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    Working at Home: An Impossible Dream?

    Work-at-home jobs exist but finding them's not easy


    You would like to work from home but youve heard only horror stories about work-at-home scams? That's good. They're all true. Many people who have the desire to work from home have had their dreams shattered by crooks and con men.

    Take for example, Robert, of Durham, North Carolina, who wrote: [The] company guaranteed employment and technical training materials. Took our money, provided nothing, then offered refund checks which bounced.

    Randy, of Springfield, Oregon, found his work-at-home directions very unappealing: They needed $32.95 to send the materials I would need. What I got was a letter telling me to basically do the same thing to other people.

    From envelope stuffing to assembly work, consumers have been ripped off to the tune of millions of dollars. In fact, its been estimated that for every one legitimate home-based business opportunity, there are over 40 scams waiting to take your money.

    Not very good odds, you say?

    True, but the way to turn the odds in your favor is to forget about the advertisements on the Web or in the back of magazines and newspapers, and turn your attention to companies that normally have no need to advertise or create your own opportunities in your community.

    First, lets be honest. Whether as an employee or an independent contractor, not everyone is suited for the work-at-home environment. Many people who dream of working from home, end up back in an office building because their personality is simply not suited to the at-home environment.

    For instance, are you lazy or immature? To be motivated, do you need a boss looking over your shoulder? Do you need the camaraderie of other workers?

    A yes answer to any of those questions means that working from home might not be right for you.

    Hate to say it, but you should also consider whether you are even remotely qualified for a work-at-home job. Generally speaking, you will have to perform as well -- or even better -- when working at home as you would if you were working in an office.

    If you can't type, spell, write and speak grammatically, if you can't do simple math and have no patience with difficult customers and co-workers, an orange apron or a McDonald's cap may be in your future.

    If you have a strong regional or ethnic dialect, you may not be suited to deal with the public on the telephone. Sorry, it may not be fair but that's the way it is.

    I know, by this time you're saying, Shut up, David, and tell me where I can get a real job! OK, here are some legitimate ideas and companies that can help your work-at-home dreams become reality.

    Virtual assistants

    If you enjoy administrative work and are good at it, you may be a good candidate for a virtual assistant (VA) job.

    The best VAs come from administrative backgrounds, but anyone who is detail-oriented, loves to work in a support role, and has a well-rounded work history would possibly do well in a career as a VA, said Stacy Brice, one of the founders of the VA industry.

    Brice, who provides help and training through AssistU.com, said the pay could be rewarding, based on how well you do your job.

    Because VAs are business owners, they set their own fees, based on the value they can create for their clients. You'll see fees all over the place, but AssistU-trained VAs generally have fees that are $30.00 + per hour, Brice said.

    Why would someone hire a virtual assistant?

    Many small business owners, sole-practice professionals and entrepreneurs hire VAs so they can concentrate on what they do best, rather than getting bogged down in administrative details.

    Oh, and also so they can work at home. You'll find graphic artists, Web designers, technical consultants and all kinds of independent professionals working at home and using virtual assistants these days.

    I use a virtual assistant so that I dont have the responsibility of overhead, payroll, etc., said Jonathan Pool, a Michigan-based mechanical consulting engineer. In a way, its like having a consultant of my own, someone with their own expertise.

    In addition to AssistU, you can find valuable information at the International Virtual Assistants Association and at Staffcentrix.

    Call centers

    Or you could become a call-center professional, without moving to India.

    There are legitimate companies that hire at-home customer service workers. Most positions are as an independent contractor, however, there is some companies that hire home-based employees, JetBlue being perhaps the best known.

    Another is Alpine Access. Founded in 1998, it provides call-center solutions to various well-known companies, as well as to some of the largest financial institutions in the country. Agents who work for Alpine Access receive health benefits and a matching 401k plan, and are paid for the time they spend in training.

    While being a call-center worker can mean juggling calls for many different companies, Alpine Access says that is not the case with them.

    Alpine Access employees only work on one account, so if you train to take calls for J. Crew, you only take calls for them. In many other companies, you take calls for a variety of clients, which can be confusing, said spokeswoman Stefanie Jones.

    In addition to Alpine Access, the following companies hire remote agents.

    • Arise Arise hires remote agents to support almost 40 companies, including 14 Fortune 500 companies.
    • National Telecommuting Institute, Inc. An organization that helps to assist Americans with disabilities. NTI prepares qualified individuals with disabilities primarily for work as customer service representatives, but also as technical support agents and in the medical transcription field.
    • Working Solutions Established in 1997, Working Solutions has a network of over 20,000 remote agents who serve corporate and Fortune 500 clients.

    Questions to ask

    Before jumping on the home-based bandwagon, you must ask many questions or you might find yourself right back where you started.

    •  Are there startup or membership fees? Its usually a sure sign of a fraud if you must pay to work. However, we know of one legitimate company (LiveOps) that will ask you to pay for the cost of the background check.
    •  What equipment will you need and who pays for it? Youll typically need a landline phone, high-speed Internet access, and possibly a wireless headset. Also, ask about any special computer programs you might need.
    •  How often are you paid and who pays you? If you're working as an independent contractor, it's standard practice to be paid only once per month. An employee might be paid more often.
    •  Will you be taking incoming calls or making outgoing sales calls? If you dont like the idea of making cold calls to people you dont know, a telemarketing position might not be your thing.
    •  Are you paid per minute? This is important. Many legitimate companies will pay you based on how long you are actually on the phone. For instance, if you are sitting at your desk for an hour but are on the phone for 20 minutes of that hour, youll be paid for only 20 minutes.

    Brain surgery

    It goes without saying that there are some jobs you just have to show up for. You can't be a work-at-home bus driver. But, if you already have specific work skills or professional qualifications, the field is wide open.

    The Internet, while it may be the new Scam Central, also makes it possible for many professional and technical types to work from home for the first time. If you are an accountant, lawyer, software engineer, journalist or architect, there are ample opportunities to work from home, or wherever else you happen to be.

    You can find out about these from your professional or trade association.

    Other prospects

    The best job of all, of course, is the one you create yourself. If you're qualified to be a virtual assistant, your city or town may be the best place to get your start. You could try contacting the business owners and professionals you already know, offering to take over some or all of their back-office functions.

    If you're computer-literate, able to set aside time to handle telephone chores and can be trusted with such essential tasks as billing and collections, chances are there are plenty of prospective clients close to home.

    Most of your potential clients would rather deal with someone they can deal with personally when the need arises. Is that you? Well, I can't tell from here. Only you know the answer.

    More Scam Alerts ...

    In fact, its been estimated that for every one legitimate home-based business opportunity, there are over 40 scams waiting to take your money....
    Read lessRead more

    FDIC Closes NetBank, ING Assumes Deposits

    Competition, mortgage slowdown, delinquent loans blamed

    The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has closed NetBank, one of the first Internet banks, and its parent company has filed for bankruptcy. Its deposits have been assumed by ING Bank.

    Over the weekend, customers can access their money by writing checks, or by using their debit or ATM cards. Checks drawn on the bank that did not clear before Friday, Sept. 28, will be honored up to the FDIC insured limit.

    Starting on Monday, October 1, customers will have full access to their insured deposits via the Internet and for the foreseeable future should continue to utilize NetBank's current Website to transact banking business.

    "Since we began insuring banks in 1934, not a single depositor has lost a penny of insured deposits. Customers of NetBank should have confidence and security knowing that they will have access to their insured funds in a timely and orderly manner," said FDIC Chairman Sheila C. Bair.

    Customers with questions about how deposit insurance works or who would like more information concerning the failure can visit NetBank's Website, the FDIC's Web site or call toll-free at 1-888-256-6932.

    Scam alert

    The FDIC stressed that all of NetBank's deposit records have been transferred to ING Bank.

    Neither the FDIC nor ING bank will email NetBank customers asking them to validate their deposits or to request personal, confidential information, such as account numbers, Social Security Number, driver's license number, etc.

    If customers receive e-mails asking for such personal information, they should assume the messages are fraudulent and should not respond.

    Web-based

    NetBank, which was a "pure" Internet bank, had no physical branches. It's the first U.S. savings and loan to fail in three years.

    NetBank was founded in 1996 and went public in 1997. It had 286,000 customers and $4.8 billion in assets in 2005 before online competition from national and regional banks eroded the business.

    In its bankruptcy court filing, the bank's parent company said the bank's failure resulted from fewer mortgage originations and demands to repurchase delinquent loans, among other factors.

    Large Depositors

    NetBank had approximately $109 million in 1,500 deposit accounts that exceeded the $100,000 federal deposit insurance limit. While these customers will have access to their insured deposits, they will become creditors of the receivership for the amount of their uninsured funds.

    In addition to continued access to their insured deposits, depositors of NetBank with deposits in excess of the insurance limits will also receive an immediate payment of 50 percent of their uninsured balance from the FDIC as receiver.

    The savings-and-loan subsidiary had $2.5 billion in assets and $2.3 billion in total deposits as of June 30, according to the FDIC.

    FDIC Closes NetBank, ING Assumes Deposits...
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    Toyota Recalls Floor Mats, NHTSA Warns Prius Owners

    Not all Priuis owners buy the floor mat theory

    The Toyota Motor Corp. and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have agreed that faulty floor mats are the cause of runaway acceleration in the Toyota Prius hybrid as well as several other Toyota vehicles.

    Toyota announced it will conduct a recall of 55,000 floor mats which are used in the 2007/2008 Lexus ES 350 as well as the 2007/2008 Camry.

    At the same time, NHTSA is strongly urging owners make sure the driver-side, all weather floor mat is properly secured before driving the vehicles.

    NHTSA and Toyota noted that, if unsecured, the mats being recalled can slip forward and trap the accelerator pedal, causing the vehicle to accelerate uncontrollably.

    The floor mats in the Prius are not part of the recall but NHTSA urged drivers of Toyota Avalons and Prius hybrids to check the driver-side floor mats to make sure they are properly installed.

    Of course, depending on vehicle design, it is possible for unsecured floor mats to interfere with accelerator or brake pedals in a wide range of vehicles, NHTSA said in a press release.

    Therefore, NHTSA reminds all drivers of all makes and models to check the driver-side floor mats for secure installation and to follow manufacturer instructions for installing the mats.

    For more information on the floor mat recall, consumers can contact the NHTSA Hotline at 888-327-4236 or their Toyota or Lexus dealer.

    NHTSA has also reported complaints of unintended acceleration in the RAV 4 and Tacoma pickup.

    Earlier this month, NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson told ConsumerAffairs.com that regulators at NHTSA were "aware of" complaints of runaway acceleration in the popular Toyota Prius hybrid and were in a "monitoring mode."

    Prius owners skeptical

    Prius owners who have reported the unintended acceleration problem with their Prius hybrid to ConsumerAffairs.com remain wary that the problem can simply be traced to floor mats.

    Here is the rub, one California reader told us. If it truly were the mat catching the accelerator, why did turning the car off solve the problem? There is nothing with the power button that would do this. And yet each time when I restarted the Prius it was fine. If the accelerator were caught under the mat once the car was turned off the problem did not persist, she wrote.

    The California consumer said her test of the Prius will continue.

    "I've decided to remove the mat and drive the car for a month to see if the problem occurs without the mat. If this does turn out to be the problem then one has to ask why Toyota would sell a Toyota Prius specific mat that would have any potential of causing this problem. If this does not turn out to the problem then that is bad and others should know.

    On August 22, Dan in San Dimas, California reported an unintended acceleration problem with his Prius.

    I was almost stopped for a red light, my foot was on the brake (NOT on gas), the car was surging forward being held back by brakes. I quickly checked for anything under the accelerator including the floor mat, foot on the gas, or any other cause. All were negative.

    Dan pulled into a gas station on the corner with the engine still revving at maximum rpms. He turned the Prius off, double checked for external causes and found none. He then turned the hybrid back on and it behaved normally, Dan told us.

    When Dan reported the unintended acceleration problem to his Toyota dealer, he said there was a service bulletin on the 2004-2005 models but not on the 2006. He offered to re-flash the computer. Dan told us.

    Other incidents

    Karen in Los Gatos, California has a 2007 Prius she has driven since December of 2006.

    After driving the car approximately 1,000 miles, Toyota Prius hybrid had an uninitiated full-throttle acceleration while driving on an expressway, she told ConsumerAffairs.com.

    Startled, I slammed on the brakes. The accelerator fought my braking as I pulled over and turned off the car, shocked and taking a deep breath, Karen wrote us.

    Karen did not think about the problem with unintended acceleration again until it happened with about 13,000 miles on the odometer.

    I had been stopped at a traffic light. It changed to green and I started to move forward. The Prius took off charging toward the car in front of me. Standing on the brakes, I pulled over and turned off the car. Very frightened, I sat wondering what I should do next. What happens if I turn the car on and it takes off again? she asked herself.

    Karen said that all was normal when she re-fired the hybrid engine.

    I called Toyota and talked to a sales person and explained this dangerous experience. He confirmed that he was familiar with the problem and also experienced this himself when driving one of the earlier models of the Prius, Karen wrote.

    Karen took the runaway Prius to her Toyota dealer and listened as the service manager blamed everything that occurred on "nothing more than a carpet jamming the accelerator pedal."

    As I explained to him, I didn't have floor mats when this happened the first time, Karen wrote.

    A concerned friend sent Karen a link to earlier stories published by ConsumerAffairs.com.

    "I forwarded the link to the owner of the Toyota dealership. He too expressed concern and asked me to keep the loaner for a few more days while they get someone for Toyota to look further into this, Karen said.

    About the same time that Janet was crashing into a garage wall with her Prius, Lois in Las Vegas was wrestling with her 2005 Toyota hybrid's tendency to accelerate suddenly.

    It has hesitated several times on me. This last time I almost got in an accident. It chugged along several times in a row. No lights went on. It has 99,000 miles and has a warranty to 100,000 miles. It has bee at the Toyota dealership 5 days. they cannot find any problems, Lois said.

    In Tustin, California, Lupe reported this problem with her 2006 Prius. Three weeks ago I went to pick up my daughter from school, I decided to back up my car and wait for her to come out. Suddenly my car accelerated while I had my foot pressing the brakes, it was going too fast I had no time to do anything, I crashed onto a wall about 10 fees in front of me.

    Lupe said the wall was not damaged and she was not hurt but the Prius suffered $14,000 in damages.

    An engineer's theory

    In Los Lunas, New Mexico, Marvin had a similar experience.

    "In each case, the vehicle was accelerating at a rate below maximum and went to and stayed at maximum without driver command. Marvin told ConsumerAffairs.com.

    A simple touching of the lever that disengages the cruise control caused the system to immediately go back to a normal condition with the cruise control off, Marvin told us.

    Marvin said he is a qualified professional engineer and systems analyst. His work has involved automobiles as well as aircraft and industrial systems.

    I can assure you, Marvin told ConsumerAffairs.com, that the incidences that I had did not involve mechanical sticking or jamming of the accelerator pedal because of a piece of carpet. It was not driver error.

    In Marvins opinion, the problem may be in the cruise control system itself, either a mechanical, electronic or electrical problem in the cruise control system.

    The problem could easily cause a serious accident if the driver, caught unaware, did not take immediate remedial action, according to our reader in New Mexico.

    Toyota's advice

    Toyota spokesman Sam Butto said owners who encounter a an unintended acceleration problem can contact our Customer Experience Center Monday thru Friday from 6:00 AM -6:00 PM Pacific time at 1-800-331-4331 to have their concern documented so the Center can look into it.

    Butto also advised that customers can consult any Toyota dealer for an inspection or diagnostic test. If an abnormal condition is found repairs will be covered by the Prius warranty of 8 years/100,000 miles or in California and states adopting California standards 10 years/150,000 miles, he said.

    If no problem is found Toyota may charge a fee for the inspection or diagnostic test.

    Toyota Recalls Floor Mats, NHTSA Warns Prius Owners...
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      28 Days of NutriSystem

      Trick or treat? Time will tell.


      A box sitting in my apartment contains nearly all the food I will be consuming for the next 28 days ... starting tomorrow.

      Nearly one year after I wrote a story about the terrible experience of many NutriSystem customers, it is still one of the most often read stories on ConsumerAffairs.com. And as for the company, the complaints have become more numerous.

      Many say the food is so disgusting, it makes it impossible to follow the diet.

      Upon receiving the boxes of product, I tried a lunch of beef stew which tasted like I imagine bad dog food would taste, and sampled a bite from 12 of the snacks, all of which were stale, broken and tasted absolutely horrible, wrote Sue of Republic, Mo. The chocolate tasted like ex-lax squares, the snack cakes dry and old, the popcorn stuck together and stale, all inedible.

      Others complain that NutriSystem substitutes dishes frequently, even though customers pay a premium to pick their menu items.

      I am in my third month of ordering from NutriSystem," wrote Cate of St. Louis. "I order online and pay extra for the privilege of ordering the meals I want rather than doing the automatic ship where they choose the meals. For two of the three months I have ordered, they have shipped me substituted items, and I quote here from the letter that arrives with my order:

      Due to unusually high demand for our weight loss program, we are experiencing temporary shortages of some of our food products. Because of this, we may have had to substitute some items which you ordered that were out of stock with others of comparable value. We apologize for this temporary inconvenience, and thank you for your understanding in this matter.

      Of the 112 items in my last order (28 days worth), 32 items, (29%) were substitutes, Cate continued. It is unconscionable to me that they would arbitrarily opt to substitute almost a third of my entire order.

      Although I haven't had the opportunity -- or, more accurately, the nerve -- to look at the contents of the box in my apartment, I received the same letter.

      Finally, others say the food is extraordinarily salty, possibly a side effect of pre-packaged foods. However, according to the NutriSystem's ingredient labels, the food has less than the approved percent of daily sodium intake.

      Story continues below video

      Millions try it

      Before: Our well-fed reporter (left)

      Millions of dieters have tried the 35-year-old NutriSystem program, according to the company's website. But still the complaints come in.

      Are these the words that often accompany the love/hate relationship many Americans have with diets? Or is the food so disgusting that it's not feasible to base an entire diet on it? By the end of these next 28 days, I expect to have answers to those questions and more.

      Although I'm pretty worried about the disgusting smell, taste and texture of the foods that hundreds have complained to ConsumerAffairs.com about, I think what most concerns me is the huge calorie deficit. At less than 1500 calories per day, I will be cutting my estimated current intake nearly in half.

      I've never considered myself overweight and I've generally eaten like I have nothing to worry about. So it will be difficult living the same active lifestyle on what will probably feel like a bottomless pit.

      On that note, I plan to stay as active after I start the diet as I am now. That means walking about four miles every day and running about four miles every week.

      Medical OK

      This afternoon, Dr. Henry Fishman, ConsumerAffairs.com's consulting physician, inspected me and said that at 188 pounds and six feet I'm healthy in nearly every regard but could afford to lose a few pounds.

      My NutriSystem counselor told me most men in the program lose 1 to 2 pounds per week. At that estimate, I should be four to eight pounds lighter 28 days from now. If the food is as revolting as its severest critics claim, I may lose more than that.

      Well, I'm off to have my final regular meal and glass of beer.

      Check back with ConsumerAffairs.com frequently as I will be regularly posting written and video blogs detailing my one-month adventure with the NutriSystem diet.



      28 Days of NutriSystem...
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      Mixing Acetaminophen and Caffeine May Cause Liver Damage

      It's not just coffee -- some medications also contain caffeine

      A strong cup of coffee and a handful of Tylenol the morning after a night of imbibing may do as much, or more, damage to your liver as the imbibing you did the night before, a new study finds.

      The toxic interaction could occur not only from drinking caffeinated beverages while taking the painkiller but also from using large amounts of medications that intentionally combine caffeine and acetaminophen for the treatment of migraine headaches, menstrual discomfort and other conditions, according to researchers writing in the Oct. 15 print issue of Chemical Research in Toxicology.

      Health experts have warned for years that consuming excess alcohol while taking acetaminophen can trigger toxic interactions and cause liver damage and even death. However, this is the first time scientists have reported a potentially harmful interaction while taking the painkiller with caffeine, the researchers say.

      While the studies are preliminary findings conducted in bacteria and laboratory animals, they suggest that consumers may want to limit caffeine intake -- including energy drinks and strong coffee -- while taking acetaminophen.

      Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle tested the effects of acetaminophen and caffeine on E. coli bacteria genetically engineered to express a key human enzyme in the liver that detoxifies many prescription and nonprescription drugs.

      Toxic byproducts

      They found that caffeine triples the amount of a toxic byproduct, N-acetyl-p-benzoquinone imine (NAPQI) that the enzyme produces while breaking down acetaminophen. This same toxin is responsible for liver damage and failure in toxic alcohol-acetaminophen interactions, they say.

      In previous studies, the same researchers showed that high doses of caffeine can increase the severity of liver damage in rats with acetaminophen-induced liver damage, thus supporting the current finding.

      People should be informed about this potentially harmful interaction, chemist Sid Nelson says. The bottom line is that you dont have to stop taking acetaminophen or stop taking caffeine products, but you do need to monitor your intake more carefully when taking them together, especially if you drink alcohol.

      Megadoses

      Nelson points out that the bacteria used in the study were exposed to megadoses of both acetaminophen and caffeine, much higher than most individuals would normally consume on a daily basis. Most people would similarly need to consume unusually high levels of these compounds together to have a dangerous effect, but the toxic threshold has not yet been determined, he says.

      Certain groups may be more vulnerable to the potentially toxic interaction than others, Nelson says. This includes people who take certain anti-epileptic medications, including carbamazepine and phenobarbital, and those who take St. Johns Wort, a popular herbal supplement.

      These products have been shown to boost levels of the enzyme that produces the toxic liver metabolite NAPQI, an effect that will likely be heightened when taking both acetaminophen and caffeine together, he says.

      Likewise, people who drink a lot of alcohol may be at increased risk for the toxic interaction, Nelson says. Thats because alcohol can trigger the production of yet another liver enzyme that produces the liver toxin NAPQI.

      The risks are also higher for those who take large amounts of medications that combine both acetaminophen and caffeine, which are often used together as a remedy for migraine headaches, arthritis and other conditions.

      The researchers are currently studying the mechanism by which this toxic interaction occurs and are considering human studies in the future, they say.



      Mixing Acetaminophen and Caffeine May Cause Liver Damage...
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      Facebook Has 'A Long Way to Go,' Investigators Say

      States probing social networking site's safety and security measures

      Two state attorneys general say the popular networking site Facebook has "a long way to go" before they're satisfied it is adequately protecting children and young adults from sexual predators.

      Earlier this week, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo subpoenaed Facebook documents and revealed that his office has been conducting an undercover investigation of Facebook's security procedures.

      Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper have been conducting a 50-state investigation into Facebook, which may become the target of a bidding war between Microsoft and Google. Facebook has stolen much of the limelight from Rupert Murdoch's MySpace, which has instituted a new database method of tracking sexual predators and blocking them from the site.

      "This step complements and advances our common effort to protect children from predators, as part of our multi-state investigation into Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites," Blumenthal said "We are negotiating with Facebook -- including a productive, face-to-face meeting with Facebook representatives last week in my Hartford office.

      "Facebook has a long way to go before we are satisfied," Blumenthal said.

      "We presented to them some of the more graphic and unacceptable material found on portions of their site, but also design aspects that must be changed to protect minors against predators. We will continue to consider all options, including possible legal action, to assure that Facebook and other social networking web sites better protect children from sexual predators and adult material," Blumenthal added.

      "The bottom line is that we must find the best way to make sure parents have the tools they need to protect their children when they're on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace," said Cooper, who also met with Facebook last week.

      New York probe

      The New York probe has involved the use of undercover investigators posing as underage girls. Cuomo said the agents were repeatedly solicited by adult sexual predators on Facebook and could easily access a wide range of pornographic images and videos

      Cuomo also alleges that there are significant defects in the sites safety controls and the companys response to complaints - deficiencies that stand in contrast to the reassuring statements made on the website and by company officials.

      My office is concerned that Facebook's promise of a safe website is not consistent with its performance in policing its site and responding to complaints, Cuomo said. Parents have a right to know what their children will encounter on a website that is aggressively marketed as safe.

      Cuomo said his team set up several undercover Facebook profiles representing users between twelve and fourteen years old. Consistent with its current open policy, Facebook did not require verification of a high school email address or any other identifying information in order to register the account.

      Within days of opening these accounts, the investigators received numerous sexual solicitations from adults sent to several of the underage profiles, including:

      • u look too hot....... can i c u online (webcam)? im avl at . . .
      • i'd love to get off on cam for you hun ; P
      • do you like sex?
      • if u want call me [number deleted] or u can give me ur number?
      • call me if u want to do sex with me [number deleted] ok

      Underage profiles set up by the investigators received several other solicitations of a more graphic nature.

      Complaints ignored

      When the undercover investigators lodged complaints with Facebook regarding the inappropriate - and illegal - solicitation of the underage users, Facebook in many instances ignored the complaints and took no action against the reported sexual predators, Cuomo said.

      The investigators also lodged several complaints with Facebook about inappropriate content or communications on the website. In response, Facebook took down many inappropriate images within a week of receiving the complaints, Cuomo reported.

      "On the other hand, other complaints reporting user groups that hosted hardcore pornography were ignored by Facebook, and the content remains available to all users - including underage users - to this day," he said.

      "Perhaps most alarmingly, Facebook ignored several - and repeated - complaints from our undercover investigators concerning persons who made inappropriate sexual advances to underage users," Cuomo said.

      For instance, on August 30, an investigator created a profile for a 14-year-old female high school student from New York. Approximately a week later, she received a Facebook message from a 24-year-old man, asking do you have any nude pics?

      The investigator lodged a complaint with Facebook as the students mother complaining that her daughter was being solicited by older men. The next day, Facebook sent a response saying that Facebook will review the reported material and remove anything that violates our Terms of Use.

      To date, however, Facebook has taken no further action, and the 24-year olds profile is still available on the Facebook site, Cuomo said.

      In subpoenaing the company, Cuomo has asked for complaints received by Facebook regarding inappropriate solicitation of underage users and inappropriate content on the site, as well as any responses by the website. The subpoena also calls for all Facebook policies on user safety and all representations made to consumers about the safety of the site.

      Hot item

      Online publishers like social networking sites because users esssentially provide free content. Also, users tend to stay on the sites for longer periods of time than other types of sites, enabling publishers to display more ads per visit.

      Microsoft has been widely reported to be negotiating for up to five per cent of Facebook for as much as $500 million. Google is also reported to be interested in acquiring a piece of the fast-growing online social network company.

      Facebook Has 'A Long Way to Go,' Investigators Say...
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      Economists Warn Debt Crisis Could Hammer Consumers

      Shockwaves could spread from Wall Street to Main Street

      While the subprime mortgage crisis has sent a shock wave through Wall Street, its effects, so far, have yet to show up on Main Street.

      But two economists warn that once debt problems spill over into the consumer economy, the economy could be in for the most severe downturn in economic activity seen since at least the 1980s and possibly since the Great Depression.

      "For the past 25 years, America has experienced a period of rising consumer debt," said Steven Fazzari, an economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "Up to now the high debt levels have had a positive influence on the economy. In fact, it was a stimulus to economic growth. But now it's likely to become a source of economic contraction."

      While the sub-prime mortgage loans have caused a great deal of market volatility, the current situation could be a harbinger of difficulties ahead.

      "Many people think that trouble in the housing market won't have that big of an impact on the overall economy because construction accounts for only 5 percent of the economy. They predict a soft landing from the current troubles," Fazzari said.

      "Our research suggests that we're facing a much more serious problem due to our consumption habits, that could have a much bigger impact," he said.

      We're already seeing credit dry up in housing. But this may not affect just home building. Going forward, the inability to get home loans could affect consumer spending. It will become more difficult to shop at the rate we're used to, and at the rate the economy has come to depend on. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the economy. That's a much bigger portion than construction, which means the potential impact is much greater.

      Increasing debt

      Fazzari along with Barry Cynamon, a WUSTL graduate who is now pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, studied the impact American consumers have had on the economy over the past 25 years, as well as the impetus behind the people's spending and borrowing habits.

      Their analysis leads them to conclude that various factors are responsible for the increase in consumer debt during the latter half of the 20th century.

      "We are social animals who learn behaviors from those around us, both 'real' people and the characters we identify with in the media. The media, as well as friends, family and co-workers, have a big influence on people's willingness to buy more," Fazzari said. "The message we all hear is that it's OK to spend more money, it's patriotic to buy more and that it's perfectly normal to take on debt to do so."

      Combine that pressure with a loosening of institutional constraints to accessing credit, and you wind up with the current situation. The risk comes into play because with so much debt, the source of financial instability is now in the consumer sector.

      "We're already seeing what happens to the markets from a weakened mortgage market. Many people who received loans who would not have qualified with previous credit standards are now unable to afford those loans as 'teaser rates' expire interest rates go up," Fazzari said.

      "What will people do when offers for new credit cards don't show up in the mail three times a week? People won't be able to simply pay off old loans with new lines of credit. They'll be forced to service their debt, if they can."

      Economists Warn Debt Crisis Could Hammer Consumers...
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      Cuomo Charges Facebook Ignores Sexual Predators

      New York investigation could cool Microsoft's ardor

      While Microsoft and Google kick Facebook's tires, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is accusing the fast-growing Web site of making misleading claims about its safety measures.

      Microsoft has been widely reported to be negotiating for up to five per cent of Facebook for as much as $500 million. Google is also reported to be interested in acquiring a piece of the fast-growing online social network company.

      Besides bidding against each other, the Internet titans now must consider the possible fall-out of Cuomo's allegations.

      In a letter accompanying a subpoena for documents, Cuomo warned the company that a preliminary review conducted by his office revealed significant defects in the sites safety controls and the companys response to complaints - deficiencies that stand in contrast to the reassuring statements made on the website and by company officials.

      Cuomo said that in recent weeks, investigators from his office have conducted a number of undercover tests of Facebook's safety controls and procedures.

      Posing as underage users, the investigators found they were repeatedly solicited by adult sexual predators on Facebook and could easily access a wide range of pornographic images and videos, he said.

      Slow to respond

      Even worse, said Cuomo, Facebook often did not respond, and at other times was slow to respond to complaints lodged by the investigators - posing as parents of underage users - asking the site to take action against predators who had harassed their children.

      My office is concerned that Facebook's promise of a safe website is not consistent with its performance in policing its site and responding to complaints, Cuomo said. Parents have a right to know what their children will encounter on a website that is aggressively marketed as safe.

      Cuomo said his team set up several undercover Facebook profiles representing users between twelve and fourteen years old. Consistent with its current open policy, Facebook did not require verification of a high school email address or any other identifying information in order to register the account.

      Within days of opening these accounts, the investigators received numerous sexual solicitations from adults sent to several of the underage profiles, including:

      • u look too hot....... can i c u online (webcam)? im avl at . . .
      • i'd love to get off on cam for you hun ; P
      • do you like sex?
      • if u want call me [number deleted] or u can give me ur number?
      • call me if u want to do sex with me [number deleted] ok

      Underage profiles set up by the investigators received several other solicitations of a more graphic nature.

      Complaints ignored

      When the undercover investigators lodged complaints with Facebook regarding the inappropriate - and illegal - solicitation of the underage users, Facebook in many instances ignored the complaints and took no action against the reported sexual predators, Cuomo said.

      The investigators also lodged several complaints with Facebook about inappropriate content or communications on the website. In response, Facebook took down many inappropriate images within a week of receiving the complaints, Cuomo reported.

      "On the other hand, other complaints reporting user groups that hosted hardcore pornography were ignored by Facebook, and the content remains available to all users - including underage users - to this day," he said.

      "Perhaps most alarmingly, Facebook ignored several - and repeated - complaints from our undercover investigators concerning persons who made inappropriate sexual advances to underage users," Cuomo said.

      For instance, on August 30, an investigator created a profile for a 14-year-old female high school student from New York. Approximately a week later, she received a Facebook message from a 24-year-old man, asking do you have any nude pics?

      The investigator lodged a complaint with Facebook as the students mother complaining that her daughter was being solicited by older men. The next day, Facebook sent a response saying that Facebook will review the reported material and remove anything that violates our Terms of Use.

      To date, however, Facebook has taken no further action, and the 24-year olds profile is still available on the Facebook site, Cuomo said.

      In subpoenaing the company, Cuomo has asked for complaints received by Facebook regarding inappropriate solicitation of underage users and inappropriate content on the site, as well as any responses by the website. The subpoena also calls for all Facebook policies on user safety and all representations made to consumers about the safety of the site.

      Cuomo Charges Facebook Ignores Sexual Predators...
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      Scammer Claims To Be 'Verified By Visa'

      Phishing emails try to trick consumers into revealing passwords

      Identity thieves are constantly looking for new ways to trick consumers into revealing personal information in response to phishing emails. ..

      Pet Industry Agrees on Need for Toxicity Standards

      Wal-Mart relies on spin doctors, while others call for research and stricter standards


      An Illinois pet owner -- worried about the safety of the chew toys her Shelties played with -- recently hired a laboratory at the Illinois Department of Agriculture to test 24 Chinese-made dog toys for lead.

      The only reason I tested these dog toys is because I have lost three Shelties in the last four years and I can only figure out why one of them died, said Nancy R. of Orland Park, Illinois. When all the news came out about pet food and the tainted ingredients from China, I got concerned.

      "Then my 83-year-old mom noticed that my dogs toys were all made in China. I went to Petco and PetSmart and couldnt find any toys not made in China -- except one rope knot that was made in Mexico.

      I was doing this personally for the safety of my dogs and only tested for lead because thats what theyre finding in the toys from China, she said.

      But Nancys lab results -- and the interpretation of those findings -- has again pitted a forensic toxicologist against veterinarians and others in the pet industry about what are safe and acceptable levels for lead and heavy metals in toys for dogs and cats.

      The results also illustrate why many in the pet industry want acceptable national levels for lead and other toxins -- specifically for dog and cat toys.

      Heres the latest development in this debate, which surfaced in the wake of recent ConsumerAffairs.com story.

      Illinois findings

      The Illinois Department of Agricultures lab released its findings late last week on the 24 dog toys Nancy had tested for lead.

      All the toys had lead levels that fell within that states acceptable limits for lead paint in childrens toys, according to the lab.

      The levels also fell far below the amount of lead paint in childrens toys thats allowed by federal law 600 parts per million.

      The lab found the highest levels of lead in a PetSmart tennis ball -- 335.7 parts per million. It detected the lowest levels of lead in a Hartz Rubber Percival Platypus 0.02 parts per million.

      These are all within the acceptable limits for lead content in childrens toys in Illinois, said the labs director, Dr. Gene Niles. The veterinarian is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology (DABVT). There are no levels for lead content in pet toys. Are these numbers high or low? All I can tell you is that in Illinois, the state allows up to 600 parts per million for lead in kids toys and these are all within that guideline.

      But the lead levels in the PetSmart tennis ball are 335 times higher than the amount of lead a Texas laboratory -- hired by ConsumerAffairs.com to analyze four Chinese-made pet toys for heavy metals and other toxins -- found in one of the products.

      That product -- a latex dog toy that looks like a green monster -- had what the labs forensic toxicologist called elevated levels of lead -- 907.4 micrograms per kilograms.

      Thats almost one part per million, said ExperToxs director and forensic toxicologist Dr. Ernest Lykissa, Ph.D. With that kind of concentration, if a dog is chewing on it or licking it, hes getting a good source of lead.

      The green monster toy also had what Dr. Lykissa considered high levels of chromium -- 334.9 micrograms per kilogram.

      With that kind of chromium in there you have what can be an extremely toxic toy if they (animals) put it in their mouths. And dogs put things in their mouths. If a dog puts this in his mouth, he runs a big chance of getting some type of metal toxicity that may shorten his life.

      The lab also found other toxic metals in the green monster toy.

      Theres cadmium, arsenic, and mercury in there, Lykissa said. This is not a clean toy. This is toxic. Bank on it.

      ExperToxs tests also detected what Lykissa called worrisome levels of cadmium in a catnip toy -- 236 micrograms per kilogram.

      Thats a big number, Lykissa said. Its a good dose of cadmium.

      ConsumerAffairs.com purchased all four pet toys it hired ExperTox to test at a Wal-Mart store in Kansas City, Missouri. All the toys had a tag attached that read Marketed by Wal-Mart stores and Made in China.

      Wal-Mart attacks

      Wal-Mart has attacked ExperToxs finding and said Dr. Lykissa severely misinterpreted the results.

      The conclusions drawn in this article appear to have been based on incorrect interpretations of the data, and based on the opinions of a person (who is) not an expert in consumer product testing, Melissa OBrien, who identified herself as representing Wal-Marts corporate communication, wrote us in an e-mail. Other news organizations said O'Brien told them she worked for a public relations firm called Edelman.

      After reviewing these test resultsthe results of these tests actually prove the products are VERY safe," the hired publicist said.

      If these measurements are in fact the results, as you have reported, they have been severely misinterpreted by the director of ExperToxs lab, if he is reporting these levels to be high or dangerous," O'Brien argued. To the contrary by this lab's own report, these levels are considered very low and actually much lower than what is acceptable by regulatory bodies in the U.S. and Europe for products, including childrens toys.

      OBrien referred to the Consumer Product Safety Commissions (CPSC) limit of 600 parts per million for the total lead in surface coating.

      By comparison, the highest concentration of lead found in any of the ExperTox tests is a very low 907.4 parts per million more than 600 times less than the CPSC limit for surface coatings.

      Two veterinarians who reviewed ExperToxs findings said the levels of heavy metals found in the chew toys do not pose a threat to dogs or cats. Whether the chew toys ExperTox tested are a hazard to children and adults who handle them is unclear.

      I dont see any of those numbers being a toxicity concern for dogs or cats, Dr. Mike Murphy of the University of Minnesotas College of Veterinary Medicine told us. Latex paint can contain one-half to one percent of lead, which is 10,000 parts per million. What he (Dr. Lykissa) is saying is that one part per million is a risk. But latex paint is 10,000 times higher than that and we dont recognize latex paint as a toxicity risk to dogs and cats.

      I disagree with the interpretation thats being made (by Lykissa), added Dr. Murphy, who holds a Ph.D. in toxicology. I consider these to be extremely low numbers and they are not a toxicological concern for pet owners.

      Dangerous? It depends

      Dr. Fred Oehme at Kansas State Universitys College of Veterinary Medicine said the risks to dogs and cats from these toys depends on how much of the heavy metals are absorbed in their bodies.

      Could they be harmful? The poisoning depends on how much is taken into their systems. Most animals require 30 parts per million of their total daily diet before you get into a problem with lead. Cadmium is more than that.

      Im more concerned about the lead than the other two (heavy metals), he added. Lead accumulates and if it gets into the body, it builds up.

      Dr. Niles, at the Illinois Department of Agricultures lab, agreed that one part per million of lead is not a health risk to pets.

      Thats my personal opinion, not the opinion of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, he said. Youd find very few things that you would let anybody play with if that (one part per million) was your benchmark.

      Lack of standards

      PetSmart told us earlier this week that it routinely tests its products -- including dog and cat toys -- for lead and other toxins.

      The companys spokesman reiterated those safety protocols today.

      The products we sell must meet a variety of safety and quality standards and protocols, said Bruce Richardson, the companys director of external communication. These are based on federal regulations and standards (such as those found in the Code of Federal Regulations), state and provincial regulations, as well as commonly accepted standards established by highly respected institutions such as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

      "In addition, we have established our own stringent standards of quality and safety for areas not necessarily covered by those groups named above, he said.

      Richardson took exception with our comparison of the levels of lead in the PetSmart tennis ball to those found in the green monster toy.

      He said its not fair to use ExperToxs benchmark of one part per million as a safety measure for lead or other toxins in pet toys.

      The terms high and elevated are relative terms and must be used carefully and given proper context to avoid confusion and alarm, he said. Its not fair to pit a (forensic) toxicologist against a veterinary toxicologist on this issue. I dont think he (Dr. Lykissa) has a leg to stand on. Hes not a veterinary toxicologist and has no point of reference when he talks about elevated levels. Elevated against what? I dont think his results bring any value to this discussion. And his comments will not change anything were doing.

      Richardson added: To our knowledge, we are not selling any products that have compounds that have tested above levels of toxicity established by the various entities named above and are not posing any health threat to pets or humans.

      ExperTox isnt swayed by its critics.

      The lab stands by its findings and calls them rock solid.

      The labs manager also disagrees that the levels of lead in PetSmarts tennis ball are safe.

      Those are a lot higher levels than what we found in the green monster toys, and I dont see how 600 parts per million is acceptable, said ExperToxs Donna Coneley. We dont agree that (335.7 parts per million of lead) is a safe level.

      Coneley -- who pointed out that ExperTox and Dr. Lykissa are experts at consumer product testing -- said she wouldnt let a dog chew on a toy that had those levels of lead.

      Not from what I see here at the lab. We have differing opinions on what is safe and acceptable.

      ExperTox, however, doesnt look at CPSC or ASTM limits during its testing procedures, Coneley said.

      We simply pour out our results as we receive them, she said, adding her lab uses state-of-the-art technology. We dont look at the limits on products.

      Coneley questioned the validity of using the same acceptable levels for lead and other toxins in pet toys that are used in childrens toys.

      Weight is always a factor, she said. If youre dealing with a teacup-size dog you cant assume that whats safe for a 20-pound child is safe for a three- to ten-pound dog. Cats are light as well. Their little bodies are not able to spread out the toxins. Animals also tend to chew things off more aggressively than kids.

      Everyone seems to concentrate on humans with this type of testing, but maybe more scrutiny is needed on what limits are safe for pets.

      Thats the one point where nearly everyone involved in this debate is on the same page.

      "Huge question"

      There clearly is an absence of regulations for pet toys, Richardson said. Maybe the guidelinesthe levelsfor human standards are not so good based on the exposure for dog (or cats). Thats a huge question that needs to be addressed.

      PetSmart, he said, would not object to having national acceptable standards and levels for lead and other toxins in pet toys.

      The president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association said his members -- who represent more than 900 pet product makers, importers, and livestock suppliers worldwide -- would welcome such standards.

      Theyre looking for a benchmark that everyone can follow, said Bob Vetere, president of the non-profit organization. Maybe what we need is to have everyone sit down at a table and talk about what makes sense.

      "Its not going to be easy to find an answer, but its a process that has to start. The CPSC is certainly somebody that needs to be sitting at that table, and wed (APPMA) certainly be willing to work with them and help them on this issue, he said.

      The CPSC, however, said its agency currently has no regulatory control over pet products.

      We only have jurisdiction over a pet-related product (that is not food), if evidence is presented that the product has put the safety of consumers at risk, said spokesman Scott Wolfson. He did not address the potential danger to children and adults exposed to the pet toys.

      Dr. Niles with the Illinois Department of Agriculture joins those who favor national acceptable levels for lead and other toxins in pet toys.

      We have to use human data now in the absence of pet data, he said. Work needs to be done to get standardized levels for pets. But you have to have the data. And Im fully in favor of scientific data to support those guidelines. Once we get those guidelines, we can interpret this data in relationship to animals instead of humans.

      Until that happens, Vetere said members of the APPMA will triple-checking their products to be sure theyre tested for lead and other toxins.

      That action, he said, is the result of our story that revealed what Dr. Lykissa said were elevated levels of lead, chromium, and cadmium in the two pet toys sold at Wal-Mart.

      Everyone (in this industry) is well aware of your story, Vetere told us. And the reaction from virtually everyone Ive talked to about the story is: Wait a minute. We didnt know about this. Hello, whats going on? And theyve called their vendors and suppliers to be sure theyre testing the products.

      Its good that you got this out there so they (our members) could know, and they are pushing very hard on their vendors now to get those test results. If nothing else, everyone is now aware of this in the industry.

      No U.S. toys?

      Meanwhile, Nancy told us shes relieved by test results on her dog toys.

      Dr. Niles convinced me that these are all within safe limits, she said. My first reaction when I heard these results was a deep sigh of relief. I had lost dogs and then I thought oh, no, theyre chewing on toys that may be dangerous. So when I found out these results, I was relieved that these toys are safe.

      Nancy, however, is still troubled that she cant find pet toys made in the United States.

      What amazes me is that all these toys are made in China. I was going to dump out all my old toys and buy only ones made in the USA. But I couldnt find any that werent made in China. So I thought that if thats all I can get, Im going to make sure theyre safe. And the lab told me these toys are safe.

      Whether pet owners agree or disagree with that interpretation, ExperToxs Coneley said this debate has given them the tools to make more informed decisions about the products they give their dogs and cats.

      Thats what this is all about, giving people more information that I feel will help them make a better choice. If a vet says he think our results are extremely low numbers than people can take that information and balance it against what Dr. Lykissa said to make a better decision.

      This has opened a Pandoras box and its good that people are now talking about this issue.



      Pet Industry Agrees on Need for Toxicity Standards...
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      Credit Card Theft Takes Many Forms

      Merchants often the big losers; consumer vigilance essential


      Betsy, from England, was visiting family in the southern U.S. in early August when GM Mastercard, her credit card company, contacted her. There was, she was informed, suspicious activity on her account, a $333 charge for an EZPass New York toll pass.

      It was a service they offered when I signed up for the card, she told ConsumerAffairs.com. I checked a box that requested them to notify me by email anytime more than $200 was charged to my account.

      Because that was the only unusual charge, Betsy said she concluded the purchase was just a mistake in the system. GM Mastercard removed the charge but Betsy did not cancel her card.

      Ten days later, she received another email from the credit card company, informing her that a big screen TV, valued at more than $1,000, had been purchased from an online site and charged to her account.

      Now realizing that she was indeed a victim of credit card fraud, Betsy immediately called the credit card companys fraud division and reported the charges as unauthorized. The company instantly closed out the account and began the process of issuing her a new card.

      Informed that the TV set had been purchased from a merchant called Just FTA.com, based in Glendale, California, Betsy called the store and reported the purchase as fraudulent.

      We were very lucky that she called, said David, the stores owner. We had shipped the merchandise the day before and it was one day away from being delivered. We called Federal Express and put a stop on the order and had it returned.

      Merchants take the hit

      In this case, JustFTA.com was spared the loss of a big screen TV, but in the world of credit card fraud, it is merchants like David who usually take the real hit. The consumers liability is limited to $50 and the credit card company withholds payment in cases of fraudulent purchases, so it doesnt lose money.

      But if a merchant ships merchandise in what turns out to be a fraudulent purchase, hes stuck with the loss. David says that in 2006, JustFTA.com lost over $20,000 to credit card fraud.

      There are systems in place designed to prevent fraudulent purchases like this from taking place, but clever thieves have found ways around them. When a credit card purchase comes in, the merchant can link up with the bank to verify that the billing address and the shipping address match the information in the banks file. But in this case, it wasnt much help to JustFTA.com.

      In the case of this consumer, the system worked, David said. When we verified her billing address with the shipping address, it came back from the bank 100 percent verified.

      Thats because Betsys case was a much more serious instance of credit card fraud. Not only had a thief stolen her account information, he had somehow gained access to her personal, identifying information so that he could change her billing address.

      By calling the credit card company and providing her mothers maiden name or her Social Security number, the thief was able to change Betsys real address to one in Louisville, Kentucky, most likely a safe house or drop point.

      So how, Betsy wanted to know, could this have happened?

      Personal information

      In most cases of credit card fraud, a criminal has hacked into an e-commerce site and stolen the credit card information, said Dan Clement, president of CardCops.com, a Malibu, California-based security firm. Its becoming so common that we see a couple of hacks each week now.

      Clement said accounts are also compromised in some retail locations where security cameras are in use. Unscrupulous employees, he said, sometimes direct the cameras at credit card data entry points and later review the tapes to capture account numbers and PINs.

      But in Betsys case, Clement says that scenario is highly unlikely.

      Someone hacking into an e-commerce site could have gotten the information they needed to use her credit card, but not to change her billing address. That information could have been acquired only by two methods, he said.

      The first is some type of phishing scam. The thief might have sent her an email, made to look like it was from her credit card company, asking her to click on a link and enter personal information. Did she respond to such an email in the days before the theft?

      Absolutely not, Betsy said.

      The only other way, said Clement, is that someone learned some personal information about her and physically gained access to her credit card. An unsettling prospect, but in this case, concludes Clement, the likely scenario.

      Clement took Betsys old account number and, using his sophisticated software, conducted a sweep of Internet chat rooms to see if it showed up. Often, he says, he can find where a particular account has been sold, in sort of an eBay for credit card thieves.

      In Betsys case, there was no match, indicating that the thief either did not sell the stolen card or else sold it in a face-to-face transaction on the street. If her account was in fact sold, it in all likelihood brought a higher price than a typical pilfered account, because of the change of billing -- cob in the vernacular of the street.

      Longer shelf life

      If a thief can change the billing information associated with the card, the stolen account has a longer shelf life. It may be weeks before the consumer learns the account has been compromised. It also allows the thief to more easily have shipments sent to the new address.

      Though theres no conclusive proof to establish exactly how Betsys account was stolen, the anti-fraud feature of her credit card account and her prompt action combined to minimize losses. By asking to be notified in the event of a large credit card purchase, Betsy was able to head off the thief. And her quick response was greatly appreciated at JustFTA.com.

      Most consumers dont bother to call, David noted. They have three months to contest an authorized change, and most take their time. Because she acted so quickly it saved us big time.

      Fraud alert

      Clement says more banks should offer these kinds of fraud alert services and consumers should take advantage of them. He also says consumers can take other steps to protect themselves from the growing threat of credit card fraud.

      When credit card companies issue you a new card each year, ask them to assign you a new account number as well, he said. Your credit card information is sitting in databases maintained by banks, hotels, rental car companies and other places, year after year, and could be the source of compromise.

      Debit cards, he says, are especially dangerous, since a thief can take all the money in a compromised account. Clement suggests consumers change their debit card PIN every six months.

      Its a hassle, but it provides another layer of protection, he said.

      Check your bill

      Consumers should also closely review their bill each month. Clement says often a thief will ping a compromised account by entering a $1 charge to a charity. If the charge goes through uncontested, the thief then orders up a big-screen TV or other expensive item.

      The consumer is the best line of defense, Clement said. Ive seen statistics showing that consumers find 52 percent of all credit card fraud.

      And theres plenty of it. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission estimates that 10 million consumers have their personal information stolen or misused each year, costing businesses like JustFTA.com as much as $48 billion.

      Credit Card Theft Takes Many Forms...
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      Two Credit Bureaus Offer Consumers Credit Freeze in 50 States

      Trans Union, Equifax reverse policy; Experian undecided

      In a surprise reversal and a major win for consumers, the Trans Union credit bureau announced that it would offer consumers the ability to "freeze" their credit files in all 50 states in order to protect themselves against identity theft and fraud.

      The service will be available in the 11 states that do not already have credit-freeze laws, costing consumers $10 to set the freeze and $10 to unlock it, and will "meet or exceed the requirements" of states with existing freeze laws.

      The freeze service will be free to victims of identity theft, and is scheduled to roll out Oct. 15. TransUnion is also offering a more expensive package that combines credit monitoring with the ability to lock and unlock credit freezes online, for $14.95 monthly.

      "TransUnion understands that many consumers are concerned about identity theft and want access to tools that provide them with a personal level of comfort," said Trans Union's Mark Marinko.

      "We're pleased to be in a position to empower all consumers with the extra measure of security and peace of mind that a file freeze can deliver under the right circumstances."

      Consumer advocates hailed Trans Union's decision and urged the remaining bureaus to follow suit. For a security freeze to be effective to stop new account identity theft, it must be placed at each of the three major credit reporting agencies, said Consumers' Union's Gail Hillebrand. Thats why it is so essential for Experian and Equifax to offer the freeze nationwide.

      Equifax followed suit, announcing yesterday that it too would offer credit freezes for customers in all 50 states, and would roll out its own plan sometime in October.

      Experian undecided

      The last of the "Big Three" credit bureaus, Experian, is still "studying the process," said spokesperson Don Girard. "We expect to make an announcement on our decision in the near term."

      Credit freezes prevent new credit accounts or loans from being made in someone's name without their explicit authorization, such as a password or PIN code.

      The freeze can reduce or prevent the most common form of identity theft, where someone's personal information is used to open new credit cards and take out loans in their name, without their knowledge.

      Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have laws in place enabling consumers to freeze their credit, with varying rules and costs for usage. The credit and financial industries have aggressively lobbied against credit freeze laws, claiming they would reduce the availability of credit and discourage shoppers from making big-ticket purchases due to the time spent unlocking a credit account.

      Efforts by the credit industry to push weaker national credit protection laws that would preempt state law stalled out in Congress. States such as Utah have passed laws enabling citizens to freeze and unfreeze their credit accounts in as little as 15 minutes.

      Consumer advocates and identity theft protection companies such as TrustedID have also heavily advocated the passage of credit freeze laws in all 50 states, claiming that the availability of personal information combined with easy access to credit makes consumers too vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.

      Just as the major credit bureaus began offering comprehensive -- and expensive -- identity theft protection services to customers in the wake of the explosion in high-profile data breaches, credit freezes and associated protection plans represent a potentially lucrative new revenue stream for the bureaus to make use of.

      But as Consumers Union's Hillebrand notes, if the bureaus have the technical means to enable instant locking and unlocking of credit, they should not be charging high fees to use a service that can be turned on and off in minutes.

      TransUnion and the rest of the credit bureaus should follow the lead of the states with the best security freeze laws and provide this protection to all consumers for no more than $5, Hillebrand said. All three credit bureaus should make it fast, affordable, and easy for consumers nationwide to take advantage of this important identity theft safeguard.

      Two Credit Bureaus Offer Consumers Credit Freeze in 50 States...
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      Simplicity & Graco Cribs Recalled After Infant Deaths

      Nearly 1 million cribs on recall list

      Simplicity Inc. is recalling nearly one million cribs, including some that may have been recalled previously, after reports of three infant deaths.

      The drop-side can detach from the crib, which can create a dangerous gap and lead to the entrapment and suffocation of infants.

      The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said it is aware of two deaths in Simplicity manufactured cribs with older style hardware, including a 9-month-old child and a 6-month-old child, where the drop-side was installed upside down.

      CPSC is also investigating the death of a 1-year-old child in a Simplicity crib with newer style hardware, in which the drop-side was installed upside down. CPSC is also aware of seven infant entrapments and 55 incidents in these cribs.

      Correct installationIncorrect

      The drop-side failures result from both the hardware and crib design, which allow consumers to unintentionally install the drop-side upside down. This, in turn, can weaken the hardware and cause the drop-side to detach from the crib. When the drop-side detaches, it creates a gap in which infants can become entrapped.

      CPSC is warning parents and caregivers to check all Simplicity cribs to make sure the drop-side is installed right side up.

      To do this, check to see that the slightly rounded rail with the decorative groove is installed at the top and the plain rail is on the bottom. Next, consumers should make sure the drop-side is securely attached to the tracks in all four corners.

      CPSC said it is also aware of two incidents that occurred when the drop-side was correctly installed with older style hardware, though the upside down installation greatly increases the risk of failure.

      It's the second Simplicity recall this year. In June, the company recalled t 40,000 of its Nursery-in-a-Box Cribs because of a choking and fall hazard.

      Consumer confusion

      Consumer advocates were critical of the CPSC's announcement, saying it did not make clear that some of the cribs had already been recalled for other problems.

      "This crib recall is very confusing for consumers because many of the products involved have previously been recalled and it doesn't explain that anywhere in the agency's press releases," said Consumer Federation of America Director of Product Safety Rachel Weintraub.

      "A crib is one of the few products that's actually designed for a parent to leave a child unattended. When there's a problem of this magnitude with a crib, there's a huge breach of trust with the manufacturer," she said.

      Others noted the CPSC's release referred only to Simplicity cribs in its headline and did not mention the Graco brand until the fifth paragraph of its news release.

      "CPSC does this constantly -- they build their release around the corporate name of the manufacturer or importer instead of a brand name that consumers might recognize," said ConsumerAffairs.com President and Editor in Chief James R. Hood.

      "A big part of the CPSC's mission is alerting the public to safety hazards. To do that, it needs to use readily-recognized brand names, not obscure corporate identities that mean nothing to the consumer," Hood said.

      The recalled Simplicity crib models include: Aspen 3 in 1, Aspen 4 in 1, Nursery-in-a-Box, Crib N Changer Combo, Chelsea and Pooh 4 in 1. The recall also involves the following Simplicity cribs that used the Graco logo: Aspen 3 in 1, Ultra 3 in 1, Ultra 4 in1, Ultra 5 in 1, Whitney and the Trio.

      The recalled cribs have one of the following model numbers, which can be found on the envelope attached to the mattress support and on the label attached to the headboard: 4600, 4605, 4705, 5000, 8000, 8324, 8800, 8740, 8910, 8994, 8050, 8750, 8760, and 8996.

      The cribs, which were made in China, were sold in department stores, children's stores and mass merchandisers nationwide from January 1998 through May 2007 for between $100 and $300.

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

      Simplicity & Graco Cribs Recalled After Infant Deaths...
      Read lessRead more

      Industry Responds to Reports of Lead in Wal-Mart Pet Toys

      'Poison is poison,' toxic metals specialist warnsWal-Mart calls out its spin doctors

      Copyright © 2007 ConsumerAffairs.com Inc. All Rights Reserved
      Companies that make and import dog and cat toys are now triple-checking their products to be sure theyre tested for lead and other toxins.

      That action -- according to the president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) -- is the result of a ConsumerAffairs.com story that revealed two Chinese-made pet toys sold at Wal-Mart stores contained what a forensic toxicologist said were elevated levels of lead, chromium, and cadmium.

      Everyone (in this industry) is well aware of your story, AAPMAs President Bob Vetere said. His non-profit association represents more than 900 pet product manufacturers, importers, and livestock suppliers worldwide.

      And the reaction from virtually everyone Ive talked to about the story is: Wait a minute. We didnt know about this. Hello, whats going on? And theyve called their vendors and suppliers to be sure theyre testing the products.

      Its good that you got this out there so they (our members) could know, and they are pushing very hard on their vendors now to get those test results. If nothing else, everyone is now aware of this in the industry.

      ConsumerAffairs.com hired ExperTox Analytical Laboratory in Texas to test four Chinese-made toys -- two for dogs and two for cats -- for heavy metals and other toxins. We purchased the four pet toys earlier this month at a Wal-Mart store in Kansas City, Missouri. All the toys had a tag attached that read Marketed by Wal-Mart stores and Made in China.

      We chose the toys at random at Wal-Mart. Two of them -- a latex toy for dogs that looks like a green monster and a cloth catnip one -- revealed what the labs forensic toxicologist called elevated levels of lead, chromium, and cadmium.

      Two veterinarians told ConsumerAffairs.com the levels of heavy metals found in the toys do not, in their opinion, pose a threat to dogs or cats. Whether they are a hazard to children and adults who handle the chew toys is unclear.

      "Poison is poison"

      But a physician who specializes in the removal of metals from humans told us that its always worrisome if a toxin -- like lead -- gets into the body.

      Poison is poison, said Dr. Rashid Buttar, head of the Center for Advanced Medicine and Clinical Research in Huntersville, North Carolina. Im a dog lover and, no, I dont want my dog to be chewing on dog toy that has lead.

      Dr. Buttar described the levels of lead that ExperTox found in the green monster toy 907.4 micrograms per kilogram -- as bad.

      Its absolutely worrisome to me if that green monster toy gets in a toddlers mouth, he said.

      But he also pointed out that those levels are common: Kids are being exposed to lead left and rightlead is all over the place.

      That does not lessen the risk, however. Since lead builds up in the body, it is the total accumulation over time that is harmful. Thus, even small amounts contribute to potentially devastating health effects in children who, like dogs and cats, are smaller than adult humans and thus more susceptible to small amounts of a toxic substance.

      "Rock solid"

      ExperTox stands by its findings and calls them rock solid.

      The labs tests on the green monster toy revealed it contained 907.4 micrograms per kilogram of lead.

      Thats almost one part per million, said forensic toxicologist Dr. Ernest Lykissa, Ph.D., director of ExperToxs lab. With that kind of concentration, if a dog is chewing on it or licking it, hes getting a good source of lead.

      The green monster toy also had what Lykissa considered elevated levels of the cancer-producing agent chromium -- 334.9 micrograms per kilogram.

      With that kind of chromium in there you have what can be an extremely toxic toy if they (animals) put it in their mouths. And dogs put things in their mouths. If a dog puts this in his mouth, he runs a big chance of getting some type of metal toxicity that may shorten his life.

      The lab also found other toxic metals in the green monster toy.

      Theres cadmium, arsenic, and mercury in there, Lykissa said. This is not a clean toy. This is toxic. Bank on it. ExperToxs tests on the catnip toys detected worrisome levels of cadmium 236 micrograms per kilogram.

      Thats a big number, Lykissa said. Its a good dose of cadmium.

      The forensic toxicologist said Wal-Mart should pull these pet toys off the market because of the levels of heavy metals.

      Or put a warning label on them that says if you put this (toy) in your mouth you will get poisoned, Lykissa said. There is nothing good about the agents (in these toys) that Im reporting to you.

      Wal-Mart calls the spinmasters

      Instead of following the lead of other toy industry players by redoubling its inspections, Wal-Mart called out its publicists and spin doctors from Edelman, which calls itself the "world's leading independent global PR firm," to try to discredit Lykissa and to try to intimidate ConsumerAffairs.com. Wal-Mart, through its Edelman mouthpieces, also backed off an earlier pledge to re-inspect the toys.

      While Wal-Mart claims to dispute ExperToxs findings, companies that manufacture pet toys are making sure their products are tested and safe for dogs and cats.

      Im at the pet show at Las Vegas and the people Ive talked to at this show are concerned (by the labs findings), Vetere said. They want to make sure theyre not part of the problem and, are not affected by this problem. They do not want to do anything foolish to jeopardize the safety of pets.

      Theres certainly cause for everybody to pay attention to this report, he added. Some people might say oh my goodness, how can this happen? And another group might say the results are bogus. But as with any crisis, everybodys got to take a deep breath, check the information, and check their products. And thats whats happening now.

      Vetere said most companies that make pet toys routinely test their products. Certainly every large company is testing for toxins -- not just lead -- but all sorts of toxins.

      PetSmart and the KONG Company told us earlier this week that they routinely test their dog and cat toys for lead and other toxins.

      But what are the federal guidelines on acceptable levels of those materials in pet toys? And who makes sure the industry follows those benchmarks?

      Industry seeks standards

      While the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) tests all toys that come in contact with humans, theres not a similar organization that test products specifically intended for animals, and theres not a specific organization that controls pet toys, Vetere said. But any toys that is intended to come into contact with an animal is just as likely to come into contact with a child.

      The makers of pet toys are smart enough to follow those same standards set for kids toys and apply them to pet toysbecause again, in most cases, pet toys are played with by children.

      The CPSC is the obvious -- most common sense -- federal agency to oversee pet products, Vetere said.

      And his members would welcome guidance from the commission on this issue.

      Theyre looking for a benchmark that everyone can follow, he said. Maybe what we need is to have everyone sit down at a table and talk about what makes sense. Its not going to be easy to find an answer, but its a process that has to start. The CPSC is certainly somebody that needs to be sitting at that table, and wed (APPMA) certainly willing to work with them and help them on this issue.

      The CPSC, however, remains on the sideline on this issue. A spokesman, in the agency's usual terse and legalistic style, told us the agency only concerns itself with products that harm humans. He did not address the potential danger to children and adults who might be exposed to the pet toys.

      "Pet industry concerned"

      During our interview with Vetere, he said he shares pet owners' concerns about ExperToxs findings.

      And my message to pet owners is that the pet industry is very concerned when something like this happens. Our members are as on top of this as they can be and they are on top of making sure their products are safe.

      Most people in the pet industry are in it because they love pets and they are as concerned as any pet owner out there.

      Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has gone on the defensive and attacked ExperToxs findings. Melissa OBrien, who identified herself as representing Wal-Mart's corporate communications department, said the lab severely misinterpreted the findings and demanded ConsumerAffairs.com retract the story. Other news organizations said O'Brien told them she worked for Edelman.

      After reviewing these test results provided to us today on the pet products in your story . . . the results of these tests actually prove the products are VERY safe, OBrien told us in an e-mail. If these measurements are in fact the results, as you have reported, they have been severely misinterpreted by the director of ExperToxs lab, if he is reporting these levels to be high or dangerous.

      To the contrary by this lab's own report, these levels are considered very low and actually much lower than what is acceptable by regulatory bodies in the U.S. and Europe for products, including childrens toys, she said.

      OBrien referred to whats called the ASTM F-963 or the Standard Consumer Safety Specification on Toy Safety. She said that has a limit of 90 parts per million for accessible lead in toys.

      She also said the CPSC has a limit of 600 parts per million for the total lead in surface coating. In fact, the CPSC has no standard for pet toys and has not determined what levels of toxins are safe for animals, its spokesman told us.

      By comparison, the highest concentration of lead found in any of the ExperTox tests is a very low 907.4 parts per million -- nearly 100 times less than the ASTM limit for toys and more than 600 times less than the CPSC limit for surface coatings, she said.

      Wal-Mart, she said, uses independent labs that specialize in consumer product testing and data analysis to avoid what she called such misinterpretations. She did not name any of those labs, and did not supply the names of any scientists who could refute the Expertox findings.

      The conclusions drawn in this article appear to have been based on incorrect interpretations of the data, and based on the opinions of a person (who is) not an expert in consumer product testing, said O'Brien, who did not indicate that she had any scientific credentials.

      O'Brien also demanded that ConsumerAffairs.com remove the story for its Web site and threatened legal action if we did not comply.

      "Ms. O'Brien should go back to school and learn how to be a responsible and effective public affairs executive," said James R. Hood, ConsumerAffairs.com president and editor in chief. "Threatening the press with legal action is not a very good way to present your company's point of view.

      "If Wal-Mart wants to sue us, we will meet them in any court in the land and we look forward to what we will find in the discovery process," Hood said. "Until then, they should act like responsible corporate citizens instead of trying to silence consumer outlets with playground-bully tactics."

      Hood said ConsumerAffairs.com will continue to gather evidence -- and report stories -- about the harm inflicted on pets, children, and adults by toxic imports.

      "America's largest retailer owes more to its customers than trying to goon-squad its critics into silence, he said. "It is being ill-served by its very expensive public relations firm. It should speak to the press directly."

      Response to slurs

      Despite Wal-Mart's slurs about his credentials, Dr. Lykissa is an expert at consumer product testing, according to ExperTox.

      He has done so much testing on the Dow breast implants and thats a product, said Donna Coneley, ExperToxs lab manager. Wal-Mart can do its own research and see how long hes been involved in that testing. It goes back to the first claims on silicone breast implant poisoning.

      We also do such a wide variety of testing in this lab because we have the latest technology for doing heavy metal analysis, she said, referring to the labs ICP-MS -- or Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.

      Lykissa told us thats the machine his lab used to test our pet toys for heavy metals.

      These (toxic) materials came off the toys freely, like with the lick of the tongue from a dog or cat, he told us. They were readily liberated from these toys. We didnt take a sledge hammer and pound on them. I just did what a dog or cat would do by licking it. Thats why this is so serious.

      Toxicologists at the lab cut off a small piece from each of the toys, weighed the samples, and put them in acidic water.

      We left the samples for a while and then heated them up to body temperature, Lykissa said. Then we put them in (the ICP-MS) and that machine told us this is lead and this is chromium ...

      We didnt dissolve the toys, he added. These materials were leeching off the toys. Whatever leeched off the toys is what Im reporting to you. The material came right off. Somebodys saliva or the sweat in their hands would freely pick up these materials. And thats absorbing it. If you ate the materials, like a dog might, it would be worse.

      But pet toys arent the only consumer products ExperTox has tested.

      We have so many companies all over the world that come to us for tests, Coneley said. Weve tested Mexican-made medication to see if they have the same amount of medicine as those made in America. Weve also tested silicone breast implants, pet foods and treats, and we tested toys for kids a couple of years ago.

      Consumers, she said, can trust ExperToxs findings: We stand by our results. We can guarantee theyre rock solid.

      ExperTox, however, doesnt look at ASTM or CPSC limits during its testing procedures, Coneley said.

      We simply pour out our results as we receive them. We dont look at the limits on products. If Wal-Mart says the limits are less, than I believe them.

      Let consumers decide

      But ExperToxs test results, Coneley said, give consumers the tools to make more informed decisions.

      Thats what this is all about, giving people more information that I feel will help them make a better choice. If a vet says he think our results are extremely low numbers than people can take that information and balance it against what Dr. Lykissa said to make a better decision.

      What about Wal-Marts argument that the CPSC limits for lead in surface coatings are 600 times less than the amount (of lead) detected in the green monster toy?

      Ive never seen a dog lick lead paint, Coneley said. If someone wants to give a dog a toy with those levels (of lead) thats their choice and Im not going to argue with that.

      But in our opinion, that level of lead (907.4 micrograms per kilogram) is considered elevated and there are other choices (for pet owners). My choice would be to go with a more natural treat. I would not go with one that had elevated levels of chromium, lead, or cadmium. What youre doing (with this testing) gives consumers more choices on what to purchase for their animals.

      Coneley said Wal-Marts harsh criticism of the labs findings -- and its interpretations -- arent surprising.

      Weve had that argument before from major companies that weve misinterpreted the results, she said. But weve never been found liable of that. We get this defensiveness every time there is a question about a sample we test. And the larger the company, the more aggressive and defensive they are. This is consistent with what Ive seen. Its textbook for a large corporation.

      But the labs test results -- and the science behind them -- dont lie, Coneley said.

      These are actual, valid numbers. Whether or not theyre toxic to a dog (or cat) is left to interpretation. All we can do is give our opinion and cooperate with the Food and Drug Administration or other governmental agency, which weve done many times.

      As we reported, Dr. Lykissa said the heavy metals his lab found in the pet toys -- lead, chromium, and cadmium -- are potentially toxic.

      Lead, he said, goes to the brain and causes learning disorders in children. Its also implicated in high instances of heart attacks. It is a very heavy metal.

      Chromium, he said, is a cancer-producing agent. It can cause cancer in the bladder and kidneys, and if its inhaled, cause cancer in the lungs. Theres nothing good about chromium.

      And cadmium is a horrible thing to get into the body. It creates havoc in the joints, kidneys, and lungs, he added. That catnip toy has 236 (micrograms per kilograms) of cadmium. Thats something that somebody out there ought to be worried about. In my business, if youre going to sit there and let dogs and cats play with a toy that has heavy metals freely released from it -- and put it in their mouths it becomes a concern.

      Pet owners respond

      Pet owners whove contacted us say theyre outraged by Expertoxs findings. One pet owner called on consumers to stop buying chew toys made in China. And another wants the federal government to take action.

      After reading the horrifying article about dog toys being sold at Wal-Mart, I am very ticked off -- mainly at our government, wrote Bill Schroedle of Lockport, Illinois. The government should have control of what is being imported from China and any other country. All Wal-Mart sees is money.

      I will never buy anything that is made in China or anywhere else but Made In The USA. Who knows what else is out there that is dangerous.

      Kathy K. of Northville, Michigan, agrees that consumers should refuse to buy pet toys made in China.

      The recent story that came out in ConsumerAffairs.com about pet toys from China purchased at Wal-Mart containing lead and other toxins is the 'tip of the iceberg', she said. It is likely that most pet toys from China contain things that are bad for our pets -- just as so many things from China are bad for humans. We have decided not to purchase any more pet toys made in China. We think everyone should pay more attention to this and refuse to purchase any pet toys that are made in China.

      Kathy said her familys dog became sick after playing with a chew toy made in China.

      Our Boston Terrier kept throwing up and we finally narrowed it down to the toy squirrel we had purchased for her. After looking at the label and noting it was Made in China we then looked at all the other pet toys we've purchased. Every single one said Made in China.

      Once we took the toy squirrel away from her toy box, she stopped throwing up, Kathy added. We tried giving it back to her and she started throwing up again . . . pet toys from China are harming and perhaps killing our pets.



      Industry Responds to Reports of Lead in Wal-Mart Pet Toys...
      Read lessRead more

      Wal-Mart Attacks Lab Tests that Found Lead, Chromium in Pet Toys

      Threatens legal action to silence independent lab's reports

      Copyright © 2007 ConsumerAffairs.com Inc. All Rights Reserved
      Wal-Mart has gone on the attack, saying the independent laboratory ConsumerAffairs.com hired to analyze four Chinese-made pet toys severely misinterpreted the results by reporting that two of the products contained elevated levels of lead, chromium, and cadmium.

      But ExperTox Analytical Laboratory stands by its findings on the chew toys sold at Wal-Mart and calls its report rock solid.

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, already under attack in Congress for being weak and ineffective, remained on the sidelines. A spokesman said the agency only concerns itself with products that harm humans. A spokesman did not address the potential danger to children and adults exposed to the pet toys.

      Meanwhile, the U.S. based KONG Co. -- maker of the well-known red rubber toys for dogs -- said it wasnt surprised by ExperToxs findings because there are many companies that view the pet industry as a profit center and seem to lose sight of ethical practices.

      As we reported on Sunday, ConsumerAffairs.com hired ExperTox to test four Chinese-made pet toys -- two for dogs and two for cats -- for heavy metals and other toxins.

      Toxic burden

      Two of those toys -- a latex one for dogs that looks like a green monster and a cloth catnip one -- revealed what the labs toxicologist called high levels of the toxic metals lead, chromium, and cadmium.

      Specifically, the lab reported the green monster toy contained 907.4 micrograms per kilogram of lead.

      Thats almost one part per million, said forensic toxicologist Dr. Ernest Lykissa, Ph.D., director of ExperToxs lab. With that kind of concentration, if a dog is chewing on it or licking it, hes getting a good source of lead.

      The green monster toy also had what Lykissa considered elevated levels of the cancer-producing agent chromium -- 334.9 micrograms per kilogram.

      With that kind of chromium in there you have what can be an extremely toxic toy if they (animals) put it in their mouths. And dogs put things in their mouths. If a dog puts this in his mouth, he runs a big chance of getting some type of metal toxicity that may shorten his life.

      The lab also found other toxic metals in the green monster toy.

      Theres cadmium, arsenic, and mercury in there, Lykissa said. This is not a clean toy. This is toxic. Bank on it.

      ExperToxs tests on the catnip toys detected worrisome levels of cadmium 236 micrograms per kilogram.

      Thats a big number, Lykissa said. Its a good dose of cadmium.

      Toys should be pulled

      The forensic toxicologist said Wal-Mart should pull these pet toys off the market because of the levels of heavy metals.

      Or put a warning label on them that says if you put this (toy) in your mouth you will get poisoned, Lykissa said. There is nothing good about the agents (in these toys) that Im reporting to you.

      But two veterinarians who reviewed ExperToxs findings said the levels of toxic metals in the chew toys do not pose a health risk to dogs or cats. Whether the toys are a hazard to children and adults who handle them isn't clear.

      ExperTox also analyzed two other Chinese-made pet toys a cloth hedgehog for dogs and a plastic dumbbell toy for cats. The lab detected cadmium in those toys, but said the levels were about the amount youd find in one cigarette and not considered significant.

      ConsumerAffairs.com purchased the four pet toys earlier this month at a Wal-Mart store in Kansas City, Missouri. All the toys had a tag attached that read Marketed by Wal-Mart stores and Made in China.

      On Friday, ConsumerAffairs.com sent a copy of the labs results to Wal-Mart. We re-sent those results on Monday after Wal-Mart requested additional information.

      Wal-Mart fights back, threatens legal action

      Late Monday afternoon, Melissa OBrien of Wal-Mart's corporate communication division, sent us an e-mail saying Wal-Mart disputed ExperToxs results. She also said we would be hearing from her company's lawyers.

      She said ExperTox severely misinterpreted the findings.

      After reviewing these test results provided to us today on the pet products in your story . . . the results of these tests actually prove the products are VERY safe, OBrien wrote. If these measurements are in fact the results, as you have reported, they have been severely misinterpreted by the director of ExperToxs lab, if he is reporting these levels to be high or dangerous.

      To the contrary by this lab's own report, these levels are considered very low and actually much lower than what is acceptable by regulatory bodies in the U.S. and Europe for products, including children's toys, she said.

      OBrien referred to whats called the ASTM F-963 or the Standard Consumer Safety Specification on Toy Safety. She said that has a limit of 90 parts per million for accessible lead in toys.

      She also said the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has a limit of 600 parts per million for the total lead in surface coating.

      By comparison, the highest concentration of lead found in any of the ExperTox tests is a very low 907.4 parts per million -- nearly 100 times less than the ASTM limit for toys and more than 600 times less than the CPSC limit for surface coatings.

      Wal-Mart, she said, uses independent labs that specialize in consumer product testing and data analysis to avoid what she called such misinterpretations. She did not name any of those labs, however, and did not repeat her pledge that Wal-Mart would test the pet toys in question.

      The conclusions drawn in this article appear to have been based on incorrect interpretations of the data, and based on the opinions of a person (who is) not an expert in consumer product testing, said O'Brien, who did not stiuplate that she has any scientific credentials.

      Idle threats

      O'Brien demanded the story be withdrawn and threatened legal action if it was not.

      "Ms. O'Brien should go back to school and learn how to be a responsible and effective public affairs executive," said James R. Hood, ConsumerAffairs.com's president and editor in chief. "Threatening the press with legal action is not a very good way to present your company's point of view."

      "If Wal-Mart wants to sue us, we will meet them in any court in the land and we look forward to what we will find in the discovery process," Hood said. "Until then, they should act like responsible corporate citizens instead of trying to silence consumer outlets with playground-bully tactics."

      "Meanwhile, we will be gathering evidence on the harm inflicted on pets, children and adults by toxic imports," he said. "America's largest retailer owes more to its customers than trying to goon-squad its critics into silence."

      Expert testimony

      Despite Wal-Mart's slurs on his credentials, Dr. Lykissa is an expert at consumer product testing, according to ExperTox.

      He has done so much testing on the Dow breast implants and thats a product, said Donna Coneley, ExperToxs lab manager. Wal-Mart can do its own research and see how long hes been involved in that testing. It goes back to the first claims on silicone breast implant poisoning.

      We also do such a wide variety of testing in this lab because we have the latest technology for doing heavy metal analysis, she said, referring to the labsICP-MS -- or Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.

      Lykissa said the lab used that machine to test the four pet toys.

      These (toxic) materials came off the toys freely, like with the lick of the tongue from a dog or cat, he told us. They were readily liberated from these toys. We didnt take a sledge hammer and pound on them. I just did what a dog or cat would do by licking it. Thats why this is so serious.

      Toxicologists at the lab cut off a small piece from each of the toys, weighed the samples, and put them in acidic water.

      We left the samples for a while and then heated them up to body temperature, Lykissa said. Then we put them in (the ICP-MS) and that machine told us this is lead and this is chromium ...

      We didnt dissolve the toys, he added. These materials were leeching off the toys. Whatever leeched off the toys is what Im reporting to you. The material came right off. Somebodys saliva or the sweat in their hands would freely pick up these materials. And thats absorbing it. If you ate the materials, like a dog might, it would be worse.

      But pet toys arent the only consumer products ExperTox has tested.

      We have so many companies all over the world that come to us for tests, Coneley said. Weve tested Mexican-made medications to see if they have the same amount of medicine as those made in America. Weve also tested silicone breast implants, pet foods and treats, and we tested toys for kids a couple of years ago.

      Consumers, she said, can trust ExperToxs findings.

      We stand by our results. We can guarantee theyre rock solid.

      ExperTox, however, doesnt look at ASTM or CPSC limits during its testing procedures, Coneley told us today.

      We simply pour out our results as we receive them. We dont look at the limits on products. If Wal-Mart says the limits are less, than I believe them.

      Consumers decide

      But ExperToxs test results, Coneley said, give consumers the tools to make more informed decisions.

      Thats what this is all about, giving people more information that I feel will help them make a better choice. If a vet says he think our results are extremely low numbers than people can take that information and balance it against what Dr. Lykissa said to make a better decision.

      What about Wal-Marts argument that the CPSC limits for lead in surface coatings are 600 times less than the amount (of lead) detected in the green monster toy?

      Ive never seen a dog lick lead paint, Coneley said. If someone wants to give a dog a toy with those levels (of lead) thats their choice and Im not going to argue with that.

      But in our opinion, that level of lead (907.4 micrograms per kilogram) is considered elevated and there are other choices (for pet owners). My choice would be to go with a more natural treat. I would not go with one that had elevated levels of chromium, lead, or cadmium. What youre doing (with this testing) gives consumers more choices on what to purchase for their animals.

      Coneley said Wal-Marts harsh criticism of the labs findings -- and its interpretations -- arent surprising.

      Weve had that argument before from major companies that weve misinterpreted the results, she said. But weve never been found liable of that. We get this defensiveness every time there is a question about a sample we test. And the larger the company, the more aggressive and defensive they are. This is consistent with what Ive seen. Its textbook for a large corporation.

      But the labs test results -- and the science behind them -- dont lie, Coneley said.

      These are actual, valid numbers. Whether or not theyre toxic to a dog (or cat) is left to interpretation. All we can do is give our opinion and cooperate with the Food and Drug Administration or other governmental agency, which weve done many time.

      Results not surprising

      Meanwhile, the Colorado-based company that makes KONG toys for pets said ExperToxs findings werent shocking.

      It does not surprise me to hear of your laboratory results as there are many companies that view pet industry as a profit center and seem to lose sight of ethical practices, said Chuck Costello, director of marketing for the KONG Company.

      There are no governmental controls over these products, he said.

      As far as I know there is no U.S. regulatory body that oversees pet toy imports or domestic pet toys, he said, adding his companys products are made from FDA approved materials and routinely tested for product safety.

      The companys safety standards, he said, are more rigorous for the three KONG toys made in China Air KONG (tennis ball toys), KONG Plush, and KONG Wubba.

      All imported KONG product lines are tested by independent laboratories, once in China and again in the U.S. to prove they are safe and non-toxic, he said. Once products are received in the KONG warehouse they are again subjected to strict KONG quality control procedures.

      PetSmart told us on Monday that it also routinely tests its pet toys for toxins.

      We do a lot of random testing of toys and other products, said Bruce Richardson, the companys director of external communications. And to my knowledge we have never found any issues relative to this -- particularly with lead -- with the levels being above the ones established by the government. They fall well below those levels.

      He added: We expect that the people who are providing us with supplies -- our vendors and manufacturers -- are meeting U.S. governmental regulations. But in addition to that, we randomly pick toys for dogs and cats and test them for lead and other toxins.

      The CPSC told us late today that it only regulates products -- including toys -- that hurt humans. The agency didnt say if that includes pet toys that could be handled by humans.

      The FDA also told us it has no regulatory power over toys for dogs and cats.

      As we reported, Dr. Lykissa said the heavy metals his lab found in the pet toys -- lead, chromium, and cadmium -- are potentially toxic.

      Lead, he said, goes to the brain and causes learning disorders in children. Its also implicated in high instances of heart attacks. It is a very heavy metal.

      Chromium, he said, is a cancer-producing agent. It can cause cancer in the bladder and kidneys, and if its inhaled, cause cancer in the lungs. Theres nothing good about chromium.

      And cadmium is a horrible thing to get into the body. It creates havoc in the joints, kidneys, and lungs, he added. That catnip toy has 236 (micrograms per kilograms) of cadmium. Thats something that somebody out there ought to be worried about. In my business, if youre going to sit there and let dogs and cats play with a toy that has heavy metals freely released from it -- and put it in their mouths it becomes a concern.

      But veterinarians who reviewed ExperToxs results disagree.

      I dont see any of those numbers being a toxicity concern for dogs or cats, said Dr. Mike Murphy of the University of Minnesotas College of Veterinary Medicine. Latex paint can contain one-half to one percent of lead, which is 10,000 parts per million. What he (Dr. Lykissa) is saying is that one part per million is a risk. But latex paint is 10,000 times higher than that and we dont recognize latex paint as a toxicity risk to dogs and cats.

      I disagree with the interpretation thats being made (by Lykissa), added Dr. Murphy, who holds a Ph.D. in toxicology. I consider these to be extremely low numbers and they are not a toxicological concern for pet owners.

      Dr. Fred Oehme at Kansas State Universitys College of Veterinary Medicine said the risks to dogs and cats from these toys depends on how much of the heavy metals are absorbed in their bodies.

      Could they be harmful? The poisoning depends on how much is taken into their systems. Most animals require 30 parts per million of their total daily diet before you get into a problem with lead. Cadmium is more than that.

      What to do?

      Should pet owners be wary of these toys?

      I think theyre a potential hazard just like a car can be a potential hazard, said Dr. Oehme, a professor of toxicology, pathobiology, medicine, and physiology. The hazard in this case implies how the compound is being used and its availability.

      Im more concerned about the lead than the other two (heavy metals), he added. Lead accumulates and if it gets into the body, it builds up.

      Pet owners whove read our story say theyre horrified by Expertoxs findings.

      One pet owner even called on consumers to stop buying chew toys made in China. These lab results are very disturbing, said Doris B., of Columbus, Georgia. And she doesnt have a dog or a cat. Her pet is a ferret.

      If I had a dog or cat, I would be mad as H-E-L-L.

      Doris said pet owners arent the only ones who should be concerned about ExperToxs findings. Parents should be worried, too.

      There are children playing with their pets and their pets toys, she said, and sometimes small children will put their pets toys in their mouths.

      Somebody ought to care enough to do something about this.

      Consumers can take action by refusing to buy pet toys made in China, said Kathy K. of Northville, Michigan.

      The recent story that came out in ConsumerAffairs.com about pet toys from China purchased at Wal-Mart containing lead and other toxins is the 'tip of the iceberg', she said. It is likely that most pet toys from China contain things that are bad for our pets -- just as so many things from China are bad for humans. We have decided not to purchase any more pet toys made in China. We think everyone should pay more attention to this and refuse to purchase any pet toys that are made in China.

      Kathy said her familys dog became sick after playing with a chew toy made in China.

      Our Boston Terrier kept throwing up and we finally narrowed it down to the toy squirrel we had purchased for her. After looking at the label and noting it was Made in China we then looked at all the other pet toys we've purchased. Every single one said Made in China.

      Once we took the toy squirrel away from her toy box, she stopped throwing up, Kathy added. We tried giving it back to her and she started throwing up again . . . pet toys from China are harming and perhaps killing our pets. More studies and investigations into pet toys made in China should be performed and warnings should go out to the general public to beware.



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