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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..

    GM Buys Back 800 Problem Cars and Trucks

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

    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.

    GM Buys Back 800 Problem Cars and Trucks...
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      Critics Trash FDA's OTC Approval of Orlistat

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


      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.



      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 ...
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      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.

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

      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."

      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....
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      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 ...

      Identity Theft Tops FTC Complaints for 2006...
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      Washington State Sues "Net Send" Internet Advertisers

      Advertisers are accused of sending anonymous "Net Send" messages to consumers

      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.

      The advertisers are accused of sending anonymous "Net Send" messages to consumers' computers that simulate Windows operating system warnings. ...
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      Nissan Altima Tops Consumer Reports' Ratings for Family Sedans

      Volkswagen Passat, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry Also Top Picks

      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.

      Nissan Altima Tops Consumer Reports' Ratings for Family Sedans...
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      Scams Target Students Seeking Financial Aid

      College-Bound Students Need to Do Their Homework


      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.

      Scams Target Students Seeking Financial Aid...
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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


      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.

      Children Die of Lead Poisoning; Safety Agency Powerless to Act...
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      No-Smoking Laws Now Cover Half the U.S.

      Arizona, Nevada and Ohio's new laws mark the halfway point

      Thanks to passage of smokefree workplace legislation in Arizona, Nevada, and Ohio, more than half of all Americans will soon be protected by law from passive tobacco smoke.

      According to a California-based group called Americans for Nonsmokers Rights (ANR), that will mark the first time more than half the country is covered.

      In addition to local residents, travelers will be prime beneficiaries -- especially since Las Vegas and Phoenix are already top vacation destinations, baseball spring training is expanding westward, and the 2008 Super Bowl is already scheduled for Phoenix next February.

      According to ANR executive director Cynthia Hallett, the year just passed was a historic one for nonsmoking travelers. She noted that Westin and Marriott hotels went smokefree, along with the cities of Washington and Chicago, and more than 100 new local smokefree laws were passed.

      In addition, the Surgeon General of the United States issued a landmark ruling that branded as unsafe all levels of exposure to passive tobacco smoke. That statement included the caveat that ventilation systems are not viable alternatives to 100 per cent protection of nonsmokers.

      Despite that report, however, gambling interests in Atlantic City and Las Vegas remain opposed to casino smoking bans and 30 states started the new year without statewide smoking protections in place.

      Americans who travel overseas may soon find skies friendly even at ground level: the European Union is considering smokefree workplace legislation that would cover all member countries.

      Smoking has already been banned or limited in several foreign countries, including France, Ireland, and Israel.



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      Consumer Safety Agency In Limbo

      White House Fails to Fill Vacancy; Remaining Commissioners Stripped of their Power


      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.

      Consumer Safety Agency In Limbo...
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      GAO Cites Medical Privacy Issues

      Electronic Data-Sharing Puts Patients at Risk


      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.

      GAO Cites Medical Privacy Issues...
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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 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.



      Cruise Ships to Benefit from Panama Canal Expansion...
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      Do Older People Need More Sleep?

      The Healthy Geezer


      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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