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    Virus Spreading Through Emailed Screensaver


    Computer security specialists are warning of a widespread email spam campaign that poses as a screensaver, but is really designed to install a Trojan horses and rootkits on infected Windows PCs.

    The emails, which computer users are finding in inboxes worldwide, claim that the recipient has been sent a screensaver by a friend and tells the user to open the attachment, called bsaver.zip.

    The emails used in the malicious spam campaign contain phrasing such as "Good morning/evening, man! Realy cool screensaver in your attachment!" and use a variety of subject lines including:

    Life is beautiful
    Life will be better
    Good summer help you

    Clicking on the file contained inside the ZIP attachment infects users with the Troj/Agent-FZB Trojan horse, which drops two rootkits to try and hide from security software.

    "If you receive an unsolicited email with an encouragement to run the 'cool screensaver' attached then alarm bells should instantly be ringing in your head," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos Labs. "Hackers are using a mixture of social engineering and stealth-mode rootkits to try and take advantage of Windows users who forget to think before they click."

    Rootkits are software frequently used by third parties - usually a hacker - to hide other software and processes using advanced stealth techniques. Malicious code, such as spyware and keyloggers, can be invisibly cloaked from detection by conventional security products or the operating system making them hard to detect, said Cluley.

    Hackers use rootkit technology to maintain access to a compromised computer without the user's knowledge, so it's important to be properly defended from these sort of threats.

    Sophos Anti-Rootkit identifies known and unknown rootkits, and is available to download - free of charge - for non-Sophos users, as well as existing customers.

    Computer security specialists are warning of a widespread email spam campaign that poses as a screensaver, designed to install a Trojan horses and rootkits...

    Pet Thefts Feed Dogfighting Craze

    Stolen Pets Used as "Bait," Sold for Medical Research


    It's not how we think of America in 2007: starving pit bulls tearing one another apart, "bait" dogs torn apart in minutes, "losers" beaten, shot or electrocuted, all as spectators leer, cheer and place their bets.

    But, as the indictment of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick makes clear, such blood sport is common throughout the U.S., no longer confined to rural backwaters but increasingly popular in major cities and suburbs.

    And, perhaps most frightening to pet owners, the vicious blood sport feeds off of stolen household pets used as "bait."

    Although Vick pleaded not guilty Thursday in Richmond, Va., to federal charges that he sponsored and participated in a dogfighting operation, revelations since his arrest make it clear that dogfighting is riding a new wave of popularity.

    Some blame hip-hop and rap artists, including Jay-Z and DMX, for glamorizing dogfighting while others note that the vicious sport seems most prevalent in areas with NFL and NBA franchises.

    Vick is certainly not the only professional sports figure linked to dogfighting. Former NFL running back LeShon Johnson was arrested twice for his involvement in a dogfighting ring.

    Former Portland Trail Blazers forward Qyntel Woods was suspended in 2004 after he was suspected of hosting fights. He pleaded guilty to first-degree animal abuse.

    In an interview the the Baltimore Sun, John Goodwin of the Humane Society said dogfighting is an increasingly common outlet for the "type A" competitive personality of top athletes.

    "I think there is a pervasive subculture of dogfighting in the NFL and probably in the NBA as well," Goodwin said. "And it needs to be rooted out," the Sun reported.

    North Carolina Connection

    Dogfighting has traditionally been identified with the rural South. While that may be changing, the South still has more than its share of cases.

    The national pet abuse Web site www.pet-abuse.com tracks animal cruelty nationwide. It identifies North Carolina as a hotbed of dogfighting, with seven cases in 2007, more than Georgia, Texas, Ohio and other large states.

    When the Humane Society of the United States rounded up three years of dogfighting magazines and cataloged their kennel and breeder advertisements, the North Carolina folder was the thickest, the Greensboro News-Record reported.

    Besides rap music and professional sports, dogfighting also often involves drugs, guns and gambling, presenting law enforcement with a volatile mix: dangerous people and dangerous dogs.

    "It's a violent sport, and there's money to be made," said Robert Reder, North Carolina state director of the Humane Society. "So you have greed and violence all packaged together."

    Baltimore Gets Wired

    In Baltimore, where the dognapping of twin Pugs created a firestorm of public outrage, city police say they will crack down on dogfighting, noting its connection to drug dealing and illegal gambling.

    Police admit dogfighting has been popular for years in Baltimore, with fights often held in rowhouse basements but in a city overwhelmed by crime, it has gone largely unprosecuted.

    Police say that's about to change. Police and city health officials have formed a multi-agency dogfighting task force. Detectives will investigate dogfight rings and collect evidence against organizers, trainers, breeders and spectators.

    Most cities and states allow prosecution of dogfight spectators, but those laws are seldom invoked.

    Bait Dogs

    Perhaps most frightening to animal lovers is the dognapping of small dogs to be used as "bait" in dogfights. Bait dogs are also used in private training sessions, as fighting dogs are trained to kill, the U.S. Humane Society says.

    Most of the bait dogs are stolen, often from backyards.

    Heres a recent case investigated by Humane Society officials:

    An Elvira, Iowa, family reported the disappearance of their two Labrador retrievers. When the dogs didnt return, the family made flyers and talked to their neighbors.

    Thats when they discovered five other Labs had been reported missing in recent weeks. A nearby boat dock owner along the Mississippi River later found three dead dogs washed up on his property: a Pit Bull, a Labrador retriever, and a smaller dog. The Pit Bull and the Lab had wounds consistent with dogfighting.

    The Humane Society also says pets are stolen by bunchers, who sell the animals to research facilities. These bunchers also acquire the animals through lost, stray and free to good home" ads.

    Only an estimated ten percent of the dogs and cats stolen each year in the United States are ever found, according to the U.S. Humane Society.

    What To Do

    How can you protect your dogs and cats from being stolen?

    The U.S. Humane Society recommends you:

    • Keep your pet indoors, especially when you are not at home;

    • Identify your pet with a collar and tag, microchip or tattoo. Sherrie T. of Baltimore says her kidnapped Pugs have microchips. They also had tags on when they were stolen, but Richies was missing when he was found;

    • Be aware of strangers in the neighborhood. Report anything unusual to the police. Sherrie says her neighbors noticed someone hanging around her background -- and calling her Pugs -- shortly before they were stolen;

    • Padlock your gates and make sure people can't access your pets over the fence. Sherrie had a four-foot fence, but says the gates were not locked;

    • Keep your pet on a leash whenever you go outside;

    • Support federal legislation to ensure that all cats and dogs used by research facilities are legally obtained.

    The U.S. Humane Society also warns pet owners should never:

    • Let their pets roam free in the neighborhood;

    • Have their pets be visible from the street;

    • Leave their pets unattended at any time.

    If your pet is stolen, authorities say you should not over-describe your pet in a lost ad -- let the caller describe the animal to you. They also say you should be wary of offering a huge reward in the ad. Only give a reward when the pet is returned.

    Some scam artists prey on pet owners whove lost their dogs or cats. They respond to lost pet ads, claiming to have the missing animal. They arrange a meeting with the owner, but when they arrive, they claim the animal is at a second location. They then offer to retrieve the pet, but only if the owner gives them the reward money in advance.

    Pet owners whove fallen for this scheme have lost their money and hopes of finding their missing pet.



    If your pet is stolen, authorities say you should not over-describe your pet in a lost ad -- let the caller describe the animal to you. Only give a reward ...

    Bush "Slowly Killing" Consumer Safety Agency

    Sole Democratic Commissioner Complains of Budget, Staff Cuts


    Thomas Moore

    Despite intense public concern about product and food safety, the Bush Administration is slowly killing the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), commissioner Thomas Moore complains.

    Two years of significant staffing cuts and other resource reductions have limited the Commissions ability to carry out its mission and have left the agency at a point where it is now doing only what is absolutely necessary for it to do and little else, Moore wrote in a letter outlining his hopes for revitalizing the agency.

    Bush's most recent budget proposal increases the agency's funds by $880,000. But with standard inflation and rent increases, the CPSC was still forced to fire 19 employees, reducing its staff to 401 total.

    The chronically underfunded agency still uses a 1950s missile-tracking site as its testing lab.

    Staff morale is very low, Moore wrote. Employees see the agency being gradually but continually downsized; managers cannot fill vacant positions and employees either take on additional jobs as their colleagues leave or see projects shelved for lack of funding.

    Many employees at the agency are looking for other jobs because they have no confidence the agency will continue to exist (or will exist in any meaningful form) for many more years," Moore continued. The clear signal from the administration is that consumer protection is just not that important.

    No Quorum

    Besides the problems enumerated by Moore, Bush has left the agency powerless to invoke mandatory recalls, create new legislation and levy fines because he has not nominated a third commissioner to fill a long-standing vacancy.

    By law, the agency requires at least three commissioners to function and its previous chair, Hal Stratton, bolted 13 months ago for a lobbying position. Eight months later, Bush nominated Michael Baroody, a top lobbying executive with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which represents manufacturers' interests.

    Responding to criticism in the press and around Capitol Hill, Baroody withdrew his name the day before a Senate hearing to vote on his nomination. Two months later the commission is still down one commissioner.

    The agency's two remaining commissioners have shared the CPSC's woes with members of Congress over the past few months and most Democrats appear sympathetic while Republicans have remained largely noncommittal.

    Several Democrats have proposed legislation that would strengthen the agency through budget increases, more rigid policies and at least temporary authorization to operate with two commissioners.

    Reauthorization

    Democrats have also discussed "reauthorizing" the agency a lengthy legislative process that rewrites the agency's composition, powers and authority.

    Moore, a Clinton appointee and former assistant law school dean, is clearly hoping that takes place.

    For the first time since I came to the Commission, over twelve years ago, I have the sense that real and important changes can be made to our statutes to give us new authorities and clearer direction in achieving our mission, he wrote.

    Members of Congress asked Moore and the agency's Chair, Nancy Nord, to submit proposals for reathorization. Because Nord is a Republican and Moore is a Democrat, it's likely the Democratic-controlled Congress will pay more heed to Moore's call for a stronger agency with stricter regulatory powers.

    Moore's proposal could yield two particularly controversial changes.

    Public Records

    The first is a request that the agency's proceedings with manufacturers be available to the public. This could potentially include publishing unverified, uncensored consumer complaints. That practice would be similar to what ConsumerAffairs.com does now; it would also open a trove of complaints which consumers have filed with the agency over the years.

    The complaints that taxpayers file are now kept secret from the public, a concession granted to manufacturers by a friendly Congress years ago. Although Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests can pry loose complaints about a specific company, there is no easy way for the public to read the information other consumers have submitted to a publicly-funded agency.

    Private Web sites like ConsumerAffairs.com have filled a vital need by publishing consumers' complaints but they do so under constant harrassment and legal challenges. Many such sites have come and gone in the last decade and industry lobbyists and dirty trick artists are hard at work undermining those that remain in business.

    Accountability

    The second controversial change would hold companies more accountable for their defective products.

    Currently, companies are shielded from most personal injury lawsuits as long as they follow the procedure for voluntarily recalling their unsafe product. But changes which will likely be added later in the legislative process could hold companies liable regardless, a source close to the proceedings said.

    It's expected that manufacturers will vehemently oppose these changes along with the rest of Moore's proposals. Baroody's National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) is expected to lead the charge against the changes, although NAM spokesman Hank Cox said the organization would not have a comment until Monday.

    This could present the interesting scenario of Baroody -- President Bush's failed choice to head the agency charged with protecting consumers -- leading a campaign to weaken or eliminate proposals that would strengthen the agency's ability to do so.

    Bush 'Slowly Killing' Consumer Safety Agency, Commissioner Complains...

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      The 411 on Free 411

      Information Doesn't Have to be Expensive

      When was the last time you needed a phone number and had no choice but to call 411? Nancy Allen knows that feeling.

      "As a home health care nurse I am constantly on the road," says Nancy. "It's easy to get the number from directory assistance using my cell phone, but I hate paying $1.50 for one little call. My bill is high enough already."

      Nancy certainly isn't alone. The U.S. directory assistance business is a multi-billion dollar industry funded by one little call at a time. A 411 call from your cell phone can cost up to $1.79 per call and the same call from a land-line can cost up to $3.50.

      Whats a frugal consumer to do?

      You can continue to throw out your money, or you can build your bank account by checking out two free directory assistance services available today.

      Google Voice Local Search

      Although it is famous for their search engine, Google also offers a free directory assistance service called Google Voice Local Search. Available from any phone, you can dial 1-800-GOOG-411 (1-800-466-4411) and Google will give you the listing of any business in the U.S.

      You can search by a specific business name or a category name. Once the business is found Google can connect you at no charge. In addition, if youre calling from a wireless phone, Google can send you the details by text message.

      Google Voice Local Search is currently in a testing phase, so there might be kinks in the system. Furthermore, the system does not currently provide residential listings, unlike another free service called 1-800-FREE-411.

      1-800-FREE-411

      1-800-FREE-411 from Jingle Networks, Inc., allows you to access the same directory assistance database used by traditional phone companies, except without the annoying charge.

      There are no limits on how many directory assistance calls you can make, and it doesnt matter if the call is from a land-line or cell phone.

      Based on the same model used by numerous websites, 1-800-FREE-411 gives you the information you need -- at no cost -- because the service is supported by advertisers.

      And now a word from our sponsors

      Lets say you need the number of a specific insurance company. You dial 1-800-FREE-411 (1-800-373-3411) and are greeted with an automated system that will ask for the city and state. Next youre asked if the number belongs to a residence, business, or government agency.

      Heres where 1-800-FREE-411 differs from traditional 411.

      Instead of automatically hearing your requested number, youll first hear an advertisement, typically 10 to 12 seconds in length. In our example, you might hear an ad for a different insurance company. Youre then provided the number you requested and also given the option to be connected to the company that was advertised.

      Notice that although you can be connected to the company that was advertised you wont be connected to the number you requested. Make sure and have pen and paper on hand to write down your number.

      If requesting a residential number, the advertisement could be anything from an upcoming TV program to a vacation package from a travel agency.

      Additionally, keep in mind that based on your wireless plan, you could still use up your minutes even though the call is toll free.

      You can continue to throw out your money, or you can build your bank account by checking out two free directory assistance services available today....

      Depression Not a Normal Part of Aging

      The Healthy Geezer


      Q. Is depression just a normal part of aging?

      A. There are a lot of problems to face as you get older. There are losses of all kinds that can get you down. And feeling blue for a while is a normal part of living at any age.

      But unrelenting depression is not normal. If you feel this way, you should seek medical attention. Most people get better if they treat their depression.

      There are many causes of depression. Some of them are the natural consequences of being older: a health crisis or death, the loss of physical or mental capacities, or being a stressed-out caregiver.

      Seniors usually rebound from a period of sadness. However, if you are suffering from clinical depression and dont get help, your symptoms might last months, or even years.

      The following are common signs of depression. If you have several of these, and they last for more than two weeks, get treatment:

      • anxiety,
      • fatigue,
      • loss of interest or pleasure,
      • sleep problems,
      • eating too much or too little,
      • abnormal crying,
      • aches that cant be treated successfully,
      • diminished concentration or memory,
      • irritability,
      • thoughts of death or suicide, and
      • feelings of despair, guilt and being worthless.

      Depression is a serious illness. It can lead to suicide. Dont waste time; find help.

      Start with your family doctor. The doctor should check to see if your depression could be caused by a health problem (such as hypothyroidism or vitamin B12 deficiency) or a medicine you are taking.

      After a complete exam, your doctor may suggest you talk to a social worker, mental health counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Doctors specially trained to treat depression in older people are called geriatric psychiatrists.

      Support groups can provide new coping skills or social support if you are dealing with a major life change. A doctor might suggest that you go to a local senior center, volunteer service, or nutrition program. Several kinds of talk therapies work well.

      Antidepressant drugs can help. These medications can improve your mood, sleep, appetite, and concentration.

      Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is an option. It may be recommended when medicines cant be tolerated or when a quick response is needed.

      Prevention

      What can be done to lower the risk of depression?

      Nurture your family ties and friendships; they are your lifelines. Hobbies keep your mind and body active. Exercise is a mood-elevator. Eat a balanced diet. Get outdoors to absorb sunlight and breathe fresh air. Take naps.

      Remember, with treatment, most people will find positive thoughts gradually replacing negative thoughts. And you can help this process by catching yourself when you are dwelling on the negative and shifting gears to sunnier thoughts.

      All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti



      Depression Not a Normal Part of Aging...

      Lone Congressman Can't Kill Amtrak

      A congressman's bid to derail Amtrak has been squashed by his colleagues

      A congressman's bid to derail Amtrak has been squashed by his colleagues.

      The House of Representatives voted 328-94 against a move to end Amtraks federal subsidies.

      The move to strip Amtraks support was made by Rep. Jeff Blake, a Republican from Arizona, a state with limited service from the national passenger railroad.

      President Bush, a fellow Republican, has also been a vocal opponent of giving federal funding to Amtrak but is willing to provide federal funding for the airline industry.

      According to Rep. John Olver of (D-MA), Amtrak has saved $100 million by streamlining sleeping-car service and making cost-saving cuts in food service.

      Olver is the sponsor of a transportation appropriations bill that would meet Amtraks request for more than $1 billion in federal funding. Bush opposes the measure, which is expected to receive the support of the U.S. Senate.

      "Theres no passenger rail system in the world that runs without some operating subsidy," said Olver.

      Both houses of Congress have passed bills that would provide more at least $1.3 billion in operational subsidies but thats $500 million more than President Bush has stipulated for Amtrak in his budget.

      According to Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant, the system could keep operating if the congressional legislation, expected to pass sometime in September, evades a promised veto. But Bush, never a friend of Amtrak, says hell nix any bills that exceed his budget requests.

      The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), would target even more money for Amtrak: $3.3 billion for operating subsidies and $4.9 billion for capital improvements, plus $1.4 billion for upgrades of other urban rail systems.

      The grants would require states to supply an additional 20 per cent for each federal dollar.

      The Lott-Lautenberg measure would keep Amtrak afloat for four more years, through 2012, rather than the year-to-year funding it usually receives.

      Unless it gets funds soon, Amtrak will be forced to slash service even though ridership is rising. The rail network has reported 5.4 per cent more riders in 2007 than it had the year before but also said it is not taking in enough money to upgrade aging equipment, including bridges, tunnels, locomotives, and passenger cars.

      If forced to slash service, everything outside the busy northeast corridor (Boston-New York-Washington) could be in jeopardy. That would mean elimination of all passenger train service in the west, midwest, and south creating a much heavier demand on an airline industry that is already stretched to the breaking point.

      Amtrak predicts it will carry 25 million passengers in 2007, as opposed to 24.3 million last year. With better and more reliable engines, cars, and facilities, ridership could rise even more.

      Congress has not okayed a multi-year funding program for Amtrak since 2002, when the Republicans were in control. Now that the Democrats are in control of both houses, that could change although the possibility of a presidential veto could kill any legislation.

      The 2008 fiscal budget takes effect on Oct. 1, 2007.



      Lone Congressman Cant Kill Amtrak...

      Hip Protectors Dont Protect Elderly In Falls: Study

      Shock-absorbing hip pads don't do the job

      Elderly people worried about falling and breaking a hip will often wear shock absorbing hip pads. They should save their money, says a new study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

      We found that there was no benefit to the hip protector, said study author Dr. Douglas Kiel, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

      Contrary to the way they are promoted, currently available hip pads wont prevent hip fractures, he said.

      The threat of falling and fracturing a hip is a very real one for the elderly population. An estimated 340,000 Americans break a hip every year, with most of the injuries associated with a fall.

      The study authors say nursing home residents are the most vulnerable, with up to 50 percent falling each year.

      In the study, conducted in nursing homes nationwide, there was no statistically significant difference in the incidence of hip fracture between those wearing hip protectors and those who were not. In fact, the hip fracture rates were 5.3 percent for protected hips as opposed to 3.5 percent for unprotected hips.

      Kiel said there is a wide variety of hip protectors made for senior citizens, ranging in price from $30 to $175. Before buying them, he says, consumers should remember that most of them haven't been tested and haven't been proven effective.



      Hip Protectors Dont Protect Elderly In Falls: Study...

      MySpace Deletes More Sex Offenders

      Rupert Murdoch's Site Deletes 29,000 More Potential Predators

      Rupert Murdoch's MySpace.com says there were a lot more sex offenders lurking within its membership roles than it first reported.

      The site popular with teens but feared by parents says it has deleted 29,000 members it found to be convicted sex offenders.

      Initially, the company said it found only 7,000 members who had been convicted of sex crimes.

      MySpace is owned by Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns the New York Post, Fox Television and is currently attempting to get control of The Wall Street Journal.

      A number of state attorneys general first highlighted the issue, pressuring MySpace to take stronger measures to protect younger users from pedophiles.

      Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal first opened a probe of the Web site in 2006 after state police said that as many as seven teenage Connecticut girls had been sexually assaulted by men they met through MySpace.com. The girls said they were fondled or had sex with men who turned out to be older than they claimed.

      Police say one man traveled 1,000 miles to prey on one of the girls he found through the site.

      Other state investigations followed. In May, under pressure from state officials nationwide, MySpace used a database of 600,000 sex offenders to cull its membership ranks.

      There was no explanation for the discovery of additional sex offenders among MySpace members, or how there were missed in the first sweep. The company, however, tried to put a positive spin on this latest development.

      We're pleased that we've successfully identified and removed registered sex offenders from our site and hope that other social networking sites follow our lead, MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam said in a statement.

      MySpace said it used a national database of 600,000 registered felons, convicted of sex-related crimes, to identify sexual predators within its membership. Parents and law enforcement officials have raised concerns about teenagers being exposed to sexual predators on the site.

      MySpace.com faces lawsuits from several families who charge their daughters were sexually assaulted by MySpace members.

      MySpace is a treasure trove of potential victims for child predators, said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Sex offenders have no business being on this site, and we believe MySpace has a responsibility to get them off the site.

      "I tell parents every day that MySpace is a dangerous place for teenagers," said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

      100 Incidents

      In 2006 alone, the media reported almost 100 criminal incidents across the country involving adults who used MySpace to prey or attempt to prey on children.

      In North Carolina, a former sheriffs deputy was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2006 for molesting a 15-year-old Cary boy he met on MySpace. In 2006, the NC State Bureau of Investigation arrested a Boiling Spring Lakes police officer for raping a 14-year-old girl he lured through MySpace.

      Both North Carolina and Connecticut and a handful of other states are currently pushing legislation that would require social networking sites including MySpace to get parents permission before letting children join.

      Cooper is also pushing a measure that would make it a felony for convicted sex offenders to join social networking sites where children are members.

      Virginia and Kentucky already require convicted sex offenders to register their email addresses and instant messenger accounts with authorities.

      MySpace Deletes More Sex Offenders...

      Court OKs Rebate Lawsuit against Cingular/AT&T

      Firm Advertises Cash Rebate But Sends "Reward Card

      A lawsuit charging that Cingular (now AT&T) engages in false and misleading advertising when offering rebates on cell phones may proceed, a federal court has ruled.

      The suit, brought under Californias consumer protection laws, charges that the cell phone company promised to pay rebates to people who bought cell phones, and advertised discounted prices that reflected the promised rebate.

      But instead of getting a rebate check, purchasers received a VISA Reward card that can only be used under numerous restrictions and for a limited period of time.

      By the time consumers found out they were not getting a rebate check, it was too late to cancel Cingulars wireless service without paying an Early Termination Fee of $175, the suit alleges.

      In their intense marketing for cellular services, cell phone companies make price the paramount focus, said Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights Harvey Rosenfield, one of the lawyers in the case.

      Cingular told consumers that they would ultimately pay a discounted price, once the rebate was received. In some cases, consumers were led to believe the phone would be free -- that it would end up costing them nothing after the rebate.

      "But instead of getting money back, consumers get a VISA Reward card. Purchasers never got the promised discount. None of this was made clear to consumers. This deceitful practice hurts consumers and other cell phone companies that advertise honestly, he said.

      Cingular Asks Dismissal

      The case was filed in California state court on behalf of all affected consumers in June 2006, but Cingular transferred the case to federal court in San Francisco.

      In May, Cingular asked the federal court to dismiss the suit, arguing that consumers were not harmed or misled and that Californias consumer protection laws do not prevent the company from engaging in the practice. Last week, the court rejected Cingulars motion, allowing the case to proceed.

      The courts ruling found that "a reasonable consumer, upon seeing an advertisement that promises a rebate of a certain amount, would generally understand that advertisement to mean that the amount will be returned to the consumer in cash, check or its equivalent."

      The court said the numerous terms and conditions placed on the VISA cards raised legitimate doubts about whether the cards could be considered the equivalent of cash or a check.

      Ads Changed After Suit

      After the suit was filed, the company, now called AT&T after its merger with Cingular, modified some of its ads to state, in fine print, that the advertised price was after debit card. However, the companys web site still refers to a mail in rebate card. Consumer advocates contend the new language remains misleading.

      The lawsuit asks the court to order the company to stop the practice, and to provide refunds to consumers.

      Court OKs Rebate Lawsuit against Cingular/AT&T...

      Diet Soft Drinks Linked To Metabolic Syndrome


      Drinking one or more carbonated beverages a day even diet soft drinks can increase your risk of developing metabolic syndrome, according to new research.

      Metabolic syndrome, in turn, is a major risk factor for heart attack, stroke and diabetes.

      According to investigators working on the Framingham Heart Study, consuming one of more sodas per day increases the risk of metabolic syndrome by 45 percent. They say whether the soda is regular or sugar-free doesnt seem to matter.

      The investigators observed that compared to consumers who drank less than one can per day, subjects who drank one or more soft drinks daily had a:

      • 31 per cent greater risk of becoming obese
      • 30 per cent increased risk of adding on belly fat.
      • 25 per cent higher risk of developing high blood sugar.
      • 32 per cent higher risk of having low HDL (good cholesterol) levels.

      Metabolic syndrome is a dangerous condition because it is made up of a lot of bad things; excess fat, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and low HDL. Not surprisingly, researchers say having metabolic syndrome will double your odds of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

      Canadian health researcher Dr. David Jenkins, director of the Risk Factor Modification Center at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said the new research changes previous perceptions about acceptable ways to reduce calories.

      In the past, having a diet soda with a meal was seen as a good way to reduce overall calories. Now, he says, that has to be reconsidered.

      But exactly why drinking soda even diet soda increases the metabolic syndrome risk has yet to be answered.

      The researchers who completed the study of nearly 9,000 middle age people say they are unable to provide an answer. They suggest, however, that people who drink a lot of diet soda may be consuming lots of calories from other sources.



      Drinking one or more carbonated beverages a day even diet soft drinks can increase your risk of developing metabolic syndrome, according to new research....

      Honda Civic GX is the Greenest Car in U.S.

      The Meanest is a Diesel

      By Joe Benton
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      July 24, 2007
      A Honda Civic powered by natural gas is the greenest car in America and a Volkswagen diesel-powered Touareg is the meanest vehicle in the land, at least according to the 2007 Green Book which ranks vehicles according to their environmental friendliness.

      Consumers looking for green cars and trucks are turning to the Green Book, The Environmental Guide to Cars & Trucks published by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in growing numbers.

      The book helps consumers compare vehicles on the basis of a green score which is a measure that incorporates fuel consumption and air pollution, including both unhealthy tailpipe emissions and the emissions of gases that cause global warming.

      "Whether you are looking to buy a compact car, large car, pickup, minivan, or SUV, the Green Book takes the guesswork out of identifying which models are friendlier to the environment," said James Kliesch, a Research Associate at the council.

      The council each year names the "greenest" and "meanest" vehicles, along with environmental scorings of all model year cars and passenger trucks. This is the tenth year they have published the respected rankings.

      Claiming the prize as the greenest model year 2007 vehicle is Honda's natural gas-powered Civic GX.

      The Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid, stalwarts on the annual "Greenest Vehicles" list, claim spots two and three, while the Nissan Altima Hybrid and Toyota Yaris, market newcomers for model year 2007, round out the top five.

      Others in the list include conventional and hybrid-electric vehicles from Honda, Hyundai, Kia, and Toyota.

      Domestic automakers were shut out of the top-twelve list.

      "We've seen a lot of advertising this past year about efficient and eco-friendly vehicles being offered by domestic manufacturers. But when you look at the specs that matter, it's fair to say the imports have Detroit's number," said Kliesch.

      He blames the absence of domestic brands from the list on their wavering approach to fuel-efficient technologies.

      "Certain companies committed years ago to fuel-efficient technologies and held firm to those commitments. Today, those automakers have a clear competitive advantage in the world of green vehicles," Kliesch said.

      GreenerCars.com provides information to examine the eco-performance of any 2007 model.

      Mean & Dirty

      This year's "Meanest Vehicles for the Environment," a list traditionally dominated by large domestic pickups and SUVs, contains only four models from Detroit.

      European imports make up the remainder of the list.

      Much of the reason for that shift is the arrival of a number of new diesel models that meet some of the dirtiest tailpipe emissions standards allowable in the United States.

      Five diesels populate the year's twelve-worst list, including the year's most environmentally unfriendly model, the diesel-powered Volkswagen Touareg.

      Rounding out the "bottom five" are the Mercedes-Benz GL320 CDI, Lamborghini Murcielago, diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Bentley Arnage RL.

      Prominent gasoline models on the list include the Dodge Ram 2500 Mega Cab pickup, Ford F-250 pickup, and Lincoln Navigator SUV.

      "Given the arrival this year of ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, having five diesels show up on the Meanest Vehicles list is a letdown," said Therese Langer, Transportation Program Director at the council.

      "Fortunately, these same manufacturers have already announced plans to bring much cleaner diesels to the United States in 2008, using an entirely different emissions control strategy."

      While diesels are more efficient than gasoline-powered vehicles with similar performance, they produce higher levels of environmentally damaging nitrogen oxides and particulate matter and consequently require more sophisticated emissions control.

      Greener Choices

      The GreenerCars.com Web site also identifies a selection of top widely available models in each vehicle class.

      This "Greener Choices" list includes larger vehicles, such as the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV, GMC Sierra Classic C1500 pickup, and Toyota Sienna minivan. Passenger cars such as the Hyundai Sonata and Ford Focus Wagon also top their respective classes.

      As the list demonstrates, consumers can make greener choices,whether they need a sedan, minivan, pickup truck, or SUV.

      "We must boost fuel economy if we hope to replace oil with biofuels or any other energy source. The good news is that we can boost fuel economy with the technologies on our Greenest Vehicles list, easing our pain at the pump while revitalizing our auto industry and slowing global warming," said Bill Prindle, ACEEE's acting Executive Director.

      Honda Civic GX is the Greenest Car in U.S....

      Roof Crush Summit Highlights Safety Shortcomings

      Government Lapdogs Roll Over for Automakers

      David Garcia thought he was dead.

      He had just swerved to avoid a car that cut him off. The violent motion sent his Ford Escort rolling and tumbling off I-29 in Tallulah, La. in 1996. The roof caved in with surprising ease.

      His fiancee asked him if he was all right. His ability to respond assured him he was not dead but it didn't answer why he couldn't feel or move any part of his body.

      That night, with screws holding his skull in place, Garcia asked a doctor in the hospital if he would make a full recovery. The doctor's terse, professional response was, You will never walk again.

      Garcia, a quadriplegic, is one of the "lucky" 16,000 who merely suffer catastrophic injuries in vehicle rollovers annually; 10,000 who aren't so lucky die each year.

      David Garcia

      With someone else holding the microphone and turning pages, Garcia told his story to a crowd made up mostly of engineers at a Washington, D.C. summit on automobile roof crushes last week.

      The goal of the summit, according to its organizer, Paula Lawlor, was to get the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and members of Congress.

      Lawlor, a 54-year-old mother of seven, has been crusading for safer cars since at least 1998. She has helped accident victims and their families with the legal research that has helped them win millions of dollars in damage awards.

      Industry lobbyists and their government accomplices often attempt to tar the reputation of consumer advocates who help consumers find legal representation, as though ordinary citizens unable to afford lobbyists and public relations spinmeisters are not worthy of assistance.

      They have given Lawlor the same treatment.

      Her conference was well-attended by independent safety experts but representatives of Congress, NHTSA and the auto industry failed to show up, even though the event took place just a few blocks from NHTSA's headquarters and the Capitol. Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety were represented.

      The only presence from Capitol Hill was a staff member from the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over NHTSA.

      Nor was the press knocking down the doors. A search of Google News over the weekend found only one story about the conference -- a July 16 ConsumerAffairs.com story that said government and industry planned to shun the event.

      The contrast with industry-sponsored events was stunning. When GM or Ford brings one of its one-in-a-million plug-in hybrid prototypes to Capitol Hill, the vehicle is swallowed up in the bipartisan crush of lawmakers. When the show is over, the gee-whiz prototype disappears and is never seen again.

      And so it was not surprising that no one from Congress or NHTSA came to Lawlor's event. Injured and dead consumers don't have lobbyists and don't make large campaign contributions.

      Lawlor said Roger Saul, NHTSA's director of crashworthiness, asked her prior to the conference: What do you have to say that we don't already know?

      She later discovered that he had forbidden any NHTSA staffer to attend, she said.

      Saul could not be reached for comment, but NHTSA spokesman Ray Tyson said, There's nothing to discuss until the process goes along much farther.

      The process Tyson referred to is a proposed rulemaking that will require automakers to increase roof strength. NHTSA began work on the proposed rules 10 years and about 100,000 deaths ago. Although Congress set an April 2009 deadline for the proposals, Tyson said there is still no timetable and many auto safety experts say the stricter rules still will not keep drivers safe.

      Body by Fisher

      Currently, automakers must abide by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 216, which became law in 1973.

      As is so often the case, the standard was devised not by zealous government regulators but by industry.

      Fisher Body, a subsidiary of General Motors, created the standard. It was supposed to be a 4-year solution, according to a 1971 NHTSA press release. The year 1977 came and passed without any improved testing methods and the nation has relied on a mostly-unchanged FMVSS 216 for the past 35 years.

      FMVSS 216 requires that vehicles be able to withstand pressure from a metal plate that applies at least 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle onto the roof without caving more than five inches into the cabin.

      But engineers say many vehicles that pass this static test would not pass a dynamic test -- a more demanding test that subjects the vehicle to more realistic scenarios, such as dropping it from a few inches above the ground or forcing it to do many uncontrollable flips at high speed.

      Documents reveal that Fisher Body likely created FMVSS 216 because many of General Motors' vehicles would not pass anything else.

      Many General Motors vehicles were not passing the drop test standards of the 1960s. So Fisher Body developed the static crusher, coined Goldfinger. In a proposal by Fisher Body's Ed Klove, he outlined Goldfinger's advantages: More impressive numbers are obtained three inches crush for 6,000 lb. load. (A six-inch vehicle drop height allowing eight inches crush is not impressive).

      Before NHTSA accepted the tests, Fisher Body increased the size of its crushing plates more evenly dispersing the crushing power and decreasing the plates' angle of attack, thereby lessening Goldfinger's crushing ability.

      On the Road

      Today, many American and Japanese models barely meet the less than stringent requirements of FMVSS 216.

      In fact, there may be Ford Explorers on the road that fail FMVSS 216, said Stephen Forrest, a former General Motors engineer and now engineer for the Safety Analysis & Forensics Engineering consumer safety group.

      He analyzed Ford's testing statistics and found the 1998-2001 Ford Explorer models barely passed FMVSS 216. Comparing the results of those models to 1995-1997 models and applying the standard eight percent variation, Forrest determined that there are almost certainly Ford Explorers in daily use today that do not meet NHTSA's standards.

      It's so close, with normal variation it's almost a certainty there are some vehicles that fail 216, Forrest said.

      Although the two Explorer models are similar in size and weight, Forrest said he believes the 1998-2001 models are less safe because there is six inches less of reinforcement in the door frame -- a critical juncture during rollovers.

      Accidents involving the rollover-prone Explorer sparked the massive Firestone-Bridgestone tire recall in 2000.

      Findings Ignored

      But when he took his statistics to NHTSA, they ignored his petition because of financial and industry considerations, Forrest said.

      NHTSA's proposed new FMVSS 216 requirements would require Ford and other automakers to create vehicles that can withstand 2.5 times their weight, versus the 1.5 standard now in effect.

      But engineers believe those new standards still won't do enough because they rely on a static test rather than a dynamic one.

      The 216 test is flawed in so many ways, Forrest said. It doesn't take into account occupancy and it doesn't take into account survival space. Five inches in an Econoline Van and (in) a Ford Escort is not the same thing.

      Both Forrest and Nick Perrone, an engineer who has analyzed and taught vehicular safety for 35 years, said that to be safe, a vehicle should survive at least 3.5 times its weight in a static test and a dynamic rollover test.

      It's criminal negligence that auto manufacturers do not perform dynamic tests, Perrone said.

      Additionally, if a vehicle is designed to withstand rollovers, it will also survive side impacts better, he said.

      The two deadliest things that can happen are side impact and rollover, Perrone said. They account for about two-thirds of all fatalities.

      But automakers say dynamic tests yield unusable results.

      The problem with the dynamic test is that it's unpredictable, Chrysler representative Michael Palese said. It's a very violent, very unpredictable event.

      But critics say real-world accidents are violent and unpredictable as well -- and that's why cars should pass violent dynamic tests along with more controllable drop tests and static crush tests.

      Making vehicles strong enough to pass stricter static and dynamic tests would cost $50 to $100 per vehicle, Perrone said.

      Incestuous Relationship

      Many industry insiders blame NHTSA's snail's pace on the incestuous relationship it has with U.S. automakers.

      For example:

      • Sue Bailey became NHTSA's administrator in 2000, just as the Firestone tire recall became front page news. A year later, Ford hired Bailey as a consultant on the recall even as Ford and Firestone battled over liability.

      • Barry Felrice worked for NHTSA for 20 years, climbing to the associate administrator position, before accepting a job as Chrysler's chief of regulatory affairs in its Washington, D.C. office.

      • Jerry Curry headed NHTSA during the first Bush administration. He then went on to pursue a career consulting two of the larger automobile lobbying firms.

      Outside of NHTSA, in the Executive Branch, Andrew Card has dipped deeply into the automotive industry's wallet. Between his terms as Chief of Staff for Bush Sr. and Jr., Card was the auto industry's head lobbyist as president of the American Automobile Manufacturing Association.

      Perrone, who has worked with many NHTSA employees, said the transition from the government to the lucrative auto and lobbying industries is common at all levels.

      It's like a revolving door, he said.

      Forrest said that although NHTSA's relationship with the auto industry is peculiar, he doesn't believe the agency is purposely trying to harm consumers for the sake of the industry.

      I don't know if they actually defend automakers as much as they capitulate to them. ... Their hands are (so) tied by economic and political pressures that they can't get much of anything done."

      NHTSA and automakers say they work together to protect consumers and that although new regulations are being proposed, the current ones are still effective.

      The current standard is quite stringent, NHTSA's Tyson said.

      NHTSA data reveal that of all the passengers in rollovers, about 2.5 percent die while 6.5 percent suffer serious injuries.

      Tyson argued that many of those injuries and deaths are not the result of the roof collapsing.

      Of the 10,000 or so (deaths) every year, about two-thirds of them are not belted, Tyson said.

      Tyson said the greatest way for consumers to stay safe during a rollover is to have their seatbelts fastened.

      He failed to mention another way consumers can increase their margin of safety: buy a European car. BMW, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and other European manufacturers build much more rigid bodies that are more stringently tested for rollover protection.

      Another option: install a roll bar of the kind used in race cars. Most body shops can install a roll bar in nearly any vehicle. They greatly increase protection in a rollover and may help in some side impacts.

      David Garcia, who was belted in and completely sober during his accident, said he just wishes Ford had made his car safer.

      Roof Crush Summit Highlights Safety Shortcomings...

      Short Workouts Burn More Fat than Longer Sessions


      Taking a break in the middle of your workout may metabolize more fat than exercising without stopping, according to a recent study in Japan.

      Researchers conducted the first known study to compare these two exercise methods -- exercising continually in one long bout versus breaking up the same workout with a rest period. The findings could change the way we approach exercise.

      Many people believe prolonged exercise will be optimal in order to reduce body fat, but our study has shown that repetitions of shorter exercise may cause enhancements of fat mobilization and utilization during and after the exercise. These findings will be informative about the design of [future] exercise regimens, said lead researcher Kazushige Goto, Ph.D.

      Most people are reluctant to perform a single bout of prolonged exercise. The repeated exercise with shorter bouts of exercise will be a great help [in keeping up with fitness], he said.

      This finding is part of a study entitled Enhancement of Fat Metabolism by Repeated Bouts of Moderate Endurance Exercise, found in the June 2007 edition of the Journal of Applied Physiology, which is published by the American Physiological Society. Summary of Methodology

      The researchers used seven healthy (avg. body mass: 66.1, percentage fat: 17.6) men with an average age of 25 who were physically active and familiar with exercise and had them perform three separate trials:

      • one single bout of 60-minute exercise followed with a 60-minute recovery period (Single)

      • two bouts of 30-minute exercise with a 20-minute rest after the first 30-minute bout, along with a 60-minute recovery period at the end (Repeated)

      • one 60-minute rest period (Control)

      The men performed each trial at the same time of day after fasting overnight. They exercised on a single ergometer (cycling machine) at the commonly recommended exercise prescription of 60% maximum oxygen intake. The recovery and rest periods were conducted while the subjects sat in chairs.

      Blood samples were taken every 15 minutes during the exercise and every 30 minutes during the recovery period. Their respiratory gas and heart rates were monitored continuously throughout the trial.

      The Repeated trial showed a greater amount of lipolysis (fat breakdown) than did the Single trial. The Repeated trial also had a pronounced increase in free fatty acids and glycerol (chemical compounds that are released when stored fat is used) concentrations in the final 15 minutes of exercise, whereas these concentrations only progressively increased throughout the Single trial.

      Also, the second half of the Repeated trial showed a significantly greater epinephrine response while also having a rapid decrease in insulin concentration as a result of lower plasma glucose.

      This combination of high epinephrine and low insulin concentration may have also increased the lipolysis. There was also enhanced fat oxidation in the recovery period of the Repeated trial than in the Single trial, but this result may be because the free fatty acids concentration was already high before the recovery period.

      The American College of Sports Medicine recommends moderate exercise for the duration of 45 to 60 minutes to ensure a sufficient amount of energy is depleted in obese individuals. This has caused a greater focus on extending exercise sessions in order to burn more fat.

      However, this study shows that this method may not be the most effective way to enhance fat metabolism, as splitting up a long bout of exercise with a rest period burns more fat than a continuous bout of exercise.

      This study could help with the practical application of implementing new exercise methods in order to better manage and control weight in individuals in the future.

      Goto and his team of researchers plan on conducting further studies in order to explore the results in a variety of exercise durations as well as in different types of individuals.



      Researchers conducted the first known study to compare these two exercise methods -- exercising continually in one long bout versus breaking up the same wo...

      China Pledges Improvements In Food Safety

      The pledge follows a string of recalls and consumer warnings

      Under pressure in the U.S. from consumers and lawmakers, the Chinese government has pledged to improve the way in which it supervises food safety.

      The pledge follows a string of recalls and consumer warnings, on products ranging from pet food to seafood.

      Just as in the U.S., various government agencies share responsibility for food safety in China. Li Changjiang, minister in charge of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said the government is reviewing the entire system.

      He said new measures will be taken to improve the system, but offered no specifics.

      The existing system involves at least five central government departments - AQSIQ, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Health and the State Food and Drug Administration - which are responsible for supervising farming, production and processing, and distribution and selling.

      Li said the government is considering ways to streamline the system and make it more efficient.

      "To ensure the quality of food exports, the Chinese government has set up a monitoring system that covers plantations, breeding farms and production bases," said Li. "Only products that pass strict quarantine inspection are allowed to be exported."

      Li also said his agency is consulting with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on ways to improve supervision of Chinese food products before they leave China and once they arrive in the U.S.

      China initially denied there were safety problems with its exports, but has softened its position as the number of recalls has provoked a consumer backlash in the U.S., as well as in Congress.

      Li said food safety is a global issue that requires cooperation and improved inspection systems among all trading partners.

      China Pledges Improvements In Food Safety...

      Are Used Hybrids a Pig in a Poke?

      Battery Replacement Can Be Very Expensive


      The cost of gasoline along with a sincere desire to drive an environmentally friendly car is leading many young consumers to the used car lot in search of a hybrid. At the same time, the people who bought the first hybrids like the Prius are trading in the green machines for new hybrids.

      So is buying a used hybrid like buying a pig in a poke?

      The weak link in an aging hybrid seems to be the battery system that drives the electric motor.

      Prius batteries will last well beyond 200,000 miles or they will need to be replaced almost as soon as the hybrid passes through 110,000 miles, depending who you talk to and who you choose to believe.

      All of the evidence on the life span of a Prius appears to be anecdotal without any substantial statistical significance.

      So does buying a used Prius make sense? Selling a used Prius certainly makes sense. The hybrids enjoy a good resale value. Even with 100,000 miles on the odometer, a Prius in excellent condition might sell for $11,885 according to the Kelley Blue Book.

      That is exactly what Zachery in Homeland, Calif., decided to do three years ago -- buy a used Prius.

      Giving into all the hype, when I went looking for a new car. I decided to go with the money-saving, eco-friendly Prius, he told ConsumerAffairs.com.

      It had 72,000 miles on it and ran great, for the first year that is. When it came time for the 100,000 mile tune-up it cost me nearly $700. Six months later the computer system failed along with a transmission leak and fuel pump replacement costing me another $2,600, he wrote.

      Ten months after the 100,000-mile problems Zachery received the bad news about his hybrid battery system. I take it down and get it diagnosed, which turned out to be the main hybrid battery. Another $4,800 to get the system replaced, he wrote.

      Unable to afford the cost of that last repair, I now own a 2001 Prius that runs for about 2 miles before the warning light and computer system stop the car.

      Needless to say, Zachery no longer considers his decision to buy a used Prius to be a wise expenditure.

      I'm unable to afford the $4,800 repair bill, thus leaving me without a reliable form of transportation. On top of that, I still owe roughly $5,000 on the car itself. Of course all this happens the day I quit my job and start back to school, he wrote.

      Similar Problem

      A Texas Prius owner reported a similar problem. "My 2001 Toyota Prius lasted five years and 113,000 miles. Then the batteries seemed to die. My dealer estimated the replacement cost at $7,000. They recommended scrapping the car for parts."

      Consumers in the market for a used Prius also need to watch out for problem other than the main hybrid battery system.

      Debora owns a 2001 Prius in North Hills, Calif.

      My 2001 Toyota Prius has been stalling intermittently for 3 years. The dealer has replaced the hybrid battery which was on warranty (thank goodness!) and now says they need to replace the accelerator pedal position sensor which is not on warranty and the part will cost $435 plus tax and 3 hours of labor, she told us.

      Mark in Fairmont, West Virginia, owns a 2003 Prius. My Prius has a steering problem. The dealer informed me that my rack and pinion gear will need replaced at a cost of $1,800.00, he wrote.

      Mark added that he read on the Internet that other Prius cars have steering problems covered by a recall but his was not included.

      I have 85,000 miles on the car, he said. I have already replaced the gas tank, and electronic control module. This steering repair is just too much money, he said.

      A reader in Collinsville, Ill., told us he when he starts his 2002, the engine warning lights come on with their exclamation points and check engine signs, but there is nothing wrong.

      The repair will be expensive. I was told that I need a new fuel pump, gas tank, and engine control module, at a cost of $2,300, he wrote ConsumerAffairs.com.

      In Colorado Springs, Patrick found his 2005 Prius dead and unable to start. He bought the Prius in 2005 when the car had 19,000 miles on the odometer.

      I looked for any accessories that might have been left on, but found none, Patrick told us.

      I pulled out the manual and diagnosed a dead 12-volt battery. I proceeded to follow the jump start procedures in the manual. The jump was unsuccessful, so I called a tow truck recommended by the dealer and had it towed there.

      The dealer told Patrick that his Prius was jumped with the cables crossed and the repair will be about $5,000 in parts and labor.

      The repair bill will not be covered under the vehicle's 3-year and 36,000-mile warranty.

      In Stoughton, Wis., Jim has the other side of the story. Just to relate my experience with my 2002 Prius. Yes there have been a few items repaired under warranty but what car doesn't get some of those?

      Jim describes his Prius as the best car I have ever owned.. It's a delight to drive, and my average mpg around 48 in warm weather and 40-42 during wintertime.

      Jim said he loves his Prius but then he is the original owner and his hybrid has only 48,000 miles on the odometer.

      Are Used Hybrids a Pig in a Poke?...

      Researchers Find "Restless Leg" Gene

      It's a major cause of insomnia and sleep disruption

      An international team of researchers has identified the first gene associated with Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), a common sleep disorder affecting tens of millions of people worldwide.

      The findings appear in the online edition of the New England Journal of Medicine and will appear in an upcoming printed edition of the journal.

      Restless legs syndrome is a condition that produces an intense, often irresistible urge to move the legs and is a major cause of insomnia and sleep disruption.

      It affects approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population and about one percent of school-aged children. The discovery provides strong new evidence that RLS is a genuine syndrome, a fact that has recently been the subject of some debate.

      The work was led by scientists at Emory University and deCODE Genetics, Inc., in Reykjavik, Iceland.

      "We now have concrete evidence that RLS is an authentic disorder with recognizable features and underlying biological basis," says David Rye, MD, PhD, professor of neurology at Emory University School of Medicine, director of the Emory Healthcare Program in Sleep, and one of the study's lead authors.

      "This is the most definitive link between genetics and RLS that has been reported to date. We have known for quite some time that the majority of RLS patients have a close family member with the disorder, and now we have found a gene which is clearly linked to RLS," says Dr. Rye.

      The researchers report a population-attributable risk for RLS of at least 50 percent, meaning that were the gene variant not present, more than half of all RLS cases would disappear.

      RLS researchers have known for some time that anemia and low iron levels contribute to more severe RLS symptoms. The current study revealed the gene variant to be more common in Icelandic subjects deficient in iron.

      The medical breakthrough is the result of a four-year study led jointly by Dr. Rye and deCODE Genetics scientist Dr. Hreinn Stefansson. With the goal of identifying genes causing RLS, the research team conducted genome-wide scans of nearly 1,000 Icelanders and 188 Americans. A new chip technology was applied along with genome wide association methods.

      This approach allowed Drs. Rye and Stefansson to probe more than 300,000 small regions (single nucleotides) distributed across the entire genome for differences more common to RLS sufferers as compared to population-based controls.

      According to Dr. Rye, very little is known about the function of the gene variant discovered.

      "Additional work will be required to translate this knowledge into a plausible mechanism and, in turn, more rational and better treatments," notes Dr. Rye. "Future advances will depend upon additional monies which to this point have come solely from private foundations and industry."

      Dr. Rye says RLS is exceedingly common but not taught as a part of standard medical education, in part leading many medical professionals, educators and academicians to challenge its commonality and authenticity.



      Researchers Find 'Restless Leg' Gene...

      Two Bear Stearns Hedge Funds Go Broke

      The funds were heavily invested in subprime mortgages

      Investors in two Bear Stearns hedge funds are having a bad day as the investment bank reported the funds are now worth nearly nothing following investments in subprime mortgages.

      Bear Stearns reported to investors that the High-Grade Structured Credit Enhanced Leveraged Fund and the High-Grade Structured Credit Fund are both now nearly worthless.

      The funds were heavily invested in subprime mortgages. The subprime industry virtually collapsed earlier this year as interest rates rose and home prices fell.

      Subprime mortgages are loans made to high-risk borrowers.

      The funds were managed by Bear Stearns Asset Management, which notified investors in a letter yesterday that the more conservative fund, the High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund, was down 91 percent by the end of June and the High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage Fund had lost all of its investor capital.

      The funds were once valued as high as $16 billion.

      While news that the Bear Stearns funds were in trouble has been around for the past few weeks, the announcement caused more jitters for companies that invested in the subprime market.

      Bear Stearns halted redemptions of the fund ins May after estimates of the losses began to climb and investors scrambled to get out. In June, Bear Stearns offered a $1.5 billion loan to fortify the more conservative fund as other lenders began asking for more cash as collateral.

      Two Bear Stearns Hedge Funds Go Broke ...

      Newfoundland Breeders Despair After Deaths and Deformities

      Many Blame Pet Food for their Breeding Problems

      By Lisa Wade McCormick
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      July 18, 2007
      Professional dog breeder Lisa M. is ensnarled in a frightening mystery.

      The case centers on her beloved Newfoundlands and why these gentle giants have experienced so many baffling reproductive problems in the past year.

      Lisa has searched tirelessly for clues about whats caused her healthy dogs to suddenly stop getting pregnant or -- if they conceive -- to deliver deformed and dead puppies.

      These are dogs that have all delivered healthy puppies before, says Lisa, owner of Lighthouse Newfoundlands in Grafton, Ohio. Ive been a full-time breeder since 1998 and Ive never experienced as many problems as I have in the past year. Its horrible.

      The first signs of trouble surfaced last November.

      Lisas dog, Vella, had a litter of four puppies.

      Two were healthy. But two were mummified fetuses.

      Thats like a miscarriage in the dog world, Lisa says. It looks like a mass of bone; the puppy is not alive. Breeders occasionally will have mummified fetuses. Ive never had it happen, though.

      Twice in Two Months

      But now its happened twice in just two months.

      In January, 2007, Lisas dog, Juliet, had nine puppies.

      Five were healthy. Three were mummified fetuses. And one was deformed.

      That puppy had its elbow stuck to its side; it didnt live, Lisa says. And having three mummified fetuses in one litter was unbelievably horrible.

      All this was just so unusual for me. It just wasnt right. Like I said, its never happened to me -- or my dogs -- before.

      Her dogs never had trouble getting pregnant, either.

      I bred four of my dogs and a friends dog in February. None of mine got pregnant. I usually get two or three, but never zero for four.

      My friends dog had three puppies, but two died (two days after delivery). One of the puppies had a deformity a cleft palate.

      Similar Problems Nationwide

      A ConsumerAffairs.com investigation reveals Newfoundland breeders across the country have experienced similar problems with their dogs.

      We talked to professional breeders in Idaho, Texas, and Pennsylvania whose dogs have encountered such puzzling reproductive issues as:

      • Puppies that wouldnt grow and had to be euthanized. This same breeders dogs also had two mummified fetuses -- in two different litters -- and some of her females stopped getting pregnant;

      • Having several misses -- or failed attempts -- at getting pregnant. This breeder also had a dog that delivered a deformed puppy, which had to be euthanized.

      • Failing to get pregnant -- in the past two years. This breeders mom also raises Newfoundlands and one of those dogs delivered two dead puppies.

      Likely Suspects

      Whats causing these problems?

      Lets consider some of the likely suspects:

      • The Newfoundlands health The breeders say all their females are in excellent physical condition and have previously delivered healthy puppies. They also say theyre using the same sires and those males are in excellent health;

      • The dogs ages -- Veterinarians say the prime age for dogs to deliver healthy litters is two to five. The breeders say all the dogs are in that age range;

      • Genetic problems The breeders say none of the dogs are related, a factor that could pose genetic issues;

      • Changes in breeding protocols The breeders say nothing in their breeding program has changed.

      This whole thing is totally, horrendously insane, says Wendy C. of Blanchard, Idaho, who has bred Newfoundlands for seven years. Its just about ruined my breeding program.

      Theres another suspect in this case. One any good sleuth would follow.

      Its the dog food the only common denominator among these Newfoundlands.

      All the breeders fed their dogs Purina Pro Plan and Purina One. And theyre convinced thats the culprit in this case.

      Why am I certain its the food? Because nothing else has changed in my breeding program, says Lisa, who has 14 Newfoundlands. These are the same dames and the same sires. Theyve all had healthy litters before.

      "I keep my kennels clean, I dont over-vaccinate, I dont add supplements, I dont use pesticides, I follow all the regular worming protocols ... nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed.

      Wendy agrees.

      The food is the only thing that makes sense. Its the only thing we all have in common.

      At first I thought it was the water, but that cant be. There are too many us across the country having the same problems with our dogs. It just has to be the food.

      The breeders say theyve fed their dogs Purina products for years and never had any problems. But Wendy and Lisa suspected something was wrong with the food last summer.

      We both fed our puppies Purina One large breed puppy food, Wendy says. And all our puppies had horrible diarrhea. They were squirting water out of their bottoms. It was awful.

      Anytime a puppy has diarrhea like that, theres something wrong. Its very dangerous. They can dehydrate and die.

      The breeders suspicions about the food heightened in March. Thats when Menu Foods recalled 60 million containers of melamine-tainted pet food.

      Melamine is a chemical used to make plastics and fertilizers; it is not approved for use in pet or human food. Thousands of dogs and cats nationwide suffered kidney disease or died after eating the melamine-tainted foods.

      We panicked when we heard about the recall, Wendy says. The Purina we fed our dogs wasnt on the recall list, but we were still certain something was wrong with it. Maybe that melamine from China got into the food and Purina didnt know. Thats possible.

      Lisa says news of the melamine-tainted food confirmed her worst fears about the reproductive problems with her dogs.

      I read all about the effects melamine can have on pregnancies. And I learned that too much melamine can affect pregnancies.

      I also belong to a chat room with 2,000 subscribers and did my own research with them. Thats when I found out that so many of us who were using Purina were having problems.

      Mutant Puppies

      At the Mountain Ridge Kennel in Blanchard, Idaho, Wendy fights back tears as she recalls the reproductive issues her Newfoundlands have faced in the past year and a half.

      Its just been devastating. Ive been having beautiful litters for seven years. Ive always had huge, healthy puppies.

      But that changed last summer.

      I had two back-to-back litters and had to destroy 14 of those puppies, Wendy says. They wouldnt grow. They looked like mutants; it was hideous. They only weighed six to 10 pounds instead of 25 to 30 pounds at eight weeks. They were so thin. They looked like skeletons with fur.

      The gruesome problems didnt stop there.

      Wendys dogs also had two mummified fetuses in two different litters.

      Plus Ive had females who have had four narrow puppies. Those are puppies that die. Somewhere along the way (during gestation) they were depleted. They werent what they should be at full-term. I believe its because of the poisonous food I unknowingly fed them.

      Some of Wendys other dogs also stopped getting pregnant.

      I bred three of my dogs (to deliver) at the end of February. I didnt have one litter. How unusual is that for me? Ive always gotten everything Ive bred. Im a full-time breeder. This is what I do.

      Wendys not only grappled with the emotional toll these problems have taken on her dogs. And her family.

      She also struggled with the financial repercussions theyve created.

      Ive only had four healthy puppies since December 2005. Normally, I have 40 healthy puppies a year. This has just about bankrupted me.

      Her voice cracks and tears fill her eyes.

      Ive buried at least 20 dogs in the past year, says Wendy, whose puppies sell for $1,200 to $1,500 each. This has cost me more than $25,000. I couldnt sleep because there was no money to pay the bills. My long distance has been cut. Ive lost my insurance. Im facing foreclosure and will probably lose my house.

      This just about killed me. Purina doesnt understand how much all this has devastated fulltime breeders like me.

      Puppy Born Without Tail or Rectum

      In Texas, another Newfoundland breeder wonders why her dogs have experienced so many unusual medical problems.

      Ive had several missed breedings in last few years, says Brenda M. of Blanco, Texas, These are all females that should not have missed.

      Brenda has raised Newfoundlands since 1995. And for the first time in her career, she had a dog deliver a deformed puppy.

      It happened 18 months ago to her dog, Ramona.

      The puppy was born without a tail or rectum. It was awful. It was alive when it was born, but I had to euthanize it.

      Ive had litters before with stillborn puppies. But in all the years Ive done this that was my first deformed puppy. It was freaky and unpleasant.

      Ramona also faced another inexplicable medical problem one not related to her reproductive system.

      She unexpectedly died last month of cirrhosis of the liver.

      Our vet could not find any reason for her to have such a severe case of cirrhosis of the liver. She was only five. She was too young to die from liver disease.

      I dont know if her death was related to the food, Brenda says, referring to Purina One shed fed Ramona for years. But I dont trust dog food companies. Theres a huge doubt in my mind about the safety of pet food and that it might have contributed to Ramonas death.

      Could it also have caused her dogs reproductive problems?

      I am very suspicious of Purina. Everything thats happened is suspicious.

      No Litters in Two Years

      Across the country, two Newfoundland breeders in Pennsylvania say their dogs have also experienced bizarre reproductive problems.

      I havent had a litter in two years, says one of the breeders, who didnt want to be identified because she was afraid of legal action by Purina. Thats real uncommon for me. These are proven breeders.

      Her mom also raises Newfoundlands.

      And one of her dogs recently had a litter with two dead puppies, the daughter says. They were stillborns; they didnt have fur on them and had been dead a while.

      That dog was a repeat breeder who had two healthy litters before. I took her in for a culture two days after delivery (of the deceased puppies) and everything was negative. The dog was absolutely clean.

      These breeders fed their dogs Purina One wet and dry food for more than 20 years.

      And weve had excellent results up until last year. But now, we really think theres problem with the food. Otherwise, wed still be feeding it to our dogs.

      Missing Evidence

      To solve any mystery, though, a good sleuth needs solid evidence. A smoking gun memo. Or scientific data that proves the case.

      But thats missing in this whodunit.

      They breeders dont have any clinical analysis to support their convictions.

      They didnt test the Purina they fed their dogs. They didnt have autopsies performed on the deceased puppies. And they didnt have lab work or ultrasounds done on the females that failed to get pregnant or delivered deformed or deceased puppies.

      Why?

      If all of us knew then what we know now, we would have done all sorts of things to prove our case, Wendy says. But along the way, we went through so much devastation and heartbreak that we didnt think of it.

      Lisa concurs.

      I didnt relate the problems to the food until I started reading about the effects melamine has on pregnancies.

      Why didnt she have autopsies performed on the deceased puppies?

      If I had known about melamine and the effects it has on humans and dogs, I would have, Lisa says. But these dogs were born in January three months before Menu announced the recall.

      I know what happened to my dogs, though. Ive been a breeder a long time. I know something is going on with the food. Nothing else has changed in my breeding program. The only common denominator is the Purina.

      Interesting Case But Premature to Blame Purina

      Veterinarians we interviewed agree the cases are interesting. And warrant further investigation.

      But they warn its premature to blame Purina for the Newfoundlands reproductive problems.

      They say more testing is needed before any allegations can -- or should -- be made about the dog food.

      I believe these cases are too poorly defined to try to make any sort of statement regarding the likelihood of diet as the cause of the the problem, said Dr. Margaret Root Kustritz of the University of Minnesotas College of Veterinary Medicine. She is a nationally recognized expert in theriogenology, which is animal reproduction.

      I know of no such problem specific to Newfoundlands. I know of no data in the veterinary literature documenting loss of pups from dietary causes in apparently healthy (female).

      Dr. Root Kustritz asked other animal reproduction specialists about the Newfoundlands problems.

      I have gotten two responses, neither of which noted any increase in such problems in Newfies in their areas. That means eastern Canada, the upper Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest are not seeing a problem recognized by theriogenologists or their clients.

      She added: I believe this mystery is suffering from a lack of diagnostic testing. Breeders will tell you all these tests cost money. They do. So does repeated loss of pups.

      Dr. Jennifer Larsen, a veterinarian and trained nutritionist with Davis Veterinary Medical Consulting group in California, said there are a number of reasons why dogs fail to get pregnant. Or have reproductive success.

      Those factors include timing, semen samples, genetics, viruses, and the environment.

      Nutrition also plays a key role.

      Reproduction is a demanding physical state and you have to be careful about the diet you feed, said Dr. Larsen, who owns Newfoundlands. But to find out whats going on nutritionally (in these cases) would take some scientific investigation. If they (the breeders) were unable to participate in that, than were just speculating.

      Dr. Larsen also said previous reproductive success doesnt guarantee the same results in the future.

      The way genes are resorted can result in a bunch of different effects. Its like people who five or six children and not all of them look the same.

      Past success or good luck has nothing to do with future good luck or success.

      Dr. Larsen, however, said these cases should be more thoroughly examined.

      Its unfortunate whats gone on. And there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that need to be put in place.

      At this point, its premature to say its the food. But I hope these breeders work with their veterinarians to try and figure out whats going on. That could help advance knowledge in this field.

      Lisa consulted her veterinarian, Dr. Lori Hunt at the Center West Animal Hospital in Westlake, Ohio.

      One of things I do with my breeding clients is when we have a dog thats missing, the first thing we look into is what theyre eating, said Dr. Hunt, who devotes much of her practice to canine reproduction. Nutrition can absolutely effect conception. And its certainly possible that something could be out of whack nutritionally ... maybe the manufacturer changed the formula.

      But I cant say its the food. There are other people who feed that same food and they havent had this trouble.

      Dr. Hunt said animals -- like humans -- sometimes develop problems that simply cant be explained.

      I know the science of things and bad things sometimes happen for no reason.

      Nonetheless, the Newfoundlands problems piqued her professional interest.

      It certainly makes you think ... anything is possible.

      Newfoundland Club of America To Explore Problem

      The Newfoundlands reproductive issues also captured the attention of the Newfoundland Club of America (NCA).

      I find this very odd, said Pam Rubio, head of NCAs Health and Longevity Committee. I have not heard of this before. But there are lots of things that have never happened before that crop up.

      Does she suspect the food?

      I would doubt it because so many of us feed Pro Plan without any problems. If its the food -- and Im still doubtful of that -- then it would have to be a change in the formula, the protein source, or an ingredient.

      Rubio, however, said she would discuss this issue with members of her committee.

      Ill put it out there for us to explore. If there are more cases out there, we definitely want to know and see if we can find a common cause.

      The NCA cant offer breeders any financial assistance, Rubio said.

      But the organization can recommend -- and help fund -- research about specific issues facing the breed.

      If researchers want to do a study on this, we do have the Newfoundland Health Challenge and the Research Advisory Committee that decides who gets funding for studies.

      Purina Investigates Breeders Concerns

      ConsumerAffairs.com also contacted Purina about the Newfoundlands problems. Spokesman Keith Schopp told us his company had never heard of these problems until our call.

      He also said the pet food giant has not changed the formulas for Purina One or Purina Pro Plan in recent years.

      But we would like to talk to these breeders and get more information, Schopp told us.

      After our calls to Purina, a company representative contacted the breeders and promised to investigate their concerns.

      New Evidence

      Meanwhile, new evidence has surfaced in this mystery evidence that might confirm the breeders' suspicions.

      Lisa and Wendy contacted ConsumerAffairs.com on Tuesday and said they discovered some of the Purina food theyd fed their dogs when the problems first started.

      Im in the process of revamping my kennel and when I got into one of the feed bins, I found some of the Purina at the bottom, Lisa says. I took back every bag of Purina I had after the recall, but I guess I didnt take back the food I dumped into the bin. With everything that has happened, I forgot the food was in there.

      Lisa plans to immediately test the food.

      So does Wendy, who also found some Purina in the bottom of one of her feed bins.

      The breeders, however, says they dont need scientific data to convince them the food caused their dogs problems. Their dogs -- and the awful experiences theyve endured -- are all the proof they need.

      We know what we saw and we know what happened, Lisa says.

      Dogs Doing Better Off Purina

      They also know their dogs conditions have improved since they took them off Purina products months ago.

      The difference is unbelievable, says Wendy, who makes her own dog food and supplements it with a brand called Bil-Jac. That Ohio pet food maker uses locally produced ingredients. My dogs are looking so good. My younger ones are slowly starting to gain weight now that theyre off that poisonous food. I cant see their ribs anymore. And theyre a lot more active.

      Lisa makes her own dog food.

      And she says her Newfoundlands are much healthier now that theyre off Purina.

      Their coats are a lot shinier, theyre more active, and their skin problems have cleared up.

      Twelve Happy Endings

      This mystery has an even happier ending. Make that 12 happy endings.

      Earlier this month, one of Wendys dogs delivered five healthy puppies.

      Everyone is OK, Wendy says. Im sure its because I took (my female) off Purina. Ill never feed Purina again.

      And Lisas dog, Juliet -- who had three mummified fetuses in her previous litter -- delivered seven healthy puppies over the Fourth Of July holiday.

      My biggest fear has always been the lasting effect this will have on my dogs reproductive systems, Lisa says. Theres no doubt in my mind why this was a healthy litter ... Juliet was not on Purina.



      Newfoundland Breeders Despair After Deaths and Deformities...

      Short Runways Plague Brazil's Busiest Airport

      Landing in Sao Paulo is like landing on an aircraft carrier, pilots say

      Landing on the runway in Sao Paulo is like landing on an aircraft carrier, say pilots familiar with Brazils busiest airport.

      Long criticized as too short for modern jets, the 6,365-foot landing strip at Congonhas airport leaped into the headlines again yesterday when an Airbus 320 skidded in wet weather, crashed into a gas station and adjacent building, and exploded.

      An estimated 200 people, including 15 on the ground, died in Brazils worst airline disaster.

      The runway has long been the source of controversy.

      Just five months ago, a Brazilian federal court banned takeoffs and landings of three types of large jets because of safety concerns. The ban was short-lived, removed by an appeals court that said it would cause severe economic hardship to the airport.

      In the wake of the crash, plus cascading complaints from pilots, the courts could become involved again.

      Pilots say that are told to touch down on the first 1,000 feet of runway but to abort their landings if they overshoot that landing zone.

      That doesnt always happen: In 1996, another TAM airlines jet skidded off the Congonhas runway and down a street before exploding in a fireball that killed 99, including three on the ground.

      And a pair of planes skidded off the runway Monday, just one day before the latest crash, but no one was hurt.

      The crash of the TAM flight from Porto Alegre comes less than a year after two craft collided in midair over the Amazon rainforest, killing 154. That crash, between a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 and an executive jet last September, had been Brazils worst before Tuesday.

      Air safety has long been an issue in Brazil, where airports and airlines are straining to cope with a surge in passengers and flights. Controllers concerned about understaffing, antiquated equipment, and safety conditions have caused numerous strikes and slowdowns that make delays and cancellations common.

      The deteriorating air traffic system in Brazil could be a harbinger of things to come in the United States, where many of the same issues exist.

      Pilots detest the 7,000-foot runway at New Yorks LaGuardia, which they say is too short for wet-weather landings. Although it is 700 feet longer than the runway in Sao Paulo, the LaGuardia runway encounters more bad weather, including snowy, icy, or rainy conditions.

      Separate crashes of USAir flights in September 1989 and March 1992 killed a total of 13 people and injured 98 when planes skidded off wet runways into Browery Bay. Numerous other skidding incidents have also occurred at LaGuardia.

      Washington's Reagan National and Boston's Logan Airports are similarly treacherous, pilots say, plagued by short runways, heavy traffic and nearby high rises.



      Landing on the runway in Sao Paulo is like landing on an aircraft carrier, say pilots familiar with Brazils busiest airport. The runway has long been the s...

      Cigar Tax Could Rise to $10

      It's Now Just a Nickel but Congress is Looking for Money

      Cigarmakers and their customers are in a panic over a proposal to raise the federal tax on cigars -- now a nickel -- to as much as $10.

      Congress -- meeting in smoke-free rooms -- is looking for an extra $35 billion to $50 billion for the state children's health insurance program and hopes to raise most of it through excise taxes on products like tobacco.

      Cigarettes, which accounted for more than 95 percent of tobacco tax collections last year, are the main focus of the bill -- federal taxes on a pack would jump from 39 cents to $1.

      But cigars would not escape.

      There is currently 4.8 cents-per-cigar tax cap but under the proposed bill, taxes on "large cigars," a category that includes all but the tiny cigars sold in packs of 20 like cigarettes, would rise to 53 percent.

      A version of the bill being considered by the Senate Finance Committee sets the maximum tax per cigar at $10.

      "I'm not sure in the history of man, since our forefathers founded the country in 1776, that there's ever been a tax increase of 20,000 percent," said Eric Newman, who runs a Tampa cigar shop, according to the St. Petersburg Times. "They had the Boston Tea Party for less than this."

      Others were equally befogged.

      "I thought there was a typo. I thought they meant 10 cents per cigar, not $10 per cigar, said Norm Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America, the Times reported.

      Of course, cigar sales are just the merest wisp of the cigarette market. In 2006, Americans bought nearly 400 billion cigarettes and only 5.3 billion cigars.



      Cigar Tax Could Rise to $10: Cigarmakers and their customers are in a panic over a proposal to raise the federal tax on cigars, now a nickel, to as much as...

      Iowa Probes Long-Term Care Insurance


      Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is launching a probe into long-term care insurance, following complaints from seniors who say they're not receiving the benefits they were told their policies would deliver.

      Miller launched the probe after the state's chief insurance regulator said he had insufficient authority to handle the investigation.

      The attorney general's office can use the state's tough Consumer Fraud Act to subpoena witnesses and prosecute offenders.

      Miller has long taken an aggressive stance towards fraud aimed at seniors. The state ranks second in the nation in the percentage of residents age 85 and over and is often seen as a primary target of elder scams.

      Besides denied claims, elderly consumers say their long-term-care premiums have risen faster than they anticipated.

      A recent New York Times series documented problems and abuses nationwide, sparking a Congressional investigaiton into two of the leading LTC issuers, Conseco and Penn Treaty.

      Long-term care insurance is sold with the promise that it will help pay for in-home health care, assisted living or other types of elder care. Seniors are told the policy will help them remain in their homes or, if they must be in a nursing home, will pay a major portion of the cost.

      Seniors often fear that if they become unable to care for themselves, they will have to spend down their assets before Medicaid will help with nursing home costs.

      Iowa Probes Long-Term Care Insurance...

      Pfizer Keeps Data Breach Quiet

      Six-Week Notification Delay Called "Problematic"

      A data breach that involved 17,000 current and former employees of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer went unreported for six weeks after it was discovered...

      Gas Prices Bite Into Consumer Spending

      Two in five say they have cut back

      Gas prices are continuing to take a big bite out of consumer spending.

      Nearly two in five (39.3%) American consumers said they reduced spending in June due to higher gas prices, according to a new Consumer Mind Reader national survey released by America's Research Group (ARG).

      During the month, 21.7% of shoppers postponed a purchase of $599 or more compared with only 13.7% who said they delayed buying a big-ticket item in June 2006.

      "The impact of gas prices on the American consumer's psyche is not going away," said C. Britt Beemer, Chairman of ARG. "The data reveal that retailers will experience difficult times and reluctant consumers for the important back-to-school and fall shopping periods."

      The national average for regular self-serve gasoline is above $3 a gallon this week. Prices jumped almost a nickel in just two days, according to the latest ConsumerAffairs.com Gas Price Round-Up.

      Prices are rising fastest in the Midwest because of outages at two major refineries in the region. Indications that one of the refineries will soon recover lost capacity are leading to a decline in gasoline futures, suggesting the price spike may be short-lived.

      Higher gas prices have also had an impact on summer travel plans.

      Some 28.3% of Americans say that they will not go on vacation this summer. Even though fewer people traveled during the week of Independence Day, only 36.9% shopped over July 4th, down from 40.5% last year.

      Consumers also are noticing the pinch of higher prices at their supermarkets. Over 65% of shoppers say they have noticed significant price increases, up from only 53% earlier this spring.

      "Other factors, such as consumer dissatisfaction with spring fashions and location of stores, help reduce shopping levels for the retail industry," Beemer said.

      ARG data indicate that women have largely rejected the retro look even though retailers are discounting spring merchandise at 60% to 70% off, according to Beemer, and mall-based apparel retailers are struggling to attract female shoppers as malls continue to decline in popularity.

      Only 16.6% of consumers shopped at mall stores this June, compared with 19.6% last year.

      Gas Prices Bite Into Consumer Spending...

      Oregon Sues LA Weight Loss and Franchisee

      Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers has filed suit against LA Weight Loss and an Oregon franchisee, accusing them of making false and misleading representations about the costs, fees, products, and benefits associated with the program.

      The lawsuit contends that LA Weight Loss and its franchisee violated Oregons Unlawful Trade Practices Act (UTPA) by advertising that the program could be purchased for only $9 a week when, in fact, consumers were required to pay hundreds of dollars for the entire program at the time of enrollment.

      In addition, the lawsuit alleges that customers were presented with the actual cost of "LA Lites", so-called nutritional bars that are in reality similar to candy bars, three to four days after enrollment.

      Customers were then told that to take advantage of the "guarantee" and "rebate' of half the program costs, they must eat these bars throughout the program.

      A box of seven bars costs $16 or, if purchased in bulk at the beginning of the plan, $10.50. The LA Weight Loss program includes eating two bars a day for the initial "weight-loss weeks" plus during an additional six weeks of "stabilization". Consumers also must eat one bar per day for the following "maintenance" year.

      The lawsuit also claims that advertised one-on-one counseling with an "individualized" menu plan was, in fact, one of eight menu plans based on general factors such as amount of weight to lose, age and gender.

      The lawsuit further states that LA Weight Loss and its franchisee have no competent and reliable scientific evidence to substantiate effectiveness claims about their "dietary supplements" such as asserting that one of their supplements "FB 500" normalizes blood pressure.

      Advertising

      During the investigation of consumer complaints, the state found the company's advertising to be misleading in many aspects, including use of the word "guarantee".

      The so-called "guarantee" had nothing to do with guaranteeing weight loss but was instead a "guarantee" that customers can stay on the weight loss program until they reach their target weight. In order to maintain the "guarantee", customers must strictly adhere to the plan and use the required amount of "LA Lites".

      Investigators also found that so-called "counselors" available for one-on-one counseling were in reality staff (many of them former customers) who had no health or nutritional training or experience; however, they wore white lab coats and took customers' medical history and blood pressure.

      In addition, the "counselors" pushed customers to buy the "LA Lites", supplements and other products to meet weekly sales quotas.

      "Although the LA Weight Loss franchisee was quick to give refunds to Oregonians who complained to our office, the misleading marketing continued," Myers said. "It's always good to offer disgruntled consumers their money back but if the company continues to operate in the same misleading manner, the refunds are just 'smoke screens' devised to hide the intentional violation of law."

      The state began its investigation into LA Weight Loss in September 2005 and attempted to negotiate a settlement agreement with the companies at the beginning of 2006. After months of stalling by the companies, the government issued a deadline for agreement and filed suit when the deadline was not met.

      The lawsuit seeks restitution for Oregon consumers covering most costs and fees connected with joining the weight loss program, including payments for "LA Lites" and any "dietary supplement". The lawsuit also asks for civil penalties of $25,000 for each UTPA violation and for attorney fees and investigative costs.

      In addition, the lawsuit seeks permanent changes in the way the companies market their products and to require that they only use competent and reliable scientific evidence to substantiate their claims.

      "Oregonians of all ages should be generally cautious when choosing the right weight loss program," Myers explained. "Consumers should first consult with their doctor or nutritionist before obligating themselves to an expensive program that may or may not work for them."

      Named in a complaint filed in Marion County Circuit Court is LA Weight Loss Franchise Company, a Delaware corporation operating out of Horsham, Pennsylvania, and an Oregon franchisee, NWM, Inc., of Lake Oswego. NWM, Inc., currently has locations in Clackamas, Corvallis, Eugene, Gresham, Lloyd (Portland), McMinnville, South Salem, Sherwood, Tanasbourne (Portland), Washington Square (Tigard), and Wilsonville. It also operated locations in Bend and North Salem.



      Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers has filed suit against LA Weight Loss and an Oregon franchisee, accusing them of making false and misleading representa...

      Fight Over Manhunt 2 Could Get Nasty

      Parents Object to Latest Violent Video Game


      Rockstar Games, part of video game maker Take Two Interactive Software, shows no sign of backing down from releasing its new game, Manhunt 2, already banned in Britain and Ireland for excessive violence.

      The company, which developed the equally controversial Grand Theft Auto series, appears determined to release the game in the U.S.

      The company announced in June that it would temporarily suspend the U.S. release of Manhunt 2 amid a storm of protests from parents groups, which are pressuring the Entertainment Software Rating Board to give the game an Adults Only rating, limiting sales to those 18 and older.

      The company initially reacted to the British and Irish bans by saying it would suspend U.S. publication while it reviewed its options. Later, it hardened its position in a statement, saying, we believe in freedom of creative expression, as well as responsible marketing, both of which are essential to our business of making great entertainment.

      U.S. Release

      While Take Two Interactives Web site doesnt mention the controversial title on its front page, elsewhere on the site Manhunt 2 is promoted as being available this summer. Rockstar Games Web site does in fact promote Manhunt 2 on its front page as coming soon. However, to view the games promotional page, Web surfers must verify their age to enter.

      With Manhunt 2 we have tried to create a game that stays close to the original concept of chilling suspense and stealth, whilst pushing the game design and storytelling forward, said Sam Houser, founder and executive producer of Rockstar Games, in a statement on the site.

      Critics say the game goes over the line. In banning the game, the British Board of Film Classification said Manhunt 2 constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing.

      U.S. critics have now expressed an additional concern the fact that the violent game is also being produced for Nintendos wildly popular Wii game system, which features motion sensitive controllers.

      Wii Version

      The same system that allows users to control a tennis racquet by swinging a controller also allows Manhunt 2 players to actually wield an ax or blunt object within the games story.

      In a letter to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the child advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood said Wiis motion sensitive controller makes the video mayhem all too real.

      In Manhunt 2, players can mutilate their enemies with an axe; saw their skulls in half castrate them with a pair of pliers; or kill them by bashing their head into an electrical box, where a power surges eventually blows their head apart, the letter charges. On the Nintendo Wii, players will actually act out the violence. One review of the game describes using a saw blade to "cut upward into a foe's groin and buttocks, motioning forward and backward with the Wii remote as you go.

      The group says rating the game anything less than Adults Only will signal an endorsement of marketing Manhunt2 to children.

      An Adults Only rating, however, could be a death blow to the game, since Nintendo and Sony, maker of the PlayStation platform, currently have policies that bar AO-rated games for their systems. That would limit sales for use only on personal computers.

      Fight Over Manhunt 2 Could Get Nasty...

      New World Order: Sweatshops R Us

      Worried About Product Safety? How About Worker Safety?

      It cuts both ways -- the workers who produce the toys, clothes and household gear are in much more danger than the consumer who ultimately buys the product..

      Congress Slams AT&T Over iPhone Contract, Fees

      Subscribers Hit With High Purchase Price Plus Steep Termination Fee


      Members of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee criticized AT&T for locking iPhone buyers into an exclusive contract and for imposing steep termination fees to break the contract.

      Committee chair Ed Markey (D-MA) complained that provider exclusivity and high fees are "stultifying innovation and unquestionably [diminishing] consumer choice."

      In his opening statement at what was dubbed the "iPhone hearing," Markey held up a new iPhone and praised its technological innovation while criticizing AT&T for charging a $175 termination fee on top of the $500-$600 the buyer paid for the device.

      "This highlights problems with the current marketplace structure, where devices are provided by carriers, portability of devices to other carriers is limited or non-existent, and many consumers feel trapped having bought an expensive device or having been locked into a long-term contract with significant penalties for switching," Markey said.

      Termination fees and exclusive "locked-in" contracts are an unfortunately common feature of the wireless market, but AT&T's fees are relatively unique in that the telecom giant did not pay to create the iPhone -- Apple did.

      Thus, AT&T profits from selling the phone at full retail price and charging a termination fee while paying no costs for production. And canceling your contract turns the iPhone into what Columbia University professor Tim Wu called an "expensive paperweight."

      Market Dominance

      Wu, a supporter of net neutrality and open wireless standards, testified that the current wireless market in America is a "spectrum-based oligopoly," where a few large companies have so thoroughly dominated the market that they can set punitive conditions on consumer purchases without little fear of reprisal or challenge from new competitors.

      "[W]hen the criteria for market entry is 'fit' with the plans of the major carriers, innovation is inevitably distorted," Wu said. "And since innovation and economic growth are so closely linked, this affects us all."

      Steven Zipperstein, general counsel for Verizon Wireless, challenged Wu's market assessment.

      "Carriers are constantly expanding services and benefits to customers because they know they must fight fiercely to attract and retain those customers," he said.

      Open access for wireless markets would reduce companies' incentive to innovate, Zipperstein argued. "In this model, wireless network operators would have a decreased incentive to develop new products or services, because they would simply be in the business of providing airtime access for products chosen by the consumer, deterring investment away from network upgrades," he said.

      As evidence, Zipperstein pointed to the development of Verizon's own EV-DO wireless broadband network, for which he claimed Verizon spent upwards of $5 billion annually to maintain.

      But as ConsumerAffairs.com reporter Joseph Enoch documented last year, Verizon terminates the accounts of subscribers who utilize the network for any activity more substantial than checking e-mail or surfing the Web, despite advertising the network as "unlimited."

      Open Standards

      The hearing also discussed the FCC's upcoming auction of portions of the available wireless spectrum, formerly used for analog television broadcasts. Net neutrality supporters and consumer advocates have pushed for opening the spectrum for creating a nationwide wireless broadband network, which Consumers' Union's Chris Murray called a "positive development."

      Murray, the nonprofit organization's senior counsel, testified that "[w]ithout open access to the full range of wireless services and devices, consumers will continue to face unfair charges for service modification or termination, inability to use innovative applications, devices that have been hobbled to minimize competition, and other troublesome practices currently used by the dominant cell phone and broadband providers."

      The open access standard has won a surprising ally in the government -- FCC chair Kevin Martin. Normally a staunch supporter of telecom-friendly legislation,, it is rumored that Martin would support setting aside a portion of the spectrum for open-access usage by all devices, and that he is circulating the proposal among the other commissioners of the FCC.

      Congress Slams AT&T Over iPhone Contract, Fees...

      North Carolina Shutters We Buy Homes Scheme

      Those ads on telephone poles? Don't believe them

      Youve seen the ads promising well buy your house for cash! In North Carolina, state officials say one such company making that promise to homeowners was nothing more than a scam.

      A North Carolina court has ordered Charlotte Home Solutions to stop its operation that purported to buy homes and then resell them to buyers with poor credit.

      Attorney General Roy Cooper said the company promised to buy homes from people who needed to sell quickly but instead left them vulnerable to foreclosure.

      This scam hurt both homeowners and people who hoped to become homeowners, said Cooper. Weve put a stop to their phony We Buy Homes promises so no more consumers will be caught up in this scheme.

      As alleged in Coopers complaint, three local businessmen began doing business as Charlotte Home Solutions in September 2002. The partners advertised their business through signs, mass mailings to targeted neighborhoods and a website that promised to buy consumers homes.

      However, rather than purchasing houses outright, Charlotte Home Solutions convinced homeowners to sign title to their homes to a trust controlled by the partners. Because Charlotte Home Solutions didnt assume the mortgage on the property, the original homeowner unknowingly remained responsible for mortgage payments on the house.

      Cooper contends that Charlotte Home Solutions then advertised these homes for sale to consumers with bad credit, offering them an option contract to rent a home until they could qualify for financing. Purchasers had to pay a substantial deposit that was non-refundable in addition to monthly rent payments.

      However, many of these tenants were never able to get a loan to buy a home.

      Despite the fact that Charlotte Home Solutions collected rent money, they failed to make mortgage, tax and homeowners association payments on the homes, leading in some cases to foreclosure proceedings against the original owners. When the homes were foreclosed on, the tenants were also forced to leave and lost their deposit and their option to purchase a home.

      The North Carolina Real Estate Commission also joined in the complaint and consent judgment against one of the partners, William Keaton, who was allegedly practicing real estate without being properly licensed.

      Legislation backed by Cooper that is currently pending in the North Carolina General Assembly would put controls on similar We Buy Homes operations to help protect homeowners and homebuyers from falling prey to these types of schemes.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      A North Carolina court has ordered Charlotte Home Solutions to stop its operation that purported to buy homes and then resell them to buyers with poor cred...

      Skepticism The Key To Avoiding Locksmith Scam


      Perhaps playing on consumers' security fears, a handful of operators, posing as locksmith companies, are ripping off consumers coast to coast.

      The companies, all employing similar tactics, are significantly overcharging consumers, charging consumers for unnecessary services, using intimidation tactics, and failing to give refunds or respond to consumer complaints, according to the Better Business Bureau.

      Ironically, these companies operate under names like Dependable Locksmith but in reality they exploit the vulnerable situation of consumers who are locked out of their house or car, said Steve Cox spokesperson for the BBB System. Weve found that some locksmiths have made taking advantage of consumers misfortune part of their business model.

      Complaints about locksmith services to the 114 BBBs serving the U.S. increased almost 75 percent from 2005 to 2006, and have continued to come in steadily during the first half of this year.

      The BBB has singled out Dependable Locksmith which operates under more than a dozen different names for harsh criticism, calling it particularly disreputable.

      The group says the company poses as a local locksmith in cities across the country and advertises in the yellow pages using local phone numbers and fake local addresses. A consumer might think theyre dealing with a local locksmith but their phone call is actually connected to a call center located in the Bronx borough of New York City.

      Consumers are quoted a reasonable price over the phone but when the locksmith arrives typically in an unmarked vehicle he demands significantly more money than originally quoted, often only accepting cash.

      A complaint from Cleveland, OH, where Dependable Locksmith was operating under the name Superb Solutions, alleges the company quoted fees of $39 and $84 for separate jobs, but the bill ended up at $471, which included add-on fees such as a $65 breaking in fee and a $58 fee to uninstall old locks.

      Another complainant reported that the locksmith sent to let her into her car demanded she pay twice the price quoted over the phone. The locksmith offered to drive her to an ATM to get cash. Feeling unsafe the victim refused.

      The victim said she was ultimately forced to write a check made out personally to the locksmith, claiming he would not let her into her car until she did so. She cancelled payment on the check the next morning, but eventually filed a police report after the locksmith harassed her with continuous phone calls about payment.

      The BBB also reports complaints from victims who say they were charged for unnecessary services. For example, complainants suspect locksmiths sent over by Dependable Locksmiths of pretending they couldnt simply pick the lock so that they could charge more and install all new locks in homes.

      Some of Dependable Locksmiths aliases include, Superb Solutions, Locksmith 24 Hour, Inc., USA Total Security, Priceline Locksmith, and S.O.S. Locksmith, according to the BBB.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Perhaps playing on consumers' security fears, a handful of operators, posing as locksmith companies, are ripping off consumers coast to coast....

      Verizon Signs Florida Anti-Cramming Agreement

      AT&T, Embarq Earlier Agreed to Similar Terms

      Verizon is the latest telephone company to sign an anti-cramming settlement with the state of Florida.

      The company agreed to develop an early warning system designed to identify third-party companies that may attempt to place unauthorized charges on consumers phone bills.

      Embarq, once part of Sprint, signed a similar agreement with Florida last month and AT&T; agreed to similar terms earlier. Verizon has more than 40 million access lines inside the coverage region affected by the agreement.

      The practice known as cramming occurs when unauthorized charges are added to phone service bills without the consumers knowledge or consent.

      Unfortunately, victims of cramming often dont realize they are being improperly billed until they have been paying the charges for a significant length of time, said Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum. Todays agreement is the third reached with major telephone companies serving our state, offering much needed protection to Floridas consumers.

      As part of the agreement, Verizon will require merchants and billing and collection clearinghouses to forward all consumer complaints referencing cramming to the phone company.

      If at least 220 complaints within the 28-state Verizon region reference the same company over a month-long period -- an average of eight complaints per state -- Verizon will take action against the company to protect telephone consumers.

      These actions may include the requirement that the company accused of cramming send out written notices to all new Florida subscribers notifying them of the following:

      • their service subscription;
      • the date the charges will begin to appear on their Verizon bill;
      • the amount of the charges, and
      • how the consumer may cancel the service subscription.

      If cramming continues, Verizon may cease doing business with the merchant.

      The agreement follows similar settlements with Embarq and AT&T; and a nationwide settlement with Email Discount Network (EDN). The company had allegedly failed to clearly disclose that offers for Internet savings were not free and that customers who submitted personal information to the company would be charged unless they contacted EDN to cancel the charges.

      More than 250,000 consumers nationwide were charged a monthly fee for the coupons. EDN agreed to make restitution to every consumer who was adversely affected by the companys business practices and who submits a claims form, with restitution expected to exceed $1 million.

      The case involving Verizon was initiated last September when the Attorney General's Office initially sued EDN for cramming.

      In conjunction with the lawsuit, the Attorney Generals Office and the Office of Public Counsel filed a joint petition before the Florida Public Service Commission against Verizon, Embarq and BellSouth seeking to protect Florida consumers from the deceptive practices.

      The latest agreement is the final step in resolving the issue of how telephone companies with Florida customers will address cramming and what steps will be taken to proactively protect telephone consumers from the illegal practice, which occurs when unauthorized charges from third parties appear on phone bills, McCollum said.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Verizon Signs Florida Anti-Cramming Agreement...

      Ameriquest to Pay $325 Million to Homeowners

      Company Settles Predatory Lending Allegations

      Ameriquest and other mortgage companies are paying $325 million to homeowners who were victimized by predatory home mortgage sales schemes. Other companies involved in the settlement are Town and County Credit Corporation and AMC Mortgage Services, Inc., formerly known as Bedford Home Loans.

      The settlement resolves allegations that Ameriquest and its affiliates failed to adequately disclose home loan terms, failed to disclose whether loans carried fixed or adjustable rates, refinanced borrowers into inappropriate loans, inflated the appraisals used to qualify borrowers for loans, and charged excessive loan origination fees and prepayment penalties.

      The company engaged in these unlawful mortgage lending practices from 1999 through 2005.

      "Hard-working families trying to buy a home wound up as targets of improper sales practice," said California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. "This settlement provides homebuyers with at least some of the restitution they deserve."

      Attorneys general from the District of Columbia and every state except Virginia, where Ameriquest did not conduct business, are also parties to the settlement.

      Forms being mailed to consumers today indicate the minimum payment that customers can expect to receive. The average restitution payment is $812.15 but the amount could be larger depending upon how many customers choose to participate in the settlement.

      Consumers who want the restitution payment should mail completed and signed forms to the settlement administrator by September 10, 2007.

      Consumers who accept the restitution payment will relinquish their right to file lawsuits against Ameriquest unless their home goes into foreclosure. If a consumer's home goes into foreclosure, the consumer may still file a lawsuit against Ameriquest even if the restitution payment was accepted.

      Consumers are encouraged to consult a private attorney or legal services attorney before deciding whether to participate in the settlement.

      A "Frequently Asked Questions" pamphlet was mailed with the claim forms to provide additional information about the restitution process for eligible consumers. Consumers can also obtain detailed information about the settlement by contacting the Ameriquest Settlement Administrator by calling 1-800-420-5875 (1-866-494-8274 for deaf or hard of hearing consumers).

      "Texans will not tolerate predatory lending schemes that lock would-be homeowners into a seemingly endless cycle of debt," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. "We are pleased that Texas homeowners who were harmed by this lending giant will share nearly $21 million in refunds. The Office of the Attorney General will continue protecting homeowners from deceptive lenders."

      Ameriquest to Pay $325 Million to Homeowners...

      Consumers Bilked of $17.5 Billion in Overdraft Loans

      System "Enormously Out of Balance," Report Finds

      Consumers are paying $17.5 billion per year in high-cost, unsolicited loans to cover overdrafts that big banks and credit unions promote, according to a report released today by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL).

      "In a system enormously out of balance, these fees amount to more than the loans themselves, which have reached $15.8 billion per year," the report said.

      Abusive overdraft loans, once the exception, are now the rule in a system where not-sufficient funds (NSF) fees historically used to discourage overdrafts have shrunk to 31 percent of overdraft-related fees. Abusive overdraft loan fees now account for 69 percent of those fees, CRL said.

      These small, high-cost loans are made by a bank or credit union to an account holder who is "in the red," often without the account holder's consent. The bank recoups the loan amount, plus a fee averaging $34 from the account holder's next deposit.

      Often marketed as "bounce protection," the fee-based overdraft loan protects only the banks' fees, and should not be confused with cheaper sources of back-up funds for checking accounts, the report said.

      These loans can make a small purchase, even a sandwich or doughnut, cost the unsuspecting bank customer over $30, and they can trigger a domino effect of debits that leaves the customer struggling to climb out of a negative balance.

      Common banking practices, such as clearing high-dollar debits before subtracting smaller debit amounts, holding deposits longer than necessary, and failing to decline overdrafts or warn customers at the checkout or ATM if they have insufficient funds, increase the number of overdrafts suffered by consumers, CRL warned.

      Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Barney Frank (D-MA) have sponsored a bill that would put the protection back in overdraft policy, and are holding a hearing on the bill on Capitol Hill today.

      HR 946 would make abusive overdraft loans subject to Truth-in-Lending Act interest rate disclosures, as well as requiring written consent from account holders before banks could enroll them in these systems. It would also prohibit manipulations designed to increase overdrafts, and would require banks and credit unions to warn their customers before authorizing an electronic overdraft.

      CRL said consumers should consider linking their checking account to a savings account or line of credit to protect themselves from the high fees of abusive overdraft loans.

      Consumers Bilked of $17.5 Billion in Overdraft Loans...

      FBI Uses Data Brokers, "Risk Scores" To Hunt Terrorists


      The Department of Justice has released a report detailing its use of multiple databases and information provided by data brokers to identify identity thieves and patterns of fraud, as well as its plans to build a new database to hunt terrorists.

      The data mining programs, which use advanced technologies and concepts such as risk scoring, drew criticism from civil rights advocates for relying on bad data and potentially identifying innocent Americans as criminals.

      Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, criticized the system as "ripe for abuse," while the ACLU and EFF derided the system's reliance on potentially inaccurate data for making judgments.

      The FBI's proposed "System To Assess Risk," or STAR, would measure suspects against data gleaned from a wide variety of sources, including private data resellers such as ChoicePoint.

      STAR would then assign a risk score to the suspect based on the data analysis. Much as credit scores are used to determine a borrower's ability to pay a loan or receive new credit, the risk score would be used to determine the likelihood that the suspect is a terrorist or accomplice.

      Unlike credit scores, risk scores are built from far larger sources of data, including names, addresses, buying habits, financial records, and in the FBI's case, other "watch lists" and databases of suspects. STAR would measure suspects against names found on terrorist watch lists like those held by the TSA, which has been criticized for containing inaccurate information and penalizing innocent travelers.

      The TSA was also criticized for using private contractors to collect information on hundreds of millions of Americans as part of its own proposed antiterrorist verification system, variously called "CAPPS II" and "Secure Flight."

      The Secure Flight program was scuttled due to criticism of its vulnerabilities and violation of privacy.

      The Department of Homeland Security already has its own terrorism risk score, which it assigns to travelers entering and exiting the United States. The score, which is held for up to forty years, can be shared with other Federal agencies and foreign governments, but Americans are barred from seeing their own scores.

      Individuals who score high on a terrorism risk score list can be subjected to heavier scrutiny when traveling, or be added to a "no-fly" list that may bar them from entering or leaving the country.

      Risk scores, sometimes called "identity scores," are chiefly used by the financial industry to measure and prevent account fraud.

      Individuals opening new bank or credit accounts have their information measured against patterns of fraud and risk, such as opening many new accounts at once or suddenly charging huge balances on a credit card. If the person opening the account has a high risk score, they may be flagged for committing fraud.

      Avivah Litan, research analyst for the Gartner group, advocated identity scoring as a stronger tool to combat fraud than credit monitoring, as it drew information from a larger number of sources, but warned that it was also not infallible and was still too new a concept to really take hold in the marketplace.

      Risk scoring, like credit scoring, relies on measuring information based on the data provided. Just as credit bureaus are criticized for relying on inaccurate or outdated information to generate credit scores, data brokers generally refuse to be held liable for the accuracy -- or inaccuracy -- of the information they gather and sell.

      The Justice Department report, which had been requested several months earlier, came on the heels from statements by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that he had been unaware of the FBI's abuse of "national security letters," which can be used to access Americans' financial records as part of criminal investigations.

      The use of the letters for criminal investigations spurred similar requests by the Pentagon and the CIA. Gonzales claimed he was ignorant of the abuses until he had read about them in a report issued by the FBI's Inspector General, but investigations by the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that he had been briefed months earlier about the use of national security letters and the resultant abuses.

      FBI Uses Data Brokers, 'Risk Scores' To Hunt Terrorists...

      Can an Apple a Day Keep Asthma Away?

      Poor Diet Linked to Respiratory Problems in Teens

      Teenagers who forego a healthy and balanced diet may have a harder time catching their breath.

      A new study, published in the July issue of CHEST, the peer-reviewed journal of the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP), shows that a low dietary intake of certain nutrients increases the likelihood of respiratory symptoms such as asthma, especially in teens that smoke. Furthermore, a lack of these nutrients may also lead to lower lung function.

      Our study, as well as other research, suggests that higher intakes of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory micronutrients are associated with lower reports of cough, respiratory infections, and less severe asthma-related symptoms, said lead study author Jane Burns, ScD, Harvard School of Public Health.

      Teenagers who have low dietary intakes of fruit, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids are at greater risk of having asthma, emphasizing the importance of a balanced diet, composed of whole foods.

      While observing 12th-grade students from 12 communities around the U.S. and Canada, Dr. Burns and her colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health, Health Canada, Brigham and Womens Hospital, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), examined the associations of low dietary nutrient intake with low pulmonary function and respiratory symptoms.

      Over the period of one school year, 2,112 students completed a standardized respiratory questionnaire and a dietary questionnaire. They also answered questions about medication use, smoking habits, and recent exercise, before participating in lung function testing.

      Dr. Burns explained that the researchers focused on teens because it is the ideal age at which to test lung capacity and eating habits.

      During late adolescence, physical stature has, on average, been attained and lung growth closely parallels this growth. Therefore we were observing a time when lung function was close to its optimal capacity, she said.

      Also, although our diet survey targeted eating habits only during the past year, it did give us some idea of the teens general past diet. However, their current respiratory health may be a reflection of diet during childhood, as well as during the past year.

      The majority of adolescents in the study were white, one third were overweight, and 72% did not consume multivitamins. Also, nearly 25% reported smoking on a daily basis.

      Researchers also found that at least one third of the students diets were below the recommended levels of fruit, vegetable, vitamins A and E, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acid intake.

      Vitamin supplements can help teens meet their daily recommended levels, said Dr. Burns, and surprisingly, even relatively low levels of omega-3 fatty acids appeared to protect teens from higher reported respiratory symptoms.

      Results showed that low dietary intakes of fruit, vitamins C and E, and omega-3 fatty acids were associated with decreased lung function and a greater risk of chronic bronchitic symptoms, wheeze, and asthma. These risks were further increased among students with the lowest intakes and who also smoked.

      I wish we could say that an apple a day can keep asthma away, but its a complex disease with a genetic component. However, it may be that certain foods can lessen or prevent asthma symptoms, said Dr. Burns. The most important thing to remember is that diet can have a significant impact on teens respiratory health. I would encourage them to make healthy eating a part of their daily routine, and stress to them that smoking is bad.

      Researchers emphasized that fresh fruits make for convenient snacks. They also suggest preparing a simple, daily family meal, as a method to promote both communication and good nutrition.

      A balanced diet is not only good for lung health, but for general health, said Mark J. Rosen, MD, FCCP, President of the American College of Chest Physicians. Parents and physicians should work together to monitor and maintain healthy diets and lifestyles for children of all ages.



      Teenagers who have low dietary intakes of fruit, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids are at greater risk of having asthma, emphasizing the importance of a b...

      Bird Flu Scare In Virginia

      Suspected avian flu germs found in flock of turkeys

      The state of Virginia has suspended all sales of live poultry after the discovery of suspected avian flu germs in a flock of Virginia turkeys. The ban will remain in effect through the rest of this month.

      As scary as it sounds, state health officials say its a danger to the poultry industry but not to humans.

      The Virginia Department of Agriculture said the strain of antibodies discovered in the flock of 54,000 turkeys in Shenandoah County, Virginia does not pose a health risk to humans.

      The state has also banned the transfer and application of poultry droppings in 17 counties. Droppings, which could carry and spread the antibodies, are often used as fertilizer.

      In Indonesia, the death of a six-year-old boy brought that country's world-leading death toll from the H5N1 avian influenza virus to 81.

      The Indonesian government, responding to a spike in new cases, declared a ban on backyard poultry farms in residential areas of nine provinces. It also placed tight restrictions on the movement and sale of poultry and poultry products across the nine provinces, and is preparing more hospitals to treat human cases of the virus.

      Most bird flu victims have had direct or indirect contact with sick birds, but scientists fear the virus could mutate into a form that would be easily spread among humans, sparking a global pandemic that could kill millions.

      Meanwhile, Egypt, the country hardest hit by bird flu outside Asia, has banned all poultry imports from France and Germany after the H5N1 strain was discovered in birds there.

      Egypt took the step after positive H5N1 test results last week on three swans in France and 38 birds in Germany.



      Bird Flu Scare In Virginia...

      Sprint: Don't Call Us, We'll Call You


      In April 2007, an MSN Money-Zogby Poll showed that the winner of the Customer Service Hall of Shame went to wireless provider Sprint -- not an award that any company would want.

      Now, irked by irksome customers and complainers, Sprint is striking back -- by cutting off users who call customer service 25 times per month or more.

      One of those users is Rene, an eight-year Sprint customer.

      I just got a new phone and plan five weeks ago, and to thank me, Sprint sends me a letter saying that my service is being terminated at the end of July.

      Rene, who goes by the name MissDiva on the SprintUsers.com forum, had to call Sprint due to several billing errors. Some calls to customer service were dropped, which meant she had to call them back. Each call was a black mark against her.

      If they would have fixed the problem on the first call, I wouldnt have to place a second call. This is how they repay me for being a loyal customer? Rene fumed.

      To add insult to injury, Renes boyfriend repeatedly receives calls from Sprint asking him to add another line, even though he tells them not to call. It seems its fine for Sprint to call often, but a customer dare not call Sprint on a regular basis, he said.

      Rene said she has tried to resolve the issue but has had no success. Sprint said they would call me back within 48 hours, but 4 days passed and still no call.

      According to Sprint, approximately 1,000 customers received the termination letter. The letter says that any remaining balance will be wiped out and the subscriber wont pay an early termination fee.

      That's a relatively low number, considering the constant stream of Sprint customers who complain to ConsumerAffairs.com that their repeated calls to Sprint fail to resolve service and billing problems.

      Among the 2,234 Sprint complaints received by ConsumerAffairs.com:

      Judith of Tiburon, Calif., who is hearing-impaired, said she began calling Sprint/Nextel in March to change her one-month-old phone because she could not hear its ring.

      "I purchased another phone at a Sprint store and was told that I could use the phone on the hybrid account. That turned out not to be true and I've been charged for 2 separate accounts ever since" despite numerous calls to Sprint, Judith said.

      Diana of Altamonte Springs, Fla., said Sprint cut off her service for non-payment even though she pays her bill every month through Embarq, her local landline carrier.

      "Numerous calls to Sprint PCS customer NO service has resulting in nothing but frustration. They insist that I owe them money which I have already paid to Embarq," she said.

      Yadira of Bronx, N.Y., said she called repeatedly to follow-up on the arrival of a replacement phone. "I get disconnected or they'll place me on hold and completely forget that Im there," she said.

      In a masterpiece of bad timing, shortly after mailing the termination notices, Sprint released a statement concerning its new partnership with NASCAR.

      The Sprint/NASCAR press release says, in part, This is an evolutionary time for Sprint Nextel's brand. Our new brand campaign focuses on the importance of speed in people's daily lives and illustrates their ability to get information where they want it, when they want it.

      Unless they have to call Sprint for it, that is.

      Sprint: Don't Call Us, We'll Call You...

      Pet Food Company Denies Claim for Dead Dog

      Nutro's Insurance Disclaims Responsibility for Sandyboy's Demise


      Claim denied.

      Thats the message a grieving Arizona pet owner received on Monday from the insurance carrier for Nutro Products, one of the companies involved in the nationwide pet food recall.

      Pet owner Jerri L. filed a claim with the company to recoup the $700 in vet bills she incurred trying to save her 13-year-old Sheltie, Sandyboy.

      As ConsumerAffairs.com first reported in April, Sandyboy suddenly went into kidney failure after eating one of the recalled Nutro Max foods.

      He was a perfectly healthy dog and then I put him on that food, and boom, within two weeks, he was gone, Jerri told us. His immediate symptoms were going off by himself, being very lethargic, and not eating or drinking as much as he did. Then he started getting diarrhea and wouldnt take in any fluids.

      Our vet confirmed he went into complete kidney failure and there was no reason for his kidneys to fail. We had to make the difficult decision to put him to sleep.

      That happened in May 2006 ten months before Menu Foods recalled 60 million containers of melamine-tainted pet food.

      Jerri, however, is convinced that Sandyboys death is linked to the Nutro Max pet food.

      All our other dogs ate Pedigree and theyre fine. Hes the only one who got sick. He was a healthy 13-year-old dog until he started eating that food. So yes, Im certain theres a connected between the food and his death.

      The Hartford insurance company disagrees.

      Our investigation has determined that our insured is not responsible for this very unfortunate incident, the company wrote in a letter to Jerri. The basis for this decision is in light of the fact that while your pet may have consumed some of the recalled product, testing of your pet has revealed that your pet was not ill (or the illness is not related to the recalled pet food).

      Accordingly, there is no property damage as a result of the insureds product. Based upon the above, this will advise that there is no legal liability on the part of Nutro Products, Inc. for the alleged damages.

      Not Giving Up

      Sandyboy

      Despite the companys denial, Jerris not ready to give up her fight.

      She plans to join one of the class action lawsuits filed in connection with the pet food recall.

      I want my $700 and I want an admission by the company that they were wrong, the Goodyear, Arizona woman told us today. I dont think anyone did this (contaminated the pet food) purposely. But I think the company needs to take care of what occurred.

      She adds: It makes me sick to think that I killed my dog. I could barely live with decision to put him down and now to think I may have killed him inadvertently. I could have taken it if hed died of old age. But not this Im just heartsick over this whole thing.

      The Food and Drug Administration discovered two ingredients used to make the recalled pet foods -- wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate -- contained melamine. That chemical is not approved for use in pet or human food; its used to make plastics and pesticides.

      FDA officials traced the melamine-tainted ingredients to two companies in China, which exported the products to the United States. Those Chinese companies are now closed.

      Since March, Menu Foods and other pet food makers have recalled more than 5,600 pet food products sold under at least 100 brand namesmaking this one of the largest pet food recalls in U.S. history.

      This whole thing has gotten so crazy, Jerri says. I dont feel safe giving my other six dogs commercial foods anymore. Thats why Im looking at giving them natural foods.



      Pet Food Company Denies Claim for Dead Dog...

      Virus Lurks In Bogus E-Card Greeting


      It can brighten even the drabbest Monday; everyone, it seems, likes getting an E-Card greeting in their inbox. However, a fake E-Card that's currently being spammed worldwide can unleash a nasty computer virus.

      The greeting looks real enough. It is an exact replica of a Hallmark E-Card, or one from MyPostcards.com or a number of other sites that provide animated email greetings.

      The recipient is instructed to click on a link to view the greeting card. There may also be instructions for downloading and saving it. But doing so could lead to big trouble.

      The link goes to a hackers Web site and tries to open a file called postcard.exe. Security experts warn that opening an executable file from an unknown source is a good way to download a Trojan or other unwanted program that can damage your computer and create a security risk.

      The subject line in the greeting varies, from a generic hello to references to a specific holiday or event. Last week a number of these bogus E-Cards used the U.S. July 4 Independence Day celebration to lure victims into their trap.

      Cyber criminals easily take advantage of celebrations like the 4th July to infect innocent people's computers, and potentially steal their identities. This is not just an American problem - these kinds of attacks strike around the world, and are designed to abuse PCs on a global scale, said Brett Myroff, CEO of NetXactics, a distributor of Sophos security software.

      Sophos says those who fall for the ruse will be taken to a zombie computer, which attempts to load the virus. The virus then tries to download additional code from the Internet.

      Security experts advise that people who receive a an unexpected E-Card from a person they do not know, or have not heard from for a long time, should delete it without opening it, as they would any other email from an unknown, or suspect, source.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Virus Lurks In Bogus E-Card Greeting...

      Improved Paxil Settlement Hits YouTube

      Video Informs Parents That Clock Is Ticking On $48 Million Payback Fund

      July 9, 2007

      YouTube is coming to the aid of parents who could benefit from a class-action settlement.

      While the maker of Paxil and Paxil CR -- GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) -- was required by law to announce the settlement terms of a parent-driven class action lawsuit in October 2006, it was not required to publicize the fact that those terms were greatly improved and simplified in April 2007. Because of legal actions taken by Public Citizen, many more parents whose children took Paxil before the age of 18 could benefit from the settlement if they only knew about it.


      Public Citizen posted a YouTube video to tell these parents that there is a $48 million dollar fund created by GSK to pay them back. Even without receipts, parents can recover up to $100. Any money that is not claimed prior to the August 31, 2007 deadline will revert back to the drug company.

      GSK and the FDA warned doctors only last year that Paxil increased suicidal thoughts in this age group, and yet this popular anti-depressant has been prescribed to children and teenagers since 1992. Parents believed this information was known and withheld by the company, which opted to settle the case rather than go to trial and be forced to answer some very difficult questions.

      If you are a parents or guardian who purchased the antidepressant Paxil or Paxil CR for your child or ward, then you are entitled to recover the money you spent on the drug.

      You are entitled to this money if:

      • you live in the U.S. and
      • you purchased Paxil or Paxil CR for someone under the age of 18.

      If you qualify, you must fill out a claim form and mail it to the Paxil Pediatric Settlement Administrator in order to receive compensation. The claims must be received by August 31, 2007. The claim form may be downloaded at www.citizen.org/documents/paxilclaimform.pdf (pdf).

      If you do not have receipts from the Paxil or Paxil CR purchases, you may receive up to $100.

      If you do have receipts from the Paxil or Paxil CR purchases, you may receive up to the entire amount of money you spent purchasing Paxil or Paxil CR for someone under the age of 18. Be sure to follow the claim form's instructions: attach copies of your receipts or records to document how much you spent on Paxil or Paxil CR.



      Improved Paxil Settlement Hits YouTube...

      When Does Menopause Really Begin?

      The Healthy Geezer


      Q. When does menopause really begin?

      A. A woman reaches menopause when a year has passed since her last period.

      Menopause, like many of the changes in a womans body through her lifetime, is caused by changes in hormone levels.

      Menopausal transition, called perimenopause, is the time when a womans body is close to menopause. Periods may become irregular. A woman may start to feel hot flashes and night sweats. Perimenopause usually begins about 2 to 4 years before the last menstrual period. It ends when menopause begins.

      Postmenopause follows menopause and lasts the remainder of a womans life. Pregnancy is no longer possible. There may be symptoms such as vaginal dryness long after menopause.

      The process of reproductive aging begins around age 40. Declining levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone change a womans periods. These hormones maintain the health of the vagina and uterus, and regulate the menstrual cycles

      The most common symptoms of menopause are:

      Period changes. Many women become irregular. Flow levels get heavier or lighter. There may be spotting between periods.

      Hot flashes. These are sudden rushes of heat that can last seconds or minutes. Perspiring and shivering can follow. Flashes can be trivial or strong enough to wake a woman with night sweats.

      Vaginal and bladder problems. The genital area can get drier and thinner. Infections can become more common. Other problems can make it hard to hold urine.

      Difficulties with sex. Vaginal dryness can make intercourse painful.

      Sleep problems. Some women find they may not fall asleep easily or may wake too early. Their sleep is disturbed by trips to the bathroom. Hot flashes awaken them.

      Body changes. Loss of bone tissue can weaken your bones and cause osteoporosis, a disease in which the bones become extremely porous and more fragile. With age, waists thicken, muscle mass is lost, fat tissue may increase, skin may get thinner.

      Heart disease. Heart disease is a major threat for older women. In fact, heart disease is the major cause of death in women, killing more women than lung or breast cancer.

      HRT

      In menopause, a doctor might suggest taking estrogen and progesterone, known as hormone replacement therapy or HRT. HRT involves taking estrogen plus progestin.

      HRT may relieve hot flashes, and reduce loss of bone. However, HRT increases the risk for heart disease, stroke and breast cancer. But it appears to decrease the risk of colon cancer.

      Phytoestrogens are estrogen-like substances found in soy, wild yams, and herbs such as black cohosh and dong quai; they may relieve some symptoms of menopause. The government does not regulate phytoestrogens. Scientists are studying some of these plant estrogens to find out if they work and are safe.

      Be sure to tell your doctor if you decide to eat more foods with phytoestrogens. Any food or over-the-counter product that you use for its drug-like effects could interact with other prescribed drugs or cause an overdose.

      All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti



      When Does Menopause Really Begin?...

      Chinese Fireworks Malfunction at Virginia Celebrations

      Fireworks Safer than Toothpaste?

      Chinese-manufactured fireworks malfunctioned at a July 4 fireworks show in Vienna, Va., rocketing into a crowd composed mostly of children, injuring 11 and sending at least seven to the hospital.

      The show was proceeding as planned until the start of the finale when a cake box with 25 rockets fired the trajectories in many directions around the ballpark where the show took place.

      That show was one of six in Fairfax County, Va., in which the same cake box misfired. However, it was only in Vienna where citizens were injured, Fairfax Fire Marshal spokesman Dan Schmidt said.

      Schaefer Pyrotechnics of Ronks, Pa. operated all the shows in Fairfax County and has done so for 10 years. The company is not being blamed for the workmanship of the Chinese shells. Schafer representatives refused to comment.

      The item being blamed in each misfire was the cake box, which is a container of five rows of five three-inch mortar tubes ignited by a single fuse. In all the cases, it appears one of the mortars exploded early, tipping over the container and sending the rockets screaming outwards just a few feet above the ground. One of those mortars narrowly missed two Schaefer employees at the Fairfax City show.

      Schmidt said all the fireworks were carefully inspected, following the National Fire Protection Association regulations, and that the cake boxes had been secured by at least 600 pounds of sand bags.

      Nearly 99 percent of all fireworks sold legally in the U.S. are imported from China, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group that promotes the sale of fireworks.

      The group also said that fireworks manufactured in China are more strictly inspected than other items such as toothpaste, which was recently discovered to have been manufactured with a poison used in antifreeze.

      Witnesses described the scene to The Washington Post as chaotic.

      Schmidt said in his 10 years in the Fire Marshal's office, he has never seen a professional fireworks display malfunction.

      Marie Kilsner, a spokeswoman for the town of Vienna, said she believes that a woman in her '30s and her 3-year-old son are still being treated at northern Virginia hospitals. She said because of Federal privacy regulations she doesn't know any more details.



      Chinese Fireworks Malfunction at Virginia Celebrations...

      VIPER Teams Protect Transit Hubs

      TSA team is ready to scramble when threats arise

      The vipers have landed! This time, however, theyre the good guys.

      VIPER, which stands for Visible Intermodeal Protection And Response, is a high-security, low-profile unit designed to defray terrorist attacks at airports and other transportation hubs.

      Created by another agency better-known for its acronym, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), the new unit doesnt want publicity. To it, stealth is an asset.

      "This is nothing new," said the TSAs Ellen Howe. "Over the last 18 months, weve had 84 VIPER team operations."

      She said her teams consist of transportation inspectors, air marshals, behavioral experts, and bomb detectors, among others. Taking a page from the terrorist textbook, they bank on being unpredictable, so that nobody knows where they might show up next.

      Not surprisingly, they are already on the job in New York, the focal point of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

      They were deployed there even before British authorities thwarted car-bombing plots, minimized an attack on Glasgow airport, and arrested eight alleged co-conspirators last weekend.

      VIPER teams carry arms but do not always wear uniforms. They have worked such events as the Super Bowl and the funeral of former president Gerald Ford.

      According to Howe, "Its not unusual to deploy them at a time like this when a lot of people will be using public transit systems."

      In addition to the New York-New Jersey area, which has three major airports, VIPER teams are at work in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, among other places. The teams work in concert with local authorities, including city and state police and airport agencies like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

      How much time they spend in a given location, where they are deployed, and the size of each team is confidential information, not known to the public or the media.

      Thats the way the TSA likes it.



      VIPER Teams Protect Transit Hubs...

      UK Tries Nicotine Patches on Pregnant Smokers


      In Britain, 1050 pregnant women are being recruited for the most extensive trial of its kind to establish the effect of using nicotine patches during pregnancy.

      The clinical trial -- Smoking, Nicotine and Pregnancy (SNAP) trial -- will investigate whether nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) is safe, effective and cost-effective for mothers-to-be who want to give up smoking. It will also study the effect on the behavior and development of the child.

      Smoking during pregnancy is recognized as a major public health problem.

      Around 30% of pregnant women smoke and researchers say it can cause significant health problems in the unborn child. It accounts for around 4000 fetal deaths (including miscarriages) every year and it can lead to premature births, low birth weight, cot death and asthma. It is also associated with attention deficit and learning problems in childhood.

      The trial, funded by the British National Institute for Health Research's Health Technology Assessment Program, is being led by Dr Tim Coleman from the Division of Primary Care at The University of Nottingham. He says women are highly motivated to stop smoking when they are pregnant.

      If the SNAP trial establishes that NRT is effective and safe when used for smoking cessation by pregnant women, then greater use of NRT by pregnant smokers could have a substantial impact on their health and also on the health of their babies, Coleman said.

      Women who report to hospitals for pre-natal ultrasound scans at between 12 and 24 weeks pregnant are being offered trial participation. If they agree to take part they will receive either nicotine or placebo patches. This will be backed up with support and advice on how to deal with cravings, and what to do to avoid smoking. Their progress will be followed until their children are two years old when infants' cognitive development and respiratory symptoms will be compared.

      Smoking brings the unborn child into contact not just with nicotine but with a long list of other harmful chemicals. Although there is expert consensus that NRT is probably safer than smoking the team has received funding to establish whether or not this is actually the case.

      NRT can double a non-pregnant smoker's chance of giving up, but as pregnant women metabolize nicotine a lot faster than other people it cannot be assumed that NRT will work for them and the SNAP trial will establish whether this is the case.



      UK Tries Nicotine Patches on Pregnant Smokers ...

      Data Theft Leads To Breach of 2.3 Million Records


      A database administrator employed by a subsidiary of payment processor Fidelity National stole the information of as many as 2.3 million customers and resold it to an unidentified data broker, the company alleged.

      The unidentified data broker then resold the information to direct marketers who solicited the customers for product offers.

      Although Fidelity claimed there was no evidence the stolen information had been used for identity theft, junk mail solicitations are a prime cause of identity theft, as criminals will often "dumpster dive" for unused credit solicitations and open accounts using stolen identities.

      The administrator, William Sullivan, worked for Fidelity subsidiary Certegy Check Services. Certegy first detected the breach when one of their customers alerted them to a link between check transactions and product solicitations its customers were receiving.

      When an internal investigation failed to turn up the source of the breach, Certegy contacted the U.S. Secret Service.

      The investigation led to Sullivan, characterized by Certegy president Renz Nichols as a "rogue," though he had worked for the company for seven years. Nichols said the employee had been fired and that the company would be pursuing civil damages against him.

      "We are taking the necessary steps to see that any further use of the data stops," Nichols said.

      Fidelity National provides payment processing services for retail, mortgage, and other transactions. It is a separate entity from Fidelity Investments.

      The Enemy Within

      In terms of sheer size, the Fidelity breach surpasses the loss of a laptop containing records on 1.8 million veterans by a former analyst with the Veterans' Administration.

      It is surpassed by another disappearing laptop, containing information on 2.9 million Georgia residents receiving medical care and belonging to a contractor working for the state's Department of Health.

      But the dubious honor of largest data breach is still held by the TJX company, when hackers exposed records belonging to 46 million customers of the retail chain's TJ Maxx and Marshall's stores.

      Although the majority of data breaches are caused by bad security procedures and carelessness, rather than malice, employees who go bad still present a major headache for businesses. Disgruntled workers can wreak havoc with information systems or steal and resell the data for profit.

      In April, a former Morgan Stanley employee was arrested on charges of stealing information on the firm's hedge fund clients and using it to build his own brokerage business.

      A database administrator employed by a subsidiary of payment processor Fidelity National stole the information of as many as 2.3 million customers and reso...

      Tattoo Removal a Growing Business


      For years, young people have been paying good money to adorn their skin with tattoos. Now, an increasing number of not-so-young people are paying good money to have those tattoos removed.

      Its like a really hot Exacto knife slicing through your skin, said John Klear, describing his recent laser tattoo removal treatments.

      Despite the pain and the cost, he says, its worth it to him to have his tattoos removed. He got them when he was in the Navy, a rite of passage but also a lasting reminder of the folly of youth, he says.

      Later, after deciding he didnt like the way they looked, he researched tattoo removal on the Internet and decided to go to the University of Michigan Health System for treatment.

      His dermatologist, Jeffrey Orringer, M.D., sees many patients who want their tattoos to disappear. Indeed, he says, nearly 20 percent of people with tattoos are thinking of having them removed and other estimates are even higher.

      The most common reason, he says, would be to remove a name of someone who is no longer involved in the patients life.

      Orringer treats patients with a laser technology that allows for a fairly precise removal of the ink without damage to the surrounding skin and, in most cases, without a scar. He says the technology is far superior to the techniques of the past.

      Current technology allows the physician to choose certain wavelengths of laser light and shine them on the skin. The wavelength of light from the Q-switched (or quality-switched) laser targets the ink in the skin; the ink heats up when absorbing the laser light, and the balls of ink pop like popcorn but on a microscopic basis, says Orringer, assistant professor of dermatology at the U-M Medical School.

      The body responds by sending in white blood cells that chew up the altered ink and lighten the tattoo.

      For typical, professionally applied tattoos, Orringer orders six to 12 treatment sessions that will clear most tattoos. And its not an easy process.

      Some patients tell me that having it removed with a laser is somewhat more uncomfortable than acquiring it in the first place, he said.

      Not Cheap

      The cost also tends to be greater than the price of having the tattoo applied, he says, and can add up to a few thousand dollars for the most complex tattoos. Simpler tattoos cost less than that.

      Some tattoos are easier to remove than others. Those that are older, simpler, contain fewer colors are easier to remove, while those located on arms and legs tend to be tougher, Orringer said.

      Id say its most difficult to remove a tattoo from the ankle area, he said. The hands, fingers and other areas at the end of extremities are also more difficult because of a difference in blood flow.

      Counter intuitively, darker colors, such as black, are easier to remove; vivid, bright colors can be more difficult. When tattoo artists mix colors such as dark blue with white to create sky blue it can pose difficulties during the removal process. The white ink acts as a shield that reflects much of the laser light, protecting the blue ink and making it more difficult to eradicate with lasers.

      For Robert Kelley, 48, the process of having his tattoo removed is a chance for him to teach his son about the potential downside of getting a tattoo. He is pleased that he has the option to have the tattoo removed, but it hasnt been easy.

      Ive been able to show my son after my surgeries what the healing process looks like, said Kelley, who has required more than a dozen laser sessions for the removal of a skull tattoo on his arm, which he got when he was a teenager. If my son wants a tattoo when hes older, Im going to remind him of the process I went through.



      Young people have been paying good money to adorn their skin with tattoos. Now, an increasing number of not-so-young people are paying good money to have t...

      Wedding Bill Blues

      Newlyweds Lose Control Of Credit Cards

      When Robin Catesby and her husband Dave were planning their wedding, they made a deliberate choice to make the big day as low-cost as possible.

      "He was in culinary school at the time and we knew we'd have big student loan bills after he graduated, so we opted for an almost entirely do-it-yourself wedding and stayed well within our tiny budget," Catesby said.

      Dave's sister, on the other hand, went for a huge, fancy wedding with all the trimmings.

      "We never heard the exact figures, but it sounded like [his sister's] wedding ran toward the $15-20K mark," said Catesby, currently a graphic designer in Portland, Oregon. "They were very much taken in by all the glitz and foofery."

      Catesby's story is typical of many young marrieds these days. Enticed by visions of fairytale celebrations with expensive and lavish settings, many couples are racking up huge debt in the name of the perfect day -- and unlike previous generations, parents are no longer shouldering the burden as much as they once did, so wedding expenses are increasingly being picked up by credit cards.

      The result, according to Consolidated Credit Counseling Services (CCCS) founder Howard Dvorkin, is an average wedding debt of $25,000.

      "And when you factor in penalties and interest, and if they only make the minimum payment, we're talking debt levels of $100,000 or more over the life of the debt -- that'll take longer to pay off than most marriages last!"

      Great Expectations

      Dvorkin founded CCCS to help consumers deal with crushing debt from various sources and get their financial lives on track. Increasingly, that involves paying off huge credit card debts resulting from lavish weddings.

      "The idea of parents paying for the big day just isn't a reality any more," he said. "The culture pushes this idea that women, in particular, should have this one perfect day so much that they'll do anything to get it. I don't think many really realize what running up that kind of debt means."

      Abigail G., an educator from Netcong, New Jersey, agrees with Dvorkin's assessment.

      "Many little girls dream of their weddings and as the media feeds us all the stories of insanely expensive celebrity bashes, young women -- and some young men as well -- get this idea into their heads that the wedding day has to include a long list of very expensive things," she said.

      "Most people don't have the kind of wealth it takes to put on a wedding like we see in movies or on TV shows, and credit cards make it all too easy to purchase the illusion of it -- at a very high price down the line."

      TheKnot.com, a site devoted to wedding planning and preparation, frequently conducts surveys of its members to find their primary stresses when it comes to the big day.

      In a survey for Bank of America in 2004, 70 percent of TheKnot.com respondents planned to spend $10,000 or more on their wedding, and 15 percent planned to put the costs on their credit cards.

      In another survey conducted for American Express in August 2006, TheKnot.com surveyed 500 newlyweds found that 80 percent named "money" as their prime source of stress from the wedding; 14 percent of the respondents admitted to going over the budget limits they'd set for the wedding.

      American Express conducted the survey as part of the launch of its credit card co-branded with TheKnot.com, specifically designed to cut costs on wedding-related purchases.

      Dvorkin emphasized that much of the problem was cultural.

      "Men, we really don't care. Just give us a few beers and we're happy," he joked. "But women get it drilled into them that this is their big day, and that they need to show off their catch to their friends and their family, and their family's friends, and so on."

      Interestingly, Dvorkin noted that it's the wives who most often come to use his service, as they tend to be more pragmatic and upfront about dealing with the spiraling debt problem.

      "Men tend to stick their heads in the sand and hope everything'll be okay," he said. "The women I've encountered are much more like, 'Hey, we got a problem.'"

      Cut the Costs Before Cutting the Cake

      Everyone we spoke with for this article said the same thing when asked how to prevent credit card debt from weddings -- stick to your budget and be creative and cheap.

      "If you can't afford a $25,000 wedding, don't have one," Dvorkin said. "I've had two weddings myself. I know from experience that you can have a great day without breaking the bank."

      CCCS provides a "wedding planner brochure" that details potential costs couples can run into when planning for a wedding, and suggestions to avoid them. The advice includes:

      Start saving immediately. Put aside 15-20% of your combined disposable income into a high-yield savings account, or open a Certificate of Deposit (CD) to get more interest off the money you've already saved, and use that to cover the heaviest wedding costs.

      Be creative. Dvorkin's tips include having weddings in public parks and beaches, or during the morning or afternoon, rather than renting out expensive halls for the evening. Couples can design their own invitations, bake their own wedding cakes, and craft their own floral arrangements and even wedding gowns to save money.

      Keep it simple. Invite your family and your closest friends, but draw the line at your sister's friend's cousin. Set limits on who can be invited and who can't, and stick to them.

      Outside the Loop

      Stefanie from Lisle, Illinois, is currently planning her wedding to her longtime boyfriend, and was "shocked by the complexity and costs" of everything that came with the wedding day. "Both of us wanted a downtown Chicago wedding," she said.

      "After we started seeing the quotes (plates starting at $160.00, plus 20% gratutity, and over 10% for tax), we had to reconsider a Chicago wedding. We could have used our credit cards and we could have gotten a loan but the idea of being in that much unsecured debt for one day was not some thing we wanted. So instead we found a nice place in the suburbs of Chicago."

      "Do your research. Get quotes, compare, and interview your vendors," Stefanie said. "Consider carefully what you want to purchase so you are not stuck with $200 of silk flowers or 50 vases you have no intention of using."

      There were things Stefanie didn't want to scrimp on, such as the wedding photographer, and as she says, "ultimately it's up to the couple to decide what's important to them."

      Anjie K. from Frederick, Maryland, foreswore a traditional expensive wedding in favor of a simple ceremony in front of a fireplace.

      "We spent maybe $85 for the day (license, fee, and lunch) and at the end of the day, we were married just as legally as if we'd done the fairytale thing," she said.

      "If we had it to do over again, I'd do it the exact same way. It was a beautiful day done our way, and our credit thanked us."

      Wedding Bill Blues: Enticed by visions of fairytale celebrations with expensive and lavish settings, many couples are racking up huge debt in the name of t...

      Toy Industry Defends Chinese Imports

      Senator Calls for Creation of "Import Czar"


      As consumer concerns about the safety of Chinese imports grow, the president of the Toy Industry Association (TIA) says he's not surprised by a ConsumerAffairs.com analysis that revealed most of the toys recalled this year came from China.

      Eighty percent or more of the three billion toys sold each year come from China, said TIAs President Carter Keithley. Given that amount, its not surprising (so many recalled) toys are from China. Its the law of averages.

      But he added: We never like to see a recall, particularly ones that involve something like lead paint in a toy. That has been forbidden for decades. The reality is the countries dont make the toys companies make them. And theyre the ones that are responsible.

      Keithley said his industry was very unhappy about RC2 Corporations recent recall of 1.5 million Thomas and Friends wooden train sets that contained lead paint.

      RC2 recalled the wooden train sets -- made in China --on June 13.

      That was a particularly big recall and for those products to have contained lead paint is just something that should not have happened.

      This was an unfortunate occurrence, Keithley said, adding RC2 is not a member of TIA. That association is considered the voice of the U.S. toy industry. Wed like to find out more about what happened to see if there are any gaps of our safety system.

      Keithley said our investigation is troubling because it contributes to the growing, negative feelings consumers have about products made in China. That country has come under fire in recent weeks for exporting tainted ingredients used in pet food, toothpastes that contain the chemical diethylene glycol, and shoddy tires.

      But Keithley said members of his association have trusted toys made in China for years.

      Our industry has sourced toys from China for the past couple of decadessince the 80s. If we, over the last couple of decades, had not been able to rely on the safety of toys from China, we would not be sourcing them from China. These are products for our children.

      Keithley also said he does not --in spite of our findings -- believe the U.S. should ban toys made in China.

      Not at all. We are not anywhere near thinking that we should ban toys made in China.

      He said his industry works with Chinese companies to make sure they understand -- and meet -- current U.S. safety standards.

      For the past 11 years, we have done toy safety standard seminars in China, Keithley said, adding TIA is holding a seminar next month in China. This is an industry sponsored seminar -- with participation from the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- to let (Chinese) companies know what measures they need to take to meet our standards.

      Keithley also said consumers shouldnt panic about the all the recalls of toys made in China or other countries.

      Theres a tendency to overlook that the recall system is part of the safety net designed to insure that toys are safe. And I can tell you that the system of assuring the safety (of toys) is robust.

      Heightened Scrutiny

      A number of U.S. businesses that use Chinese products and materials have reportedly stepped up testing of their imports.

      General Mills, Kellogg and Toys R Us have increased their inspections, in the wake of recalls of tainted dog food, toothpaste and tires, according to The New York Times. The newspaper says these inspections included more unannounced visits to Chinese manufacturing plants.

      Food makers are said to be testing for potential contaminants not on the inspection list a few months ago. Toys R Us has hired two senior executives, creating new positions to oversee procurement and product safety, mainly for goods made in China.

      Congress Reacts

      U.S. companies are feeling the heat, along with China, over these new safety concerns. Some members of Congress have accused companies of compromising quality in order to cut costs and increase profits.

      The latest political heat is coming from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is calling for the creation of a federal import czar, saying unexacting inspections and a bureaucratic morass are to blame for the problems.

      "Neither the Chinese or American government is doing their job," he told The Washington Post. Schumer said the Bush administration had cut funds for the regulatory agencies that are responsible for ensuring food and product safety.

      "The Chinese system of regulations is where we were in 1890," Schumer said. Rigorous inspections at the U.S. border must make up for any weakness in foreign regulations, Schumer contended.

      Last week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee whose jurisdiction includes product recalls requested Senate action in analyzing the underlying concerns of toy safety, Chinas role and what can be done to safeguard children from potentially harmful products.

      Agencies Adrift

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says budget cuts have reduced the number of inspectors at ports of entry. The agency says it is able to inspects less than one percent of imports.

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is adrift. It has been without a chairman for more than six months, when the Bush administration's appointee resigned abruptly to become a lobbyist.

      With only two commissioners, the agency is not able to vote on civil penalties or enact new safety regulations.

      Toy Industry Defends Chinese Imports...

      Enlarged Prostate Doesn't Mean Cancer

      The Healthy Geezer


      Q. I know I have an enlarged prostate. Is this a sign of cancer?

      A. Most men with enlarged prostates don't develop prostate cancer, but theres a lot more to this question.

      The prostate is a walnut-size organ that surrounds the tube (urethra) that carries urine from the bladder. The urethra also transmits semen, which is a combination of sperm plus a fluid the prostate adds.

      Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) is the term used to describe an enlarged prostate, which is common in men 50 and older. An enlarged prostate may squeeze the urethra, making it hard to urinate. It may cause dribbling after you urinate or a frequent urge to urinate, especially at night.

      Some men with prostate cancer also have BPH, but that doesn't mean that the two conditions are always linked. However, because the early symptoms are the same for both conditions, you should see a doctor if you have these symptoms.

      The following are other symptoms of prostate problems: blood in urine or semen, burning urination, difficulty getting an erection, painful ejaculation, frequent pain or stiffness in lower back, hips or upper thighs.

      Treatment choices for BPH include:

      Observation. If your symptoms dont bother you a lot, your doctor may suggest that you delay treatment and come in for regular checkups.

      Alpha-blockers. These are medicines that can relax muscles near the prostate and ease symptoms.

      Finasteride (Proscar) acts on the male hormone (testosterone) to shrink the prostate.

      Surgery. An operation can relieve symptoms, but it can cause complications.

      Prostate Cancer

      Prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer among American men. Treatment for prostate cancer works best when the disease is found early.

      In a physical exam, the doctor feels the prostate through the rectal wall. Hard or lumpy areas may mean that cancer is present.

      Your doctor also may suggest a blood test to check your prostate specific antigen (PSA) level. PSA levels may be high in men who have an enlarged prostate gland or prostate cancer. PSA tests are very useful for early cancer diagnosis. But PSA test results alone do not always tell whether or not cancer is present.

      When doctors suspect cancer, they also may perform a biopsy. Doctors can take out a small piece of the prostate and look at it under a microscope.

      There are many options for treating prostate cancer:

      Observation. If the cancer is growing slowly, you may decide to wait and watch.

      Hormone therapy. This stops cancer cells from growing.

      Surgery. There are several surgical options. These include radical prostatectomy or removal of the entire prostate, cryosurgery that kills the cancer by freezing it, radiation therapy to shrink tumors, and implant radiation that places radioactive seeds into the prostate. Surgery can lead to impotence and incontinence. Improvements in surgery now make it possible for some men to keep their sexual function.

      All Rights Reserved © 2007 by Fred Cicetti



      Enlarged Prostate Doesn't Mean Cancer...