk at a bank, retail store, or dry cleaner can write down your personal information or credit card number. "We've had cases where a clerk at a convenience store wrote down information from checks and then turned around and sold that information," says Postal Inspector Maes.

• A waiter or waitress can scan your credit card -- or write down the numbers -- and sell the information. "When you give your credit card to waiter you don't know what happens to it," says Sheriff Hedges of San Luis Obispo.

• Files can be stolen from your investment company. "Many times this happens by an insider who works for a financial institution and is a drug addict," Maes says.

• Employees of painting or cleaning companies -- working after the businesses close -- can steal client information. "They can steal a few files and no one will know they're missing until the information is compromised," Maes says.

Consumers are also "asking for trouble" if they leave birth certificates, checkbooks, saving accounts information, Social Security cards, and other personal information in an unlocked car or home, Maes says.

The Underground Market

If your identity is stolen, law enforcement officials say, you're likely to be victimized again -- in many cases by another methamphetamine user.

"There's an underground market where your information is traded and bartered all over streets and maybe all over the country," says detective Pierce. "Remember, this is 100 percent free financing for these methamphetamine users. The drugs are free when they buy them and they're free when they sell them."

Prosecutor Riebli of Johnson County, Kansas, agrees.

"If you've had your identity compromised, it can happen again and again," she says. "There's nothing to prevent these individuals from trading ID's for their drugs."

That means your stolen identity could wind up in some cheap motel room and be used to finance another meth-head's addiction.

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Four Types of Identity Theft

The Amphetamine Connection: How Meth is Driving the Identity Theft Pandemic...


Law enforcement officials say there are four types of identity theft:

Financial ID Theft: This involves the theft and misuse of someone's name and Social Security number (SSN). The identity thief may apply for telephone service, credit cards or loans, buy merchandise, or lease cars or apartments using that stolen information;

Criminal ID Theft: Criminals involved in this scheme give an identity theft victim's information instead of their own when stopped by law enforcement. When an arrest warrant is issued, it's in the name of the identity theft victim;

Identity Cloning: This happens when criminals use an identity-theft victim's information to establish a new life. Those involved in this crime include illegal aliens and those avoiding warrants;

Business or Commercial Identity Theft: This happens when identity thieves obtain credit cards or checking accounts in the name of a business. The business finds out when unhappy suppliers send collection notices or their business rating score is affected.

An Addict's Glossary

Law enforcement officials say identity thieves and methamphetamine users have their own language. Here are a few examples:

Cranksters -- Meth users;

Tweaker -- A methamphetamine abuser who probably has not slept in 3-15 days and is irritable and paranoid. According to Narconon Southern California, an inpatient drug and alcohol education and rehabilitation service, tweakers are considered the most dangerous type of meth abuser to medical personnel and law enforcement officers;

Lurping -- A meth addict searching for anything he or she can sell or trade. It's also used to mean stealing anything that is not nailed down;

Boogling -- This term means stealing mail in Utah. It can also mean stealing your credit card number by diving into dumpsters, looking over your shoulder, taking your mail and using camera phones to take a picture of your credit card;

Car Clout -- Car burglary or theft from a vehicle.

Components of Identity Theft

Detective Byron Pierce of the Overland Park, Kansas, Police Department, says there are three components involved in identity theft.

They are:

Collectors: These are the people solely responsible for collecting stolen information. These people may break into your car, or they might be a trusted employee inside a finance institution, a medical office, or anyone who has access to personal data;

Converter: This is the person with the technology expertise. He or she has the computers, scanners and digital cameras used to make the fraudulent I.D. or checks;

Passers: This person is often indigent or desperate for money. Collectors or converters will dress-up these individuals and send them out to buy merchandise, get credit cards, cash checks or open other accounts with the phony ID's.

"Ninety-percent of time, the person we arrest is the passer," Pierce says. "And that's the person who is usually standing on the corner, peddling drugs. He's the lowest person on the totem pole -- all he gets is paid. And when he is arrested, he's simply replaced. It doesn't affect the overall operation."

Next: What Can You Do?

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Data Thieves Hit Stop & Shop

Card Readers Tampered With, PIN Numbers Stolen

Quincy, Massachusetts-based Stop & Shop Supermarkets reports that several of its stores have been hit by thieves who tampered with checkout-lane card reade...

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FDA Widens Peanut Butter Warning

First Lawsuit Filed Against ConAgra; Many More expected

fda, Peanut Butter-Borne Illness Increase...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in a broader warning, says that all Peter Pan peanut butter purchased since May 2006 should be discarded.

The agency had earlier said that certain batches of Peter Pan and Wal-Mart's Great Value brand peanut butter -- those with a product code on the lid beginning with 2111 -- might contain salmonella.

Meanwhile, in Sylvester, Georgia, government and company investigators are swarming over the ConAgra Foods plant, trying to determine how salmonella got into batches of the peanut butter, admidst rapidly increasing reports of consumer illness and at least one lawsuit against ConAgra.

The plant has been shut down since Wednesday, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that Peter Pan brand peanut butter and some batches of Wal-Mart's Great Value house brand were linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 300 people nationwide since August.

The number of those sickened is likely much higher than the official estimate as many cases are never diagnosed, as consumers -- like Glenda of Richland, Washington -- simply suffer through the illness on their own.

"I know for sure that three jars that I have eaten from have the correct serial numbers on them," Glenda said in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com, "I have been to the emergency room 3 times with severe cramping, vomiting and diarrhea since August and have had many other bouts that are undocumented since that time as well, plus persistent fatigue and aching eyes and wrists."

"My husband has also had several minor bouts of stomach cramping and vomiting," Glenda said.

Deborah of Salem, N.C., had a similar experience.

"I purchased the Peter Pan Peanut Butter with the product code 2111 which has just been recalled. After consuming a peanut butter and banana sandwich I became very ill with stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting," she said. "I thought it was just a stomach virus thinking that there was nothing in a peanut butter and banana sandwich that could make me sick."

"It was lucky for me that I because sick on Friday night and was sick through the weekend but did not miss any work. It just left me weak and not feeling well for about a week," she said.

But while young, healthy adults may be able to fight off the illness on their own, the very young and the very old are much more susceptible to complications.

"My mother-in-law is almost 90 ... She ate some Peter Pan peanut butter (and) a few days later she stared saying she could't breathe. They took her to the hospital, did all kinds of blood tests ... then we find out about salmonella," said Kenneth of Bosque Farms, N.M.

First Lawsuit

The first of what's likely to be a rash of lawsuits was filed against ConAgra in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Mo., Friday by Susanna and Brian Cox of St. Joseph, Mo.

The lawsuit says Susanna Cox and the couple's two children began developing gastrointestinal illnesses in October after eating Great Value peanut butter, made by ConAgra.

What To Watch For

The affected jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter have a product code located on the lid of the jar that begins with the number "2111." Both the Peter Pan and Great Value brands are manufactured in a single facility in Georgia by ConAgra. Great Value peanut butter made by other manufacturers is not affected.

If consumers have any of this Peter Pan or Great Value brand peanut butter in their home that has been purchased since May 2006, they should discard it.

Symptoms of foodborne illness caused by Salmonella include fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. In persons with poor underlying health or weakened immune systems, Salmonella can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections.

Individuals who have recently eaten Peter Pan and Great Value brand peanut butter beginning with product code 2111 and have experienced any of these symptoms should contact their doctor or health care provider immediately. Any such illnesses should be reported to state or local health authorities.

 



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Reports of Peanut Butter-Borne Illness Increase

First Lawsuit Filed Against ConAgra; Many More expected

Reports of Peanut Butter-Borne Illness Increase...

In Sylvester, Georgia, government and company investigators are swarming over the ConAgra Foods plant, trying to determine how salmonella got into batches of the peanut butter, admidst rapidly increasing reports of consumer illness and at least one lawsuit against ConAgra.

The plant has been shut down since Wednesday, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that Peter Pan brand peanut butter and some batches of Wal-Mart's Great Value house brand were linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 300 people nationwide since August.

The number of those sickened is likely much higher than the official estimate as many cases are never diagnosed, as consumers -- like Glenda of Richland, Washington -- simply suffer through the illness on their own.

"I know for sure that three jars that I have eaten from have the correct serial numbers on them," Glenda said in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com, "I have been to the emergency room 3 times with severe cramping, vomiting and diarrhea since August and have had many other bouts that are undocumented since that time as well, plus persistent fatigue and aching eyes and wrists."

"My husband has also had several minor bouts of stomach cramping and vomiting," Glenda said.

Deborah of Salem, N.C., had a similar experience.

"I purchased the Peter Pan Peanut Butter with the product code 2111 which has just been recalled. After consuming a peanut butter and banana sandwich I became very ill with stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting," she said. "I thought it was just a stomach virus thinking that there was nothing in a peanut butter and banana sandwich that could make me sick."

"It was lucky for me that I because sick on Friday night and was sick through the weekend but did not miss any work. It just left me weak and not feeling well for about a week," she said.

But while young, healthy adults may be able to fight off the illness on their own, the very young and the very old are much more susceptible to complications.

"My mother-in-law is almost 90 ... She ate some Peter Pan peanut butter (and) a few days later she stared saying she could't breathe. They took her to the hospital, did all kinds of blood tests ... then we find out about salmonella," said Kenneth of Bosque Farms, N.M.

First Lawsuit

The first of what's likely to be a rash of lawsuits was filed against ConAgra in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Mo., Friday by Susanna and Brian Cox of St. Joseph, Mo.

The lawsuit says Susanna Cox and the couple's two children began developing gastrointestinal illnesses in October after eating Great Value peanut butter, made by ConAgra.

What To Watch For

The affected jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter have a product code located on the lid of the jar that begins with the number "2111." Both the Peter Pan and Great Value brands are manufactured in a single facility in Georgia by ConAgra. Great Value peanut butter made by other manufacturers is not affected.

If consumers have any of this Peter Pan or Great Value brand peanut butter in their home that has been purchased since May 2006, they should discard it.

Symptoms of foodborne illness caused by Salmonella include fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. In persons with poor underlying health or weakened immune systems, Salmonella can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections.

Individuals who have recently eaten Peter Pan and Great Value brand peanut butter beginning with product code 2111 and have experienced any of these symptoms should contact their doctor or health care provider immediately. Any such illnesses should be reported to state or local health authorities.

 



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Bush Expected to Name Industry Lobbyist to Head Consumer Safety Agency

Many Senators, Representatives With Oversight Responsibility Claim to Neither Know Nor Care

Bush Expected to Name Industry Lobbyist to Head Consumer Safety Agency...

By Joseph S. Enoch
ConsumerAffairs.com Congressional Correspondent

February 16, 2007

Baroody
Insiders say that Michael Baroody, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), a powerful trade group that opposes aggressive product safety regulation, is President Bush's choice to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

The CPSC is currently powerless to enact new rules or levy fines because it has had only two commissioners since Chairman Hal Stratton, another Bush appointee, abruptly resigned six months ago to become a lobbyist.

Bush is expected to make his appointment during the long President's Day weekend, while Congress is out of town.

The White House refuses to comment. Spokesmen there have not returned seven phone calls from ConsumerAffairs.com over the last week and Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have had no official word on whether an appointment is pending.

But David Baker, a lawyer who represents companies before the CPSC, said he has heard from a number of "private Republican lobbyists" that the appointment "is likely to be a recess appointment."

Under a recess appointment the nominee can take his or her place at the commission for one year without Congressional approval.

Hacks and Flacks

The recess appointment authority is intended to fill vacancies in agencies during an emergency while Congress is in recess. Presidents have used it in the past as a way to ensconce controversial, often spectacularly unqualified political insiders who would be unlikely to win Congressional approval.

"There's no need for him to recess appoint," Michael Teague, spokesman for Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said. "If he recess appoints someone, it must be because the person has some sort of dark cloud hanging over them."

The Senate Commerce Committee advanced legislation sponsored by Pryor Tuesday to restore authority to the commission. The measure, which now goes to the full Senate, would allow commissioners to continue routine business despite a vacancy on the commission.

"I think it would be a very negative symbol for the Bush administration to circumvent the normal means of appointment," said Baker, who said he is a Republican.

Rachel Weintraub, director of Product Safety and senior counsel at the Consumer Federation of America, said she cannot comment on potential nominees but said, "Any chairman of the CPSC cannot be biased toward any market."

"Every second of a consumer's day, you're surrounded by products that this commission has jurisdiction over," Weintraub told the San Francisco Chronicle. "When this commission can't do its job properly, consumers can potentially feel this impact in a devastating way."

Because of Baroody's Republican ties and history of opposing strong safety regulation, his appointment is unlikely to be popular with the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Interim Measures

If Bush does not nominate a replacement soon, Pryor, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, Insurance and Automotive Safety, has proposed legislation that will reauthorize the two commissioners' powers for another six months while Bush makes up his mind or simply continues to ignore the commission.

"My measure ensures product safety is not put at risk because this administration doesn't make it a priority," Pryor, whose subcommittee has jurisdiction over the CPSC, said.

This is the third time Bush has left the CPSC without a quorum. In the CPSC's 35-year history, the only other time the commission has gone so long without a quorum was during the adminstration of Bush's father, George H.W. Bush.

"This shows that this is not a major priority for the Bush Administration," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) who is vice chair of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, the House subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the CPSC. "(This is) the only organization charged to protect consumers from dangers in the marketplace."

Don't Know, Don't Care?
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)
Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.)
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.)
Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.)
Republicans who sit on the Senate or House subcommittees with CPSC jurisdiction either did not know the CPSC had been without a quorum for seven months, or refused to talk about it.

"The lack of quorum? I'm sorry, I don't know," Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who sits on the subcommittee with CPSC jurisdiction, said. "There hasn't been an appointment? That's unfortunate. How long has that appointment been delayed?"

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said he is planning to discuss the topic with some of his staff members but said, "I have not followed that issue very clearly."

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) did not return three phone calls from ConsumerAffairs.com while Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) would not step off the House floor to be interviewed. Both also serve on committees with oversight responsibility.

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Prius Stalls in Snow; Owners Steamed

Aging Priuses are bringing with them many problems

Prius Stalls in Snow; Owners Steamed...

Toyota is fond of describing the Prius hybrid as the car of the future and many Prius owners are as forgiving of problems with their little cars as newly-minted grandparents are of their offsprings' foibles.

That may be changing however. Aging Priuses are bringing with them problems many owners are finding hard to forgive.

Richard has a 2001 Prius in Palm Desert, California, that now has 103,000 miles on it.

"The car has died on the freeway four times," he told us. "The second time the dealer had the car for 53 days waiting for parts."

"The car is extremely hard on tires. Just can't keep them balanced. The heat inverter has gone out twice. The service representative said these cars just don't do well in the desert. The gas tank has been replaced. Also the steering column. The main computer has been replaced as well as a smaller one," Richard told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Worst of all?

"The mileage has not been what they (Toyota) advertised," he wrote. "I only use this car to drive short trips around town because I just can't trust it on the freeway."

Trust is becoming an illusive quality for a growing number of Prius owners forced to deal with snowy weather and slippery or unstable road conditions.

A Northern Virginia Prius owner first reported the hybrid's traction problem.

"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," Christopher wrote from Reston, Virginia.

Now two other Prius owners have confirmed the traction problem, despite Toyota's denials.

Alex told us from Blowing Rock, North Carolina that the "electric and gasoline drive systems totally shut down if front wheel or wheels lose traction. I'm in total agreement with (Christopher's) comments," he wrote.

"The Prius is totally unsafe in any situation in which the front wheels lose traction which then causes the engine to completely shut down," Alex told us.

Alex said that "the shutdown occurs on any loosely packed (gravel or loose dirt at an intersection) or slippery (ice or packed snow)surface."

"Toyota attempts to spin this into a safety feature is total hype," Alex told us.

A Toyota spokesperson had previously explained to ConsumerAffairs.com that the condition Alex and others experienced was a result of the traction control system in the Toyota attempting to provide vehicle stability.

Toyota spokesman Bill Kwon agreed that the traction control system in the Prius could impact performance in snowy conditions but insisted that was not a safety problem.

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

Alex is not buying any of the Toyota explanation.

"This is a most serious flaw in the design of the car and needs to be corrected, sooner rather than later. I'm positive you will find that this concern is shared by many Prius owners who have encountered the identical situation," he wrote.

Serge in Goode, Virginia is another Prius owner who has encountered that identical situation.

"I have a Prius and I consider the car dangerous in all conditions because of this power stoppage when the wheel senses any slippage," Serge told us.

"For instance," he continued, "It will do the same thing while driving up a graveled driveway or attempting to gain highway speed while in an acceleration lane and driving across a sand or gravel patch. The pedal goes dead and you could get severely hurt by losing acceleration."

"Toyota's statement is ridiculous and I think it is only a matter of time until they are sued and forced to do something about this serious problem," he wrote.

Finally, Anthony in Salinas, California wrote that he has encountered difficulty keeping his Prius aimed in the proper direction on wet roads.

"In driving rain I suddenly lost all control and all power in my Prius, the auto drifted into a left skid, turning 180 degrees on the highway then completing a 360 spin on the opposing traffic shoulder about 200 feet from the start. Has this loss of directional control and braking been reported"?

While Anthony's problem did not occur in the snow, clearly seems to be a problem with the traction system in his Prius suggesting a more sophisticated traction control system might stabilize the little hybrid before it spins out of control.

 

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Does Pollution Play a Role in Obesity?

Researcher Says Endocrine Disrupters Need More Study

Does Pollution Play a Role in Obesity?...


Obesity is generally discussed in terms of caloric intake -- how much a person eats -- and energy output -- how much a person exercises.

But according to a University of Missouri-Columbia scientist, environmental chemicals found in everyday plastics and pesticides also may influence obesity.

Frederick vom Saal, professor of biological sciences in MU's College of Arts and Science, has found that when fetuses are exposed to these chemicals, the way their genes function may be altered to make them more prone to obesity and disease.

"Certain environmental substances called endocrine-disrupting chemicals can change the functioning of a fetus's genes, altering a baby's metabolic system and predisposing him or her to obesity. This individual could eat the same thing and exercise the same amount as someone with a normal metabolic system, but he or she would become obese, while the other person remained thin," vom Saal said. "This is a serious problem because obesity puts people at risk for other problems, including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension," he added.

Using lab mice, vom Saal has studied the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including bisphenol-A, which recently made news in San Francisco, where controversy has ensued over an ordinance that seeks to ban its use in children's products.

In a recent study, vom Saal found that endocrine-disrupting chemicals cause mice to be born at very low birth weights and then gain abnormally large amounts of weight in a short period of time, more than doubling their body weight in just seven days.

He followed the mice as they got older and found that these mice were obese throughout their lives. He said studies of low-birth-weight children have shown a similar overcompensation after birth, resulting in lifelong obesity.

"The babies are born with a low body weight and a metabolic system that's been programmed for starvation. This is called a thrifty phenotype,' a system designed to maximize the use of all food taken into the body. The problem comes when the baby isn't born into a world of starvation, but into a world of fast food restaurants and fatty foods," vom Saal said.

More research must be done to determine which chemicals cause this effect. According to vom Saal, there are approximately 55,000 manmade chemicals in the world, and 1,000 of those might fall into the category of endocrine disrupting.

These chemicals are found in common products, from plastic bottles and containers to pesticides and electronics.

"You inherit genes, but how those genes develop during your very early life also plays an important role in your propensity for obesity and disease. People who have abnormal metabolic systems have to live extremely different lifestyles in order to not be obese because their systems are malfunctioning," vom Saal said. "We need to figure out what we can do to understand and prevent this."



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Payback: State Farm Writes Off Mississippi

Stinging from defeat in a Hurricane Katrina damage claim in Biloxi, the company says it will no longer insure homeowners and businesses in the state with a...


Paraphrasing Richard Nixon, Mississippi won't have State Farm Insurance to kick around anymore.

Stinging from defeat in a Hurricane Katrina damage claim in Biloxi, the company says it will no longer insure homeowners and businesses in the state, where it is the largest single insurer with a 30 percent market share. Allstate pulled out of Mississippi's six coastal counties last year.

"It is no longer prudent for us to take on additional risk in a legal and business environment that is becoming more unpredictable," said Senior Vice President Bob Trippel, in a statement.

State Farm is among a number of insurance companies hit with staggering claims in the wake of Katrina and other storms that have pounded the Gulf Coast in recent years.

While Allstate and some other carriers have cut back on coverage in storm-prone coastal areas, none until now has blacklisted an entire state.

The decision is expected to have significant impact on consumers. Currently State Farm holds 30 percent of the homeowner policies in the state. Other companies currently serving Mississippi will have to fill the gap.

State Farm has had a number of setbacks in Mississippi since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the state in 2005.

In January, a proposed $50 million class action settlement between the company and Mississippi homeowners was derailed by the judge hearing the case. U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter said the proposed settlement did not adequately spell out how payments would be determined and which homeowners would get them.

Also last month Gulf Coast property owners who lost nearly everything during Hurricane Katrina won a victory in court when a U.S. District Judge sided with them, ordering State Farm to pay $223,292 in damages the company had initially rejected.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood had also filed suit against State Farm but dropped his state court suit when State Farm agreed to the tentative class action settlement. Hood had predicted the class action settlement would cost State Farm as much as $500 million.

Hood has also been pursuing a criminal investigation of State Farm, which he said he would drop when the class-action settlement is finalized.

After learning of State Farm's announcement, Hood said the company was trying to back off its commitment to remain in the state, which he said was part of the lawsuit settlement.

"The whole reason for reaching the settlement with them was to keep them here," Hood said.

Homeowners in Mississippi's coastal counties who can't find a private insurer can turn to the state's wind-insurance pool, where rates are as much as 90 percent higher than commercial insurance.

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Texas Sues Sprint Nextel

Charges Company is Using Deceptive Billing Practices

Texas Sues Sprint Nextel...

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has taken legal action to stop Sprint Nextel Corp. from using what he claims are deceptively worded wireless telephone fees.

According to the attorney general's lawsuit, Sprint Spectrum, a subsidiary of Sprint Nextel, violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act by implying that an additional fee on customers' bills was a state-imposed tax. Abbott also charged Sprint Nextel with violating a 2004 court order prohibiting the company from deceptive billing practices.

"Sprint Nextel has defrauded its customers and violated a court order, blatantly disregarding the laws of the State of Texas," Abbott said. "Texans will not tolerate Sprint Nextel's unlawful business practices. Once again, the Office of Attorney General is taking decisive legal action to crack down on Sprint Nextel's false, misleading, and deceptive acts."

In January, Sprint Nextel began charging Texas customers a 1 percent fee, claiming it was necessary to reimburse the company for a state-imposed tax.

Sprint Nextel describes this fee as a "Texas Margin Fee Reimbursement," wording which the Attorney General's lawsuit alleges is deceptive because the tax does not become effective until Jan. 1, 2008, and has not been set at a 1 percent rate.

The attorney general also charged Sprint Nextel with violating a court-approved agreement prohibiting Sprint from implying that their discretionary fees are required by the government.

The agreement stems from a 2004 investigation into Sprint's deceptive billing practices. Under the court order, the company is required to clearly separate government-mandated charges from those imposed at Sprint Nextel's discretion.

The lawsuit, which requests temporary and permanent injunctions against Sprint Nextel, asks the court to stop the deceptive billings and to compel the company to reimburse all customers who paid this fee. The petition also seeks civil penalties of $20,000 per violation under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

 

 

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FCC, FTC Challenged To Protect Net Neutrality

Cold Wind Blows as Democrats Assert Themselves on Telecom Issues

FCC, FTC Challenged To Protect Net Neutrality...

There's a shift in the wind here in Washington, D.C., and it's not just from the bone-freezing winter.

Consumer groups and technology advocates are aggressively challenging the federal government to provide more oversight and advocacy for equal access to the Internet, aided by a Democratic Congress that is eager to challenge the Republican Administration.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce committee and its Telecommuncations subcommittee, challenged the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to provide testimony on a host of issues, ranging from the level of broadband penetration in the United States to how the Universal Service Fund (USF) is collected.

Although the FCC hearing scheduled for Feb. 15th was canceled due to the death of Committee member Ron Norwood (R-GA), the commissioners provided pre-hearing answers to the questions Dingell put forth.

FCC chair Kevin Martin claimed that broadband penetration across the United States was constantly increasing, from 9 million in 2001 to 65 million today.

"That's nearly six times as many high-speed lines as when I joined the commission," Martin said. Martin also cited data from the Pew research center that found broadband use jumping from 60 million in 2005 to 84 million in 2006.

However, the Pew findings indicated that 45 percent of overall American households had broadband Internet access, out of a nation of 300 million.

The US ranked 21st among developed nations for broadband access, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

The data the FCC uses to measure broadband penetration has also been frequently criticized as inaccurate, such as using subscriber ZIP codes to measure access instead of where development has actually taken place.

The slow pace of nationwide broadband penetration is often attributed to the costs of building infrastructure across a nation as large as the U.S., as well as the desire of telecommunication companies to cater to richer client groups in clustered urban areas.

Supporters of net neutrality have challenged the desire of telecom companies to "redline" poor areas out of broadband development altogether.

AT&T-Bellsouth;

Martin and fellow Commissioner Deborah Tate were also challenged by Dingell to explain their comments on the approval of the AT&T-BellSouth; Merger.

AT&T; offered numerous concessions to push the merger forward, including a promise to maintain net neutrality on its basic Internet services for up to thirty months.

Martin and Tate, both Republicans who went along with concessions grudgingly, said that they would not allow the concessions to guide future decisions in related matters, claiming that a "minority" of Commissioners -- in this case, Democratic members Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps -- should not be allowed to make decisions normally dictated by the majority.

"An industry-wide policy of the Commission must be approved by a majority of the commissioners," Tate said. "While I voted to support the merger, including the voluntarily-agreed to conditions, it is important the conditions not represent the policy of the Commission with regard to the broader industry."

FTC Wants Everyone To Get Along

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) convened a two-day conference on "Broadband Connectivity Competition Policy."

FTC Chair Deborah Platt Majoras, a Republican who has been critical of net neutrality issues in the past, continued to evince a resistance to regulation, claiming "market solutions" would solve any difficulties.

Fellow commissioner Jon Leibowitz said that more constructive dialogue was necessary, and that participants in the debate "[listened] to the other side sort of just enough to mock it."

Participants in the forum included representatives from telecom giants such as Verizon and Cisco, consumer groups such as Media Access Project, and lobby groups like the anti-net neutrality Hands Off The Internet. Hands Off's co-chairman Christopher Wolf used his testimony to claim there was "zero evidence of harm to consumers or competition to warrant such regulation."

"[C]ompetitive conditions in the market for broadband access will protect consumers from the hypothetical harm theorized by net neutrality proponents," Wolf said.

Media Access Project's Harold Feld bemoaned the panel makeup, saying it was dominated by industry apologists.

"So the pro and con industry reps and pro and con academics each have their own panel, but the "consumers" (i.e., us regular folks actually using broadband) have to share "our" panel with two industry reps and two academics," he said on his blog.

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TJX Customers: What To Do

To protect against identity theft, consumers who have shopped and used their credit or debit card, or a check, to pay for goods purchased, may wish to take...

To protect against identity theft, consumers who have shopped at the TJX Stores, including Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Home Goods, AJ Wright, and used their credit or debit card, or a check, to pay for goods purchased, may wish to take the following cautionary steps:

1. Call one of the three major credit bureaus and place a one-call fraud alert on your credit report:

• Equifax: Call (800) 525-6285, and write: P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241.
• Experian: Call (888) 397-3742, and write: P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013.
• TransUnion: Call (800) 680-7289, and write: Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790 Fullerton, CA 92834-6790.

You only need to call one of the three credit bureaus; the one you contact is required by law to contact the other two credit bureaus. This one-call fraud alert will remain in your credit file for at least 90 days. The fraud alert requires creditors to contact you before opening any new accounts or increasing credit limits on your existing accounts. When you place a fraud alert on your credit report, all three credit bureaus are required to send you a credit report free of charge.

2. Order a copy of your credit report, and look for unauthorized activity. Look carefully for unexplained activity on your credit report.

3. If there is unexplained activity on your credit report, you may want to place an extended fraud alert on your credit report. If after reviewing your credit report you believe there is unexplained activity, you may want to place an extended fraud alert on your credit report. In order to do this, you need to file a police report with your local police department, keep a copy for yourself, and provide a copy to one of the three major credit bureaus. Then an extended fraud alert can be placed on your credit file for a 7-year period.

This will mean that any time a user of your credit report (for instance, a credit card company or lender) checks your credit report, it will be notified that you do not authorize any new credit cards, any increase in credit limits, the issuance of a new card on an existing account, or other increases in credit, unless the user takes extra precautions to ensure that it is giving the additional credit to you (and not to an identity thief).

4. Contact the fraud departments of your credit card issuers or bank. You may want to contact the fraud department of the credit card company or bank that you used when you made purchases at the TJX stores. These financial institutions can monitor your account for suspicious activity. You may also wish to cancel these accounts; you can discuss this option with your credit card company or bank.

Additionally, TJX has established a toll free customer help line. Callers from the United States may reach the help line at (866) 484-6978. TJX has also posted information on its web site at www.tjx.com.

Source: Massachusetts Attorney General

 

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Legislation Would Create New Food Safety Agency

The Safe Food Act also would modernize the 100-year old food safety laws

Legislation Would Create New Food Safety Agency...

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have introduced legislation to put all food safety responsibilities under a single new Food Safety Administrator.

The Safe Food Act also would modernize the 100-year old food safety laws, and give the new chief a unified budget. The legislation is supported by the nonprofit food safety and nutrition watchdog group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

The government's finite food safety resources are not equitably split between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Bush Administration's 2008 budget proposal makes matters worse, according to CSPI.

USDA regulates 20 percent of the nation's food supply, and the Administration proposes giving the department $270 million in new money for food safety and security. FDA regulates 80 percent of the food supply, including fresh vegetables like spinach and lettuce, but it will get only $10.6 million in new food safety money, despite being underfunded already.

"The Bush food safety budget defies logic," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at CSPI. "While the budget clearly recognizes the need for more funding for food safety, money is being directed at animal health problems and meat and poultry at the expense of preventing outbreaks from fresh produce."

The Safe Food Act would create a Food Safety Administration, similar to the Environmental Protection Agency, that would take responsibility for food safety and labeling from USDA and FDA.

The bill would also establish a comprehensive program to protect public health and bolster consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply. Currently, food safety monitoring, inspection, and labeling functions are spread across 12 federal agencies.

"It makes no sense to have one agency regulate chickens and another regulate eggs, or to have one agency regulate cows and another to regulate milk," said CSPI food safety staff attorney Ken Kelly. "When one cabinet secretary is responsible for pepperoni pizza and another is responsible for cheese pizza, you know something's wrong."

The Safe Food Act would consolidate the activities of various federal agencies responsible for the nation's food supply including USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition; and the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service.

The bill also includes a traceback provision, gives the new agency recall authority, and requires more frequent inspections to help prevent future E. coli outbreaks.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently designated food safety as one of the high risk federal government programs. Agriculture, including all food production, is about 13 percent of the gross domestic product, and the largest industry in the U.S., according to GAO.

Unsafe food poses a significant burden on consumers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million people suffer from foodborne illness each year, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

Children and the elderly are most likely to experience severe cases of illness and death from foodborne pathogens. Outbreaks, like the one that occurred last fall from tainted spinach, can easily exceed $100 million in damages to both victims and the industry.

 



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Salmonella Found in "Wild Kitty" Cat Food

Salmonella, Wild Kitty, Cat Food...

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers not to purchase or use Wild Kitty Cat Food due to the presence of Salmonella, a pathogen.

The FDA said that during routine monitoring activities, it collected and analyzed a sample of frozen raw Wild Kitty Cat Food and detected Salmonella in the product.

Cats and other pets consuming this food may become infected with Salmonella. People can also become infected with Salmonella if they handle or ingest the cat food, touch pets that consumed the food, or touch any surfaces that came into contact with the food or pets.

The specific products covered by this warning are Wild Kitty Raw All Natural, Frozen Cat Food Chicken with Clam Recipe, Net Wt. 3.5 oz (100g) and 1 lb in plastic containers. Some of these containers may be uncoded.

Salmonella can cause serious illnesses in small children, frail or elderly people, and people and pets with weakened immune systems. Other people and pets may suffer short-term symptoms, such as high fever, severe headache, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Long term complications can include arthritis.

The Wild Kitty Cat Food is sold nationwide to retail stores and through distributors and internet sales, nationwide.

Consumers who have purchased this product should not feed it to their pets, but should instead dispose of it in a safe manner (e.g., in a securely covered trash receptacle).

Anyone who is experiencing the symptoms of Salmonella infection after having handled the product should seek medical attention, and report use of the product and illness to FDA's Office of Emergency Operations. In addition, people who have concerns that they may have Salmonella should contact their medical doctors and the local health departments. People who have concerns whether their pet has Salmonella should contact their veterinarian.

People may risk bacterial infection not only by handling their cat, but by contact with the pet food, food bowl, cat box and surfaces exposed to these items, so it is important that they thoroughly wash their hands with hot water and soap.

Since young children, elderly people, and people and animals with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk from exposure, they should avoid handling all the items listed above and surfaces exposed to these items.

 



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Mortgage Crisis? Act Now to Avoid Foreclosure

Steps You Can Take to Avoid Losing Your Home and Ruining Your Credit

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, an estimated $1.5 trillion in adjustable rate mortgages are going to see another increase in interest rates ...

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Veterans Administration Loses Data on 1.8 Million

Veterans Administration Loses Data on 1.8 Million...


The VA is notifying 1.8 million veteran patients and doctors that a hard drive containing their personal information has been missing from an Alabama veterans' hospital.

The missing hard drive contains personally identifying information on 535,000 veterans, and billing information for 1.3 million doctors.

The hard drive was discovered missing on Jan. 22 but, as usual in such cases, the public was not alerted.

VA officials first said the drive contained information on 48,000 veteran patients but now concede the actual number is nearly 40 times more than what was originally reported.

The information included Social Security numbers for the patients, and names in several instances, as well as Medicare billing codes for the doctors.

At the time of the original notification, the VA said that the drive belonged to an unidentified "mid-level" employee. The drive allegedly lacked encryption.

The VA originally said it suspected theft in the disappearance, and began a criminal investigation with the help of the FBI. As usual, the VA claimed it had seen "no evidence" that the data was misused.

The agency plans to offer a year of free credit monitoring to any affected individual, though it did not disclose who it was partnering with to offer the service.

Congress Incensed

Alabama's Congressional and state representatives were incensed at the data breach and the lag time between the discovery and the notification. Rep. Artur Davis (D-Birmingham) chastised the VA when the breach was originally disclosed for its repeated failures to protect information.

"[The VA] should be held to a better standard than the private sector, not a lesser standard," Davis said at the time. "This is a continuous problem of veterans who go into the VA."

Dubious Distinction

The continuing problems at the Veterans' Administration have given it the dubious honor of being synonymous with the phrase "data breach," an accolade formerly held by data broker ChoicePoint after it sold personal information to a ring of Nigerian criminals.

The VA's reputation was tarnished after a laptop containing records on 26.5 million veterans was stolen from the home of an analyst in Maryland in May 2006.

The laptop was eventually recovered after an anonymous tip led to the arrest of two Maryland teenagers and a juvenile connected with the theft.

In the course of the inquiry into that laptop's theft, the VA was found to have kept the theft secret for nearly a month before disclosing it to the affected veterans.

The unidentified analyst was dismissed from his position for the breach, a move he contested on grounds that VA employees had been given permission to take data home with them on numerous occasions.

The VA had also covered up two smaller data breaches in the twelve-month period preceding the laptop theft.

The last VA breach prompted numerous hearings before Congress, and a series of legislative efforts is underway to improve data security and codify disclosure requirements nationwide. Critics charge that many of the bills are too friendly to industry and government agencies, and offer too many exemptions to be of any use.

Serious Danger

Despite the VA's claims that it had seen no evidence the missing data was misused, the threat is very real for affected victims of a data breach.

Smart hackers will often mix and match stolen data from different people, creating new "synthetic identities" that can be used to get new credit accounts. Because the thieves are using existing information, rather than making up fake identities, the fraud is much harder to detect.

Missing medical information is particularly dangerous, as the data can be used for "medical identity theft," where the culprit gets expensive medical procedures and leaves the bill for the unknowing victim to pay.

Medical fraud is much harder to prove than typical credit or bank fraud, and can leave victims with ruined credit and thousands of dollars in debt.

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Planned Obsolesence Comes to Ink Cartridges

Some HP, Lexmark Cartridges Shut Down after a Predetermined time

Many Hewlett Packard and Lexmark consumers with inkjet printers may find that their ink cartridges are no longer working because the manufacturers designed...

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Bank of America Offering Credit Cards to Undocumented Immigrants

No credit history or Social Security number needed

Bank of America Offering Credit Cards to Undocumented Immigrants...

Bank of America has begun quietly offering credit cards to customers in the Los Angeles are who don't have a Social Security number, The Wall Street Journalreports. Such persons are usually undocumented immigrants.

The newspaper said that Bank of America, the country's second-largest bank, is offering credit cards to consumers who have had an account at the bank for three months or more, even if they do not have a credit history or Social Security number.

It's the latest indication that American financial institutions are serious about doing business with the millions of undocumented immigrants who until recently have had no access to such routine services as checking accounts, credit cards, home mortgages and personal loans.

The newspaper said that Bank of America tested the program at five branches in Los Angeles last year and has now expanded it to 51 additonal branches in Los Angeles County, thought to have the largest concentration of undocumented workers and illegal immigrants in the U.S.

It said the bank hopes to roll the program out nationally later this year.

The credit cards won't be cheap. They carry a high interest rate, typically about 21 percent, and an annual fee, but they do offer a way for non-citizens to build a credit history so that they can purchase cars, homes and other big ticket items on credit.

There is nothing illegal about the practice, Bank of America said. But critics say a major bank should not be helping people who violate immigration laws.

"They are clearly crossing the line; they are actually aiding and abetting people who broke the law," said a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

To review applicants, Bank of America is using a procedure called "judgmental lending," pioneered by MBNA Corp., the credit card giant acquired by the Charlotte-based Bank of America last year. Instead of using credit reports, bank employees make subjective judgments based on their personal observation of the customer.

 

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GM Buys Back 800 Problem Cars and Trucks

It's a rare move but a sure way to solve the problem

GM Buys Back 800 Problem Cars and Trucks...

General Motors is buying back about 800 cars and trucks from their owners rather than try to repair serious safety defects in the vehicles.

While not many cars and trucks are involved, it is rare for an automaker to buy back a vehicle.

The GM cars and trucks involved in the buyback were returned from leases and rentals, then refitted with leather aftermarket upholstery. GM discovered that the occupant sensing system that determines when the front passenger airbag should be turned on or off was engineered only for the original cloth interior.

GM executives concluded that a buyback was in the best interests of the company and would be less disruptive to customers. The vehicles will be salvaged for parts.

The GM vehicles included in the buyback are the 2005-06 Buick LaCrosse and Rendezvous, Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy; 2006 Chevrolet HHR and Malibu, Hummer H3 and Pontiac G6; 2005 Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Sierra and Pontiac Montana; and 2004 Chevrolet Silverado.

 

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Ferry Service to Link Hawaiian Islands

Why wait for a flight? The ferry's leaving now

Visiting multiple islands in the Hawaiian chain is about to become much easier. A high-speed ferry will start daily trips July 1 and will be joined by a si...

Visiting multiple islands in the Hawaiian chain is about to become much easier. A high-speed ferry will start daily trips July 1 and will be joined by a sister ship in 2009.

That means travelers won't have to put up with agonizing waits at airports or the need to book car rentals on each island visited.

One will suffice, since the new ferry will carry cars too.

A $90 million catamaran, similar to a craft that started service out of Mobile, Ala. last month, can carry 866 passengers plus a variable number of vehicles (depending on car and truck size).

According to the operating Hawaii Superferry, the vessel will have an average speed of 40 miles per hour and estimated crossing time of three hours on both its routes: Honolulu to Kauai and Honolulu to Maui. Although flight time is only 35 minutes, cars can't accompany passengers.

Ferry fares will be competitive with air fares but will vary by vehicle, as well as purchase time. A passenger who books early and travels without a car, for example, will pay only $42 each way but adding a vehicle could cost $55 (car), $65 (SUV), or $90-$100 (pickup, van, or truck).

Airfares for the same routes range from $39-$89 per person.

Funding for the ferry service came from both national and state sources. The company used $200 in federal maritime loan guarantees ro build its ships and was the beneficiary of a $40 million pledge from the State of Hawaii to make improvements in harbor facilities that would accommodate the 349-foot ferries.

As with any new venture, however, not everyone is wild about the idea.

Although Hawaii has not had viable ferry service in more than 25 years, opponents cite environmental concerns among a myriad of potential problems.

Several different groups are worried that ferry service will disturb migrating humpback whales, facilitate the spread of the "singing" coqui tree frog, or elevate pollution of the water (oil spills) and air (idling cars checking in at ferry slips).

Backed by Maui Tomorrow and the Kahului Harbor Coalition, the government of Maui County is making more waves now than the choppy waters between the Hawaiian islands may make for ferry passengers later. It has sued the state in the hope of forcing the ferry company to finance an environmental impact study -- something both the firm and the state say is not required.

John Garibaldi, chief executive officer of Hawaii Superferry, said his company has its own environmental controls, including route changes during whale mating season and thorough inspection of vehicles before they are allowed on board his ferries.

In an effort to keep the July 1 start date alive, the state is trying to settle the Maui suit.

 



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Why Does College Cost So Much?

A Half Century Of Tuition Inflation Adds Up

Why Does College Cost So Much?...


When gasoline prices surged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many angry consumers believed Big Oil was engaging in price gouging. But as the costs of a college education have skyrocketed, few have accused Big Education of doing a little gouging of its own.

 

But are colleges overcharging students and parents? And if not, then why is a college education today so expensive that many can't afford it and others can do so only by racking up substantial debt?

Ronald Ehrenberg, Professor of Economics at Cornell University and author of "Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much" says there are rational economic reasons for tuition's constant creep upwards.

While businesses are structured to keep costs as low as possible, Ehrenberg maintains that colleges today operate on a starkly different model. They actually have an incentive to spend money.

"In private higher education, the quest is to be as good as you can," Ehrenberg told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Tuition increases in private higher education reflect increased expenditures per student, in real terms."

Public colleges and universities are raising their tuition as well, he says, because of reduced support from state governments. But there's also the supply and demand factor.

Story contines below video

The Spending Race

In his book, Ehrenberg concedes that as long as there are plenty of qualified applicants, no institution is going to end the spending race. And when tuition rises at one institution, others are more likely to raise prices as well.

"When you have the elite schools pushing tuition six, seven and eight percent higher, the next-level schools can follow," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors, a private forecasting firm.

Naroff, who taught economics at the University of Massachusetts and Northeastern University, says that for elite colleges, raising their tuition doesn't necessarily discourage applicants; in fact, it can increase an institution's perceived desirability.

"There is very little pressure of any kind to keep costs down at private schools," Naroff said. "For most of the private schools, especially the better and elite schools, the more expensive it is, the more elite it is, and the more having a degree from that school is a perceived value."

These days, all universities -- public and private -- are directing some of that spending to a bidding war for faculty members with reputations. As a result, salaries and perks for college professors have risen dramatically.

The bidding war also extends to students, with colleges erecting plush dorms, state-of-the-art health clubs, gourmet restaurants and other amenities, all designed to lure the brightest and most talented students, who desire creature comforts as well as a challenging education.

State universities that once had an open enrollment policy -- admitting any high school graduate in the state -- now screen entry using standardized tests, grade-point averages, and other factors to limit enrollment to a more elite group. However, they are finding they must compete harder to get those students.

Competition Raises Costs

As a result, colleges spend more money making their institutions attractive, and charge more to attend them. Normally, competition drives prices down but apparently not in academe.

Naroff makes an analogy to professional sports.

Forty years ago, players in the National Football League were poorly paid. They played in baseball stadiums and it cost very little for fans to attend games. Now, teams pay their players millions of dollars and the average fan might spend $200 for an outing at the team's multi-million dollar stadium.

"Basically, if you can pass on your costs, you don't care what your costs are," Naroff said.

Today, tuition at state universities is around $12,000 a year and $25,000 and up at private schools, but it may surprise some to learn that rapidly rising college tuition is not a new phenomenon. In fact, figures compiled by the College Board show that college tuition has risen at about twice the general inflation rate since 1958, when statistics first began to be tracked.

The rate of increase has been sharply higher in some years than others. For example, in 1964, when the first Baby Boomers headed off to college, tuition inflation rose 4.61 percent, which was more than four times faster than the overall inflation rate. Between the years 1980 and 1982, when raging inflation in the economy increased a total of 30 percent, tuition costs surged by 40.3 percent, and have been steadily rising ever since.

Increases in tuition since 1992 have been steady, but comparatively tame, never rising above six percent, as the overall inflation rate has hovered around 2.5 to 3.0 percent.

But all those yearly increases have taken a toll.

In 43 of the last 49 years, college tuition inflation has exceeded the nation's inflation rate, with the cumulative increase pushing the costs beyond many students' ability to pay.

Financial Aid to the Rescue?

As the cost of attending college has risen, so has the availability of student financial aid. Students and parents who can't afford the yearly cost of tuition, room and board, and books can apply for scholarships, grants and loans to make up the difference.

By the College Board's accounting, there was $105 billion in financial aid flowing into higher education in the 2002-2003 school year. Has all that money inadvertently fed tuition inflation?

"There is very little evidence that this has occurred," Ehrenberg said.

But others disagree. David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, calls financial aid the driving force behind rising fees, claiming it is responsible for nearly one-third of all tuition increases.

Where does the financial aid come from? There are a variety of sources, but at many schools, scholarship and grant money comes directly from the schools themselves, paid for through endowments and, to a large degree, by the ever-rising tuition paid by other students.

And how is that aid distributed? Highly prized and recruited students are most likely to receive the scholarships and grants. Everyone else must take out student loans.

A 2003-2004 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that more than 65 percent of students borrow at least some money to pay for education, with the average student graduating with more than $17,000 of debt. Many graduate with an even heavier debt load.

Rudy Arndt, a retired high school guidance counselor in the Toms River, New Jersey School District, witnessed the rising costs of college over the span of his career.

He said he first began to see high school seniors looking for college loans in the mid 1970s. By the time he retired in 1992, he saw students taking on dangerous amounts of debt to pay for their schooling.

"We've got to warn students not to get so overloaded with debt that it will affect their ability to live once they graduate," he said.

Ehrenberg shares that concern, and thinks it might unduly influence a student's choice of career.

"I am very much concerned and worry especially that it may preclude students from entering socially important but low-paying occupations," Ehrenberg said.

"Just as law schools have loan forgiveness programs to encourage law students to go into public interest law, states should consider loan forgiveness programs for public higher education graduates who enter socially important occupations," he suggested.

Buyer's Remorse

While many students graduating with $100,000 or more of debt often express "buyers' remorse," it's clear not all do.

"Craig," a 2005 graduate of an elite northeastern university who works in Washington, DC, pays $700 a month on his student loans, but has no regrets.

"I received an excellent education for a reasonable price," he told ConsumerAffairs.com.

He suggests high school seniors begin discussions with guidance counselors early about their financial needs, and focus on schools that offer what they want but that are also willing to offer the students financial incentives to attend.

"With good colleges it's a two-way street. Not only do you want to go there, but if you have the grades, potential, desire and experiences, they want you and will make monetary sacrifices to enroll you," he said.

Congress Gets Involved

The level of student debt has become such a sensitive issue that Congress has taken action to cut the rates on federally-guaranteed student loans. In New York, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo recently launched an investigation into charges some colleges have steered students to certain lenders in return for favors.

"My office is seeking to ensure that students are being steered toward lenders offering the most competitive rates, not those who offer the best perks to schools or financial aid administrators," said Cuomo.

Cuomo is looking into allegations that some lenders have offered trips and gifts to higher education officials with whom they do business. Cuomo says when people across the country are struggling to keep up with the cost of tuition, that behavior can't be tolerated.

Meanwhile, the news about college tuition is not all bad. Since 1996 a number of private schools have actually cut tuition -- some by steep amounts.

According to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Lourdes College in Sylvania, Ohio cut tuition 41 percent; North Park University in Chicago cut tuition 32 percent. For a complete list, see www.naicu.edu/news/TuitionCuts.htm.

More cuts may be coming.

"Private colleges and universities are launching -- and expanding -- initiatives to control operating costs and enhance efficiency," the association says. "These include outsourcing services, targeting cost reductions, streamlining staff while safeguarding quality, entering into collaborative cost-cutting arrangements with other institutions, and implementing new environmentally friendly systems that reduce energy consumption."

States are also investing greater amounts in their community college systems, which by and large maintain open enrollment policies and cost considerably less than four year schools. In many states, a student earning a two year associates degree at a community college may transfer as a junior to most public universities to receive their bachelor's degree.

"I think the community college system has been under-funded and under-valued," Naroff said. "It has helped millions of people earn a college degree and I think it should play an even greater role in education."

Another alternative emerging in recent years is the for-profit college -- institutions like the University of Phoenix and DeVry University.

Typically, their tuition is more -- often much more -- than community colleges but comparable to public universities and less than most private colleges. They don't need plush campuses because most of their students spend their non-school hours at a job.

Derided by many in traditional academia and often the source of bitter complaints by students, these colleges nonetheless have appealed to low-income, minority, and working students and adults in ways traditional colleges haven't, by offering courses in the evening and on weekends and pioneering the use of online and distance learning.

More importantly, while traditional colleges struggle financially, despite ever-rising tuition, for-profit schools do indeed turn a profit.

David Kird, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, acknowledges for-profit schools have their limitations. But he stunned a 2005 conference on higher education when he praised work being done by DeVry, noting that it "graduates more African-American engineers than any other institution in the United States."

But criticism of the for-profit schools, particulary University of Phoenix is mounting. Former students and the school's own staff and faculty complain that the relentless quest for profits has hurt the quality of the education that students receive, the New York Times reported in a front-page story today. The school has only regional accredition.

Prospective college students and their families would do well to consider community colleges and less expensive state schools rather than mortgaging their future to attend a supposedly more prestigious institution.

While a for-profit school may be the answer in some cases, students should investigate thoroughly to be sure they know what they'll be getting for their money. Check the ConsumerAffairs.com complaints about the University of Phoenix and DeVry University before plunking down money or taking out a loan. Chances are, a community college would be cheaper and would offer a better education for most students.

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University of Phoenix Staggers Under Growing Criticism

University of Phoenix Staggers Under Growing Criticism...

Consumer complaints and heightened federal scrutiny are threatening to shut off the river of cash that has made the University of Phoenix the nation's largest private university and by far the biggest recipient of federal student aid funds -- $1.8 billion in 2004-2005.

With 300,000 students on campuses in 39 states, the heavily-promoted school was a darling of Wall Street for years. But its stock price has tumbled amid revelations about its low graduation rate -- 16 percent, among the nation's lowest -- and concerns that its largely parttime faculty is delivering less than a first-rate education.

"I attended University of Phoenix for five classes. I have found that they literally give A's away," said Karen of Sutter, California. Other students complained of mediocre instructors, technical problems accessing online courses and disputes over financial aid.

The University of Phoenix student body consists mostly of parttime students who hold down fulltime jobs and are hoping to advance their occupational fortunes with a bachelor's or graduate degree. It offers a heavy schedule of evening and weekend classes, as well as online courses that can be taken largely at the student's convenience. Its "campuses" are mostly located in office buildings near major employment centers, making it easy for students to swing by class on their way home from work.

But former students and the school's own staff and faculty complain that the relentless quest for profits has hurt the quality of the education that students receive, the New York Times reported in a front-page story today.

"This company does not deliver what it advertises, sets up policies that make it more difficult for working adults to resolve disputes, and seems only concerned with exploiting students to access the tax dollars for which they qualify as veterans," said Peter of Dillon, Colorado, in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Peter, who edits a local publication, said he enrolled in a Master's Degree program at Phoenix and had intended to write an article about the school's convenience and consumer-friendly nature. But instead, "I got taken in by their false claim that they care about helping working adults," he said.

As doubts about the school grow, corporations that once funded their employees' education at Phoenix are starting to have second thoughts, among them Intel Corp., which the Times said has removed Phoenix from its list of schools eligible for tuition reimbursement.

An Intel manager told the Times that the company was concerned that Phoenix, while accredited by a regional accrediting association, has not achieved the more prestigious national accredition that is expected of major universities. The head of one such association told the Times that Phoenix had never applied and said the school's chances of approval would be low, partly because of the high turnover among its faculty.

About 95 percent of the school's instructors are parttime, compared to 47 percent among all universities, the Times said.

The school's new president, William Pepicello, defended the school and said its plummeting stock price and an exodus of top officials were signs that Phoenix was "reinventing" itself.

But a growing number of students past and present say there is simply not much of substance to work with.

Typical is a 2003 complaint from Heather of Kansas City, Kansas: "I enrolled thinking UOP would be a great fit for my lifestyle. After enrolling I started my first class. This was a waste of time. The 'teacher' was awful. ... I wanted my degree very badly so I decided to give the school one more chance. My second class was just as bad. The teacher was better, but the problem is I learned nothing. My book was never used and I still got an A."

 

 

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Critics Trash FDA's OTC Approval of Orlistat

Weight-Loss Drug Implicated in Pre-Cancerous Lesions of the Colon

Public Citizen's Dr. Sidney Wolfe called the Food and Drug Administration's action "the height of recklessness" and said "shows a profound lack of concern ...


Federal approval of an over-the-counter version of orlistat weight-loss capsules drew rave press notices this week despite critics who say the drug causes pre-cancerous lesions of the colon.

Public Citizen's Dr. Sidney Wolfe called the Food and Drug Administration's action "the height of recklessness" and said "shows a profound lack of concern for the public's health."

"At a time when colon cancer is a leading cause of death and disease in the United States, the Food and Drug This marks the first time, to my knowledge, that the FDA has approved a drug for over-the-counter use despite knowing in advance that the drug causes either cancer or pre-cancerous lesions," Wolfe said.

"This decision raises very serious questions about the competence of former National Cancer Institute Director Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach in allowing the approval of a drug that may well increase the incidence of colon cancer in this country."

ConsumerAffairs.com's health advisor, Henry Fishman, M.D., also counseled caution.

"Alli can help you shed a few pounds, if you cut back on calories and exercise regularly. It is not a magic bullet by itself," Fishman said. "It can cause digestive problems and is not for everyone, especially if you have a chronic health problem. So, talk to your doctor before taking it."

Orlistat was initially approved in 1999 as a prescription drug to treat obesity, and remains a prescription drug for obesity at a higher dose than the OTC version.

OTC orlistat will be manufactured by GlaxoSmithKine under the name "Alli" and is for use in adults ages 18 years and older along with a reduced-calorie, low-fat diet, and exercise program.

Wolfe noted that the prescription version of the drug has long noted on its label that the cancer risk is not accompanied by any documented benefit, with the statement that: "The long-term effects of orlistat on morbidity or mortality associated with obesity have not been established."

In opposing the over-the-counter approval a year ago, Wolfe said that "the switch of orlistat to OTC status would be a serious, dangerous mistake in light of its marginal benefits, frequent co-existence of other diseases, common, bothersome [gastrointestinal] adverse reactions, significant inhibition of absorption of fat soluble vitamins [A, D, K and E], and problematic use in the millions of people using the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin)" (the latter because of orlistat-induced Vitamin K deficiency).

The FDA was hardly effusive in its announcement.

"OTC orlistat, along with diet and exercise, may aid overweight adults who seek to lose excess weight to improve their health," said Dr. Douglas Throckmorton, Deputy Director for FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Orlistat decreases the intestinal absorption of fat. Because of the possible loss of certain nutrients, it is recommended that people using orlistat should also take a multivitamin at bedtime, the FDA said.

The most common side effect of the product is a change in bowel habits, which may include loose stools. Eating a low fat diet will reduce the likelihood of this side effect. Also, people who have had an organ transplant should not take OTC orlistat because of possible drug interactions.

In addition, anyone taking blood thinning medicines or being treated for diabetes or thyroid disease should consult a physician before using orlistat.

Wolfe predicted the drug would be a "loser."

"We strongly urge people not to use this potentially dangerous drug, and we predict that, like the rapidly declining sales of the prescription version, the over-the-counter version will turn out to be a loser after enough people have a bad experience with it," he said.

"The connection of ACF with carcinogenesis is so well-recognized that the appearance of ACF in rats is used by many groups to test the potential carcinogenicity of chemicals," Wolfe said. "For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses an ACF assay in its tests of possible carcinogens. In April 2006, after opposing the OTC switch, we petitioned the FDA to ban the prescription version of orlistat, Xenical, because of the two studies documenting its ability to cause ACF."

He said there are no human studies of long enough duration or follow-up to make any acceptable statement allaying concerns about human cancer from orlistat.



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FTC Findings Undercut Industry Claims that Identity Theft Is Declining

FTC Findings Undercut Industry Claims that Identity Theft Is Declining...


The financial services industry, hoping to befuddle the new Congress, has been busily laying down a smokescreen claiming that identity theft is on the wane.

 

But the Federal Trade Commission's latest compilation of consumer complaints and a survey by the National Crime Prevention Council should do much to clear the air.

The FTC's complaint list was dominated by -- guess what? -- identity theft and fraud issues for the seventh year in a row. Identity theft complaints to the FTC totaled nearly 250,000, a whopping 36 percent of the total number of complaints the agency received in 2006.


Identity theft was also the #1 consumer complaint in the Land of Lincoln last year, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said last month. For the first time ever, identity theft topped the list of consumer complaints in the state, far exceeding the other categories.

The FTC reported that credit card fraud was the most pervasive form of identity theft at 25 percent, followed by utilities/phone fraud (16 percent), bank fraud (16 percent), and employment fraud (14 percent).

The total identity fraud losses reported to the FTC topped $1.1 billion, with the median money individual loss placed at $500.

Meanwhile, a Harris Interactive survey commissioned by the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) found that identity theft and credit card fraud top the list of crimes about which adult Americans are extremely concerned.

Identity theft outranks concern over such crimes as credit card fraud, burglary, and robbery, according to the survey of 813 adults.

Say What?

The FTC complaint findings serve as a counterpoint to industry claims that identity theft is somehow less of a threat these days.

A study recently released by Javelin Research claimed that identity theft instances declined by 11.5 percent between 2005 and 2006, with 2006 losses declining to $49.5 billion. The Javelin study was funded by Visa, Wells Fargo, and check-printing company CheckFree.

A study conducted by the industry-funded Identity Theft Assistance Center (ITAC) claimed that two in five identity theft victims knew the thief personally -- usually a friend or family member. The Javelin study also made similar claims.

The Javelin study has been taking a lot of hits from privacy advocates who note that, even if one accepts the two in five figure, this would still mean that three out of five identity theft victims had no inkling who the thief was.

Critics also said the survey ignored instances of "synthetic identity theft."

Synthetic identity theft occurs when thieves use pieces of data from different victims to create new identities, such as one person's name and another person's Social Security number, rather than stealing someone's information whole cloth and using it for fraud.

Synthetic identity fraud is much harder to detect, as banks and credit agencies will often simply create "subfiles" for the new accounts, and the original information holders never know about the new accounts until bill collectors come looking for them.

On his blog, Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) shared communications between the FTC and Wall Street Journal reporter Robin Sidel, using the Freedom of Information Act, in which the FTC criticized Javelin's findings as "misleading."

FTC official Claudia Bourne Farrell said that, "Since most surveyed -- 74 percent -- could not identify the person who stole their identity and half the 26 percent who could identify the thief either didn't personallyknow the thief or said it was someone other than a friend or relative, it would be misleading to suggest that the 'culprit is likely a friend or relative.'"

PIRG's Ed Mierzwinski noted that the Javelin study pinpointed over eight million victims of identity theft in 2006 -- over thirty-two times more than the people who complained to the FTC.

As he put it, "for every consumer who takes the time to complain, there are often 10-20 or more others standing behind him or her with the same problem."

NCPC Survey

The NCPC survey found that people with high levels of concern about identity theft are no more knowledgeable about the issue than those who are less concerned (57 percent versus 56 percent of other respondents) about how to prevent it.

The survey, conducted in November 2006, also found that:

• Two-thirds of adult females (66 percent) see identity theft as a major problem, compared with 47 percent of adult males.

• People who feel increasingly vulnerable on the Internet are more likely than their counterparts to see identity theft as a major problem (80 percent of those who feel more vulnerable than a year ago compared with just about half of those who are less afraid or feel unchanged about Internet vulnerability.

• Fourteen percent of respondents report that they have at sometime in their lives been victims of identity theft -- which represents over 40 million adult Americans.

• Twenty-four percent of respondents knew someone who has been an ID theft victim.

• Those who know ID theft victims are significantly more likely to be most concerned about that crime -- 31 percent versus 24 percent of all other adults.

• People could name a variety of preventive actions that might prove helpful: shredding (destroying) sensitive personal documents, avoiding use of Social Security numbers, taking care not to give out personal information on the phone (including credit card and Social Security numbers), avoiding giving out computer or other passwords, and refusing to give out personal information via the Web, among others.

• The black community appears to be disproportionately victimized by ID theft: 31 percent report being victims compared with 14 percent of the population overall, and 45 percent know family members or close friends who are victims, compared with 25 percent of the general population.

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Identity Theft Tops FTC Complaints for 2006

Identity Theft Tops FTC Complaints for 2006...


For the seventh year in a row, identity theft tops the Federal Trade Commission's complaint list, accounting for 36 percent of the 674,354 complaints received between January 1 and December 31, 2006.

Distant runners-up include shop-at-home/catalog sales; prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries; Internet services and computer complaints; and Internet auction fraud.

"Consumers' help in stopping unlawful operations is critical," said Deborah Platt Majoras, Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. "By filing a complaint with the FTC, consumers are making information available to more than 1,600 law enforcement agencies that have access to our secure database."

"It's as easy as a click or a call," she said. "The FTC has an online complaint form at FTC.gov, or consumers can reach us at 1-877-FTC-HELP."

RankTop Categories Complaints %
1Identity Theft 246,03536%
2Shop-at-Home/Catalog Sales 46,995 7%
3Prizes/Sweepstakes and Lotteries45,587 7%
4Internet Services and Computer Complaints41,243 6%
5Internet Auctions32,832 5%
6Foreign Money Offers20,411 3%
7Advance-Fee Loans and Credit Protection/Repair10,857 2%
8Magazines and Buyers Clubs8,924 1%
9Telephone Services8,1651%
10Health Care7,4671%
11Business Opportunities and Work-at-Home Plans7,4601%
12Travel, Vacations, and Timeshare6,7121%
13Office Supplies and Services5,7231%
14Grants: Scholarships/Educational & Non-Educational5,3101%
15Employment Agencies/Job Counselors/Overseas Work4,4851%
16Investments3,6301%
  Other Coded Complaints12,3992%

Other findings from the report include:

• Consumers reported fraud losses totaling more than $1.1 billion; the median monetary loss was $500. Eighty-five percent of the consumers reporting fraud also reported an amount lost.

• The percentage of fraud complaints with wire transfer as the reported payment method continues to increase. Twenty-three percent of the consumers reported wire transfer as the payment method, an increase of eight percentage points from calendar year 2005.

• Credit card fraud (25 percent) was the most common form of reported identity theft, followed by phone or utilities fraud (16 percent), bank fraud (16 percent), and employment fraud (14 percent).

More Scam Alerts ...

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Priestly Misdeeds Rock Congregations

Money and Trust Lost as Priests Lead Double Lives

Dropping a contribution in a collection plate or sending a check to a church isn't normally cause for concern, even among the most careful consumers....


Dropping a contribution in a collection plate or sending a check to a church isn't normally cause for concern, even among the most careful consumers.

But just because the person in the pulpit wears priestly vestments and urges congregants to give til it hurts doesn't mean that all is as it should be, as Catholic congregations in Louisiana and Virginia have learned recently.

A Louisiana seminarian from Uganda allegedly skipped town with thousands of dollars of church funds after wooing at least one local woman with tales that he was a cardiologist. And a Virginia priest allegedly led a double life for 14 years, supporting a wife and three children in suburban style while purporting to live in priestly celibacy in a humble rectory.

Odd Man Out

In Louisiana, Thibodaux police are investigating the case of a Catholic seminarian who apparently lived a secret double life, fleeced parishioners of at least $12,000, then disappeared to his native Africa.

Until his disappearance in December, Jude Nanyumba, 28, had seemed a model candidate for ordination, according to the Rev. Wilmer Todd, who supervised Nanyumba's final internship at St. Genevieve Parish in Thibodaux, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.

"Before September, I would've said he was one of the best I've ever had, and I've had six or seven," Todd said. He said the seminarian visited the sick, ministered to high school students and delivered occasional homilies from the pulpit.

But then one day in September, a young woman from a nearby town dropped by St. Genevieve for Mass and was astonished to see Nanyumba dressed in his priestly vestments, reading the Gospel.

She was surprised, she said, because she had met the same man in a bar. He had told her he was a cardiologist and she had taken him home to meet her parents.

Alarmed, she told Rev. Todd who went through Nanyumba's personel effects and found a letter from a woman in Africa who considered herself to be Nanyumba's wife. Todd had a talk with Nanyumba, who vanished a short time later, just months shy of being ordained.

But before leaving town, Nanyumba raised nearly $6,000 in donations from St. Genevieve parishoners and another $6,000 or so from parishoners at a church in Metairie, where he had served earlier.

Church leaders say they suspect Nanyumba had raised even more money off the books but admit they don't know for sure.

Nor is anyone quite certain where Nanyumba is. He left Thibodaux Dec. 16 and hasn't been heard from since. Seminary officials notified Archbishop James Odongo of the Archdiocese of Tororo in Uganda of Nanyumba's disappearance, said the Rev. William Maestri, the Archdiocese of New Orleans' spokesman.

Nanyumba's student visa was canceled, which, if he has left, bars him from re-entry to the United States and Maestri said his priestly studies have been ended by Archbishop Odongo.

Meanwhile, Rev. Todd said he is hearing reports that Nanyumba is calling his personal network of families in Thibodaux and Metairie seeking more money.

"God will deal with Jude," said Todd in a report to his parishoners.

A Double Life

In central Virginia's rural Louisa County, parishoners were enamored of the Rev. Rodney L. Rodis, a dynamic priest who had breathed new life into two small Catholic parishes over the last 14 years.

The parishes were divided and attendance was at an all-time low when Rodis arrived. But the charismatic native of the Philippines built the church rolls to nearly 360 families and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for capital improvements, parishioners told The Washington Post.

But Rodis, 50, looks less saintly these days. He has been charged with embezzling an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 from the parish.

Even more shocking to many is the revelation that, for the past 14 years, Rodis has been living with a woman identified in court records as his wife and their three children an hour away in Spotsylvania County, where his neighbors believed he was in the import-export business.

Diocese of Richmond Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo has barred Rodis from representing the diocese or celebrating Mass. Diocese officials have also said Rodis could eventually be defrocked, but it would be up to the Vatican to decide whether to remove him from the priesthood permanently.

Rodis was arraigned in Louisa County circuit Court recently to answer the embezzlement charges. He did not enter a plea and was freed on $10,000 bond.

For years, parishioners looked to Rodis for marriage counseling, baptisms and confession, assuming he lived in the modest St. Jude rectory. In fact, authorities say, Rodis lived with his family in a split-level suburban brick house near Fredericksburg, about an hour away.

The family's home was adorned with mini pagodas, an SUV and other cars filled the driveway. Rodis' wife and his three daughters were active in Girl Scouts and other activities.

Rodis retired last May for what he said were health reasons and suspicions began to mount a short time later.

One parishoner said he had responded to Rodis' plea and donated $1,000 for tsunami relief. When he later asked the church secretary for a receipt, there was no evidence the donation had been deposited in the church account, the Post said.

Virginia State Police launched a full-scale investigation a short time later. Sgt. Kevin Barrick said calls from parishioners and donors continue to come in and the total amount of diverted funds is expected to reach well beyond the more than $600,000 the diocese has estimated was stolen.

Insurance may cover some of the losses but damage to the priesthood's reputation is more difficult to measure.

"He deserves an Academy Award for acting because at the same time he was stealing money from us, he was telling us to 'be good,' and that hurt," parishoner Phil Scoggin said. "The fact that he took money from people who really needed it is unconscionable."

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Children Die of Lead Poisoning; Safety Agency Powerless to Act

White House Needs to Get the Lead Out So CPSC Can Do the Same

Children Die of Lead Poisoning; Safety Agency Powerless to Act...


Four-year-old Jarnell Brown died from lead poisoning after he swallowed a bracelet designed for children a year ago and there's not a thing the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) can do about it.

The CPSC has a plan to eliminate further child deaths and other complications caused by the dangerous levels of lead often found in cheap costume and children's jewelry.

Unfortunately, the CPSC does not have enough commissioners to enact this and other lifesaving legislation and the White House is unresponsive to the problem.

The CPSC normally consists of three commissioners. But on July 15, 2006, one of the commissioners, Bush-appointed CPSC Chairman Hal Stratton, resigned abruptly to take a high-paying job with a Washington law firm, leaving the agency in the lurch.

As ConsumerAffairs.com reported yesterday, the CPSC, by law, cannot perform any legislative action because it currently only has two of three commissioners. This legal limbo will continue until President Bush assigns a new candidate and the Senate approves the nominee.

Michael Lemov was a lead staff person responsible to Congress for developing the Consumer Product Safety Act in 1972. That act created and governs the CPSC. Lemov said he is "deeply disappointed" by the commission's lack of a quorum.

"At the current state of affairs it is very disappointing," said Lemov, who is now counsel to a D.C. law firm. "It suggests a lack of priority for the Administration. I do not see how a committee without a quorum can accurately oversee the more than 15,000 products on the market."

But as proposed new safety rules pile up on the commission's legislative agenda, the White House has taken no action to fill the vacancy.

White House staffers have not returned three telephone calls from ConsumerAffairs.com seeking comment on the matter. Representatives of the Senate Consumer Affairs Subcommittee said they know of no action the White House has taken to fill the vacancy.

Lead Poisoning

One of the top legislative reforms going unpassed is the regulation of lead in children's jewelry. There have been more than a dozen lead-related recalls of children's jewelry in the past two years and the two standing commissioners were close to making legislation to lower the percentage of lead that can be found in the jewelry before their powers were stripped Jan. 15.

Children, especially those younger than six, who ingest lead can suffer a handful of serious health conditions according to the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization that fights for consumer health.

The many health risks include:

• Death
• Loss of IQ
• Behavioral problems
• Stunted growth
• Impaired hearing
• Kidney damage
• Mental retardation
• Stomach pain

To make matters worse, there is no way to remove lead once it enters an individual's blood stream.

Leanne Leclair of Markham, Ont. said her 5-year-old son is still suffering from hyperactivity and behavioral problems six months after he swallowed a toy that contained lead.

"The blood in his bowel movement stopped after he passed the toy," Leclair said. "But he is still suffering from behavioral problems. ... I wish they could do something about this. I wish they could change the law."

Other Deadly Hazards

The Commission has also been forced to stall efforts on making upholstered furniture more fire-resistant.

For more than a decade, the CPSC has struggled to find ways to improve upholstered furniture, which tends to light up faster than kindling.

Upholstered furniture, which can be easily ignited by cigarettes or candles, caused an annual average of 9,000 fires, 520 deaths, 1,040 injuries and $242 million dollars in property damage for the years 1999 to 2002, according to a CPSC memo.

A recent CPSC report documents the safety advantages of a fire resistant foam that can be applied to upholstered furniture. But until the commission has a quorum, any action to force manufacturers to update safety standards will have to be set aside.

The two commissioners were also homing in on regulation to redesign portable generators to reduce carbon monoxide poisoning.

Consumers reported 228 portable generator-caused carbon monoxide deaths to the CPSC from 1990-2003 according to a CPSC study.

The commissioners rushed out a warning label for the generators in the final days before they lost their powers. But another proposed rule to mandate a redesign of all portable generators will have to be tabled.

The commissioners were also on their way to implementing safety standards for all-terrain vehicles (ATV).

A recent CPSC report estimates there were 767 deaths and 136,700 injuries related to ATVs in 2003.

CPSC officials met with representatives from ATV manufacturers in October 2006 to discuss new safety standards for the vehicles. But again, any regulation for the industry, which is unlikely to regulate itself, will have to wait until the Senate swears in a new commissioner.

CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson, assured ConsumerAffairs.com that much of the commission's business is continuing unhampered. However, without a third commissioner it could be months or years before these four rule-making actions, and others, can start saving consumers' lives.

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Nissan Altima Tops Consumer Reports' Ratings for Family Sedans

Volkswagen Passat, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry Also Top Picks

Nissan Altima Tops Consumer Reports' Ratings for Family Sedans...

The redesigned Nissan Altima accelerated to the top of Consumer Reports'ratings of family sedans in tests for the March 2007 issue. Rated "Excellent" overall the Altima now ranks alongside CR's top-rated Volkswagen Passat, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry.

The Altima 3.5SE virtually ties with the Honda Accord V6, Consumer Reports' top-rated family sedan. Among four-cylinder sedans tested by CR, the Altima 2.5S ranks just behind the Volkswagen Passat 2.0T.

"The redesigned Altima is a well-rounded family sedan in both 2.5S and 3.5SE trim levels," said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center in East Haddam, Connecticut. "Both the 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 3.5-liter V6 engines deliver very good performance while getting good fuel economy."

The magazine tested basic and uplevel versions of five family sedans -- the Altima, Kia Optima, Saturn Aura, Pontiac G6, and Chrysler Sebring. Prices ranged from $20,785 for the base model G6 to $31,995 for the Altima 3.5SE.

With a "Very Good" overall score, the V6-powered Optima ranked midpack, roughly on a par with the Hyundai Sonata and Mercury Milan Premier; the four-cylinder Optima also achieved a "Very Good" overall score and ranked alongside the four-cylinder Accord and Camry.

The upscale Saturn Aura XR also scored "Very Good" overall, as did the less expensive Aura XE. Both trim lines of the Pontiac G6 and Chrysler Sebring finished at the bottom of the pack with "Good" overall scores.

Among the vehicles in this test group, Consumer Reports recommends only the Pontiac G6 GT.

CR does not yet have reliability data on the Altima, Optima, Aura, and Sebring. It recommends only those vehicles that have performed well in its tests, have at least average predicted reliability based on CR's Annual Car Reliability Survey of its own subscribers, and performed at least adequately if crash-tested or included in a government rollover test.

Both trim lines of the Altima have responsive and secure handling. The sportier 3.5 SE ($31,995 Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price as tested) handles more sharply, but rides stiffly. Interior fit and finish has improved from the previous generation, but the rear seat is less roomy.

The smooth and punchy 270-hp, 3.5-liter V6 in the SE delivers excellent acceleration and returns 23 mpg overall in CR's tests-comparable to some four-cylinder engines-but requires premium fuel. The four-cylinder gets 25 mpg on regular fuel. The continuously variable transmission used in both trim lines of the Altima is excellent overall. Braking performance is very good.

The redesigned Optima is a pleasant sedan that is available at a low price. Both its four-and six-cylinder engines deliver competitive fuel economy and performance. Controls are easy to use, the interior is nicely detailed, and the rear seat is the most comfortable in this group. The Optima EX ($23,900 MSRP as tested) is powered by a 2.7-liter, 185-hp V6 that is smooth, quiet, and delivers very good acceleration. Both trim lines of the Optima use a smooth and responsive five-speed automatic. Braking performance is very good.

The Aura shares underpinnings with the Pontiac G6 and is more capable than its corporate cousin, but it still doesn't rank with the better vehicles in this group. Both trim lines of the Aura have responsive handling, but the XE has an absorbent ride while the more expensive XR has a stiff ride. Fit and finish is marred by some details. The Aura XR ($26,820 MSRP as tested) is equipped with a 252-hp, 3.6-liter V6 that delivers excellent acceleration. Still, it was easy to provoke torque steer and wheelspin. The six-speed transmission in the XR is both smooth and responsive. Braking performance is generally very good.

The G6 is a mediocre car at best, particularly with the noisy four-cylinder engine. The V6 is quieter and performs better. Both suffer from sloppy handling at their limits, difficult cabin access, an uncomfortable rear seat, and subpar interior materials. The G6 GT ($25,989 MSRP as tested) is powered by a 224-hp, 3.5-liter V6 and four-speed automatic transmission that delivers very good acceleration and smooth shifts, though not on par with segment leaders. Overall braking performance is unimpressive.

The Sebring brings some improvements over the previous version, but still it's a big disappointment for a redesigned model. Both four- and six-cylinder powerplants are noisy and unrefined, ride and handling are mediocre, and the interior is not well finished. The Sebring Touring ($24,465 MSRP as tested) is powered by a 189-hp, 2.7-liter V6 engine that delivers very good acceleration. Both trim lines of the Sebring come with a four-speed automatic transmission that is smooth but not very responsive. Braking distances are just average.

 

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Washington State Sues "Net Send" Internet Advertisers

Advertisers are accused of sending anonymous "Net Send" messages to consumers

The advertisers are accused of sending anonymous "Net Send" messages to consumers' computers that simulate Windows operating system warnings. ...

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna has sued three California-based Internet affiliate advertisers.

The advertisers are accused of sending anonymous "Net Send" messages to consumers' computers that simulate Windows operating system warnings, transmitting bundled software that changes Internet browser home pages, and marketing registry-cleaner programs through the use of deceptive free scans.

Hundreds of Washington consumers have purchased products from the defendants, who are accused of violating the state's Computer Spyware Act and Consumer Protection Act.

"Internet advertisers and product sellers can no longer treat the Web as the Wild West where anything goes," McKenna said. "Washington state is leading the battle against online fraud and we will continue to prosecute businesses and individuals who seek to deceive or harm consumers."

The lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court is Washington's fifth case under the state's Computer Spyware Act passed in 2005. The suit brings charges against three companies and their officers:

• Secure Links Networks LLC and CEO Manual Corona, Jr., of Brea;
• NJC Softwares LCC and company officer Rudy O. Corella, of Lake Elsinore; and
• FixWinReg and president HoanVinh V. Nguyenphuoc, of Redondo Beach.

Washington's suit lays out seven causes of action that include sending Net Send messages that:

• Feign the discovery of critical errors on a computer;
• Prevent a computer user from declining the installation of software;
• Modify computer settings;
• Intentionally misrepresent the necessity of new software for security purposes; and
• Mislead consumers into believing that registry-cleaner software has performed indicated repairs.

The state is seeking injunctive provisions. If found liable, each defendant could be fined up to $100,000 per violation of the Computer Spyware Act and $2,000 per violation under the Consumer Protection Act. They may also be required to pay compensation to affected consumers.

"Affiliate marketing is proliferating on the Internet because it's a cheap form of advertising for product sellers," said Assistant Attorney General Katherine Tassi, of the Computer Protection High-Tech Unit. "Companies pay a percentage of the sale price to affiliates who successfully drive consumers to their sites to purchase products or view information."

McKenna said, "Affiliate marketers are able to remain anonymous in many cases, but they're not out of reach of the Attorney General's Office. Neither are product sellers; they can be held liable for the illegal advertising of their affiliates."

The defendants are alleged to have worked together to market each other's products. Corona owns programs called Registry Sweeper Pro and Registry Rinse. Corella owns Registry Doc, Registry Cleaner 32 and Registry Cleaner Pro.

FixWinReg marketed and sold several of the products.

Net Send

Products were advertised by sending Net Send messages to users' computers. Net Send is a Windows operating system command traditionally used by network administrators to broadcast pop-up messages to computer users about service outages.

These messages resembled system alerts with alarmist wording such as "WARNING! WINDOWS REQUIRES IMMEDIATE ATTENTION. Windows has detected CRITICAL SYSTEM ERRORS. ... FAILURE TO REPAIR AN INVALID OR CORRUPT SYSTEM REGISTRY MAY LEAD TO DATA LOSS OR SYSTEM FAILURE!"

Another version labeled as an "Important Security Bulletin" included an error string and a recommendation that the user immediately scan the system registry.

The messages instructed computer users to download software to fix the errors. By visiting the URL addresses included in the messages, users were redirected to other Web sites owned by the defendants where they were encouraged to download a free trial version of the software that will scan their computer for registry errors.

"The state's investigation showed that the free scan always identified 'critical errors,' but in many cases these so-called errors were harmless files," Tassi said. "In order to remove the errors, consumers were told they must purchase the full version of the software priced at $29.95 and up. The full version of Registry Doc claimed to remove some files that actually remained on the user's computer."

She said users were also given an option to decline installation of an unrelated search toolbar called Twikibar that is bundled with the trial version of Registry Doc.

"We found that even when a user didn't want to install Twikibar, the program installed itself and automatically changed the computer's Internet browser home page," Tassi said. "There's no obvious way to uninstall the toolbar. This is a violation of Washington's Computer Spyware Act, which prohibits transmitting software without a user's consent and modifying computer settings."

McKenna said that the prevalence of online fraud means that consumers, too, must play a role in protecting themselves. They should only download software from reputable businesses and regularly update their anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. When downloading software, consumers should read the small print on customer agreements and legal disclaimers to ensure they only receive and pay for products and services they want.

 

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Scams Target Students Seeking Financial Aid

College-Bound Students Need to Do Their Homework

Scams Target Students Seeking Financial Aid...

     
Getting ready for college? Be careful. There are many scam artists offering "insider information" on scholarships and financial aid that is essentially worthless.

 

The New York State Consumer Protection Board (CPB) warns that there are private companies charging high fees for services that are generally free to the public.

There are also high-interest loans and scholarship scams being marketed to students and parents as their search for college aid kicks into high gear this month.

"You don't have to spend money in order to find money for college," said Mindy Bockstein, the CPB's acting chairperson and executive director.

"Government agencies, as well as colleges and high schools, are offering many free services this weekend, including orientation programs at high schools and colleges across the state.

"The bottom line is: parents and students need to do their homework," she said.

On Saturday, Feb. 10, many State University of New York (SUNY) campuses will have financial-aid experts available to answer questions about how to apply for financial aid from the state and federal governments.

The following day, high schools and colleges across the country will host financial-aid programs in a nationwide program called "College Goal Sunday."

The key to obtaining grants and low-interest loans from the government is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA.

Although FAFSA is free, parents are lured into paying between $50 and nearly $2,000 to a company that will complete the application on their behalf.

Several websites use names very similar to the FAFSA name in order to lure them away from the government website -- www.fafsa.ed.gov where the FAFSA application is available at no charge.

"Ironically, these private services require consumers to fill out an application that is nearly identical to the FAFSA application," said Bockstein.

Students and parents are also invited to "free" seminars where college consulting firms pressure them into buying services they may not need or have trouble accessing.

Consumers have complained that some companies promise to offer "consulting services" to help a student choose a college. Some parents said these consulting services were not as personalized and specific as the companies described in their sales presentations.

Some of these consulting packages can cost $2,000 or more and consumers have found it difficult to get refunds from some of these companies.

Bockstein also noted that parents should be aware and concerned that these private services may be selling information about their customers. This can result in even more companies contacting them with offers, including some financial aid and government-grant scams.

"Scam artists often lure victims with phony guarantees that they can obtain a government grant or a college scholarship," said the acting Chairperson. "Such 'guarantees' are a tip-off that this is a scam."

Other warning signs include:

• demands that you pay an up-front fee;
• requests for credit card numbers or bank account information;
• claims that a company can offer "exclusive" information;
• promises to give you cash if you first pay a registration fee;
• offers for a lower interest rate if you pay a larger fee in advance; and,
• claims that the company will convert a loan into a grant -- but only if you first pay a fee.

More information on college financing and how to avoid financial-aid scams is available from the U.S. Department of Education.

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Consumer Safety Agency In Limbo

White House Fails to Fill Vacancy; Remaining Commissioners Stripped of their Power

Consumer Safety Agency In Limbo...


The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is currently handcuffed in many of its operations because it does not have enough commissioners to vote on civil penalties and all regulatory activities.

The CPSC normally consists of three commissioners. But on July 15, 2006, one of the commissioners, CPSC Chairman Hal Stratton, resigned abruptly, leaving a vacancy that only President Bush can fill.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Act, which created and governs the CPSC, the two remaining commissioners can continue their regulatory activities for six months after a vacancy has been created. After those six months, their powers are stripped until the President has filled the vacancy and as of Jan. 15, 2007, that has been the case.

"The commission is continuing all of its other activities, such as product recall announcements," Scott Wolfson, CPSC spokesman said. "But meanwhile the commission has a body of two that is not able to vote on civil penalties and all regulatory activities."

An example of a civil penalty would include the $750,000 settlement the CPSC imposed on The Hoover Company on Jan. 5, 2007, for selling vacuums that posed a fire hazard.

Regulatory activities include such actions as the creation of new warning labels for all portable electric generators that warn of the dangers of the unit's exhaust. The commissioners voted for the label on Jan. 4, 2007.

The warning labels and Hoover penalty are examples of a handful of actions the two standing commissioners voted unanimously on before their powers dissolved Jan. 15.

It is unclear how long the CPSC will be in this legal limbo. President George Bush has not announced a replacement and when he does, that individual must be approved by the Senate.

The White House did not return two calls from ConsumerAffairs.com, seeking comment on this story.

Michael Baroody, the National Association of Manufacturers' top lobbyist, is said to be President Bush's choice to not only fill the vacancy, but run the CPSC, according to The Wall Street Journal.

This state of limbo has occurred three times before, according to Wolfson.

The last time was in April 2005 where the CPSC lost quorum for a month before Bush appointed the current acting commissioner, Nancy Nord. Then in 2001-2002, again with George Bush, the CPSC did not have a legal quorum for three months before Bush filled the vacancy with Stratton. The other time was 11 months in 1989 with George Bush Sr.

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GAO Cites Medical Privacy Issues

Electronic Data-Sharing Puts Patients at Risk

GAO Cites Medical Privacy Issues...


In another blow to the federal government's crusade for a nationwide infrastructure for sharing of medical records, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said that efforts to coordinate privacy at the federal level don't pass muster.

In a report, the GAO criticized the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for issuing contracts to develop initiatives for health information technology (IT) records-sharing without setting up adequate privacy guidelines.

Although HHS won credit for championing the initiative to share health care records across different systems, the GAO found that it was still in the "early phases of identifying solutions ... and has therefore not yet defined an approach for integrating its various efforts or for fully addressing key privacy principles."

"Until HHS defines an integration approach and milestones for completing these steps, its overall approach for ensuring the privacy and protection of personal health information exchanged throughout a nationwide network will remain unclear," the report said.

HHS disagreed with some of GAO's conclusions, specifically the need for benchmarks to measure progress.

C

Assistant Secretary Vincent Ventimiglia said that "tightly scripted milestones" would impede HHS' ability to conduct dialogue with stakeholders involved in the initiative.

Among the GAO's findings:

• HHS needs to craft adequate security and policy measures for the interaction of contracting companies and subcontractors that handle medical and personal records. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), "covered entities" are governed by strict disclosure rules about what information they can share and gather, but business partners they share information with may not be.

• 70 percent of Americans are concerned about the potential for a data breach in any system that shared such a large amount of health and personal data.

• HHS' chief "privacy and security solutions contractor," which was not identified in the GAO report, was tasked to provide a report detailing privacy and security guidelines for health organizations in all 50 states, as well as addressing compatibility issues and offering solutions.

The Right To Medical Privacy

Concern over the safety of medical records and personal information has been on the rise in recent years, due in part to the continuing cases of data breaches and thefts of equipment that contain personal data.

Recent cases such as the Emory Healthcare laptop theft continue to illustrate the dangers of sharing information without adequate privacy controls.

The GAO published another report last year that found 40 percent of health insurance contractors and state Medicare/Medicaid agencies had violated customers' privacy in some fashion, and that many health technology vendors outsourced their works to still other vendors, increasing the risk of privacy violations.

Also on the rise is medical identity theft, in which fraudsters steal patients' financial information and use it to charge expensive treatments for themselves, leaving the victims holding the bag.

Lack of laws protecting medical information can mean that medical identity theft victims have thousands of dollars' worth of debt in their name for procedures they never authorized or went through with.

The wildly varying state laws regarding data privacy and breach notification have prompted calls for Congress to pass laws that mandate federal standards for data breaches, but critics have been unimpressed with the efforts so far, saying that they do too much for business and too little for the consumer.



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Cruise Ships to Benefit from Panama Canal Expansion

Cruise ships too wide to squeeze through the Panama Canal could be making the trip within a decade

Cruise Ships to Benefit from Panama Canal Expansion...

Cruise ships too wide to squeeze through the Panama Canal could be making the trip within a decade. That's when new locks will be built on both ends as part of a $5.25 billion expansion.

The expansion, which will double the size of the 93-year-old civil engineering marvel, will be covered by toll hikes that will raise $6 billion by the year 2025.

Ships using the Central American bypass produced $1.4 billion in revenue last year, according to the Panama Canal Authority.

Current locks measure only 108 feet wide -- too narrow for many megaships, tankers, and container vessels. The overhaul would feature new, wider locks on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides.

In addition to paying for itself, the Panama Canal expansion will provide more than 40,000 new construction jobs. It currently has 8,000 employees.

The largest modernization project in the history of the canal was approved late last year in a vote of Panamanians. The new construction will not only raise money for the government of Panama but help reduce poverty in the Panama City area, where some roads remain unpaved.

Target date for completion of the new locks is 2015.

Constructed in two stages, first by the French from 1881-88 and later by the Americans from 1904-14, the Panama Canal stretches 51 miles from the Atlantic in the east to the Pacific in the west.

Since the ships of the early 20th century have long left active service, the canal requires expansion. At present, it cannot accommodate ships carrying more than 65,000 tons of cargo, though ships five times that large are in active service.

Although the 51-mile crossing takes an average of nine hours, more than 12,000 ships per year make the trip -- bypassing the far more difficult route around the tip of South America.

Administered by the government of Panama since 1999, the Panama Canal is still one of the busiest waterways in the world.

 



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Do Older People Need More Sleep?

The Healthy Geezer

Do Older People Need More Sleep?...


Q. Do older people need more sleep?

A: Seniors need about the same amount of sleep as younger adults -- seven to nine hours a night.

Unfortunately, many older adults don't get the sleep they need, because they often have more trouble falling asleep. A study of adults over 65 found that 13 percent of men and 36 percent of women take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep.

Also, older people often sleep less deeply and wake up more often throughout the night, which may be why they may nap more often during the daytime.

Nighttime sleep schedules may change with age too. Many older adults tend to get sleepier earlier in the evening and awaken earlier in the morning.

Many people believe that poor sleep is a normal part of aging, but it is not. Sleep patterns change as we age, but disturbed sleep and waking up tired every day are not part of normal aging. If you are having trouble sleeping, see your doctor or a sleep specialist.

Here are some pointers to help you get better sleep:

• Go to sleep and wake up at the same time, even on weekends. Sticking to a regular bedtime and wake time schedule helps keep you in sync with your body's circadian clock, a 24-hour internal rhythm affected by sunlight.

• Try not to nap too much during the day -- you might be less sleepy at night.

• Try to exercise at regular times each day. Exercising regularly improves the quality of your nighttime sleep and helps you sleep more soundly. Try to finish your workout at least three hours before bedtime.

• Try to get some natural light in the afternoon each day.

• Be careful about what you eat. Don't drink beverages with caffeine late in the day. Caffeine is a stimulant and can keep you awake. Also, if you like a snack before bed, a warm beverage and a few crackers may help.

• Don't drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes to help you sleep. Even small amounts of alcohol can make it harder to stay asleep. Smoking is dangerous for many reasons, including the hazard of falling asleep with a lit cigarette. Also, the nicotine in cigarettes is a stimulant.

• Create a safe and comfortable place to sleep. Make sure there are locks on all doors and smoke alarms on each floor. A lamp that's easy to turn on and a phone by your bed may be helpful. The room should be dark, well ventilated, and as quiet as possible.

• Develop a bedtime routine. Do the same things each night to tell your body that it's time to wind down. Some people watch the evening news, read a book, or soak in a warm bath.

• Use your bedroom only for sleeping. After turning off the light, give yourself about 15 minutes to fall asleep. If you are still awake and not drowsy, get out of bed. When you get sleepy, go back to bed.

• Try not to worry about your sleep. Some people find that playing mental games is helpful. For example, tell yourself it's five minutes before you have to get up and you're just trying to get a few extra winks.

If you are so tired during the day that you cannot function normally and if this lasts for more than 2 to 3 weeks, you should see your family doctor or a sleep disorders specialist.

All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti

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2003 Ford Trucks Now Spitting Spark Plugs

Bad motor manners spread to 2003 models

2003 Ford Trucks Now Spitting Spark Plugs...

Here comes more bad news for consumers looking for a good deal on a used Ford pick up or SUV, not to mention more bad news for beleaguered Ford truck owners and the financially troubled automaker.

The spark plug spitting that has plagued 1997 to 2002 Ford trucks is now showing up in 2003 model Expeditions and Explorers and pickups, an analysis of consumer complaints filed with ConsumerAffairs.com reveals.

Thousand of Ford truck owners have paid thousands to dollars to repair an aluminum engine head that has ejected a spark plug. The Ford Motor Co. has refused to accept any responsibility for the blown spark plugs that can cost as much as $6,000 to repair.

The automaker has routinely denied Ford truck engines spit spark plugs despite thousands of pages of consumer complaints to the contrary. When Ford acknowledges there is a problem, the automaker blames spark plug and refuses to most warranty protection.

Service managers and others associated with Ford suggested that if there Ford truck engines were spitting spark plugs, that problem was rectified following the 2002 model year. The auto industry rumor was backed up by the absence of any consumer reports detailing problems with a blown spark plug in a Ford truck after the 2002 models.

The most recent reports from, owners of 2003 Ford trucks point to an on going design flaw in the Ford truck engines that would indicate the vehicles face a risky future.

Doug in Pickerington, Ohio wrote ConsumerAffairs.com that his 2003 Ford F250 "had a spark plug blow out of the cylinder on two different occasions and Ford will do nothing about it."

Auther in Stoneham, Massachusetts experienced a spit spark plug in a 2003 Lincoln Aviator with 81,000 miles. Another reader suffered a blown plug with a 2003 Ford Explorer. Up until now, neither the Aviator nor the Explorer engines had failed because of a blown plug.

Here are more examples:

A 2003 Ford Expedition in Goodhue, Minnesota, blew a spark plug out of its 5.4. liter Triton engine with 75,000 miles. The owner "hauled it to the dealership to have it helicoiled."

Mike in Corpis Cristi bought his Ford Expedition in February of 2003. The truck has 61,000 miles on it and Mike has replaced three plugs.

"I have become familiar with what the process is when it comes to know when these plugs are about to pop. You feel a rougher idle (you can really feel it when you're at a stop) and then about two to three weeks later the plug pops," he wrote.

"I'm going to be in the process of hiring an attorney to try and get Ford to back their product even if it has flaws that they are aware but still insist on making money off consumers," Mike told us.

Debbie owns a 2003 Ford Expedition with 73,000 miles on it.

"I was driving January 17, 2007 when I heard a loud banging noise coming from behind the stereo. I pulled over but the noise continued. I proceeded to drive home about 3 miles. I noticed that I lost about 50 percent of my power," she said.

She called the service manager at her Ford dealer in Saugus, California. "He guessed it was a blown spark plug in the cylinder and he also mentioned this would cost $3,500 to $4,000 to fix," she said.

Gabe of Lake Dallas, Texas, had 58,000 miles on his 2003 F150 FX4 when the spark plug blew. "It began shaking and losing power upon accelerating. The check engine light came on so I took it to the dealership and they said it was the number 3 spark plug."

His dealer either did not know the cause of the spark plug problem or did not tell Gabe the truth.

"After asking the Ford dealership what is causing this problem their response was that it was an electrical problem and of course none of this is covered by the warranty."

Needless to say, Gabe is one Texan who no longer thinks his Ford Truck was built Ford tough.

"It is sad that my $25000 truck is breaking down with less than 60,000 on the odometer," Gabe told Consumer Affairs.Com.

 

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AARP Launches Annuity Program for its Members

Fixed Annuity Ensures Retirees Don't Outlive their Assets

AARP and New York Life say the program will offer a more secure stream of retirement income, providing guaranteed income for life to AARP members between t...

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