Follow us:
  1. Home
  2. News
  3. 2007
  4. October

News in October 2007

Browse by year


Browse by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

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

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

    Bombardier Recalls Snowmobiles

    October 31, 2007
    Bombardier is recalling about 2,700 Ski-Doo model year 2008 snowmobiles. The snowmobiles fuel tanks can crack allowing liquid fuel and fuel vapor to leak, posing a fire and burn hazard to consumers. In addition, a problem with the throttle cable can lead to loss of speed control, posing a crash hazard.

    Ski-Doo Model Year 2008 MXZ Adrenaline 800R, MXZ X 800R, MXZ TNT 500SS, MXZ Trail 500SS, Summit Everest 154 800R snowmobiles are included in this recall. The model name is located on the side panels. They were sold in black/yellow, yellow, or black/slate.

    They were sold by Ski-Doo dealers nationwide from August 2007 through October 2007 for between $9,700 and $11,200 and were made in Canada.

    Consumers should stop using these snowmobiles immediately and contact a local Ski-Doo dealer to schedule a free repair.

    Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact BRP at (888) 638-5397 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firms Web site at

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

    Bombardier Recalls Snowmobiles...
    Read lessRead more

    California Gears Up For Fire Scammers

    Stings set up to nab crooked contractors, phony charities, other scam artists

    It happens after every major disaster. Scammers swoop in to take advantage of people who have lost just about everything. In the wake of the San Diego wild fires, California officials say it isnt going to happen on their watch.

    California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said his office already has deployed 100 fraud investigators into areas surrounding the fire-damaged areas. These undercover operatives will be waiting to pounce on criminals planning to fleece fire victims.

    The plan, outlined by state officials, is to conduct sting operations to catch fake contractors, phony charity promoters, and others who would seek to benefit from a disaster.

    We're going to arrest these people, highly publicize these arrests and nip this kind of criminal behavior in the bud, Poizner said at a news conference in San Diego.

    The San Diego County Sheriffs office will also take part in the sting operation. Undersheriff Bill Gore said his department would commit whatever resources needed to help the task force stop fraud schemes.

    San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said people arrested for trying to take advantage of fire victims should expect to be prosecuted at the full force of the law.

    Unlicensed contractors who offer their services during this state of emergency will face up to three years in state prison and we will show no mercy, Dumanis said. This is a felony crime, not a misdemeanor.

    Earlier, Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. said the California Department of Justice is prepared to investigate and prosecute businesses that attempt to wrongfully profit from the devastating fires.

    Brown pointed out that Californias anti-price gouging statute became immediately effective after the state of emergency was declared on Sunday, October 21, 2007. Brown issued a warning to those who might try to illegally raise prices for goods, services, or hotels.

    "Anyone who tries to wrongfully profit from the suffering of others will be investigated by the California Department of Justice, he warned.

    Penal Code Section 396 prohibits charging a price that exceeds, by more than 10%, the price of an item before the declaration of emergency. This law applies to those who sell food, emergency supplies, medical supplies, building materials, and gasoline.

    The law also applies to repair or reconstruction services, emergency cleanup services, transportation, freight and storage services, and housing and hotel accommodations.

    Violations of the price-gouging statute are subject to criminal prosecutions, which can result in one-year imprisonment in county jail or a fine of up to $10,000. Violators are also subject to civil enforcement actions including civil penalties, injunctive relief and mandatory restitution.

    California Gears Up For Fire Scammers...
    Read lessRead more

    Can Acupuncture Help Knee Pain?

    The Healthy Geezer

    Q. I have arthritis in my knee. Im thinking about trying acupuncture, but my friends think Im nuts. What do you think?

    A. Several recent studies show osteoarthritis symptoms can be relieved with acupuncture. One Scandinavian study reported that 25 percent of patients canceled their plans for knee surgery after acupuncture.

    About 15 million Americans have tried this needle therapy. The World Health Organization recommends it for more than 40 conditions as diverse as asthma and nausea from chemotherapy. The Food and Drug Administration regulates acupuncture needles.

    So, no, I dont think youre nuts.

    By the 3rd century B.C., the Chinese had documented a medical system that is based on qi (pronounced chee), a concept of vital energy that is believed to flow throughout the body.

    Qi is said to regulate a person's physical, spiritual, emotional and mental balance. Advocates of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), say qi is affected by yin (negative energy) and yang (positive energy). When the flow of qi is disrupted and yin and yang are unbalanced, the condition leads to pain and disease, according to TCM.

    Treatments that are integral to this ancient system are herbal and nutritional therapy, restorative physical exercises, meditation, acupuncture and remedial massage.

    To correct the flow of qi, acupuncture uses superfine metal needles inserted into the skin at more than 2,000 acupoints along pathways known as meridians.

    It is believed that there are 12 main meridians and 8 secondary meridians. The points can also be stimulated with heated herbs, magnets, mild electrical current, manual pressure, low-frequency lasers, or even bee stings.

    Most acupuncture patients feel little or no pain as the needles are inserted. Some people are energized by treatment, while others feel relaxed. Improper needle placement, movement of the patient, or a defect in the needle can cause soreness and pain during treatment.

    Relatively few complications from acupuncture have been reported to the FDA.

    However, inadequate sterilization of needles and improper administration have led to complications. When done improperly, acupuncture can cause serious problems such as infections and punctured organs.

    Western scientists don't know how acupuncture works. However, studies show that stimulating acupoints causes multiple biologic responses. For example, this stimulation can prompt the release of the body's natural pain-killing endorphins.

    If you are interested in acupuncture, ask your doctor about it. Healthcare practitioners can be a resource for referrals to acupuncturists. More medical doctors, including neurologists, anesthesiologists, and specialists in physical medicine, are becoming trained in acupuncture.

    About 10,000 acupuncturists practice in the United States. Most are state-regulated. About 4,000 doctors have completed a recognized acupuncture training program.

    Look for an acupuncture practitioner who is licensed and credentialed. And, check with your insurer before you start treatment to see whether acupuncture will be covered for your condition.

    Several recent studies show osteoarthritis symptoms can be relieved with acupuncture. About 15 million Americans have tried this needle therapy. ...
    Read lessRead more

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

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

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

      Outsourcing, Regulatory Sloth Blamed for Unsafe Toys

      Report faults globalization, political appointees indifferent to children's safety

      The mass outsourcing of manufacturing to China and other nations with low safety standards, combined with the rollback of consumer protections and gutting of regulatory agencies such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), has directly led to the explosion of "toxic toys," a report finds.

      The Campaign For America's Future, a Washington, D.C. think tank, today released "Toxic Trade," a report detailing the parallel trends of increased offshoring of product manufacturing by big box retailers such as Wal-Mart, and the steady erosion of the CPSC's ability to police manufacturers due to budget cuts and industry-friendly or passive commissioners.

      "Our children are at risk in a new global economy," said campaign co-director Robert Borosage in a conference call. "Conservatives have cut the budget of the CPSC to the point where it's a burlesque of its former self."

      The report, co-authored by Borosage, details how 80 percent of toys sold in America are manufactured in China, accounting for $7.4 billion in imports in 2006.

      Meanwhile, the CPSC, which was founded in 1972 with 786 employees and a budget of $34.7 million ($146.6 million in 2007 dollars), has had its roster slashed to 420 employees and a comparative budget of $62.3 million. President Bush has proposed more cuts to the agency budget, including reducing its employees to 401.

      Budget increases opposed

      Borosage noted that acting CPSC head Nancy Nord publicly opposes budget increases and improving enforcement powers for her agency. "On this issue, she's more Catholic than the Pope," Borosage said.

      Borosage was joined by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)/ Both favor new legislation that would expand the CPSC's regulatory authority and strengthen penalties for manufacturing or selling unsafe products.

      Brown discussed his own personal testing of unsafe products he'd bought for lead contamination, criticizing Nord for "showing more inaction than action" on enforcing recalls.

      "Nancy Nord must step aside" in favor of a permanent chairperson who better represents consumer interests, Brown said. "We want more trade, but we also want more protection of our children's safety."

      DeLauro reiterated that "national policies have not kept pace with a changing global economy," and that "trade should never trump public health or consumer safety."

      Nord's resignation demanded

      DeLauro also called for Nord to step down, citing her support of CPSC policies that enable industries to vet reports discussing them for final approval. "We're long past the point of industry self-regulating and self-policing," she said.

      DeLauro introduced a bill in the House last month that would expand the CPSC's authority to investigate and recall products, and require all children's toys to undergo mandatory third-party testing for unsafe defects or chemical contamination.

      A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Mark Pryor (D-AK) in June.

      Online loophole

      One major loophole in current recall procedure is the ease with which defective products end up on online auction sites such as eBay, even after recall notices have gone out.

      The DeLauro bill would make it illegal to knowingly sell any recalled product, regardless if the seller is a retailer, reseller, or auction site.

      "Robbing Children's Potential"

      Also on the call was author and columnist David Sirota, who criticized the expansion of imports made without public safety while simultaneously "weakening our domestic systems that are supposed to protect us against hazardous products and chemicals."

      Testimony was also heard from Marilyn Furer, a 66-year-old grandmother from Illinois who tested her own grandchildren's toys for lead contamination, and criticized both industry and government for not paying closer attention to the long-term affects of chemical exposure on children.

      "[Lead poisoning] robs children of their potential," Furer said. "It can turn happy children irritable and angry...why aren't we looking at the possibility of all of these behavior disorders coming from lead in their bodies?"

      "Why do we have political appointees from the presidency to the CPSC?" Furer asked. "We should have scientists and researchers" that can better handle and address issues in the consumer interest.

      Furer's situation is apparently the only course consumers have to address unsafe products, the Campaign's report concluded.

      "At this point, when it comes to imported products, Americans are basically on their own," the authors wrote. "Concerned parents can test their own childrens toys or bibs. Or they can hope that the companies are more responsible in the wake of the scandals than they have been before."

      The report is available as a free PDF download.

      Outsourcing, Regulatory Sloth Blamed for Unsafe Toys...
      Read lessRead more

      eBay: Where Recalled Items Live Forever

      A test search finds 100% of the recalled toys on our 'shopping list'

      October 30, 2007
      Much attention has been paid to the recent recalls of high-profile middle-class toys like the Fisher-Price "Go Diego Go" boat toy or Mattel's Barbie Doll and Tanner.

      News crews rush out to find stores that still have the offending items on their shelves. Politicians and government appointees huff and vow to enact new laws that will make life safer for children and their parents.

      But the truth is, many recalls accomplish little. The recalled items may disappear, at least for awhile, from store shelves but there is at least one place where recalled goods live forever, uninterrupted by fears of lead paint, strangulation or ingestion of magnets.

      That wonderland of e-commerce is eBay, the original darling of the online age.

      eBay's highly-paid executives are quoted breathlessly by the trade press and lionized as visionaries who are single-handedly building a brave new e-community where happy consumers blissfully buy and sell forever.

      The reality is somewhat different. Leaving aside for a moment the never-ending tales of skullduggery involving goods that are never sent, arrive broken, etc., the simple truth is that eBay seems to be the place where recalled products live forever.

      We paid eBay a visit yesterday, looking for dangerous children's products recalled this year. We picked six items more or less at random from's children's products recalls page and entered their descriptions in the eBay search box.

      Shopping list

      Sure enough, we found all six -- still on sale, many described as brand new. Here's our shopping list:

      Football Bobble Head Cake Decorations Recalled Oct. 25; excessive lead. Still for sale on eBay Oct. 29.

      'Hannah Montana' Boots Recalled Oct. 18; zippers can tangle, causing falls. Still for sale on eBay Oct. 29.

      Fisher-Price GeoTrax Train Set Recalled Sept. 4; excessive lead. Still for sale on eBay Oct. 29.

      Parents Magazine Cell Phone Recalled May 3; choking hazard. Still on sale on eBay Oct. 29.

      Mattel's Barbie Doll and Tanner Recalled Aug. 14; excessive lead. Still on sale on eBay Oct. 29.

      Unfair to eBay?

      An unfair test, you say? There's no way eBay could be expected to monitor all the thousands of recalled products?

      The computer experts we consulted don't agree. The eBay Web site, like most Web sites, is database-generated. Product names and descriptions are entered by sellers and located by potential buyers through the site navigation and search functions.

      It took us about three minutes to verify that all six items we were checking for were indeed in the eBay database -- and we did it the old-fashioned way, by hand. The database engineers we consulted agreed that eBay could automate the process of checking government recall databases against items submitted by sellers.

      "Entries that rang the "Watch It!" gong could then be examined briefly by a human," said one engineer we talked to. "Nobody wants to use humans but we are talking about children's life, after all, so perhaps eBay could make an exception, just this once."

      Some critics would even go so far as to suggest that the attorneys general and federal agencies that so fervently track down sex offenders who dare to peruse public profiles on Facebook or MySpace should take a look at the deadly items being brazenly sold to unwary consumers.

      EBay said recently that it was placing links on various product category pages that will link to the company's recalled items policy. According to the announcement, "eBay also messages sellers directly when they are selling items that may be affected by recent recalls."

      It said the procedure was intended "to ensure a safe and successful buying experience online."

      eBay: Where Recalled Items Live Forever...
      Read lessRead more

      Feds: Fraud Hit 13% of U.S. Adults

      30 million U.S. fraud complaints last year

      October 30, 2007
      The latest Federal Trade Commission statistical survey of fraud in the United States shows that 30.2 million adults -- 13.5 percent of the adult population -- were victims of fraud during the year studied.

      More people -- an estimated 4.8 million U.S. consumers -- were victims of fraudulent weight-loss products than any of the other frauds covered by the survey.

      Fraudulent foreign lottery offers and buyers club memberships tied for second place in the survey. Lottery scams occur when consumers are told they have won a foreign lottery that they had not entered. Victims supplied either personal information such as their bank account numbers or paid money to receive their winnings.

      In the case of buyers clubs, victims are billed for a membership they had not agreed to buy. An estimated 3.2 million people were victims of these frauds during the period studied.

      Fraudulent prize promotion schemes ranked fourth in the fraud survey, with an estimated 2.7 million victims reporting making a purchase, a payment, or attending a sales presentation to receive a prize that either was never delivered or was not what the consumer expected.

      Work-at-home programs, in which the purchaser earned less than half of the income the seller had promised, ranked fifth among the fraudulent schemes covered by the survey. An estimated 2.4 million individuals fell victim to these schemes, and many purchased more than one fraudulent work-at-home program.

      Twenty percent of blacks and 18 percent of Hispanics are estimated to have been victims, while the rate for non-Hispanic whites was 12 percent. In addition, the survey found that younger consumers, those who did not complete college, and those with high levels of debt were more likely to be victims of fraud.

      Consumers between 65 and 74 years of age were 32 percent less likely to report having experienced fraud than those between 35 and 44.

      The top 10 frauds listed in the report include:

      1) Fraudulent Weight-Loss Products (4.8 million victims)
      2) Foreign Lottery Scams (3.2 million victims)
      3) Unauthorized Billing - Buyers Clubs (3.2 million victims)
      4) Prize Promotions (2.7 million victims)
      5) Work-at-Home Programs (2.4 million victims)
      6) Credit Card Insurance (2.1 million victims)
      7) Unauthorized Billing - Internet Services (1.8 million victims)
      8) Advance-Fee Loans (1.7 million victims)
      9) Credit Repair Scams (1.2 million victims)

      10) Business Opportunities (.8 million victims)

      Consumers also reported falling victim to other specific scams, including pyramid schemes.

      Print advertising -- direct mail, including catalogs, newspaper and magazine advertising, and posters and flyers -- was used to pitch fraudulent offers in 27 percent of reported incidents. The Internet, including Web sites, auction sites, and e-mail, was used to make 22 percent of the fraudulent pitches. Television or radio accounted for 21 percent of the pitches, and telemarketing accounted for nine percent.

      The FTC offers these tips for consumers:

      • Know with whom youre dealing: Do business only with companies that plainly provide their name, street address, and phone number.

      • Protect your personal information: Share credit card and other personal information only with companies you know and trust; never share it in email, regardless who is asking for it.

      • Take your time: Resist the urge to act now. Most any offer thats good today will be good tomorrow, too.

      • Read the small print: Get all promises in writing and read all paperwork before paying any money or signing any contracts.

      • Free means free: Throw out any offer that says you have to pay to get a gift or for something thats called free. If something is free or a gift, you shouldnt have to pay for it.

      • Report fraud: If you think youve been a victim of fraud, report it. Its one way to get even with a scam artist who cheated you. Complain online at or by phone at 1-877-FTC HELP.

      The FTC uses a one-two punch to fight fraud, said Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTCs Bureau of Consumer Protection. Our enforcement program stops the most widespread and egregious practices, and our education program helps alert consumers to the tricks of the fraud trade. We encourage everyone to click on our Web site -- not only to find out how to recognize a scam, but also to report it. Thats the best way to help end rip-offs of all kinds.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Feds: Fraud Hit 13% of U.S. Adults...
      Read lessRead more

      Parents Bash Bumbo 'Recall'

      Does a new warning label make the seat safe?

      Last week's "recall" of about 1 million South African-made Bumbo "baby sitter" seats has parents fuming.

      The recall was announced following 28 reports of children falling out of the seats that had been placed on tabletops. At least three skull fractures were reported.

      But like many recall campaigns officially sanctioned by the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Bumbo effort is little more than a lukewarm publicity campaign, critics say.

      That's because, like many recalls, it isn't what most people think of when they hear the word "recall." The seats are not being called back for retrofitting or disposal. Instead, parents are being asked to contact Bumbo to get a new safety sticker.

      The sticker cautions parents not to leave their child unattended and to use the seat only at ground level. But some parents say the seats are not safe even when used on the floor.

      "I feel that this item should be taken off the market, as a new warning label is not going to reduce the hazard this product poses," said Wendy of Hawthorne Fla., in a complaint to

      Wendy said her child was injured while her Bumbo was on the floor.

      "I have a Bumbo Baby Seat and have always used it as suggested. I keep it on the floor and keep a close eye on my daughter," Wendy said. "She weighs way less than the 22 lbs suggested maximum weight. She still managed to come out of the seat landing on her head resulting in a large bruise."

      Kevin of Santa Rosa, Calif., had an even more harrowing experience.

      "My 4-month-old son arched his back and the product tipped over," he said, resulting in skull fractures and a ruptured artery. "I had him on the table right next to me. There was no safety label on the product itself."

      Kevin said his son's skull cracked and began filling with blood. He was rushed to the hospital and airlifted to another hospital where emergency surgery saved his life.

      Besides there being no safety warning on his seat, Kevin noted that the seat's packaging showed children sitting in Bumbo seats that had been placed on tables.

      Still being sold

      Despite the safety recall, the seats are still being prominently advertised on major Web sites, with no mention of the recall or the hazards surrounding the seat.

      As usual, eBay is at the top of the list. The popular auction site has no known system for weeding out recalled products and has never bothered to respond to inquiries from asking if it plans to develop new safety measures.

      "The Bumbo infant seat is manufactured to the highest safety standards from low-density foam material ... [It] can be used safely and conveniently anywhere on any level surface," gushes

      "Babies can sit comfortably on any flat surface ... Baby can sit happily while you make dinner!" said the PassportBaby Yahoo! store.

      Some large retailers have, at least for now, withdrawn the product from their Web sites. It no longer appears at,, and

      Bumbo's explanation

      Bumbo says it has temporarily stopped selling the seat while it affixes new labels and covers up a photo on the packaging that, as a statement on Bumbo's Web site puts it, "could be confusing." This, presumably, is the photo Kevin cited, showing a Bumbo seat on a table.

      "We expect to have the seats back on store shelves in the next week or so. Our entire focus is on ensuring there is no confusion about the safe, proper use of the Bumbo Baby Seat," the company's statement continued.

      "Please understand that an independent analysis has determined that the Bumbo Baby Seat is not defective and therefore does not need to be returned and no refunds are being offered," the company said, without providing any information about the "independent analysis."

      "[T]he Bumbo Baby Seat is fine but the warnings, instructions and packaging need to be updated," said Bumbo spokesman Mark Buchanan.

      Parents Bash Bumbo 'Recall'...
      Read lessRead more

      TJX Data Breach Victims Reach 94 Million

      Numbers just keep climbing as court filings reveal extent of the theft

      New information from a lawsuit against the TJX Corporation over its breach of customer information revealed that as many as 94 million Visa and Mastercard holders were exposed to hackers.

      The new number was nearly double the initial estimate of 46 million affected customers that TJX reported in early 2007, when the breach was first revealed.

      Visa officials estimated losses of $65 million to $83 million as a result of the breach, the largest and most exact number provided yet. The new information may officially mark the TJX affair as the biggest data breach in history.

      The information came as part of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of banks against TJX, whom the banks hold responsible for not securing and protecting cardholders' data as they performed transactions and made purchases.

      If were successful against TJX, the nations major retailers will finally wake up to the fact that not protecting consumer data is an unfair trade practice and that investment in data management systems to protect consumers and shield consumers against fraud and identity theft is required, said Daniel Forte, president of The Massachusetts Bankers' Association.

      The bank lawsuit is separate from a consumer class action lawsuit also filed against TJX in Massachusetts. TJX recently offered a settlement that would provide consumers with cash vouchers and special shopping days in exchange for absolving TJX and its partner, Fifth Third Bancorp, of any liability in the breach.

      Although no arrests have been made in the TJX breach, investigations confirmed that hackers used wireless equipment to invade TJX's unprotected database of payment information while driving by or parking near stores owned by the TJX company, including TJ Maxx and Marshall's.

      Once the thieves had the information, the customer data found its way into the "underground economy" that specializes in selling and sharing stolen personal data.

      Credit card information from the TJX breach found its way into an $8 million fraud scam in Florida earlier this year. A ring of fraudsters used the stolen TJX data to create fake credit cards, which they used to purchase gift cards from Wal-Mart.

      The thieves then "loaded up" the gift cards to the maximum amount, and used the cards to purchase expensive equipment such as plasma TVs and computers. The fraud ring was broken up by local and federal authorities, and the ringleader was sentenced to five years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

      In the latest court filing, Joseph Majka, Visa USA's vice-president of fraud management and investigations, said that totals from the TJX breach would continue to increase as the stolen information found its way into more thieves' hands.

      "These are going to be sold off for a period of time in the future, so it's going to continue for some time out there," said Majka.

      TJX Data Breach Victims Reach 94 Million...
      Read lessRead more

      Sprint Settles Lawsuit, Will Unlock California Phones

      Customers will be able to use their phones with other carriers

      Sprint has agreed to settle a class action lawsuit that alleged it was unfairly restricting customers by locking its wireless phones to only work with Sprint's network.

      As part of the settlement, Sprint will provide the code to unlock the phone to former customers upon deactivating the phone or afterwards, and will incorporate information about how to unlock phones into its terms of service.

      Under the terms of the settlement, current and former Sprint customers in California who purchased phones between August 28, 1999 and July 16, 2007 are eligible to receive the unlock code, provided they do not have any outstanding bills due to Sprint.

      The settlement affects only California customers, who brought the lawsuit under California's consumer law, but it could represent yet another turn of the tide in favor of wireless subscribers who want the freedom to take their phones with them when they switch carriers.

      The California Supreme Court recently allowed a similar class action lawsuit against T-Mobile to go forward, and the Sprint settlement may cause T-Mobile to offer its own settlement terms to avoid the costs of litigation.

      Wireless customers have challenged the carriers' practice of locking handsets for several years, claiming it forces them to stay with one carrier or spend money to buy new handsets every time they switch from one provider to another. Wireless carriers defend the practice as enabling customers to enjoy lower costs for phones, which would cost considerably more if bought "unlocked."

      The U.S. Copyright Office, which administers the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) that governs technology-related copyright law, recently amended the act to allow consumers to unlock their phones and use them with different carriers for three years, until the next series of examinations of the DMCA for potential revision.

      In the meantime, consumer activists who support the industry-wide unlocking of cell phones for use with any carrier have joined the movement to support "net neutrality," the philosophy that content on the Internet should be accessible to all users equally, under the principle that cellphones should work similarly to computers--usable with any Internet service provider, rather than being locked into a single service.

      The FCC recently passed rules for its upcoming auction of the wireless spectrum mandating that companies that use the spectrum make their devices available for any customer to use on any network. The rules were supported by Google, which promised to put up $4.6 billion for the auction if its conditions for "open access" were met, and opposed by the major telecom companies such as Verizon and AT&T.

      Sprint Settles Lawsuit, Will Unlock California Phones...
      Read lessRead more

      Kids Spending More Time Playing Video Games

      Boys spend more time, gravitate towards console-based games

      October 26, 2007
      Think your kids spend too much time playing video games? You could be right.

      From toddlers to tweens to teens, more than one-third of kids in the United States are spending more time playing video games today than they did a year ago. And according to a report from The NPD Group, this trend is particularly pronounced for online game play.

      According to the report, PCs dominate as the top system used for gaming by kids of all age groups. They also dominate in terms of number or years used for gaming, with the average child starting to use a PC for gaming at age 6 and continuing on through age 17, which is longer than any other gaming system measured.

      The study, which analyzes the dynamics of kids ages 2 to 17 in the video gaming space, sheds light on system ownership and use, distribution of time, genres, sources of information for finding out about new games, purchase dynamics, parental involvement, and more.

      The gaming lifecycle starts with kid-oriented systems, moves into PCs for gaming, and continues with Plug & Play and the more established gaming systems. Then, at about age 10, cell phone gaming begins, and the gaming lifecycle culminates with Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable, and the three next-generation console systems (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii)

      Among all kid gamers, approximately half are light users (5 hours per week or less) and the other half are medium, heavy or super users (6 to 16 or more hours per week) -- the implication being that light use and casual content should not be linked exclusively to a younger user base.

      Boys are more inclined to play video game systems, especially consoles, while girls are more inclined to play games on PCs, cell phones and kid-oriented systems. Despite girls starting strong on kid systems, however, they eventually fall off the gaming wagon.

      When kids get to the 6 to 8 year-old age range is when we see them turn into more serious gamers, said Anita Frazier, industry analyst, The NPD Group. Not only does the amount of time they spend playing games increase the most dramatically, but they migrate from using kid systems to using more portable and console systems as well. This appears to be a critical age at which to capture the future gamers of the world.

      Although males and older kids are more likely to spend more time per week on gaming, the most significant jump occurs from ages 2 to 5 to ages 6 to 8. At this time, kids become more serious about gaming, reflected by spending 3 more hours a week, or 75 percent more time than they used to. Time spent on gaming plateaus at ages 12 to 17 at about 10 hours per week.

      Among kids ages 2 to 17 who play games online, an average of 39 percent of time is spent playing games online as opposed to offline. The average time spent gaming online is statistically higher among females, kids ages 15 to 17 and super users (those who spend 16 hrs/wk or more on gaming).

      However, it seems there is a disconnect between girls, older users and super users. Although these three groups are all in the same category of spending a higher percent of their gaming time on online, somewhere along the way girls, especially older girls, drop off.

      At 91 percent, the vast majority of online gaming among kids ages 2 to 17 is free. Boys and kids in higher income households are more likely to fall into the minority group (9 percent) that pays to play. In addition, the older the child, and the more time that child spends on gaming per week, the more likely that child is to pay for games.

      From toddlers to tweens to teens, more than one-third of kids in the United States are spending more time playing video games today than they did a year ag...
      Read lessRead more

      Daylight Savings Time Disrupts Circadian Rhythm

      Study finds humans don't adjust well to the annual time change

      With the switch from daylight saving time (DST) back to standard time fast approaching (it's November 4 this year), a new study finds that peoples bodies internal, daily rhythms dont adjust well to the change.

      The finding published online in Current Biology suggests that this regular time change -- practiced by a quarter of the human population -- represents a significant seasonal disruption, raising the possibility that (DST) may have unintended effects on other aspects of human physiology, according to the researchers.

      When we implement small changes into a biological system which by themselves seem trivial, their effects, when viewed in a broader context, may have a much larger impact than we had thought, said Till Roenneberg of Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Munich, Germany. It is much too early to say whether DST has a serious long-term impact on health, but our results indicate that we should consider this seriously and do a lot more research on the phenomenon.

      As in other animals, the human circadian clock uses daylight to stay in synchrony with its environment as the seasons change. In fact, Roenneberg said, this entrainment is so exact that human behavior adjusts to the east-west progression of dawn within a given time zone.

      Despite the fact that approximately 1.6 billion people experience DST, he continued, few studies have investigated its impact on human physiology and behavior. The results of the few, relatively small studies that have addressed the question have generally suggested that sleeping patterns adjust within days.

      In a large survey, which examined the sleep patterns of 55,000 people in Central Europe, Roennebergs group now shows that the timing of sleep on free days follows the seasonal progression of dawn under standard time, but not under DST.

      In a second study, they analyzed the timing of sleep and activity for eight weeks around each of the two DST transitions in 50 people, taking into account each individuals natural clock preferences, or chronotypes, ranging from morning larks to night owls.

      They found that the timing of both sleep and peak activity levels readily adjust to the release from DST in autumn, but that the timing of activity does not adjust to the start of DST in spring, especially in those who like to stay up late and sleep in.

      While we generally think that the time changes enforced by the DST transitions are only an hour, they have far more drastic effects if viewed in the context of the circadian clocks seasonal changes, Roenneberg said.

      This seemingly small hour translates to a repeat of 10 weeks in the annual progression of the relationship between our sleep-wake cycle and dawn -- four weeks in spring and six weeks in autumn. In effect, its as if the entire population of Germany, for example, is transported to Morocco in spring and back again in autumn.

      Indeed, after taking the seasonal adjustment into account, our results show that the human circadian clock does not adjust to the DST transition, Roenneberg said. This is especially obvious in the late chronotypes in spring when one looks at their daily activity patterns. Essentially, their biological timing stays on standard, winter time, while they have to adjust their social schedules to the advanced clock time throughout the summer.

      With the switch from DST back to standard time, a new study finds that peoples bodies internal, daily rhythms don't adjust well to the change....
      Read lessRead more

      Kawasaki Power Tool Kit Battery Chargers Recalled

      October 25, 2007
      Alltrade Tools is recalling about 800,000 battery chargers supplied with some Kawasaki power tool kits. When used with an incompatible charger, the battery pack can overheat and melt during charging, or can explode during use, posing burn, laceration and bruise hazards to consumers.

      Alltrade Tools has received 30 reports of incidents, including eight injuries from the battery packs melting or forcefully expelling plastic shards while in use. Injuries include minor acid burns from handling fractured battery packs, cuts, bruises and some temporary hearing loss from a loud noise that can occur if an internal battery cell ruptures.

      The recall includes battery chargers sold with certain model numbers of both 19.2 and 21.6 volt NiCad battery packs. The battery model number is located on a label on the bottom of the battery pack. The power tool's model number is stamped onto the inside lid of the tool set's plastic carrying case.

      Power ToolPower Tool ModelBattery Pack Model
      KW Black 19.2V Cordless Drill840128691034
      KW Black 19.2V 26 PC Drill Set840135
      KW Black 4 PC Power Tool Combo840338
      KW Black 2 PC Power Tool Combo840339
      KW Black 19.2V 26 PC Drill Set840135A 691240
      KW Black 21.6V Cordless Drill840266691221
      KW Black 21.6V Cordless Drill840267

      The chargers, made in China, were sold by national wholesale club retailers nationwide from September 2005 through September 2007 for between $40 and $100.

      Consumers should stop using the recalled battery chargers immediately and register at to receive a free compatible battery charger. Alltrade Tools LLC is directly contacting consumers who purchased the power tools containing the recalled chargers. Consumers should not return the battery chargers to the store where purchased.

      Consumer Contact: For additional information, please contact Alltrade Tools LLC at (877) 231-9239 between 8:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, or visit the firm's Web site at (pdf)

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

      Alltrade Tools is recalling about 800,000 battery chargers supplied with some Kawasaki power tool kits. When used with an incompatible charger, the battery...
      Read lessRead more

      World Not Ready For Bird Flu

      Not if but when, United Nations official warns

      Despite three years of massive preparation efforts, the world is not ready to deal with a potential Avian, or bird flu pandemic that could kill millions of people world-wide.

      Thats the assessment of David Nabarro, a senior United Nations official in charge of bird flu prevention efforts.

      Nabarro says most countries have made some progress on a preparedness plan, but that progress is spotty. And while some have actually been able to stockpile anti-viral vaccines, they have yet to plan for the enormous societal and economic impact a pandemic would bring.

      "Unfortunately, only a relatively small number are adequately prepared to keep going in the event that the pandemic has massive absenteeism associated with it, Nabarro said. We need hard work for at least two or three years more to make sure that the whole world is properly pandemic ready.

      No if, but when

      And a bird flu pandemic is coming, says Nabarro.

      To date the handful of humans who have contracted the disease have gotten the virus from infected birds. But once the deadly H5N1 virus mutates so that it is easily transmitted from one person to the next, Nabarro and other heath experts say it will spread quickly around the globe.

      Thats what happened in 1918, when an animal virus mutated and began to quickly spread from person to person. Before it ran its course in 1919, the Spanish Flu killed an estimated 40 million people more than died in the just completed World War. Health experts call it the most devastating epidemic in recorded history. So far.

      Nabarro says no one knows when the H5N1 virus will jump from birds to humans or how severe the resulting outbreak will be. But he says nations should be prepared for the worst, both in terms of human suffering and economic devastation.

      The World Health Organization is working with governments to develop rapid response systems, which include assembling stockpiles of Oseltamivir or Tamiflu, anti-viral medications. Nabarro says the agency is also working on trying to ensure that there will be a plan that can be put into place for rapid production of pandemic vaccines once the new virus appears.

      Bird flu has been reported in about 60 countries in the last three years, killing millions of birds. To date only about 350 humans have gotten the disease, but of that number, more than 200 have died, increasing fears of what a potential human pandemic could be like.

      World Not Ready For Bird Flu...
      Read lessRead more

      Money Market Funds: No-Brainer, or No Brains?

      Be careful! Not all funds are insured.

      Sometimes having money is more worrisome than not having any. It means you have to find a safe place to keep it, and in today's turbulent economy, that's not always as easy as it sounds.

      Many moneyed souls have their bucks sitting in taxable money market funds, whose assets have reached a record $2.438 trillion, according to Reuters. It makes sense, since most consumers think of money market funds as unsexy, low-yield vehicles in which to park extra cash. They also think they'ree about as safe as that plastic piggy bank you kept on your dresser at age eight.

      But as George Gershwin once noted, It aint necessarily so.

      For one thing, all money funds arent created equal. There are two basic types:

      Interest-earning money market accounts, typically issued by banks, insured up to $100,000 each by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). (Coverage on qualified retirement accounts jumps to $250,000 per account.)

      These must be designated money market deposit accounts (MMDAs) to qualify for FDIC coverage. They operate like checking accounts, but have a minimum balance requirement and limit the number of transactions you can make in a month.

      Money market mutual funds (MMMFs,) are not FDIC-insured. Money market mutual funds invest in short-term securities issued by the U.S. Treasury, banks and corporations.

      The Investment Company Act of 1940 (rule 2a-7) provides that at least 95% of money market mutual fund assets must be invested in first-tier investments (AA or AAA-rated securities.) Yields for both money market deposit accounts and money market mutual funds can vary with the market, unlike CDs, which have a fixed yield/interest rate.

      Why worry?

      So whats the problem with these plain vanilla investments? Chasing higher yields, some money market funds have ventured into hostile territory, jeopardizing investors calm expectations of no-sweat income.

      If the term structured investment vehicle (SIV) doesnt mean anything to you, listen up. SIVs borrow money short-term and use it to lend long-term, planning on profiting from the spread, or difference, between interest rates.

      Heres the rub: investors, scared of SIVs long-term investments in mortgage-backed securities, have stopped lending short-term money to SIVs. Blame the subprime mortgage debacle, for starters.

      Result: with SIVs shaky, many funds have trimmed SIV-related purchases or allowed instruments to mature without investing in new debt from the issuer. To shore up the market if SIVs show signs of tanking, the U.S. Treasury and Wall Street are attempting to assemble an SIV- bailout fund. Stay tuned and dont throw out the financial pages.

      Protecting your bucks

      The FDIC insures bank and savings bank deposits, and the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF) insures credit union accounts for the same amounts.

      Individual accounts are insured up to $100,000, while retirement accounts have a $250,000 limit.

      Here are some tips to make sure that your bank or credit-union holdings are fully covered:

      Break it up. If youre fortunate enough to exceed the $100,000 insurance limit, you can still ensure full FDIC coverage by either breaking the total amount into $100,000 increments (for example, for a $200,000 nest egg, putting $100,000 into a wifes name and $100,000 into a joint account for a husband and wife.) Most banks offer many types of accounts, including individual, joint, testamentary (pay on death or living trust accounts with a named beneficiary,) and retirement accounts (Roth IRA, Simplified Employee Benefit/SEP, Keogh, etc.)

      Split it. An alternative: split your savings among several institutions, keeping each account below the insurance maximum.

      Check it out. If you bank online, confirm that your bank is FDIC-insured. Read important information about the bank posted on its Web site. The FDIC maintains an online database of institutions it insures. (See Be aware that online and bricks-and-mortar divisions of the same bank may have different names, but be considered one entity for insurance purposes.

      Ask EDIE. Use FDIC resources to tally your coverage, including EDIE, the FDICs Electronic Deposit Insurance Estimator. EDIE estimates your insurance coverage based on your answers to a series of questions about your accounts. Its simple to use and can be accessed at the FDICs Web site.

      Keep track. Check into your coverage regularly. Sometimes accumulated interest, a new deposit or a windfall (inheritance, insurance settlement, etc.) can push your funds over the insured limit. You then need to re-structure the account to ensure full coverage.

      Bank consolidation. If you maintain accounts at two banks that merge, and combined funds exceed $100,000, you have a six-month grace period during which all funds are insured. Be sure to review the situation before the grace period expires and adjust fund distribution, if necessary. Your banker can help with this.

      Pay attention!

      All money market funds are not alike. It's up to you to keep careful track of what type of money market your funds are in, and how each earns its interest. Know whats insured and what isnt. And a common-sense bit of advice: dont invest in anything you cant understand. If you're not comfortable being without insurance, don't leave your money in a money market mutual fund.

      If all this makes you nervous, have a talk with your financial advisor. If you don't have a good financial advisor, this might be the time to find one, but that's a subject for another day.


      Joan E. Lisante is an attorney who writes frequently on consumer issues.

      Money Market Funds: No-Brainer, or No Brains?...
      Read lessRead more

      NutriSystem Day 28: Mission Accomplished

      Joe is 13 pounds lighter and a lot smarter about dieting

      With NutriSystem, your daily calorie intake fluctuates very little and as long as you follow their strictly defined daily planner, you're sure to burn off..

      Court Upholds Gift Card Rules

      Mall operator challenged Connecticut's ban on gift card dormancy fees

      A federal appeals court has upheld Connecticut's ban against dormancy fees on gift cards. Simon Property Group, which owns shopping malls nationwide, has been challenging the state's consumer protection laws.

      The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit involves a case in which Simon is challenging Connecticut's ban on gift card fees and expiration dates.

      In a separate case, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal sued Simon in state court for illegally imposing expiration dates on gift cards and charging dormancy fees on unused balances.

      Blumenthal said the federal court ruling vindicates Connecticut's vital right to prevent businesses from unconscionably devaluing gift card balances - ensuring that consumers get the full product that they bought.

      The federal ruling also provides for the U.S. District Court to consider the merits of Simon's challenge to Connecticut's law prohibiting expiration dates on gift cards. Blumenthal and State Treasurer Denise L. Nappier said they will continue to vigorously defend the state ban on expiration dates on gift cards.

      "Common sense and law support this ruling that a gift card belongs to a gift recipient - not a mall owner," Blumenthal said. "Simon cannot devalue gift cards. This ruling protects our legal prohibition against businesses devaluing gift cards and imposing dormancy fees on gift card balances. When consumers pay in full for a product, they deserve the full value.

      "Simon's gift card policies are illegal and completely nonsensical, turning off consumers, and wasting colossal amounts of money and time on litigation. Simon should spare consumers this unconscionable battle and abandon its court fight," he said.

      Meanwhile, Blumenthal said he continues to pursue the state action against Simon for illegally devaluing and expiring gift cards.

      Simon Property, which owns the Crystal Mall in Waterford, Connecticut, has subtracted $2.50 a month from Crystal Mall gift cards if an unused balance remains after six months. The company also has levied fees of $7.50 to reactivate an expired card.

      Court Upholds Gift Card Rules...
      Read lessRead more

      Halloween a Dangerous Holiday for Kids

      Pedestrian accidents the biggest hazard for trick-or-treaters

      October 24, 2007
      Consumer safety experts are warning parents to keep safety in mind when shopping for costumes this Halloween and to watch out for masks that may contain dangerous levels of lead and for costumes that may be flammable or hard to see at night.

      Safety experts agree that the danger of lead in masks is minimal, but urge parents to still be cautious.

      Safe Kids USA, a nonprofit that aims to keep children safe from dangerous products, spot-tested a few masks in the past and didn't find any lead on the inside, close to the where the mouth could come in contact, Alan Korn, director of public policy at the organization said.

      The Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit that fights to keep Americans safe from toxins found in everyday products, also spot-tested some masks and did find lead, but relatively low levels, spokesman Charles Margulis said. checked the masks at a local drug store and found that all 10 the store had available were products of China. But experts aren't concerned because, they're very short-lived, Korn said of masks. They're usually worn once for no more than an hour and not even fully for that hour.

      Because of the lack of chronic exposure, Margulis agreed that masks are not a major concern, but suggested that worried parents perform a home lead test on any soft plastic or vinyl masks.

      We find those tests to be pretty accurate, Margulis said. The staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), on the other hand, issued a warning earlier this week that the tests are unreliable.

      Parents should encourage their children to wear face paint instead of masks, Korn said. Not only would that eliminate lead fears, but more importantly, get rid of a potentially cumbersome mask that can hamper vision.

      The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has never recalled a Halloween mask, said agency spokesman Scott Wolfson. But two Halloween accessories this year have been recalled because of dangerous levels of lead. Dollar General recalled 63,000 Frankenstein mugs and Albert's recalled 55,000 skull-shaped pails.

      Wolfson said the greater concern is the flammability of costumes.

      Last year Family Dollar recalled 120,000 Creepy Capes because they could easily ignite and in 2001 Disney recalled 54,000 Little Mermaid costumes after a four-year-old girl suffered burns.

      When purchasing costumes, masks, beards and wigs, look for flame-resistant fabrics such as nylon or polyester, or look for the label "Flame Resistant," according to the agency's website.

      Flame-resistant fabrics will resist burning and should extinguish quickly. To minimize the risk of contact with candles and other fire sources, avoid costumes made with flimsy materials and outfits with big, baggy sleeves or billowing skirts.

      Experts warn that cars are far more dangerous to children on Halloween than lead levels in masks or flammable costumes.

      By far, the most dangerous thing on Halloween is pedestrian safety, Korn said. Children are four times more likely to be killed on Halloween because of a car/pedestrian incident than any other night of the year.

      Korn suggested that when selecting a costume, include:

      • Light colors that can be easily seen at night;
      • Retro reflective material; and
      • A flashlight so that trick or treaters can see and be seen

      He also said it's important for adults to slow down while driving.

      It is the only night of the year in which every adult you know and every child you know will be doing the exact same thing heading to the roads, Korn said. Parents coming home from rush hour or regular commuting traffic and kids excited to get out there and do their trick or treating.

      More safety tips are available on Safe Kids USA's Web site.

      Halloween a Dangerous Holiday for Kids...
      Read lessRead more

      NutriSystem Day 26: Hold the Eggs

      The end is in sight, and a welcome sight it is

      With two days left in my NutriSystem trial, I have eaten, or at least tried to eat, almost every dish NutriSystem has to offer and I'm glad I'll -- hopefully -- never be eating them again after Thursday.

      Most of the foods were fair at best, a few were tasty, while some were so disgusting I'd have to be truly starving before I'd eat them again.

      Of the 118 NutriSystem complaints has received, almost all describe horrific foods that not even a dog would eat. While I understand that I'm not a picky eater, I would have to say that most of those complaints are gross exaggerations.

      I wouldn't describe any NutriSystem dishes as delicious. Most were not bad, especially with the help of some spices and/or hot sauce, which are both allowed. Only a few were so gross I'd never eat them again.

      To be honest, considering that this is supposed to be a diet and diet foods are generally healthy foods, I was shocked at how edible most foods were. For our readers who really couldn't handle NutriSystem foods, all I can say is, good luck dieting.

      Story continues below video

      However, it seemed many of the foods were cheaply made. While the meat wasn't bad, it didn't taste like it was anywhere close to grade A and every item that supposedly had fruits and nuts built into it, had almost none. I was also frequently disappointed when I opened lunches and dinners to find mostly sauce rather than meat and vegetables.

      While many bloggers on NutriSystem's forums claim to save money using NutriSystem, I found that claim to be less than credible. I live alone in downtown Washington, D.C. and before this NutriSystem diet, I ate most meals out since preparing meals for one person is rarely feasible and since many of the restaurants in the area offer healthier dishes and cater to young singles like myself.

      My spending for food, conservatively, came out to $420 per month while the cheapest possible option for NutriSystem customers is $460. While meals themselves are only $320 per month, they actually only include a portion of one's daily calorie intake.

      As I noted in my Day 11 entry, a dieter must also provide 11 extra helpings from various food groups for each day.

      After loading up at Trader Joe's, the cheapest grocery store in town that offers fresh fruits and vegetables, and using what was already in my pantry, I burned through at least an additional $140.

      Knowing that I live in a very expensive region, I don't understand how anyone outside of Washington, D.C. or Manhattan could possibly claim that they save money using NutriSystem.

      Outside of food, the diet also includes counseling, which some say makes the difference. For me, the counseling was helpful. My friendly counselor, Jamie, called me every week to check on me and candidly answered my questions.

      However, after a month on the diet, after all my questions have been answered, I'm not sure I'd ever use the counseling again.

      During this trial, I have learned what foods I like and what foods I don't and I completely commiserate with complaining consumers whose meals have been swapped. While it doesn't cost more money to choose what foods you want, it makes the diet much more edible considering that most people are likely going to hate at least some of the dishes.

      When I chose my plan, I tried to pick one of everything so that I could get a good feel for the palatability of the diet. However, only about a third of what I picked actually arrived.

      Instead, they swapped many of the desserts, breakfasts, lunches and dinners with things that I suspect were cheaper to make. Most notable were the five packages of scrambled eggs. I only picked one of those, yet five arrived. The powdered eggs were not only disgusting, as I discuss in today's video, but likely much less expensive to manufacture than some of the other breakfast dishes.

      My counselor recently informed me that I could have called NutriSystem when my box arrived and have them send me the items I actually picked, at no charge, and kept the other items I didn't pick.

      Maybe, but consumers have complained for years about food being swapped out.

      NutriSystem representatives have given me three excuses saying that it's because of a new and improved menu that may not appear on the website, a temporary backlog at the shipping facility and one even blamed it on the company's spokesman, Dan Marino, saying his popular effect on the brand has hurt the supply chains.

      NutriSystem needs to stop giving excuses and start sending people what they paid for. Until then, I encourage readers to follow my counselor's advice and make NutriSystem send them all the food they actually requested.

      Check out my last NutriSystem blog on Thursday where I'll have my final weigh-in and give my final verdict on the NutriSystem diet.

      NutriSystem Day 26: Hold the Eggs...
      Read lessRead more

      New Hampshire Charges Ameriprise with Fraud

      Company faces penalties, restitution of $10 million

      The New Hampshire Bureau of Securities Regulation has accused Ameriprise Financial of breaking state securities laws, forging and tampering with documents, the state's second action against the company in as many years.

      The state said Ameriprise could face penalties and client restitution of up to $10 million.

      "What we've found is an unprecedented and widespread compliance failure on a number of levels within the company as well as an unprofessional workplace environment and attitude that would do little to inspire the trust and confidence of New Hampshire investors, said bureau director Mark Connolly.

      "This conduct was the direct result of an Ameriprise sales culture more concerned with sales commissions than compliance," he said. "Regulators cannot tolerate such blatant disregard for investors."

      The complaint alleges that the brokerage company failed to deliver nearly 500 financial plans, conducted unapproved sales contests and intentionally limited compliance oversight.

      Additionally, the Minneapolis-based brokerage company was accused of failing to adequately release all fraudulent activities to the state of New Hampshire while it was under supervision by the state and by an independent consultant in 2005.

      In 2005 the company, formerly known as American Express Financial Advisors, settled with the state for $7.4 million on charges related to illegal incentives, conflicts of interest and lack of disclosure to clients.

      In the earlier case, the state found a pervasive effort within the company to press its financial advisors to sell "one size fits all" investment plans that were heavily laden with underperforming American Express mutual funds.

      The state now charges that the company failed to deliver nearly 500 financial plans, enaged in forgery, document tempering and other illegal activities. The company also allegedly concealed evidence of fraudulent activities from investigators.

      By law, financial advisory have a fiduciary duty to always act in the best interest of their clients, tailoring each individual's financial plan based on factors such as the client's age, income and risk tolerance.

      The New Hampshire Bureau of Securities Regulation has accused Ameriprise Financial of breaking state securities laws, forging and tampering with documents....
      Read lessRead more

      Missouri Scalping Crackdown Gets Results

      Online scalpers buy out entire concerts in some cases

      Sometimes the good guys win.

      Thats the case with a Missouri woman who tried again on Saturday to get tickets to Hannah Montanas upcoming concert in Kansas City for her eight-year-old daughter.

      I got them! an excited Claire N. screamed over the phone seconds after the tickets went on sale.

      Claire and other Hannah Montana fans in Kansas City had another chance to buy the much-coveted tickets on Saturday thanks to an agreement Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon reached earlier this month with Ticketmaster.

      Under that agreement, Ticketmaster released an additional 1,000 tickets -- held by artists promotion company -- to the teen idols December 3 concert in Kansas City.

      Claire went online Saturday morning and managed to snatch up two of those hot tickets.

      Im ecstatic, she said after buying the tickets for face value -- $56 a piece. Im going to give them to my daughter on Thanksgiving as an early Christmas presents.

      Claire had tried in September to buy Hannah Montana tickets -- at the designated time of sale -- but discovered the show was already sold out.

      She and other Missouri fans, however, immediately found scores of Hannah Montana tickets at various brokers but at greatly inflated prices. Some tickets to the pop divas concerts in Missouri -- that included an October 18 show in St. Louis -- sold for up to 20 times the face value.

      State sues scalpers

      Earlier this month, Nixon sued three ticket brokers for allegedly scalping Hannah Montana tickets: GoTickets Inc. and Tickets Now Entertainment Group Inc., both of Springfield, Illinois, and Ticket Solutions Inc. of Overland Park, Kansas.

      Investigators from Nixons office purchased tickets from these online brokers to the pop stars upcoming Kansas City concert. They paid $254, $257, and $305 for tickets that had a face value of either $26 or $56.

      Nixons lawsuits, filed in the Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court, alleged the brokers violated the states consumer protection laws by scalping tickets. The sale of tickets at prices far above the face values is a violation of a Kansas City municipal ordinance that prohibits scalping.

      These companies are able to employ inappropriate means, using sophisticated software, to hoard all the tickets to high-demand events and then turn around and sell them at grossly inflated prices, Nixon said when he sued the brokers. Its a blatant rip-off of consumers who attempt to purchase tickets in good faith through the proper means and are met with nothing but frustration.

      At the same time Nixon took those ticket brokers to court, he also reached the agreement with Ticketmaster to sell additional tickets to the young pop stars shows in St. Louis and Kansas City.

      Under the agreement, fans could only purchase two tickets to the concerts through Ticketmasters Web site or over the phone.

      To prevent scalping, fans must pick up their tickets at the venues box office -- on the day of the concert -- and present photo identification and the credit card they used for payment.

      By requiring purchasers to appear at the box office and provide credit card and photo ID verification, we also are minimizing the impact that would-be scalpers will have on these sales, Nixon said. If these ticket brokers are rendered unable to hijack the system, real fans get the tickets at the prices set by the artists.

      Nixon said he worked out this agreement to ensure fans had a chance to get Hannah Montana tickets at a fair price. We wanted to make sure that a lot of frustrated moms and dads, with their disappointed kids, had the opportunity to purchase tickets to these concerts at face value.

      Claire appreciates Nixons action.

      My daughter really wanted to go this show and she was upset when we couldnt get tickets. Im so happy that I got theseIm ecstatic.

      We beat the ticket scalpers, she added.

      No callbacks tried to contact the ticket brokers named in Nixons lawsuit, but none returned our calls.

      Meanwhile, consumers nationwide have shared horror stories with us about ticket scalpers gobbling up all the Hannah Montana tickets and selling them at inflated prices.

      I was on TicketMaster 20 minutes before the Hannah Montana tickets went on sale at 10:00a.m., one parent from Nottingham, Maryland, wrote us. They were sold out at 10:01! My friends were also on the Web site at the same time and had problems.

      Ten minutes later, the tickets were on eBay selling for triple the price. I am very upset that they allow people to sell these tickets online to make money, and my daughter, who is a true fan, can't go because I can't afford to spend $300 per ticket.

      Missouri isnt the only state cracking down on brokers that allegedly scalp Hannah Montanas concert tickets.

      The Arkansas attorney general recently launched an investigation into the sale of these tickets to determine if some online brokers violated that states scalping laws.

      I have a young daughter, and I really wish I could fix this problem for all the parents with disappointed kids right now, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said. However, what our investigation reveals thus far is that many of the tickets intended to be sold directly to Arkansas consumers were diverted to as yet unidentified bulk purchasers.

      McDaniel said he learned of allegations that at least one company is selling a software product that allows users to breach Ticketmasters online system. Users who have this software, he said, can cut in line ahead of legitimate customers and block access to tickets at the site.

      Sales at the box office are also tied into the Ticketmaster system, McDaniel said, and its possible that users of this software were able to block the full number of tickets intended to be available at the box office.

      McDaniel also warned consumers that some tickets offered for sale on the Internet could be bogus. Some online ticket sellers might not have the tickets theyre selling, he cautioned, while other might sell counterfeit tickets.

      What to do

      McDaniel offered the following tips to consumers buying tickets online:

      • Know the company youre dealing with. Web sites have certain guidelines that resellers must follow, but not all sites verify ticket authenticity before permitting users to post them for sale;

      • Avoid paying the seller directly with cash or a check. Many auction sites use separate services to handle the payment, which usually requires the use of a credit card. If purchases are made through a separate service or with a credit card, the consumer is more likely to have some recourse to dispute the charge if the tickets turn out to be bogus;

      • Research the seller and the Web site. Web sites that display the Better Business Bureau seal usually have a buyer protection program. Consumers should also find out if the seller has a history of satisfied customers.

      While there will always be issues relating to ticket availability where demand exceeds supply, the process must be fair to consumers, Attorney General McDaniel said. With these ticket sales, there is the additional problem that many are being offered on the Internet at prices far above the face value.

      "In many instances, Arkansas law prohibits resale at prices over the face value plus a reasonable handling charge.

      McDaniel, however, said its sometimes difficult to enforce ticket scalping laws with Internet transactions because the sellers may be in another state or country.

      Unfortunately, consumers in Kansas City, Missouri, will soon have zero protection against ticket scalping.

      Its currently illegal to sell tickets above face value in that city. But the Missouri Legislature recently passed a measure that legalized ticket scalping in the stateeffective November 28.

      Some legislators have said they may try to overturn that law in the next session, which convenes in January.

      Missouri Scalping Crackdown Gets Results...
      Read lessRead more

      FDA Failed to Follow Up on 2005 Peanut Butter Contamination

      Inspector visited ConAgra plant but agency dropped the ballAt least four deaths blamed on subsequent Salmonella outbreak

      The Salmonella peanut butter outbreak that is blamed for killing at least four and sickening hundreds early last year, was not the first instance of a Salmonella outbreak in a batch of Peter Pan peanut butter for the ConAgra Foods company.

      Nor did it come as a surprise to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which had failed to follow up on earlier problems at the plant that produced the contaminated peanut butter.

      Documents obtained by through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that ConAgra discovered microbial problems in October 2004.

      In February 2005, the FDA sent inspector Jackie Douglas to ConAgra's Sylvester, Ga. plant, which produces Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butters, to investigate an anonymous claim of insect infestation, poor in-plant sanitation, equipment maintenance and quality control.

      The FDA also had received five complaints from consumers who said they found plastic, hair, rice and mouse droppings in the peanut butter.

      'Micro hold'

      Although Douglas found the plant to be in compliance with applicable codes, the plant managers informed her that there was a micro hold in October 2004, in which some of the plant's peanut butter was destroyed as a result of lab tests.

      "Management verbally reported that each day's production is tested in-house for Salmonella and coliforms prior to release of the production for sale," Douglas noted in her inspection report. "Firm acknowledged that there was some production in October that did not meet product specifications and was put on micro hold, and was subsequently destroyed. However, management would not report the exact reason for the hold, nor the amount of product affected."

      The plant managers informed Douglas that the details of that micro hold would be made available to the FDA if they filed a written request.

      The FDA never did request that information, ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said.

      FDA dropped the ball

      If the FDA had folowed through, it would have discovered that the micro hold was the result of Salmonella, Childs said. She wasn't sure how much peanut butter was destroyed, but she said the product manufactured the day the Salmonella was discovered was destroyed as well as an unspecified number of days before and after.

      The FDA made no further inquiries until two years later when the Centers for Disease Control informed the FDA that more than 200 consumers had been infected with Salmonella, possibly as a result of eating Peter Pan peanut butter.

      FDA spokeswoman Catherine McDermott gave unresponsive answers to's questions and a follow up e-mail and phone call to the agency's press office were not returned.

      A month after the initial recall, ConAgra and the FDA issued press releases announcing that the recall would be expanded to October 2004.

      "We were reaching back to custumers who might on an off-chance still have that product in storage or on shelf," Childs said. "I think there was some confusion behind the intent of that FDA press release. But our intent from the very beginning was to recall 100 percent of product made there."

      Childs said it was a coincidence that the company announced an extension to its recall back to October 2004, the same month the company destroyed unknown batches of peanut butter that contained Salmonella.

      Excessive moisture

      In both Salmonella outbreaks, ConAgra scientists are not entirely sure what caused them. But they largely blame excessive moisture, Childs said.

      The October 2004 outbreak was possibly a result of peanut shells from one distributor that may have been exposed to too much hurricane weather. It's also possible that sugar stored in a damaged shed may have been exposed to rain, the company said.

      The February 2007 recall was possibly the result of the plant's faulty sprinkler system or a leak in the roof.

      "We have procedures in place to clean up after that; stop production, get rid of product that may have been impacted by those kinds of scenarios and to start fresh," Childs said. "But we think there must have been some salmonella after our cleanup and that that lead to the unintentional contamination of the product later on."

      Despite the cleanups, micro holds and ConAgra's in-house Salmonella testing, their product sickened hundreds of consumers whose doctors reported it to the CDC and likely many thousands more. has received 205 related complaints. Many of those complaints involved multiple illnesses among family members.

      Was the problem sporadic?

      "Yes, we have these regular testing procedures. Yes, we regularly hold the product," Childs said. "But our experts believe that either the salmonella count was either too low to detect or that it was sporadic enough that our testing procedures could not detect it."

      The plant tests one jar per line per hour, Childs said.

      The FDA has levied no fines against ConAgra and the agency's investigation is ongoing. A manager at the Health and Human Services Freedom of Information Office said it will likely be "many months" before the FDA finishes its investigation.

      Back on shelves

      Peter Pan returned to store shelves in August and Childs said the company has made extra efforts to ensure the product is safe.

      "We fully renovated the plant, worked with food safety experts to modify product testing and further separated raw ingredients from any finished product," Childs said.

      By the time Peter Pan returned to stores, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention said that 628 people in 47 states have been affected by salmonella poisoning from the tainted peanut butter.

      While most of the product has been pulled from store shelves, health officials say some of the recalled jars may still be in consumers pantries. The recalled peanut butter can be identified by the product code beginning with 2111 on the lid.

      While the CDC does not officially attribute any deaths to the outbreak, families of at least four elderly consumers have told that their loved ones died after eating tainted peanut butter. Their deaths are not counted, officials say, because no autopsies were performed.

      Eighty-one-year-old Rosie Haskins died February 26. Her family reported to that a partially eaten jar of peanut butter was found in her room. The jar had the telltale 2111 stamped on the lid.

      Another death reported to was that of 85-year-old Mary Halstead of West Virginia. She died after her son made her a peanut butter sandwich -- her favorite food.

      "Dumb old me, I made her a peanut butter sandwich at home and brought it to her at the hospital, because it was just about the only thing she wanted to eat," Larry Halstead, her son, said. "In no time, she got just 100 percent worse." Halstead said his mother then became semi-comatose and died.

      Two other deaths have been unofficially attributed to the tainted peanut butter.

      An elderly Chicago-area man, George Baldwin, was said to be in relatively good health just before his death from complications of food poisoning, shortly after he ate a peanut butter sandwich.

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

      A 76-year old Pennsylvania woman, Roberta Barkay of Philadelphia, died in January from complications of food poisoning, and family members contend she too ate peanut butter shortly before her death. The family has hired an attorney who has filed suit against the manufacturer, ConAgra.

      While new cases of peanut butter-related salmonella have tapered off, the CDC is warning consumers to be careful. The agency says consumers should carefully examine peanut butter jars on kitchen shelves to make sure the product is not included in the recall.

      This outbreak demonstrates the potential for widespread illness from a broadly distributed contaminated product, one that had not previously been implicated in a food-borne illness outbreak in the United States, the CDC said in a statement.

      FDA Failed to Follow Up on 2005 Peanut Butter Contamination...
      Read lessRead more

      Lab Tests Again Find Acetaminophen in Pet Food

      More evidence melamine is a 'red herring?'Menu Foods, FDA don't respond to cries for help

      Its happened again. New laboratory tests have detected the pain killer acetaminophen in yet another brand of pet food, has learned.

      These results add to the growing number of cases in which toxicologists at ExperTox Analytical Laboratories in Texas have detected the over-the-counter pain medicine in dog or cat food.

      Carol's Cat Food

      The latest findings (pdf file) came in a composite of three flavors of Menu Foods Special Kitty food -- Special Kitty with beef and gravy, Special Kitty mixed grill in gravy, and Special Kitty with turkey & giblets in gravy.

      The tests performed by ExperTox earlier this month also detected another toxin in the foods: melamine. Thats the chemical that triggered Menu Foods massive recall in March of more than 60 million containers of pet food.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found the melamine in the wheat gluten imported from China, which pet food companies used to make their products. Thousands of dogs and cats nationwide suffered kidney problems or died after eating the tainted pet food. learned a Rhode Island pet owner bought the Special Kitty food in February one month before Menu announced its nationwide recall. Pet owner Carol V. said her two cats -- Jessica and Smudge -- nearly died after eating the tainted food.

      To say the food made them sick is an understatement, she told us. It nearly killed them.

      Now, shes beginning to understand why. ExperToxs lab results, she said, give her some insight into what made her cats so sick.

      Not just melamine

      Carol's Cats

      Smudge sick
      Smudge recovered

      I expected the lab to find melamine, said Carol, who worked as an X-ray technician for years. But from what Ive read, melamine isnt too harmful and isnt toxic unless it reacts with cyanuric acid. But the lab didnt find cyanuric acid in the food.

      The acetaminophen in the cat food, however, may explain Jessicas and Smudges problems. The popular pain killer can be toxic to cats, according to veterinarians.

      It just floored me that there was acetaminophen in the food I feed my cats, said Carol. How can you explain acetaminophen in my cats food? I sent the food in the original, unopened pouches.

      But finding the acetaminophen in there also makes perfect sense after seeing what theyve gone through, she adds. I really thought both of them were going to die.

      The first signs of problems surfaced in mid-February when Carol detected a strange odor on Jessicas breath.

      It smelled uremic, like a kidney dialysis patient, Carol recalled. We also noticed that Jessica was outside drinking water from a melting puddle. I remember commenting that wed never seen either cat drink before. But Jessica was so desperate for water that she was drinking from a puddle outside.

      And then we noticed that she couldnt stand on her own.

      Kidneys failing

      Carol rushed the 15-year-old Tabby cat to the familys veterinarian.

      He did a urinalysis and discovered her kidneys were failing, Carol said. We thought we would have to euthanize her. But our vet said that because Jessica shed seemed fine the day before, he wanted to presume this was something he could treat.

      For the next few days, Jessica received fluids, potassium supplements, the heartburn medicine Pepcid AC, and an antibiotic.

      We decided that if this didnt workif she was sufferingwe wouldnt continue with the treatment, Carol said.

      But Jessicas condition slowly improved.

      Her back legs were getting stronger and she seemed to be getting better. So we continued giving her more fluids and sticking with this same treatment program.

      Carols vet also emphasized the importance of getting Jessica to eat.

      So I tried to force fed her the Special Kitty food, Carol said, adding this occurred a few weeks before Menu Foods announced its recall. Jessica refused. I even poured tuna fish oil on the Special Kitty food to entice her to eat, but she walked away.

      Smudge, however, continued to gobble up the Special Kitty food.

      And on March 12 -- four days before Menu Foods announced its recall the Calico cat suddenly became seriously ill.

      She could hardly stand up, she was staggering, and her breath smelled foul, Carol said. I thought that she had whatever Jessica hadthat maybe it was a virus.

      Renal failure

      But Carols vet discovered another -- much more serious -- problem. Smudge was in renal failure.

      He said she was much worse than Jessica was and he didnt think that shed last through the day, Carol said. He said it looked like shed gotten into some antifreeze. But he did a test and that proved it wasnt antifreeze poisoning.

      The family took aggressive measures to save the 13-year-old cat. They authorized their vet to follow the same protocol he used to treat Jessica.

      Slowly, Smudge started to improve.

      Our vet said he didnt know what was going on with Smudge, Carol said. He was baffled. And I think I asked him if it could be something we were feeding the cats.

      Carols suspicious were confirmed a few days later.

      Stiffed by Menu, FDA

      I was watching the news and heard about Menu Foods recall and that the food was causing renal failure in pets. Carol said she immediately contacted Menu Foods, but the company didnt respond.

      All Menu Foods was publicly telling pet owners to do was save their receipts. But this wasnt about money. It was about saving our pets and nothing was happening.

      Carol also contacted the FDA--several times.

      I offered to give the FDA my cats food, but they said they didnt want it. I told them I have the food thats on the recall list and I also have two really sick cats. I begged and pleaded them to test my food, but they didnt want it.

      At one point, an FDA employee even chastised Carol for calling.

      The person who answered the phone said why are you calling me about this. What really bothered me was how these agencies could be reporting information about the pet food recall if they werent taking any information -- at least not from me. I didnt expect this from the people who supposedly were the investigators on this.

      The FDA finally returned Carols calls but only after she sent numerous e-mails and contacted Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

      Five minutes after contacting the Senators office, I received a call from a woman at the FDA, Carol said. She told me my previous messages apparently didnt get through.

      This whole experience has been so frustrating. Its like being on a merry-go-round and I keep going to back to square one. And all I really wanted was for someone to test my cats food.

      New Organization Responds

      A new organization called The Pet Food Products Safety Alliance answered Carols plea.

      That organization -- created to raise public awareness of pet food safety issues paid ExperTox to test Carols cat food. A representative with the group, Don Earl, learned about Carols situation on an Internet Web site.

      Don asked me if I would send him the cats food to be tested and I told him Id be happy to, Carol said, adding shed saved several unopened pouches of Special Kitty since March and stored the food in her freezer. Don wanted to know which flavor was worse and I said I feed my cats every flavor. Thats why he wanted three different flavors. He knew the results would be scrutinized.

      ExperToxs results on the Special Kitty food are significant for two reasons, Earl said.

      To my knowledge, this is the first time acetaminophen has been detected in the presence of melamine.

      Red herring

      The tests also cast doubt on the theory that melamine is the culprit behind the pet food recall, he said.

      (These tests) add significantly to the body of evidence that melamine has been used by the pet food companies as a red herring to cover up the actual toxin that killed an estimated quarter of a million pets, said Earl, who has extensively researched this issue since his cat, Chuckles, died in January. Chuckles went into kidney failure after eating Pet Pride cat food that wasnt included in the recall.

      Earl said his research -- and these latest finding by ExperTox -- have convinced him that another toxic caused the illnesses and deaths in pets nationwide.

      The scientific data, he said, just doesnt support the melamine theory.

      Melamine is less toxic than common table salt and couldn't possibly account for the kidney failure epidemic in affected pets, he said.

      ExperToxs latest results also add to the growing list of pet foods that have recently tested positive for acetaminophen, including:

      • About a half-dozen samples of pet food tested in May. ExperTox did not disclose the brands of those foods because of a confidentiality agreement. But Earl confirmed that two of those samples were Menu Foods Pet Pride "Turkey and Giblets Dinner" and Pet Pride "Mixed Grill that he sent to the lab for analysis. The FDA disputed ExperToxs findings, but we discovered the FDA could not confirm it tested the same lots and brands in which ExperTox detected the pain medication;

      • A sample of pet food -- identified as CANIDAE dog food. ExperTox, however, said the sample arrived in a Ziploc bag and it could not confirm the pet food was a CANIDAE product. The lab's customer, who was not identified because of a confidentiality agreement, listed the sample as CANIDAE pet food on ExperToxs forms. CANIDAE denied its products contain acetaminophen, but said it would test samples of its food for the painkiller.

      ExperToxs newest findings demand further investigation, Carol said.

      I know some people have criticized ExperTox, but I trust them. I know how hard it is for a lab to stay accredited. I dont think the FDA can continue to turn its head on acetaminophen.

      FDA, Menu Foods Mum

      But will the FDA unleash a new investigation of possible toxins in the tainted pet food in the wake of ExperToxs latest findings?

      Will it specifically look for acetaminophen in pet food?

      An FDA spokeswoman told us the agency does not comment on pending legislation, litigation, or citizen petitions.

      What about the run-around Carol received trying to get some answers from the FDA and get that agency to test her cats food?

      The FDA spokeswoman suggested Carol contact the FDAs Consumer Complaint Coordinator. Carol took that action on Tuesday and said the FDA now seems interested in the Special Kitty food.

      The FDA coordinator took very detailed information from me, Carol said, adding the representative wanted her cats medical records and additional information about their food. I think from my tone she knew that I have no intention of keeping this quiet.

      Menu Foods, on the other hand, is keeping quiet about these latest test results. The company did not respond to our inquiries.

      In the meantime, Carol said her cats are getting better each day.

      Jessica is 90 percent of her sassy self, she said. And Smudge just started eating on her own at the end of June. We were feeding her in a syringe for months. We were determined that if she survived this in the beginning, she had a right to make a full recovery.

      Pet owners also have a right not to worry every time they feed their dogs or cats, Carol said.

      I dont want something like this to happen again. My cats dont have the reserves to survive even one more bite of bad food.

      The FDA cannot dismiss this as they have with all the other tests (that detected) acetaminophen.

      Lab Tests Again Find Acetaminophen in Pet Food...
      Read lessRead more

      English Lesson Marketer Agrees To Refunds

      North Carolina charges company used deceptive marketing

      A company charged with using deceptive marketing to pitch its English language learning software has settled charges with the state of North Carolina.

      Attorney General Roy Cooper says the company, Interlingual, of Houston, Texas, has agreed to follow the law and pay refunds to consumers who file complaints.

      This company took advantage of people who wanted to learn our language, said Cooper. Now, weve won money back for consumers and gotten the company to change its ways.

      Cooper alleges the company made telemarketing calls and in-home sales visits to Spanish-speaking North Carolina residents to sell compact discs and printed materials designed to teach English.

      Telemarketers working for Interlingual first called consumers, claiming that they were calling to ask them questions for a poll or survey. The telemarketers then quickly switched to a sales pitch and asked to set up a meeting with a sales representative at the consumers home.

      According to the complaint, Interlingual sales representatives told prospective customers that they had been selected to receive special scholarships or discounts of up to fifty percent off the purchase price. In reality, all consumers were quoted a price of $1,100 for the CDs and books.

      Other consumers were promised 20 free English lessons, but could only get their supposedly free lessons by agreeing to buy the CDs and books.

      Under the agreement, Interlingual will change its sales practices. The company has agreed to stop making false claims about scholarships, discounts and free lessons. Interlingual will notify customers verbally and in writing in the same language used to make the sale, which is usually Spanish, about their three-day right to cancel their purchase.

      North Carolina law gives people three days to cancel a purchase if it wasnt made at the companys regular place of business.

      The company also agreed to change its telemarketing practices. Interlingual telemarketers will stop making false survey calls and will not use automatic dialers and pre-recorded messages without consumers consent.

      The company will make sure its telemarketers are properly trained to follow telemarketing laws.

      Any consumer who files a complaint with the North Carolina Attorney Generals Office, Texas Attorney Generals Office or the Better Business Bureau within the next 120 days will get a full refund from Interlingual.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      English Lesson Marketer Agrees To Refunds...
      Read lessRead more

      FCC Wants Consumer Alerts About Analog TVs

      Conversion to digital broadcasting in 2007 will render analog sets obsolete

      Would you buy a new television set that will become obsolete in a little more than a year?

      That's just what you'll be doing if you buy an analog TV, which will be practically useless once TV broadcasters go digital on February 17, 2009.

      The Federal Communications Commission may take steps to ensure that consumers are made aware about the impending change.

      FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has told Congress that he thinks TV broadcasters should be required to air announcements several times a day, making consumers aware that they may have to take additional steps in order to watch TV.

      Consumers with analog TVs will have to get a converter box to receive over-the-air signals once TV stations start broadcasting digitally. Those with a satellite TV service or digital cable will not need a converter box.

      In this age of flat-screen digital sets, does anyone still buy analog TVs?

      Apparently so. In fact, this week retailer Best Buy announced it would immediately stop selling analog sets. In a statement, the retailer said it was pulling analog sets from its shelves as the analog broadcast era draws to an end.

      An estimated 60 million U.S. homes still rely on over-the-air reception or analog cable systems. Cable systems currently relying on the old technology have until 2012 to switch over to digital.

      Beginning in 2008, the U.S. government says it will provide coupons to each household that can be used to purchase up to two converter boxes. The converter boxes will be available from retailers that currently sell TVs and other electronics.

      Meanwhile, consumers could soon begin seeing public service announcements telling them what they have to do in order to receive digital TV. Martin told a House subcommittee that he thinks other FCC commissioners will go along with his proposal.

      FCC Wants Consumer Alerts About Analog TVs...
      Read lessRead more

      Honda Most Reliable inConsumer ReportsSurvey

      Toyota drops out of first place

      October 17, 2007
      Toyota Motor Co. has dropped from the top spot in Consumer Reports newest survey on vehicle reliability.

      Honda Motor Co. beat out Toyota for first place but the maker of the top selling Prius hybrid managed a third place finish behind Honda and Suburu.

      Ford Motor Co. made great strides forward, according to the consumer advocacy group with 41 of Ford's 44 models scoring average or better in predicted reliability.

      Three Toyota vehicles lost the magazine's "buy" recommendation. For the first time in the survey's history, the V6 Toyota Camry is not recommended by the publication. The Lexus GS sedan and the full-sized Tundra pickup also dropped off the recommended list.

      Japanese-made vehicles dominate CR's most-reliable list but U.S. automakers are making some progress, according to David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center.

      "Just because a vehicle is made in Japan, doesn't mean it has bullet-proof quality," Champion said.

      Both General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC achieved high ratings in launches of new vehicles but were unable to maintain the ratings.

      Consumer Reports said The Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan sedans rank among the most reliable family cars in its survey, along with the Toyota Prius and Honda Accord. Those Ford sedans and the two-wheel drive Ford F-150 V-6 comprise three of the four domestic models on the survey's most reliable list.

      Buick was the top U.S. nameplate at number 10 while Mercury followed in the number 11 spot, Ford was 13 and Lincoln 14.

      Chrysler came in at number 20 in the report followed by Dodge at 26 GMC at 28, Jeep at 30, Chevrolet and Cadillac tied for 34.

      Of domestic models rated, 93 percent of Ford, 49 percent of GM and 67 percent of Chrysler models had average or better predicted reliability

      Thirty-four of 39 models on the most reliable list are Asian.

      The Pontiac Solstice had the worst new-car prediction score in the survey Among 36 makes, Land Rover was least reliable on average.

      Honda Most Reliable in Consumer Reports Survey...
      Read lessRead more

      Prepaid Wireless Plans Can Save Time & Money

      But read the fine print and be sure you know what you're buying

      October 16, 2007
      The wireless phone might be one of the greatest inventions of all time, but these little gadgets are also the cause of massive confusion and financial trouble. It is not a pretty sight to look at the number of complaints filed against cellular companies, especially when it comes to the issue of contracts and termination fees.

      Although there are court cases and potential legislation challenging early termination fees and other horrors, they are all most likely years away from completion.

      But there's one step you can take today to avoid the hassles of a contract and that's to choose a prepaid wireless plan.

      Prepaid plans also called pay-as-you-go plans allow you to purchase minutes in advance, as you need them. There is no contract, credit check or deposit, and most plans won't make you pay an activation fee.

      Prepaid wireless isnt for everyone, especially if youre a heavy wireless user or want certain types of phones. However, you should consider going prepaid if

      • You want to budget your expenses

      • You or your teen need a limited-use phone

      • You need a phone only for emergencies

      • You have bad credit

      • You want to test-drive the carrier before signing a contracted plan.

      Just because you don't sign a contract doesn't mean that choosing service can't be confusing. You still have to do your homework, and do it well.

      Where to begin

      There is nothing wrong with shopping based on the type of phone or the per-minute rate, but none of that matters if the service doesnt work in your area. Start with checking the coverage map, but understand that its only a general information guide and nowhere near perfect.

      Just as with a postpaid plan, a cell phone is basically a small radio. Weather, terrain, and buildings can play havoc with the quality of service. A phone can work fine on one block but not the next.

      Until you know the service works well where you need it, youre typically better off by starting with the minimum amount of minutes needed to get the service off the ground.

      Prepaid rates and expiration dates

      Prepaid rates run anywhere from 10 to 50 cents per minute, but focusing too much on a low rate can be trouble if you dont read the small print. Ill give you an example from personal experience.

      I was standing in the prepaid phone section of Wal-Mart. Next to me were a man and woman shopping for a phone. It was obvious they were basing their decision solely from the advertising on the cover of the box.

      I heard the woman say, This one is only 10 cents a minute, to which the man responded, Lets go with that one.

      Being the helpful and nosy individual that I am, I asked them if they would be using the phone often. They said the phone was just for emergencies. I then pointed out the small print that said to get the 10-cent rate, they would automatically pay a $1.00 daily fee, even if they didnt use the phone.

      After they had collapsed onto the floor in shock, I helped them to their feet and proceeded to the restroom where I could change out of my cape and spandex tights and back into my street clothes. Another consumer saved.

      Don't forget the tax

      When comparing prepaid and postpaid -- or contracted -- service, don't forget to take taxes and fees into consideration. A contracted postpaid plan might have cheaper rates than prepaid but, generally speaking, taxes and fees are usually included in the prepaid rate. This is a huge benefit for budgeting because taxes and fees can easily add 20% or more to the basic monthly price of a contracted plan.

      In addition to comparing the rates of various plans, take note of when those rates expire. Based on what the carrier offers, your minutes will be good for anywhere from 30 days to a full year; then you must add more minutes or lose your service and number.

      Speaking of prepaying for a year, if you add a ton of minutes to your phone, consider what can happen if the phone is lost or stolen.

      Rhonda, of Hobart, Oklahoma, knows first-hand what can happen: My phone was stolen and Ive been trying to get someone on the phone for an hour to disconnect my phone. In the meantime, the person that stole my phone is using up all my minutes! Rhonda fumed.

      How to purchase minutes

      Retail and convenience stores routinely carry prepaid wireless cards. You can also purchase minutes directly from the carrier, and some carriers will offer an auto-debit option.

      Auto-debit sounds like a good idea because you never have to worry about running out of service or minutes. However, using an auto-debit system can cause problems if the carrier deducts too much money or makes a deduction at the wrong time.

      Take Irma of Scappoose, Oregon. She told that Virgin Mobile prematurely deducted money from her bank account, which caused her bank account to nose-dive into the negative.

      I had to call them and try to get it refunded. They said they would. The money still has not been refunded, Irma complained.

      We also heard from Steve, of Allyn, Washington.

      I called Boost Mobile and requested a single $30.00 re-boost for my cell phone. I checked my bank account and Boost had taken out $60.00. By taking out the extra $30.00, they were going to cause checks to bounce, Steve complained.

      The small print

      When you buy a prepaid phone, you wont be signing a contract, but youre begging for trouble if you ignore the terms and conditions. I cant tell you which carrier to use, but I can tell you what to look for.

      Roaming: Is the rate the same or extra? Some plans charge as high as 69 cents per minute if your phone goes into roam.

      Daily or monthly fees: This is one of the most important things to verify. Are you automatically charged a daily fee or a fee for any day you use the phone? You might have a 10-cent rate, but if you're charged a $1.00 daily access fee and make a one-minute call that day, you have in essence paid $1.10 for that one-minute call.

      Nights and weekends: Is the rate always the same or does it vary based on the day or time of the week?

      Member-to-member calls: Can you call other carrier members without losing your minutes? Some plans allow it but you might pay an additional fee.

      Features: Most plans will include voice mail, caller ID, and other basic features. However, if you plan on using text or picture messaging, verify the rate. Ive seen plans that charge 15 cents to send a text message or 25 cents to send a picture.

      Taxes and fees: Earlier I mentioned how prepaid rates generally include all taxes and fees. However, certain carriers will advertise 10 cents per minute and then in small print are the words, does not include taxes and fees.

      Who comes out on top?

      Who's the best carrier? It depends who you ask. The most recent J.D. Power and Associates study found Virgin Mobile took top honors.

      The study measured customer satisfaction with current prepaid wireless service across seven dimensions (in order of importance): call quality (24%); company image (19%); cost of service (17%); account management (15%); initial activation (11%); service plan options (8%); and customer service (6%).

      Just as in the 2006 study, Virgin Mobile took top honors and did particularly well in cost of service, account management, initial activation and service plan options.

      Also ranking above the industry average were AT&T GoPhone, Boost Mobile and T-Mobile To Go.

      To turn the question around, we'd have to say TracFone has the hardest time keeping customers happy, based on complaints to We have a whopping 969 Tracfone complaints in our active database, compared to 84 for Virgin Mobile, 17 for Boost and 1 for Net10.

      Some other carriers -- like AT&T's Go -- aren't broken out from their parent companies in our database so at the moment we're not able to count them accurately.

      The J.D. Power study also found that prepaid customers use 218 minutes per month and spend an average of $38.00 when purchasing additional airtime. Comparatively, postpaid customers average 528 minutes of use per month and pay $71.00.

      Before you hit the stores, you might want to look at the various carriers' Web sites to familiarize yourself with what they have to offer. We also suggest you take a look at the complaints in our cell phone department to see what horrors can result if you make the wrong choice.

      Shopping list

      Here's a list of major prepaid players. Note that some of these carriers were not included in the 2007 J.D. Power study.

      The wireless phone might be one of the greatest inventions of all time, but these little gadgets are also the cause of massive confusion and financial trou...
      Read lessRead more

      Verizon Gave Customer Data To Government Without Court Orders

      AT&T;, Qwest mum on their actions

      Verizon turned over data on customers at the request of the government 720 times without court orders or warrants in the past two years, the company admitted yesterday.

      When court orders were provided, the company turned over customer data 94,000 times between January 2005 and September 2007.

      The company's admission came as a response to an inquiry launched by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who wanted more information on the roles the major telecom companies played in assisting the government with domestic surveillance in recent years.

      Committee members sent letters to AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest Communications asking them to explain any roles they may have played in the NSA surveillance program and whether they were seeking immunity from prosecution for their actions.

      AT&T and Qwest declined to provide any information on whether or not they participated in the NSA surveillance program, citing the "state secrets" doctrine which would prohibit them from revealing classified information.

      "We are unable to respond with specificity to your inquiries," wrote AT&T vice-president and general counsel Wayne Watts. "That is because, on many issues that appear to be of central concern to you, responsive information is within the control of the executive branch...Indeed, we are not in a position even to confirm or deny the underlying facts or information that would be responsive to your request that would be considered classified."

      Although Verizon counsel Randal Milch also did not confirm or deny that Verizon had been involved in the NSA's surveillance program, he enumerated cases of where Verizon complied with government information requests in criminal cases such as tracking child predators.

      Milch also said that the responsibility for determining whether or not a request for information was legal rested with the government, not the company providing the data.

      "When an emergency situation arises, prompt assistance is often needed," Milch wrote. "If the provider were to face legal liability in the event the government is later deemed to have acted outside its authority, the provider would have to meet every request for assistance with extensive questions about the need and justification for the request."

      Oversight Subcommitee chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI) said that he "recognized the unique legal constraints" the telecoms had which prevented them from sharing more information, but "important questions remain unanswered about how the Administration induced or compelled them to participate in NSAs eavesdropping program."

      Although the Bush administration first refused to confirm the existence of the NSA surveillance program, then claimed it was legal, the White House has pushed to revise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to cover the program, and to grant the telecom companies that participated retroactive immunity from prosecution.

      AT&T and Verizon are currently facing multiple lawsuits from advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who claim the surveillance program violates the Fourth Amendment, and that granting federal authorities access to customer data without proper court orders is illegal.

      EFF counsel Cindy Cohn, responding to the Committee request, wrote that "generalized fears are not sufficient to support a reasonable belief in an immediate threat to life or limb." Instead, the 'emergency exception' is reserved for specific emergency situations 'in which time is of the essence and requiring a court order be obtained would cause delay which could result in severe jeopardy for a victim of crime,'" Cohn wrote.

      Verizon Gave Customer Data To Government Without Court Orders...
      Read lessRead more

      Study Warns of Sushi Risks

      Parasitic infection can cause severe abdominal distress

      Sushi has become increasingly popular in the United States, but two case studies from Japan point to a potential health problem.

      Anisakiasis, sometimes called round worm, is a human parasitic infection caused by the consumption of raw or undercooked seafood containing Anisakis larvae.

      Consumers should be aware that while larvae for the parasitic worm Anisakis cannot survive in a human host, the ingested larvae can produce severe intestinal problems warranting a visit to the emergency room, the researchers warn.

      When ingested by humans, the larvae attach themselves to the tissues lining the stomach and intestines, resulting in sudden abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

      Since the larvae cannot survive in humans and eventually die, intestinal anisakiasis usually resolves on its own. But in the meantime, its not very pleasant.

      Researchers in Japan examined two cases of intestinal anisakiasis presenting as an obstruction of the small intestine.

      In each case, both patients, ages 64 and 70, were rushed to the emergency room with sudden abdominal pain and vomiting after eating raw sardines as sashimi two days earlier.

      The diagnosis of anisakiasis in the stomach can easily be confirmed by endoscopy. However, small intestinal anisakiasis is difficult to diagnose.

      Both patients had abdominal X-rays showed air-fluid levels suggesting a small intestinal obstruction. Using a multidetector-row computed tomography (MDCT), doctors obtained high quality images of the small bowel, and found the intestinal blockage was caused by the presence of Anisakis larvae.

      Fluid replacement and resting immediately relieved the patients symptoms.

      Because the symptoms of anisakiasis can mimic other gastrointestinal diseases, it might potentially be misdiagnosed as appendicitis, acute abdomen (peritonitis) or stomach ulcers. According to Mashahiro Matshushita, MD of Haibara General Hospital, Anisakiasis should be considered in the differential diagnosis of small intestinal obstruction.

      Anisakiasis, sometimes called round worm, is a human parasitic infection caused by the consumption of raw or undercooked seafood containing Anisakis larvae...
      Read lessRead more

      California Bans Phthalate in Toys

      Phthalate, widely used in baby toys, linked to health problems

      California has banned toys and baby products that contain more than a trace amount of phthalate, a chemical that's used to soften plastics.

      The substance is commonly used in baby bottles, teething rings, soft baby books and other toys intended for infants and toddlers, but some scientists say it interferes with hormones and can lead to early puberty, reproductive defects and other health problems.

      The industry disputes that and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says it has found "no demonstrated health risk" involving phthalate.

      "We must take this action to protect our children," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as he signed what became known as the Toxic Toys Bill. "These chemicals threaten the health and safety of our children at critical stages of their development."

      The new law, authored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, will prohibit the manufacturing, sale and distribution of toys and child care products intended for use by children under the age of three that contain phthalates.

      Banned in Europe

      California is the first state to ban the substance, which has already been banned by the European Union and at least 14 other countries. But the U.S. toy industry says the amount found in toys is so low it's not a health hazard.

      The measure takes effect in 2009, when any product made for young children that contains more than one tenth of one percent of phthalates cannot be made, sold or distributed in California. New York, Maryland and Oregon are considering similar bills.

      Not just toys

      Phthalates arent found only in toys, but also a variety of products that have soft plastic components, and also in certain aerosols and liquids, including some hair sprays -- and, according to Greenpeace, the iPhone.

      Greenpeace says the iPhone is losing "green ground" to other mobile phone competitors which are in the process of eliminating phthalate and other toxic chemicals found in the iPhone.

      Your grandkids' rubber duckies

      An industry Web site created by the American Chemistry Council denies any health risk from the toys but acknowledges that the chemical is pervasive in modern toys.

      "From dolls to rubber duckies, a popular choice is vinyl made flexible by the addition of a phthalate plasticizer during fabrication of the material," gushes the Phthalte Information Center, a Web site created by the American Chemistry Council. "Flexible vinyl is durable and can endure years of hard play without losing its color, its flexibility or its fun. It is easily cleaned and is low in cost."

      "Years after the kids have outgrown their toys, and after many non-durable toys have broken, become useless or just a hazard, the rubber duckie and its companions can be taken from storage to be enjoyed by the grandkids," the industry-funded site exclaimed.

      Writing in a "blowback" to the Los Angeles Times, American Chemistry Council President Jack N. Gerard said the California measure has "no basis in solid scientific research ... It creates a mythical monster and asks the governor to slay it with a stroke of his pen."

      "[W]e do strongly object to gross overstatements and the perpetuation of urban legends about these and other chemicals, all apparently designed to sow fear and uncertainty among consumers and product manufacturers," Gerard said.

      Cleared by CPSC

      Gerard noted that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) spent more than four years studying DINP and found "no demonstrated health risk" to children and "no justification" for banning it. The CPSC reaffirmed its findings in a letter to a state senator in July, he noted.

      California Bans phthalate in Toys...
      Read lessRead more

      Verizon Wireless Changes Customer Data Policy

      Will provide calling data to affiliates unless customers opt out

      Verizon Wireless has become the latest telecom company to sell data on its customers' calling habits to partners and affiliates, informing customers that unless they call a 1-800 number within thirty days of being notified of the change to "opt out," they'll have granted their implicit permission to share the data.

      Verizon Wireless' policy change was noted by Jason Devitt, co-founder of mobile marketing company Skydeck.

      Devitt posted a copy of the Verizon policy change notice on the company blog, noting that the list of permitted agents Verizon would share the data with was "pretty broad."

      The Verizon agreement allows the data to be shared with [o]ur affiliates, agents and parent companies (including Vodafone) and their subsidiaries," apparently to be used to deliver targeted advertising of other Verizon services by third-party marketers.

      Verizon spokesperson Jeffrey Nelson, responding to Devitt's comments, said that "Verizon Wireless isnt - and wont be selling - customer information to advertisers or marketers. This is to share info among Verizon companies only, as per FCC rules."

      Sprint Nextel made a similar change to its policies in January 2007, informing customers by mail that if they did not call the provided 1-800 "opt out" number or mail in a form clarifying their desire to opt out, they would be enrolled in the data sharing program.

      Nothing personal

      Customer calling data, or "customer proprietary network information" (CPNI), doesn't contain personally identifying information such as your name or address.

      But CPNI data can be used to track your calling habits, such as whom you call and for how long you speak to them, products you buy from that particular carrier, and options you may request or refuse when making purchases.

      Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has restrictions against the sale or sharing of CPNI data, a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that telecoms and wireless companies did not do enough to oversee the sharing of CPNI data with third-party companies or contractors they hired.

      CPNI data was at the core of the many scandals involving the sale of personal cell phone records to third parties, or "pretexting." Companies such as and would buy CPNI data from insiders at phone companies and resell it to third parties, ranging from disgruntled spouses to private investigators and law enforcement.

      The outcry against pretexting led to Congress passing a law to criminalize the practice, and the FCC to pass new rules strengthening the restrictions against illegally selling or sharing the information.

      CPNI data also rests at the heart of the investigation into the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless surveillance on American citizens.

      In addition to the actual wiretapping of domestic calls, major telecoms such as AT&T and Verizon are alleged to have provided calling data from millions of telecom customers to the NSA, in order to investigate the call records for signs of terrorist activity.

      Verizon Wireless Changes Customer Data Policy...
      Read lessRead more

      California Supreme Court OKs T-Mobile Class Action

      Another chink in the Early Termination Fee armor

      A little-noted California court ruling might make a big impact on mobile telephone providers and their customers who want to get out of their contracts.

      T-Mobile had appealed to the California Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit that challenged the companys early termination fees. The lawsuit also seeks to block T-Mobiles practice of locking its phones, so that they only work on its network.

      Two lower courts had dismissed T-Mobiles arguments, saying the lawsuit should be allowed to proceed. Without comment this week, the California high court agreed that the case should be heard.

      Last year, Verizon Wireless agreed to pro rate its early termination fees and last week it agreed to allow customers to make changes in their service plan without extending the contract.

      But other companies haven't followed Verizon's lead and, under pressure from consumers, both the Federal Communications Commission and Congress have raised the issue this year, warning that new rules and legislation may follow.

      A 2005 study found that nearly half of U.S. cell phone customers would switch or consider switching cell phone service carriers to get a lower rate and better service if they didn't have to pay an early termination fee to dump their current provider.

      In the T-Mobile case, the plaintiffs have asked the court to prevent T-Mobile from imposing the hefty early termination fee, saying it is levied against consumers who are seeking to end the contract just a few weeks early.

      The same suit would also force T-Mobile to make transparent its software locks that prevent consumers from using the same phone if they switch to a new carrier.

      Both consumers and industry groups will be watching closely as the case proceeds, since most major carriers have similar policies. At stake for the industry are lucrative licensing agreements between handset manufacturers and cell phone carriers.

      A court ruling striking down, or at least modifying early termination agreements, could lead to consumers switching providers on a more active basis. It could continue a trend of a balance of power shift to consumers, which started with court-mandated rules that allow consumers to keep their same telephone number when they switch cell phone providers.

      Same argument, different outcome

      Perhaps most significant, T-Mobile found a formerly reliable argument this time fell on deaf ears.

      In attacking the lawsuit, T-Mobile relied on the binding arbitration clause in its terms of service agreement, arguing its customers waived their right to sue when they signed the contract. A rejection or weakening of the use of binding arbitration clause could strengthen consumer clout in transactions ranging from cell phone contracts to automobile purchases.

      California Supreme Court OKs T-Mobile Class Action...
      Read lessRead more

      Infant Cold Remedies Recalled

      Action follows FDA criticism of multi-purpose infant remedies

      A number of pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis, Wyeth Labs, and Johnson & Johnson are withdrawing infant over-the-counter cough medicine because of concerns of death and injury due to possible overdose.

      The announcement was made by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, the trade group representing the companies.

      Though the industry insists the recalled medicines are safe in recommended doses, over-the-counter cough medicines in general have come under closer scrutiny in recent months.

      On October 1, the FDA said it will take enforcement action against companies marketing cough and pain medications for children that contain hydrocodone. The agency says the narcotic has not been approved for treatment of coughs and colds in children, though it has been cleared for other, limited uses.

      Its important to point out that these medicines are safe and effective when used as directed, and most parents are using them appropriately, said Linda A. Suydam, D.P.A, president of CHPA.

      The reason the makers of over-the-counter, oral cough and cold medicines for infants are voluntarily withdrawing these medicines is that there have been rare patterns of misuse leading to overdose recently identified, particularly in infants, and safety is our top priority.

      The voluntary withdrawal affects only these "infant" oral medicines, not those intended and labeled for use in children age two and older.

      The branded cough and cold medicines that are being voluntarily withdrawn are:

      • Dimetapp Decongestant Plus Cough Infant Drops
      • Dimetapp Decongestant Infant Drops
      • Little Colds Decongestant Plus Cough
      • Little Colds Multi-Symptom Cold Formula
      • PEDIACARE Infant Drops Decongestant (containing pseudoephedrine)
      • PEDIACARE Infant Drops Decongestant & Cough (containing pseudoephedrine)
      • PEDIACARE Infant Dropper Decongestant (containing phenylephrine)
      • PEDIACARE Infant Dropper Long-Acting Cough
      • PEDIACARE Infant Dropper Decongestant & Cough (containing phenylephrine)
      • Robitussin Infant Cough DM Drops
      • Triaminic Infant & Toddler Thin Strips Decongestant
      • Triaminic Infant & Toddler Thin Strips Decongestant Plus Cough
      • TYLENOL Concentrated Infants' Drops Plus Cold
      • TYLENOL Concentrated Infants' Drops Plus Cold & Cough

      CHPA said it and its member companies have made recommendations to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to strengthen the labels on all oral over the counter childrens cough and cold medicines from "ask a doctor" before using to "do not use" in children under two years.

      CHPA said it made these recommendations to the FDA in preparation for a joint FDA advisory committee meeting on October 18 and 19.


      Dr. Henry Fishman, ConsumerAffairs.coms medical correspondent, says parents should be leery of multi-symptom five-in-one cocktails that can be purchased over the counter.

      They can have five or six drugs at a time, when your child just needs one or two, he said. Not a single over-the-counter multi-symptom cough or cold medicine has been adequately tested in kids under six and frankly, a lot of the stuff does not work.

      Even adults should think twice for spending money on over the counter cough remedies, according to experts.

      Guidelines released by the American College of Chest Physicians earlier this year indicate that many of the active ingredients in cough remedies may be ineffective, reports the May issue of the Harvard Health Letter.

      Americans spend an estimated $3.5 billion annually on over-the-counter cough remedies.

      A number of pharmaceutical companies are withdrawing infant over-the-counter cough medicine because of concerns of death and injury due to possible overdos...
      Read lessRead more

      NutriSystem: Day 14

      Joe feels good and is losing weight; some dishes better than others

      As much as being on the NutriSystem diet has been a sacrifice, I am beginning to appreciate some aspects of it.

      I visited with's medical reporter, Dr. Henry Fishman, this afternoon and weighed in. I've dropped eight pounds to 180 four pounds less than I was when I weighed myself on Monday.

      While I've not only lost a significant amount of weight in two weeks, I also feel as good if not better than I did before the diet.

      Earlier this week, on day 11, I bickered about having so many tiny portions of so many types of food throughout the day. I still think it's a huge hassle, but I believe all the extra fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and protein content in my daily diet has given me a boost of energy. I have never had as balanced of diet in my life.

      Story continues below video

      Not only have I maintained a regular running regime of two or three times a week, I have been running more. Two days ago I ran almost three and a half miles without stopping. I was pretty ragged by the end of it, but that's about a mile longer than my typical run on 2500 calories or more per day. I've also been sleeping well and on a couple of occasions even woke up before my alarm.

      I'm probably sounding like a bit of a salesman right now, but it does feel good having people comment that I look thinner. Some of my pants are beginning to loosen up as well.

      My appetite has gradually become accustomed to the diet. While I'm still relishing the opportunity to gnaw at a juicy and tender center cut, I rarely have the dire hunger that nearly crippled me at the outset.

      That's not to say my taste buds have grown accustomed. While most of the food is fair, there are still a few dishes that I would rather never even have to smell again.

      Most notably was the Thai noodles with peanut sauce and tofu. When I pulled it out of microwave, it looked OK to eat. But when I poked the goopy peanut sauce, I wasn't sure I could place it in my mouth. When I finally took a bite, it felt like I had melted plastic in my mouth.

      If there was some sort of correlating taste on Earth, I would share it, but I've never tasted anything like it and I hope I never do again. I love peanut sauce over Thai noodles at just about any Thai joint in town, but NutriSystem's attempt at it was horrendous. I took three bites before I decided to totally skip a dinner entree that night.

      Goopy Thai noodles aside (or maybe as a result), I've lost so much weight I've nearly toppled my initial goal.

      When I started the diet, I hoped to drop below 180 pounds. Seeing as how I'm only a pound away from that with two weeks left to go, I've decided to set a new goal. I now hope to lose another eight pounds and drop to 172 my weight when I was in college.

      Only time will tell if I can reach it, but one thing's for sure, if I run into many more meals like the Thai noodles, I stand a better chance.

      NutriSystem: Day 14...
      Read lessRead more

      Missouri Baby's Death Blamed on Simplicity Bassinet

      Model was not included in last month's recall of 1 million cribs

      October 10, 2007
      Authorities in Pineville, Missouri, say a 4-month-old girl has died in a Simplicity Inc. 4-in-1 bassinet that was not part of last month's recall of 1 million Simplicity and Graco cribs.

      B.J. Goodwin, McDonald County coroner, said Katelynn Marie Simon died Sept. 29 of accidental positional asphyxiation after she was caught between the rail of the bassinet and the mattress, The Joplin Globe reported.

      Local officials said they contacted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) immediately.

      We filed a report with them the first day, deputy sheriff Jeff Sutherland said, the Globe reported. We wanted to get them involved as quickly as possible to get this thing (bassinet) off the market.

      Sutherland said a CPSC investigator brought a doll similar in size and weight to Katelynn, and that the death was re-enacted at the sheriffs office. He said the childs torso became caught in a gap between the rail of the bassinet and the mattress.

      She was feet down and in a position that every time she exhaled, she slipped down a little further, he said, according to the Globe's report. She got down far enough that her chest couldnt expand to breathe.

      Sutherland said the product is available at Wal-Mart and Target stores, and online.

      Made in China

      The bassinet -- model No. 3112DOH6 -- has Winnie the Pooh decorations. Its label says it was made in China for Simplicity. The model does not appear in the product section of Simplicity's Web site.

      Last month's recall came 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 CPSC said it was 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, it said.

      Last June, Simplicity recalled about 40,000 of its Nursery-in-a-Box Cribs because of a choking and fall hazard.

      Fix it yourself

      In the recall of 1 million cribs last month, Simplicity officials said they would send parents repair kits with new hardware that would correct the problem, but an investigation by the Illinois Attorney General uncovered flaws in the program..

      An investigator in Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office called Simplicity posing as a consumer and asked for one of the repair kits. It was sent overnight to her.

      When she opened it, pieces of plastic hardware fell out, but there were no instructions on what to do with them, Madigan's office said.

      Cara Smith, the Madigan aide who received the repair kit without any instructions, said it illustrated how Simplicity and the CPSC "appear to be no closer to making consumers safe" than they were before the recall, the largest of full-size cribs in U.S. history.

      Who knew what when?

      An investigation by The Chicago Tribune found that Simplicity and the CPSC knew for more than two years that the faulty hardware and improper installation could leave babies vulnerable to suffocating in the cribs.

      The Tribune said it found numerous complaints about the design of a popular Simplicity crib, the Aspen 3 in 1. It said the complaints documented the failure of the federal watchdog agency to fully investigate the death of 9-month-old Liam Johns in 2005.

      The drop rail on Liam's crib separated from its frame, and the infant asphyxiated when he slipped feet-first though the gap, in an accident similar to that which befell the Missouri child.

      Wrong parts

      In Kokomo, Indiana, a reader complained that she had reported damaged items and missing hardware in Simplicity's Crib'n Changer Combo. Lee Ann said she was afraid to put her daughter in its crib because of its instability.

      "The changer seperates from the crib far enough where I have been concered for my daughters safety, not to mention the hardware replacements I continue to this day to still ask for," she said.

      Lee Ann said she called the 800 number supplied with the crib and Simplicity agreed to send replacement parts, but then sent the wrong parts. "It is exhausting to go through this over and over, and then when a box finally arrives, it's the wrong thing," she said.

      Missouri Baby's Death Blamed on Simplicity Bassinet...
      Read lessRead more

      AT&T Agrees to New Stolen Cell Phone Rules

      Other states, companies may adopt California pact

      In an agreement with California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr., AT&T Mobility has agreed not to charge customers for calls made after their cell phones are lost or stolen.

      "This groundbreaking settlement makes AT&T the first cell phone company that has agreed to protect its customers from cell phone rip-offs and other unauthorized uses," Brown said. "It is now time for the rest of the cell phone industry to step forward and follow AT&T's example."

      Brown had alleged that the company violated California law, including Public Utilities Code section 2890, which bars phone companies from charging customers for unauthorized services.

      "No cell phone company should profit from calls made by thieves or unauthorized users," Brown said.

      The Attorney General's Office began the investigation in 2006 after several consumers complained they were being charged thousands of dollars for calls made on cell phones that were stolen. In one case, calls originated from Mexico, a country the customer had never visited.

      Although customers could fully document that the calls were unauthorized, AT&T refused to credit the accounts.

      The agreement requires the company to credit a customer's bill or immediately investigate customer reports that the calls were made after the phone was lost or stolen. The company may only charge a customer if an investigation determines that the customer actually authorized the charges.

      The judgment requires AT&T Mobility to inform each of their customers of their legal rights regarding lost or stolen phones. Under the agreement, AT&T must either credit the disputed charges or inform customers of their legal rights which include:

      • The right to have the case investigated within 30 days

      • The right to provide information showing a customer did not authorize= the calls

      • The right not to pay disputed charges during the investigation=20

      • The right to appeal the outcome of an investigation to the California= Public Utilities Commission.

      AT&T must notify customers--in writing--of these new requirements and assist customers to obtain credit for amounts already paid on lost or stolen phones, back to year 2003.

      AT&T will also pay the Attorney General's Office $500,000 for costs of the investigation and for the Unfair Competition Law Fund, administered by the California District Attorneys Association.

      The California law for cell phones is similar to that for credit cards: customers have a right to dispute unauthorized charges and request an investigation. Customers should not be held responsible for charges until the investigation concludes, Brown said.

      In an agreement with California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr., AT&T Mobility has agreed not to charge customers for calls made after their cell phon...
      Read lessRead more

      Utility Bill Refund Email is a Scam

      Beware of email offering $480 home heating refund

      With winter on the way and the U.S. Department of Energy predicting a sharp increase in heating bills, consumers are likely looking for any feasible way to cut expenses.

      Scammers are apparently playing on those concerns in hopes of snagging the unwary in a new phishing scheme.

      DOE says scammers are sending out spam email, pretending to be from the federal agency. DOE says it believes the purpose of the scheme is to infect victims computers with malware that will allow hackers to steal sensitive information, such as user names and passwords.

      The subject line in the email says Urgent Notification and informs the recipient that an analysis of their bills shows they are due a refund from DOE for $480.58. To receive the refund, they must click on a link in the message. Doing so, says DOE, infects the computer.

      DOE says the email appears to come from The agency says that address does not exist. DOE also said it does not collect revenue from, or issue refunds to, the general public via email.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      DOE says it believes the purpose of the scheme is to infect victims computers with malware that will allow hackers to steal sensitive information, such as ...
      Read lessRead more

      Texas Rounds Up 14 Sex Offenders on MySpace

      Convicted offenders illegally created profiles on social networking site

      Investigators with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbotts Cyber Crimes and Fugitive Units have arrested 14 previously convicted sex offenders who illegally created profiles on

      After receiving a subpoena from Attorney General Abbott earlier this year, provided investigators with a list of registered sex offenders who use the popular social networking site.

      These arrests are a stark reminder for parents whose children use social networking sites, Attorney General Abbott said. Each of the 14 convicted sex offenders was arrested for illegally using to establish an online presence.

      By sharing a user profile database with law enforcement, is providing critical information to law enforcement," Abbott said. "Other social networking sites should follow MySpace.coms lead, partner with law enforcement, and help protect their online users from criminals who use the Internet to prey on children.

      Last month, a College Station, Texas, man who used to sexually solicit someone he believed to be a 14-year-old girl was sentenced to seven years in prison.

      Abbott's office prosecuted Guadalupe "Wally" DeLaGarza, 27, for using the Internet to prey on children.

      DeLaGarza was arrested in July 2006 when he arrived in Shenandoah with a handgun, rope restraints, condoms, and a digital camera to meet and sexually assault the young teen he targeted on the popular social networking Web site. The online profile actually belonged to an undercover Cyber Crimes Unit investigator.

      DeLaGarza pleaded guilty to attempted sexual performance by a child, a third-degree felony. Upon release, he will be required to register as a sex offender for 10 years. At the time of his arrest, DeLaGarza indicated he was a graduate student at Texas A&M University.

      MySpace and a similar site, Facebook, are currently the darlings of the Internet publishing world. Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace for $580 million two years ago and both Microsoft and Google are said to be angling for at least a minority share in Facebook.


      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.

      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.

      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.

      Investigators with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbotts Cyber Crimes and Fugitive Units have arrested 14 convicted sex offenders who illegally created profi...
      Read lessRead more

      OnStar Goes in Pursuit of Bad Guys

      New service disables stolen cars

      General Motors OnStar is now marketing technology that can aid in the recovery of a stolen vehicles equipped with the telecommunications system.

      The technology will allow OnStar employees to send a signal to a subscribers stolen vehicle to reduce engine power and gradually slow the vehicle.

      GM will make the Stolen Vehicle Slowdown available on nearly 1.7 million 2009 model year vehicles. OnStar already finds 700 to 800 missing cars per month using the global positioning system.

      OnStar employees can use GPS technology to try to find the vehicle and provide its location to law enforcement. Police officers will then ask OnStar to slow the vehicles remotely. OnStar promises safeguards will be in place to ensure that the correct vehicle is slowed.

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) praised the new technology and suggested it may help reduce the number of high speed police chases.

      About 30,000 police chases occur yearly and there are about 300 deaths as a result of those chases, according to NHTSA.

      Technology should not just entertain us or make us more comfortable; it should make us safer, Nicole Nason, administrator of NHTSA, said in a statement. We applaud innovations such as the kind GM is embracing that will make our roads better, our passengers more protected and our drivers safer.

      The OnStar Stolen Vehicle Slowdown is a GM feature in the United States and Canada and will be included in the one-year OnStar subscription that customers receive when buying an eligible 2009-model OnStar-equipped vehicle.

      "From its inception, the motivation behind OnStar has been the safety and security of our subscribers and others on the road," said Chet Huber, OnStar president. "Every service we add builds on this original promise. The Stolen Vehicle Slowdown service will allow our subscribers added peace of mind by possibly preventing their vehicle from being used as an instrument of harm if it happens to be stolen."

      "This technology will basically remove the control of the horsepower from the thief," Huber said. "Everything else in the vehicle works. The steering works. The brakes work."

      GM is still exploring the possibility of having the car give a recorded verbal warning before it stops moving. A voice would tell the driver through the radio speakers that police will stop the car and the car's emergency flashers would go on.

      GM abandoned almost 500,000 of its 4 million OnStar subscribers when the nation's cell phone systems stopped offering analog service.

      The owners of GM products that carry analog technology to power their OnStar systems were "outdated," GM said, and the world's largest automaker dropped them from its safety and communications system.

      In 2008 newer digital systems will be the only way OnStar can communicate since the country's cell phone carriers, which carry OnStar's signals on their towers, will complete the changeover to digital service.

      With the current version of OnStar, drivers can call operators for emergency help, and OnStar operators will contact a car if its sensors detect a crash. The service has about 5 million subscribers.

      Those who want OnStar but don't like police having the ability to slow down their car can opt out of the service.

      OnStar, including the first year's subscription fee, is standard on most of GM's 2008 vehicles. After the first year, the subscription price is $16.95 a month.

      OnStar Goes in Pursuit of Bad Guys...
      Read lessRead more

      Healthy Restaurants May Bring Out Bad Eating Habits

      Eating at Subway isn't necessarily better than dining at McDonald's

      Chances are, you eat the unhealthiest foods at so-called healthy restaurants.

      The "health halos" of healthy restaurants often prompt consumers to treat themselves to higher-calorie side dishes, drinks or desserts than when they eat at fast-food restaurants that make no health claims, according to a series of new Cornell studies.

      The research, published in the October online version of the Journal of Consumer Research, found that many people also tend to underestimate by 35 percent just how many calories those so-called healthy restaurant foods contain.

      "We found that when people go to restaurants claiming to be healthy, such as Subway, they choose additional side items containing up to 131 percent more calories than when they go to restaurants like McDonald's, that don't make this claim," said Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," and the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing and of Applied Economics and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

      Wansink and co-author Pierre Chandon, a marketing professor at INSEAD, an international business school in France, also report that by simply asking people to reconsider restaurants' health claims prompts them to better estimate calories and not to order as many side dishes.

      They recommend that public policy efforts help people to better estimate the number of calories in foods.

      "In estimating a 1,000-calorie meal, I've found that people on average underestimate by 159 calories if the meal was bought at Subway than at McDonald's," said Wansink. Since it takes an energy imbalance of 3,500 calories to put on one pound, that extra 159 calories could lead to almost a 5-pound weight gain over a year for people eating at Subway twice a week compared with choosing a comparable meal at McDonald's with the same frequency, he said.

      These studies, he says, help explain why lower-calorie menus at fast-food restaurants have not led to the expected reduction in total calorie intake and in obesity rates.

      Healthy Restaurants May Bring Out Bad Eating Habits...
      Read lessRead more

      Consumers Continue To Fall For Phony Lottery Scam

      Foreign scammers find U.S. consumers easy prey

      When international postal inspectors arrested 77 people in a crackdown on counterfeit checks, they exposed once again the tip of an iceberg that is one of the biggest scams facing consumers today: the phony sweepstakes.

      The eight-month probe involved schemes in Nigeria, the Netherlands, England and Canada, and has stopped more than half a million fake checks from being mailed to American victims.

      International scammers have found U.S. consumers easy prey and are increasingly targeting them.

      "All fake check scams have the same common pattern: Scammers contact victims online or through the mail and send them checks or money orders. They then ask that some portion of the money be wired back to them," said Postmaster General John Potter.

      In its most common form, victims of the phony sweepstakes scam get a letter notifying them that they are a big winner in a lottery. They may even get the prize check in the mail with the congratulatory notice.

      All you have to do to become a big winner is deposit the check and wire money to the sender to cover some taxes and fees. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Most consumers realize that it is indeed too easy, and recognize this as a fraudulent fake check scheme.

      However, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel says some consumers continue to fall for it, because they want to believe that its for real. The check sent to the victim is the bait that tempts them to fall for the scam.

      But no matter how authentic the check looks, it's not. Consumers who deposit the checks into their accounts and authorize the wire transfer soon learn that the check didn't go through and that they cannot get the wired money back.

      Banks are not responsible for covering phony deposits and will not excuse depositors from making good on the bad check.

      "Scammers now have high-tech printers and scanners that allow them to make checks that look real. When you combine this technological sophistication along with a false promise of a financial windfall, consumers can easily fall victim, said McDaniel. The simple thing consumers should remember is that if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is, and they should do their homework and ask questions prior to taking any action.

      To avoid falling victim to a counterfeit check scheme, here are some tips to remember:

      • Don't try to collect lotto or sweepstakes winnings if you don't remember entering the contest;

      • Never give out your personal bank account information to anyone you don't know and don't trust;

      • Never accept money without knowing its source;

      • Never send money to an unknown source; and

      • If you take the check to the bank, ask that it be verified and do not withdraw your own funds until the check has cleared, a process that can take days or even weeks.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Consumers Continue To Fall For Phony Lottery Scam...
      Read lessRead more

      NutriSystem: Day 11

      Logistics prove difficult, especially on the road

      On day 11 of the NutriSystem diet, my body has grown accustomed to the lower calorie intake. But the actual logistics of the diet are becoming an increasing nuisance.

      That's because the diet is much more than pre-packaged meals. In fact, a person must provide 11 helpings from various food groups every day.

      To illustrate what I mean, here's the daily food diary that a dieter must follow:


      NutriSystem breakfast entree
      Dairy or protein serving: one ounce of low fat cheese, eight ounces of skim milk or light yogurt, one egg, one ounce of sandwich meat, etc.
      Fruit serving: one small apple, one medium orange, half a banana, of a cup of pineapple, 1/3 of a cantaloupe, 15 grapes, cup of orange juice, etc.)
      Low glycemic carbohydrate serving: 1/3 cup of barley, 1 slice of whole-wheat bread, cup of corn, cup of pasta, 1/3 cup of couscous, 1/3 cup of brown rice, etc.

      Morning snack:
      Dairy or protein serving
      Fruit serving


      NutriSystem lunch entree
      Salad (with two tablespoons of fat-free dressing): Unlimited amounts of alfalfa sprouts, lettuce, spinach, celery, parsley, etc.
      Fat serving: 1/8 of an avocado, six almonds, one teaspoon of peanut butter, five olives, one teaspoon of mayonnaise, etc.

      Afternoon snack:

      One NutriSystems dessert


      NutriSystem dinner entree
      Vegetable serving: of an artichoke, one cup of raw asparagus, one cup of raw broccoli, one cup of tomato juice, one cup of raw carrots, one medium tomato, etc.
      Low glycemic carbohydrate serving
      Fat serving


      NutriSystem dessert

      It is truly a test of one's planning capabilities to get in every one of these minuscule servings of all these various items throughout the day. Since I live on my own, this diet often leaves me with half a piece of fruit or vegetable. If I'm eating somewhere other than my apartment, such as at the office, it is particularly hard trying to keep my meals balanced.

      I keep a few of the necessary foods I need at the office, but for most of the perishable items, such as fruit and vegetables, I'm often forced to skip that and eat it later in the evening.

      While I'm pleased it's forcing me to eat healthier than I probably ever have in my life, it's a drain on my schedule fitting in all these helpings. It's also a drain on my wallet as all of these lowfat and all-natural foods are pricey.

      In fact, the food I purchased for hopefully the duration of the diet cost me $80. It's not completely accurate for NutriSystem to advertise their plan as a money-saver because they "provide the food."

      Nowhere is this scheme of constant nibbling more annoying than when traveling. On Thursday I drove to southern Virginia to cover a hearing.

      At first I thought, "This will be easy. I can just throw some of these pre-packaged meals in my suitcase." But then the reality of hauling all these extra helpings, most of which are perishable, set in.

      All I could bring was the prepared meals and snacks, and a bag of unsalted peanuts. I had my lunch right before I left for what was supposed to be a three-hour drive. But traffic turned it into a six-and-a-half-hour drive and I was starving.

      With no place to pull over and prepare one of their meals, and hundreds of fast-food stops tempting me, I held myself over by eating my two allowed desserts and then finally, my breakfast for the next morning (a granola bar).

      The story I was covering kept me in Virginia so late, I had to stay an extra day. I planned accordingly, but with one breakfast already down the hatch and no extra helpings, the food was running low. I spread it out as much as possible and, starving again, made the long trek back, fighting the nagging hunger with one last NutriSystem dessert as I drove through fast-food nation.

      I can only imagine how this diet would work for an extended trip.

      The food diary includes a guide on eating out, but after looking at calorie contents for any burger joint, versus one NutriSystem entree, I'm not sure how one could legitimately stop and eat anywhere even to have a salad.

      On the bright side, I have lost four pounds. I hoped to lose more than that by now, but realistically speaking, that's not bad.

      Thank you to those who have written in with words of encouragement and personal weight loss stories.

      I check in with Dr. Henry Fishman on Thursday for a mid-diet meeting. I plan to have a new post and video blog up that evening.

      NutriSystem: Day 11...
      Read lessRead more

      Financing Alternatives Runs Out of Options

      Court freezes computer layaway scheme's assets

      It looked like he had it all.

      Thats what a neighbor said about George Christian, the founder of Financing Alternatives, Inc., a company that targeted low-income Americans for overpriced, cheap computers sold on layaway.

      But Friday morning in Chesapeake, Va., where the company is based and where Christian lives, Circuit Court judge Randall Smith ordered that the companys assets be frozen and that all of Christians authority as owner be handed to a lawyer who will ensure the company obeys the courts orders.

      This was the first step for Virginias attorney general, who hopes to return money to thousands of consumers who have each paid thousands of dollars and never received anything.

      Virginia is not generally considered a leader in consumer protection but it is known as a state with an extremely strict criminal justice system. It trails only Texas in executions and routinely hands out lifetime sentences for offenses that would get little attention elsewhere.

      Perhaps as a result, the state has an unusually low crime rate. It also brooks little nonsense in civil affairs, as George Christian is now learning.

      Like BlueHippo, Financing Alternatives (FAI), operates by advertising to low-income individuals, including the tens of thousands of armed services members stationed in Virginia.

      Bad credit? No credit? No problem! company ads on TV and radio boasted since 1998.

      However, poor consumers lured by the prospect of owning a computer often paid thousands of dollars and never received a single piece of hardware, said the attorney generals representative on this case, Richard Schweiker.

      One of those consumers was LaCara Hunt of Norfolk, Va. who has two children and is enrolled in online criminal law classes. She said she needed the computer both for her children and her classes.

      She paid close to $2,000, completing her payments to FAI, in March 2007, Hunt said. She still has not received anything and said she doesnt expect to.

      She and her 7-year-old and 3-year-old children have been very patient, but have been forced to use her sisters computer until they get some sort of restitution.

      Unfilled promises

      Financing Alternatives' office

      George Christians's home, decorated for Halloween

      Christian's SUV

      Photos by Joe Enoch

      Her story is similar to 52 other people who have complained to and close to 600 people who have complained to the state of Virginia.

      The company promised to ship the computers after three months of payments, but most say they didnt receive a computer at all, even after paying in full.

      Arthur Ruffin, who worked in FAIs customer service department from January 2007 to August, said he had to tell so many people why they werent receiving a computer, he remembers his scripted response to their questions:

      Due to internal upgrades in our shipping and processing department, we are experiencing a delay, he had to tell customers.

      He said there were no upgrades and that of the thousands of customers who paid in full, 25 percent at the most ever received anything.

      In total, the company has received $3.3 million from 1,700 customers who paid in full, but received nothing, said Mike Coston, an investigator in Virginias Office of Consumer Affairs. He said there are many more people who have partially paid as well and have received nothing.

      Big bucks

      While the company was struggling to provide its overpriced merchandise to customers across the nation, its founder was receiving about $1.5 million per year and $7.8 million total, Schweiker said.

      One week after the attorney general filed his suit, Christians wife, Michele, began attempting to seize many of the companys assets. She wrote a letter asking the company to pay $300,000 of a $500,000 alleged debt, Schweiker said.

      On Oct. 3, local media photographed U-Haul trucks and storage pods outside FAIs headquarters. The movers were packing computers and office supplies but wouldnt tell reporters the destination of the company assets.

      When visited with Christians neighbors after the court hearing Friday morning, one said she saw a U-Haul truck, driven by Christians son, backing into the garage. She didnt see whether items were being packed or unpacked.

      The garage door was closed when arrived and no one would answer the door other than three yelping Yorkshire puppies.

      No one came to the door when a member of the Sheriffs department arrived, presumably to serve a subpoena. The officer wouldnt say exactly what she was doing.

      Before the attorney general filed the lawsuit, FAI transferred about $500,000 directly to Michele Christian and another $500,000 to a company in which she was the sole owner and employee, Schweiker said.

      George Christian also funneled $43,000 of FAIs assets into Christians other company, First Consumer Finance, which eventually took over FAIs operations before the company ceased operations a month ago.

      Other assets

      Christian also opened Liberty Financial, LLC at FAIs current address earlier this summer. Liberty Finance worked with ACE Cash Express to sell computers to low-income consumers. Coston said he believes Liberty Finance also failed because Christian could only sell the computers at ACE storefronts in Los Angeles and Atlanta.

      FAI owes state taxes of $42,000 and more than $1.3 million for advertising, according to papers filed by the attorney generals office.

      FAIs headquarters, located in a strip mall, is now abandoned and empty.

      Despite being fully decked in cheesy Halloween flair, Christians 6,000 square foot brick house, which is assessed at $864,900 and has an in-ground pool with small waterfalls, is lavishly wrapped in ornate landscaping.

      Although he no longer controls his company, the Ford Expedition in his driveway has a vanity plate that reads: FAI CEO.

      His neighbor said he has a Porsche in the garage and is always playing with toys referring to expensive machinery.

      He said on Labor Day weekend, Christian pulled up in an enormous Travel America RV. The ones you only see country music stars riding around in.

      I was thinking, someday down the road Ive got to get me one of those things, the neighbor continued. But Im not going to do it by bilking thousands of people out of their money.

      It looked like he had it all, the neighbor said. Apparently he doesnt.

      Many nannies

      Another neighbor said the Christians, who have six children, had up to three full-time nannies at one time. They only have one nanny now, she said. She also said they have a regular cleaning woman.

      Both neighbors interviewed individually said they wanted to remain anonymous because, I dont want to get caught up in all this stuff.

      Hippo cousins

      FAI and BlueHippo, based in Baltimore, Md. appear to be identical computer layaway schemes.

      Coston, from Virginias office of Consumer Affairs, said Christian and BlurHippos founder, Joseph Rensin, used to be business partners. Christian complained to Coston that Rensin stole his business plan, Coston said.

      FAI was founded in 1998 and BlueHippo, 2003. Their contracts are identical, Coston said, even in physical appearance.

      Coston said he thinks the two had some sort of non-compete relationship because he hardly gets any complaints about BlueHippo.

      Of the 315 BlueHippo complaints has received, nine are from Virginia and eight of those were less than one year old.

      Although most of FAIs operations have been, at the minimum, temporarily put on hold, BlueHippos fate rests in a California class action lawsuit.

      Coston said the next step for this case is for the receiver who took over FAI to determine the companys assets. Once that is finished, assuming the company does not have enough money to pay back the more than $3.3 million it owes customers, the attorney general will attempt to recover assets which were recently funneled into other businesses and Michele Christians bank account, and George Christians personal stash.

      The attorney generals office hopes to conclude this case by December, but Coston said that may be wishful thinking.

      What to do

      Consumers from anywhere in the United States who have lost money to Financing Alternatives should file a complaint with the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs. Complaint forms can be obtained online or by calling the Office of Consumer Affairs at 804-786-2042. Completed complaint forms may be sent to: Office of Consumer Affairs, P.O. Box 1163, Richmond, VA 23218.

      Randall Smith ordered that the companys assets be frozen and that all of Christians authority as owner be handed to a lawyer who will ensure the company ob...
      Read lessRead more

      Living Abroad: Now or Never

      There's only one way to find out if life in a foreign land is for you

      Every so often I pass through my hometown and abuse the hospitality of old friends, sleeping on their sofas and telling tales of whichever exotic corner of the world Ive been living in lately.

      As I describe a house on the tropical beach I rented in India or the atmosphere of a mountain town in Mexico, the response is almost always the same:

      Nice life if you can get it.

      All right for some.

      How on earth do you afford it?

      Ill be the first to admit that living abroad isnt for everyone. Some people cant handle the change of food, language or climate and others are necessarily tied to one place by their family or job.

      But just about anyone else could be living on that beach or mountain town for at least half the year, if not forever. You dont need to be rich, multilingual or even especially talented you just need the creativity to imagine a new life for yourself and then the courage to follow through with your plan.

      Plan? What plan?

      There are those who say that moving abroad takes a good deal of planning. You need to investigate the visa conditions, get all your immunization jabs, buy adequate travel insurance and possibly learn the national anthem of the country youre heading to.

      The truth is, you just have to jump on a plane and see what happens. Living in a new country begins the moment you actually arrive there, not before.

      But if you are a planning kind of person then you could do well to check out -- a site where you can ask people around the world practical and cultural questions about where they live. is also a good place to find jobs and apartments although youll probably do better by picking up a copy of the local newspaper and checking the classifieds section.

      Yes, I hear you asking "But can I afford to live abroad?"

      If theres one fear thats common to us all, its of ending up broke. Our finances are a precarious set of scales that promise material happiness on one hand and begging for spare change on the other.

      Were encouraged to invest in health care plans, pension funds, invest in markets or property and yet few find the time to really enjoy their lives while they can. Moving abroad would seem to be the riskiest move on the table, abandoning security to chase an exotic dream.

      But somethings wrong when I hear 19-year-olds in America saying theyre too scared to travel as that blank space in their resume might damage their career prospects

      No better time

      The truth is, theres never been a better time to relocate to another, cheaper country. The advent of the Internet means that writers, designers, coders, artists, video producers, translators, journalists or webmasters can work from anywhere they choose.

      When you earn First World wages but you only pay $100 a month for your hut on the beach, you can actually end up saving money. A freelancers dream.

      An American passport is welcome in almost every corner of the planet youd ever want to visit and your dollars go a long way in most of the warmest countries in the world. A GSM phone means you can always be reached and the cost of a call home has been reduced to a few cents via Skype. Pack your laptop and a toothbrush and youre ready to go.

      Even before the Internet came along I managed to spend most of my time in beautiful places.

      I soon realized that if I worked somewhere like Japan for a few months and lived as frugally as a monk, I could save enough to relocate somewhere exotic like Thailand or Guatemala for half a year. Even there I lived modestly, for sure, but it made me laugh when an advertising executive from New York with a 6-figure salary asked me how I managed to get so much vacation time.

      So, remember, the next time you spend $100 on a piece of clothing or a night out on the town, the same amount could pay your rent for a month somewhere south of the border.

      But where?

      So where to go?

      At first sight, the world seems like a huge place. But once you rule out the godforsaken places, the conflict zones (check to see where Bush plans to invade next) and the countries that are just as expensive as America (forget about Norway and Switzerland), the options narrow down a bit.

      In addition, you might want to think about the language if youre linguistically challenged then you might not want to move to the outer reaches of Mongolia but try somewhere like Belize or India where people speak English.

      An effort to pick up the local lingo will be the best move you ever make though as you get to make new friends, connect with the culture and haggle like a demon for that pineapple in the market.

      For most people the main consideration will be the cost of living abroad and work opportunities.

      Although the travel industry has convinced people that leaving the US involves selling a kidney to pay for everything, the reality need not be that costly. Cheap flight tickets can be found on the internet and you can live comfortably on $500-$1,000 a month in most of Latin America and a good chunk of Asia, too. Sure, you wont be staying in a villa with room service but then how many people live like that at home?

      And while pay in poor countries tends to be unimpressive, you could move somewhere like South Korea where English teachers are paid a fortune. Or if you do choose to make the beaches of Nicaragua your new home, youll be able to employ skilled Nicaraguans to help you with your project or business for a fraction of what it would cost back in the US.

      The last consideration is cultural and theres no real way to work that one out before you get there. In 2003, I spent a year in Brazil, attracted by the beaches, the samba dancers, the cheap cost of living and the happy-go-lucky people.

      It was one of the most miserable years of my life.

      While it all looked good on paper, the fact was that I just didnt groove with Brazilian culture. Although I spoke Portuguese, I was more in the mood to philosophize in the small hours of the night than dance to the dawn. The Brazilians couldnt understand how I was such a boring old fart at the age of 26.

      Even if youre in love with the culture of your new home, the small differences can drive you around the bend. A power cut just as youre about to send an email. Tiny stones in the rice that break a filling. The plumber who deliberately fixes the pipes so that theyll break again a fortnight later.

      Its at these times that the honeymoon period ends and you have to ask yourself if youre cut out for living abroad. Just as you have to decide if a loved ones habit of gargling toothpaste is cute or annoying, so, too, youll need to make your peace with the culture and quirks of your host country.

      To this end, many people who retire to warmer climes tend to choose spots where other expatriates gather it makes it so much easier to get over the frog in your bathroom when you can bitch about it with another expat in the evening.

      Places like the Yucatan in Mexico, Bangkok in Thailand and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil are classic examples of thriving expatriate scenes.

      Hanging out with expats is a two-edged sword, however. While theres definitely strength in numbers youll get tips on places to live, jobs and invites to dinners and parties you can end up spending more time with foreigners than with the locals. As you avoid contact with the local language and customs you might ask yourself, why did I leave home in the first place?

      Becoming a local

      So how do you integrate into another culture?

      The first thing to accept is that youll always be something of an outsider. However much you speak and dress like the locals, youll never become one. But theres no need to. Moving abroad doesnt mean you need to abandon your roots. In fact, in many places youll be considered exotic yourself and find that the locals are just as curious about you as you are about them.

      For some people (i.e. good-looking women), meeting people and making friends is a piece of cake. They walk down to the beach in the morning and have half their address book full by lunchtime. For the shyer types it will help to go to yoga classes, take coffee in the same cafes until you get to know the clientele, volunteer time in charitable efforts and to always but always carry your cell phone in case a new acquaintance rings.

      When I lived in Israel my favourite trick was to leave my possessions with the hottest girl on the beach each time I went swimming. When I returned it was the perfect opportunity to strike up a conversation.

      Another quick fix is to get in touch with members of the Hospitality Club ( and see if someone wants to show you around town and clue you in on the cool jazz club or second-hand book shop that youd never find on your own. Sometimes it just takes one good contact to open up a whole social scene for you.

      It's not easy

      Emigrating is never an easy choice, despite the conviction of your friends and family that your life has become one big vacation.

      There will be times when you feel alone and lost, confused and frustrated. You might feel like jacking the whole thing in and jumping on the first plane home.

      Thats when its time to break out your favorite chocolate from home, a book or movie from your childhood and embrace a little escapism. Your work and personal projects might keep you going and if all else fails, invite an old boyfriend/girlfriend to come and share the experience with you. A comforting hug goes a long way when the local electricity surges and burns out your new Ipod.

      Our new home will never be perfect but if you can make it through the first couple of months youll learn to chill out. Sure, maybe the Internet has gone down for the third time that week but its a great day for the beach or a mountain stroll one thing you dont want to pack with you is the stress and rush that became second nature back home.

      Don't rush

      So if by now youre feeling inspired to hit the road and relocate, hold off on telling your boss to get lost and bid eternal farewells to friends and family. The one thing you dont want to do is burn your bridges you might well end up returning home after a few weeks with your tail between your legs.

      The first time I went to India I was sure it would be for the rest of my life. Hey, I was 18. And though the 6 months I spent there were enough to change my life forever, by the end I was desperate to escape the heat, the noise and the crowded streets. I longed for whole wheat bread, clean parks and a beer with old friends. Fortunately, they had the grace not to tease me too much about my vows never to return.

      The bottom line is that theres no point in emigrating because your life at home has gone to hell. Whether you move to the hills of Sicily or the beaches of Venezuela, your problems will pack themselves into your suitcases and follow you wherever you go. Believe me, Ive tried it.

      But for all that, the old saying about regretting the things you havent done rather than those that you have holds true. Imagine waking up in the morning not to an alarm clock but the sound of lapping waves. Or looking out of your window at mountains rather than concrete buildings.

      So what if everyone back home does call you Peter Pan?


      Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.

      Living abroad isn't for everyone. Some people can't handle the change of food, language or climate and others are necessarily tied to one place by their fa...
      Read lessRead more

      Missouri Sues Hannah Montana Scalpers

      Parents complained $26 tickets were going for $254

      Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon has sued three brokers for allegedly scalping tickets to the upcoming Hannah Montana concerts in St. Louis and Kansas City.

      Nixon also announced his office reached an agreement with Ticketmaster to sell approximately 2,000 additional tickets to the young pop stars shows in those cities. has received numerous complaints from frustrated Hannah Montana fans nationwide. Consumers told us they were unable to purchase tickets to the teen idols show -- even though they were online or on the phone the moment the tickets went on sale.

      Fans, however, said they could easily find Hannah Montana tickets at various brokers or on eBay. The prices were drastically inflated, though.

      I was on TicketMaster 20 minutes before the Hannah Montana tickets went on sale at 10:00a.m., one parent from Nottingham, Maryland, wrote us. They were sold out at 10:01! My friends were also on the Web site at the same time and had problems.

      Ten minutes later, the tickets were on eBay selling for triple the price. I am very upset that they allow people to sell these tickets online to make money, and my daughter, who is a true fan, can't go because I can't afford to spend $300 per ticket.

      Missouris attorney general said his office received similar complaints from approximately 30 consumers who tried to buy tickets to Hannah Montanas upcoming concerts, scheduled for October 18 in St. Louis and December 3 in Kansas City.

      Quick sell-outs

      Consumers said when they attempted to buy tickets on line or over the phone -- at the designated times the tickets went on sale -- they discovered the shows were already sold out.

      Missouri fans, however, said they immediately found scores of Hannah Montana tickets at various brokers for prices up to 20 times the face values.

      Attorney General Nixon sued three ticket brokers for allegedly scalping Hannah Montana tickets: GoTickets Inc. and Tickets Now Entertainment Group Inc., both of Springfield, Illinois, and Ticket Solutions Inc. of Overland Park, Kansas.

      Investigators from Nixons office purchased tickets from these online brokers to the teen idols Kansas City concert. They paid $254, $257, and $305 for tickets that had a face value of either $26 or $56.

      Nixons lawsuits, filed in the Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court, alleged the brokers violated the states consumer protection laws by scalping tickets. The sale of tickets at prices far above the face values is a violation of a Kansas City municipal ordinance that prohibits scalping.

      After November 28, however, ticket scalping in Kansas City will no longer be illegal.

      The Missouri Legislature recently passed a measure that legalized these types of sales in the state. Some legislators, though, have said they may try to overturn that law in the next session, which convenes in January.

      Blatant rip-off

      In the meantime, Nixon said ticket scalping is still illegal.

      It's also unfair to consumers.

      These companies are able to employ inappropriate means, using sophisticated software, to hoard all the tickets to high-demand events and then turn around and sell them at grossly inflated prices, the attorney general said.

      Its a blatant rip-off of consumers who attempt to purchase tickets in good faith through the proper means and are met with nothing but frustration. checked Ticket Solutions Web site today and found tickets to Hannah Montanas Kansas City concert for as much as $550 each. We contacted the company this morning, but the owner did not return our call.

      We also checked GoTickets Inc.s Web site and found tickets to Hannah Montanas concert in St. Louis for as much at $1,345 each. When we called the company, the person who answered the phones told us we needed to e-mail our questions. The company had not responded to our inquiry by late this afternoon. also checked Tickets Now Entertainment Groups Web site for Hannah Montana tickets. That online broker had tickets to the pop stars St. Louis show for as much as $1,177 each. Tickets Now Entertainment Group had not answered our questions about the lawsuit by late this afternoon.

      Ticketmaster agreement

      In related news, Attorney General Nixon announced an agreement with Ticketmaster that gives Hannah Montana fans renewed hope of getting the much-coveted tickets.

      Under the agreement, Ticketmaster will make approximately 2,000 additional tickets to Hannah Montanas concerts in Kansas City and St. Louis available to the public through what the attorney general called a balanced and fair distribution system. The tickets are currently being held by the artists promotion company.

      Nixon said approximately 1,000 additional tickets to Hannah Montanas show in St. Louis will go on sale at 10 a.m. on October 13. An additional 1,000 tickets to the pop stars Kansas City concert will go on sale at 10 a.m. on October 20.

      Consumers can purchase a maximum of two tickets to the concerts through Ticketmasters Web site or over the phone.

      To prevent scalping, consumers must go to the venues box office on the concert date and present photo identification and the credit card they used for payment.

      By requiring purchasers to appear at the box office and provide credit card and photo ID verification, we also are minimizing the impact that would-be scalpers will have on these sales, Nixon said. If these ticket brokers are rendered unable to hijack the system, real fans get the tickets at the prices set by the artists.

      Nixon said he worked out this agreement so fans had a chance to get Hannah Montana tickets at a fair price. We wanted to make sure that a lot of frustrated moms and dads, with their disappointed kids, had the opportunity to purchase tickets to these concerts at face value.

      One Missouri fan, who couldnt get Hannah Montana tickets for her eight-year-old daughter, applauded Nixons action.

      I think its great, said Claire N. of Kansas City. I hope it will put a stop to the ticket scalpers.

      Claire told us shell try again to get Hannah Montana tickets, but shes not optimistic about her chances. One-thousand tickets isnt going to be enough. There are still going to be a lot of upset people.

      Nixon isnt the only attorney general cracking down on brokers that allegedly scalp Hannah Montanas concert tickets.

      Arkansas probe

      The Arkansas attorney general recently launched an investigation into the sale of these tickets to determine if some online brokers violated that states scalping laws.

      I have a young daughter, and I really wish I could fix this problem for all the parents with disappointed kids right now, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said. However, what our investigation reveals thus far is that many of the tickets intended to be sold directly to Arkansas consumers were diverted to as yet unidentified bulk purchasers.

      McDaniel said he learned of allegations that at least one company is selling a software product that allows users to breach Ticketmasters online system. Users who have this software, he said, can cut in line ahead of legitimate customers and block access to tickets at the site.

      Sales at the box office are also tied into the Ticketmaster system, McDaniel said, and its possible that users of this software were able to block the full number of tickets intended to be available at the box office.

      McDaniel also warned consumers that some tickets offered for sale on the Internet might be bogus. Some online ticket sellers might not have the tickets theyre selling, he cautioned, while other might sell counterfeit tickets.

      Tips for ticket-buyers

      McDaniel offered the following tips to consumers buying tickets online:

      • Know who youre dealing with. Web sites have certain guidelines that resellers must follow, but not all sites verify ticket authenticity before permitting users to post them for sale;

      • Avoid paying the seller directly with cash or a check. Many auction sites use separate services to handle the payment, which usually requires the use of a credit card. If purchases are made through a separate service or with a credit card, the consumer is more likely to have some recourse to dispute the charge if the tickets turn out to be bogus;

      • Research the seller and the Web site. Web sites that display the Better Business Bureau seal usually have a buyer protection program. Consumers should also find out if the seller has a history of satisfied customers.

      While there will always be issues relating to ticket availability where demand exceeds supply, the process must be fair to consumers, Attorney General McDaniel said. With these ticket sales, there is the additional problem that many are being offered on the Internet at prices far above the face value.

      "In many instances, Arkansas law prohibits resale at prices over the face value plus a reasonable handling charge.

      McDaniel, however, said its sometimes difficult to enforce ticket scalping laws with Internet transactions because the sellers may be in another state or country.

      Missouri Sues Hannah Montana Scalpers...
      Read lessRead more

      House Democrats Probe Warrantless Surveillance

      Letters sent to telecoms wanting information on wiretapping program

      Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce have opened an investigation into the National Security Agency's clandestine wiretapping and surveillance program, and what role major telecom companies may have played in assisting the NSA.

      Committee chair John Dingell (D-MI), Telecommunications Subcommittee chair Ed Markey (D-MA), and Oversight Subcommittee chair Bart Stupak (D-MI) sent letters to AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest, asking them to provide information on what customer information they may have provided the NSA, whether or not their efforts complied with the law, and if the government offered them immunity from lawsuits.

      "We are eager to understand the process by which telecommunications carriers release customer records," reads the letter to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, "as well as the extent of reported efforts by government agencies to obtain information about customers, including their call records and data reflecting their Internet use."

      Our government certainly has a responsibility to protect us from terrorism and threats to our national security, but that does not provide the government carte blanche to listen in on citizens calls, Stupak said in a statement.

      I will be interested to learn what leverage, pressure and arguments the Administration used in persuading these telecommunications carriers to release customers proprietary information.

      The committee also solicited comment on the government's increasing usage of measures such as "national security letters" to obtain personal and financial information from American citizens, even if they are not part of a criminal investigation.

      Copies of the letters were sent to civil rights and privacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Republican members of the Commerce Committee did not sign the letters, but were provided copies.

      The ongoing saga of the warrantless surveillance program has proven to be a perennial headache for the Bush administration and the telecom companies alleged to have assisted the NSA. Since the full scope of the program was revealed in 2005, Verizon flatly denied its participation in the program, Qwest claimed it declined to participate, and AT&T refused to comment, citing national security concerns.

      The revelation of the program has led to a series of lawsuits against the NSA and the companies accused of assisting it, chiefly AT&T and Verizon, for violating the national Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which governs the usage of wiretaps and surveillance for national security investigations, and requires compliance with the Fourth Amendment's injunctions against warrantless search and seizure.

      Although the White House initially claimed the surveillance program did not fall under FISA authority and asking for warrants would take too long, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez abruptly reversed course in January 2007, and said the program would be placed under the overview of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which administers FISA warrant requests.

      The White House quickly pushed Congress to pass legislation legalizing the program, and Congress passed the "Protect America Act" in late July, which temporarily authorizes the program to continue for six months. After facing heavy criticism from civil liberties organizations over the Act's passage, Congressional Democrats have promised to reassess the program when the Act's temporary authority expires.

      FISC then told the White House that it had to respond to a request from the ACLU to provide more information on the warrantless surveillance program.

      Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell admitted in an interview with the El Paso Times that major telecom carriers aided the NSA in the surveillance program, though he did not identify specific companies. McConnell said that the companies required immunity from lawsuits, or they would suffer severe financial hardship from damages if the cases were found in the plaintiffs' favor. McConnell has said he plans to push Congress to add blanket immunity from lawsuits for the telecom companies to any revisions of the Protect America Act.

      House Democrats Probe Warrantless Surveillance...
      Read lessRead more

      Consumers Respond to Toxic Pet Toy Stories

      Standards needed to protect pets and their owners

      Scared and horrified.

      Thats an Ohio pet owners reaction to a story that revealed what a forensic toxicologist called elevated levels of lead, chromium, and cadmium in two Chinese-made pet toys sold at Wal-Mart.

      A couple of weeks ago, I bought one of those toys for my two dogs, pet owner Karen N. told us. Now Im really afraid because (the forensic toxicologist) in the article said the toy could shorten my dogs lives. This makes me sick.

      Our story also convinced the Middlefield, Ohio, woman that:

      • National standards are needed for safe and acceptable levels of lead and other heavy metals in toys for dogs and cats. Many in the pet industry have called for such standards in the wake of our report;

      • The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) or some other governmental body should regulate pet toys. Currently, no federal agency regulates these products even though adults and young children handle them;

      • Pet product manufacturers should make dog and cat toys that only have ingredients from the United States. I had no idea that China made just about every pet toy thats in this country . . . I cant find any dog toys that China doesnt make.

      • Pet owners should discuss this issue with their veterinarians and with their children's pediatricians.

      In September, hired ExperTox Analytical Laboratory to analyze four Chinese-made pet toys we bought at Wal-Mart -- two for dogs and two for cats -- for heavy metals and other toxins.

      High levels of lead

      One of the dog toys -- a latex one that looks like a green monster -- tested positive for what ExperToxs Forensic Toxicologist and Director, Dr. Ernest Lykissa, Ph.D., called high levels of lead and the cancer producing agent chromium.

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

      Thats almost one part per million, Dr. Lykissa told us. 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 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 Texas-based laboratory also found other toxic metals in the green monster toy.

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

      ExperTox also detected worrisome levels of cadmium in a cloth catnip toy 236 micrograms per kilogram.

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

      Veterinarians disagree

      But two veterinary toxicologists who reviewed ExperToxs results said the levels of toxic metals in the toys did not pose a health risk to dogs or cats.

      Wal-Mart is also adamant that the chew toys are safe. Whether the toys pose a hazard to children and adults who handle them remains unclear.

      The state of Illinois this week reached a settlement with a lunch bag distributor, who agreed to stop selling and distributing lunch bags containing amounts of lead in excess of the limits in Illinois law.

      It is crucial that children's products containing any amount of lead be taken off the shelves and out of the hands of young children, Attorney General Lisa Madigan said.

      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.

      Angus & Taylor

      Nonetheless, ExperToxs findings frightened Karen because she recently purchased two of Wal-Marts green monster toys for her miniature Schnauzers, Angus and Taylor.

      I had just brought the toys in the house, gave them to my dogs, and then went on my computer and read a consumer alert from your Web site, Karen told us on Monday. And there was that green monster toy.

      I couldnt believe it had lead in it. My dogs had already started playing with.

      Whats even more concerning, Karen said, is this is the second time this year that shes purchased the green monster toys for her dogs. The Schnauzers chewed on the toys for days, she said, and eventually tore the squeakers out of them.

      Long-term effects

      Karen is now worried about lead building up her dogs bodies and the long-term effects that could have on their health.

      I wish to God (your forensic toxicologist, Dr. Lykissa) was wrong about all this because if hes not my dogs will inevitably suffer, which will cause me to suffer deeply in the long run.

      Karen said her dogs -- who are 10 months and 4 1/2 years old -- are in good health and have not shown any signs of illness from playing with the green monster toys.

      But after reading our story, she immediately took the imported chew toys away from her dogs and returned them to Wal-Mart.

      The customer service lady said oh, this is one of the recalled toys. But these toys are still on the shelf. Like I said, I just bought them a couple weeks ago.

      Still being sold? purchased the four Chinese-made pet toys at a Wal-Mart in Kansas City, Missouri. We checked the store last week and found a green monster toy that looked identical to the one we tested except it wasnt in a plastic bag like the one we purchased and the UPC number was one digit off.

      We also couldnt find the catnip toys on the stores shelves.

      Wal-Mart, however, never indicated it planned to remove the toys from its stores. Instead, the companys hired public relations person, who did not cite any scientific credentials, attacked ExperTox and said Dr. Lykissa severely misinterpreted the results.

      After reviewing these test results provided to usthe results of these tests actually prove the products are VERY safe, 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.

      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.

      OBrien pointed out that 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 -- more than 600 times less than the CPSC limit for surface coatings.

      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, OBrien said.

      Hatchet job

      "The only conclusions drawn in our articles have been that experts disagree and that safety standards are needed to protect pets and the humans who come in contact with them and their toys," said President and Editor in Chief James R. Hood. "Everyone agrees with that -- except Wal-Mart, which has contributed absolutely nothing to this dialogue."

      "Edelman practices the slash-and-burn tactics now common in politics -- tactics that are totally inappropriate in the public health field," Hood said. "Wal-Mart's customers deserve better." also interviewed two veterinary toxicologists, who said the levels of lead, chromium, and cadmium in the green monster and catnip toys did not pose a health risk to pets, though they did not cite any long-term studies to back up their opinions.

      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.

      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.

      Not swayed

      ExperTox, however, isnt swayed by its critics. It stands by its findings and calls them rock solid. Lab Manager Donna Coneley also said Dr. Lykissa is an expert at testing consumer products.

      ExperTox, she said, has the most advanced and sensitive equipment for conducting heavy metal tests specifically its ICP-MS or Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry.

      Thats the machine ExperTox used to test the four pet toys we purchased at Wal-Mart.

      These (toxic) materials came off the toys freely, like with the lick of the tongue from a dog or cat, Dr. Lykissa 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, Dr. Lykissa said. Then we put them in (theICP-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.

      Expertox, however, doesnt look at 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.

      But in our opinion, that level of lead (907.4 micrograms per kilogram) is considered elevated and there are other choices (for pet owners), 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. 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.

      "Solid results"

      Pet owners, she said, can trust the labs test results -- and the science behind them.

      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.

      This isnt the first time in recent weeks that test results on heavy metals in pet toys -- and the interpretation of those findings -- have pitted Dr. Lykissa against veterinary toxicologists and others in the pet industry.

      In late August, an Illinois pet owner -- worried about the safety of the chew toys her Shelties played with -- hired the 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.

      She contacted us after reading our story about ExperToxs results on the imported Wal-Mart chew toys.

      Then my 83-year-old mom noticed that my dogs toys were all made in China, Nancy said. 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.

      The Illinois Department of Agricultures lab reported that the lead levels in all 24 dog toys Nancy tested fell within that states acceptable limits for lead paint in childrens toys.

      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, the labs director, Dr. Gene Niles, told us. 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 PetSmarts tennis ball are 335 times higher than the amount of lead ExperTox found in the green monster toy.

      Both safe ... or both dangerous?

      Does that mean both toys are safe because the lead levels are far below 600 parts per million?

      Or does it mean they both pose a health risk to pets and the children who play with them?

      The answer depends on which scientists -- or public relations person -- you talk to about the findings.

      PetSmart said its tennis balls are safe for dogs and the levels of lead do not pose any health risks.

      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, said Bruce Richardson, PetSmarts director of external communication.

      Richardson said his company routinely tests its dog and cat toys for lead and other toxins.

      The products we sell must meet a variety of safety and quality standards and protocols, he said. These are based on federal regulations and standardsas 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.

      Richardson took exception with our comparison of the lead levels in the companys 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, Richardson 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.

      ExperTox disagreed.

      The labs manager said the levels of lead in PetSmarts tennis ball are elevated and ExperTox does not consider them 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 the labs Donna Coneley. We dont agree that (335.7 parts per million of lead) is a safe level.

      Would Coneley let her dog chew on a toy with those levels of lead?

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

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

      Weight matters

      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.

      There clearly is an absence of regulations for pet toys, Richardson said. Maybe the guidelines ... the levels ... for 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 (APPMA) told us 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 joined 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.

      National standards

      Remember worried pet owner Karen from Ohio?

      She also supports the adoption of national standards for lead and other toxins in pet toys.

      Dogs are living beings, she said. Theyre our companions. It shouldnt just be this attitude that oh, its a dog so we dont need any standards.

      There absolutely should be standardized levels (of toxins) for pet toys.

      Karen also favors federal regulation of pet toys. And I definitely think the CPSC should take that over. We all know that babies and toddlers put things in their mouths ... they could easily put these pet toys in their mouths.

      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 about ExperToxs findings on Wal-Marts pet toys.

      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.

      Made in China

      Meanwhile, Karen and other dog owners told us theyll no longer buy pet toys made in China. But that might not be easy to do.

      I cant find any pet toys that arent made in China, Karen said, adding she wished some company in the USA would start making toys for dogs and cats. Ive done my research and most of the pet toys are made in China. Ive also written to different pet companies and theyve told me that basically everything made in China.

      Pet owner Nancy from Illinois ran into the same problems during her search for USA-made dog toys.

      I was going to dump out all my old toys and buy only ones made in the USA, she said. But I couldnt find any that werent made in China. What amazes me is that all these toys are made in China.

      Karen also told us shes going to discuss ExperToxs findings with her veterinarian.

      And Im hoping that the veterinarians you talked to are right and that theres no harm giving these toys to my dogs.

      Whether pet owners agree or disagree with ExperToxs findings, the labs manager 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.

      Consumers Respond to Toxic Pet Toy Stories...
      Read lessRead more

      Food Industry Wants More Regulation

      Grocers, importers want clear safety standards on imports

      The message to Congress from the food industry is clear, if perhaps surprising regulation is not a dirty word.

      In fact, many food company executives say the government needs to exert more influence to protect the nations food supply, at least when it comes to imports.

      U.S. food import safety officials and the food industry appear to be on the same page, proposing to ramp up federal regulation of imported food and ingredients to address the risk that unsafe products could enter the United States.

      U.S. agencies charged with overseeing food import safety are expected to forward to President Bush in November recommended actions that food producers, distributors, importers and regulators should take to strengthen food safety.

      The recommendations will focus on developing more scientific and analytic tools to allow better identification of potential risks, to monitor the effectiveness of prevention measures and to increase use of information technology for inspection and surveillance.

      The recommendations also will aim to reduce the time between detecting and containing a food-borne illness, David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), told a House Appropriations subcommittee in September.

      Grocers respond

      The food industry's largest trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), has unveiled its own proposal for more regulation.

      It reflects awareness among industry leaders that U.S. companies, as imports rise, face increasing challenges to ensure the quality and safety of food sold to U.S. consumers.

      The GMA proposal would require all U.S. food importers to adopt a foreign supplier quality assurance program and verify that imported products meet FDA food safety requirements.

      GMA President Cal Dooley said industry wants to work with government to strengthen and modernize the U.S. system of regulating the safety of food imports. Working in partnership with government, "industry can apply its vast knowledge and practical experience along the entire supply chain to prevent problems before they arise," he said.

      Food Industry Wants More Regulation...
      Read lessRead more

      Analysts: Wal-Mart Era Ending

      Drab big boxes don't mesh with growing affluence, online convenience

      The Wall Street Journal hasn't pronounced Wal-Mart dead and gone but its lead story today declares the "Wal-Mart Era" is over.

      The ever-expanding chain of drab big-box stores emerged from its dusty down-home beginnings in Arkansas in the 1970s, teaching Americans to demand ever-lower prices and instructing companies to shave their margins to the bone.

      But today, the Journal reports, Wal-Mart's influence is slipping as the Internet and smaller, hipper rivals take ever bigger bites out of its market share.

      A big part of the giant retailer's problem, as the Journal sees it, is that it has become politically incorrect -- paying rock-bottom wages and offering its workers the slimmest of benefits while offering down-market products at prices that no longer seem very attractive.

      As in every market sector, the Internet has played a major role in eroding Wal-Mart's dominance. Consumers can now find a wider selection of products at competitive prices online, and they can do so without driving miles out of their way and fighting the crowds and check-out lines at Wal-Mart.

      Customer service

      The lack of satisfactory customer service is the theme that runs through most complaints filed with by Wal-Mart customers.

      When Amber of Lewisburg, Ky., and her husband went to Wal-Mart to buy a futon for their daughter, they found the item they wanted, marked at $99.96 but the box was so heavy they could hardly lift it.

      "When we asked one of the store employees for assitance in lifting the extremely heavy box, we were greeted with blank faces," she said. "I was told to go to the lay-a-way deptartment and ask someone there."

      It took 45 minutes for someone to help them move the box to the check-out counter, but then: "We got it to the counter and (SURPRISE) the item was priced incorrectly. The actual price was $199.96! When I complained, the cashier became very aggravated and said she wasn't going to sell me the futon for $99.96 just because I told her that was the price!"

      "I even went back to the housewares dept., got the tag, and brought it back to her. Her response was 'Sorry, I don't price things. I have to charge you what it rings up as,'" Amber complained.

      Amber, who said she is a long-time Wal-Mart customer, saw the incident as typical of the change in Wal-Mart's "customer first" policy.

      "If I remember correctly, Wal-Mart used to have a rule where if a customer was charged more than $3.00 than the marked price of an item, they got the item for the lower price. Apparently, Wal-Mart tends to forget their own policies and only enforces the ones which make them money!" she said.

      Forgetting its roots?

      While Wal-Mart's attempts to penetrate urban areas have had medicore results, many of its traditional customers say it has also forgotten its roots. The company's plan to eliminate layaway purchases is often cited as an example.

      "I am throughly disgusted at their lack of care and concern for the people that made them rich. It is the ultimate betrayal!" said LaDonna of Garland, Texas.

      "Wal-Mart is a terrible place, and I spend thousands -- like about 8 of them -- a year there, but no longer! All of my Christmas will be done online this year!" she vowed.

      Hit the wall

      Wal-Mart's supercenter recipe no longer produces the growth it needs to sustain itself and its attempts to attract and retain more affluent consumers have fallen flat, Love Goel, chairman of a private equityu firm that invests in retail businesses, told the Journal.

      "They have hit the wall," Goel said.

      Analysts: Wal-Mart Era Ending. The Wall Street Journal hasn't pronounced Wal-Mart dead and gone but its lead story today declares the "Wal-Mart Era" is ove...
      Read lessRead more

      Feds Shut Down Media Motor Spyware Scam

      More than 15 million computers infected

      Scammers who infected more than 15 million computers with destructive, intrusive spyware will give up $330,000 in ill-gotten gains from their venture to settle FTC charges that their scam violated federal law.

      The settlement will bar the defendants from downloading software onto consumers computers without disclosing its function and obtaining consumers consent prior to installation, bars them from downloading software that interferes with consumers computer use, and bars false or misleading claims.

      In November 2006, the FTC charged ERG Ventures, LLC and its principals with tricking consumers into downloading malevolent software by hiding the Media Motor program within seemingly innocuous free software, including screensavers and video files. Once downloaded, the Media Motor program silently activated itself and downloaded malware that was intrusive, disruptive, and made it difficult for consumers to use their computers.

      The software changed consumers home pages, tracked their Internet activity, altered browser settings, degraded computer performance, and disabled anti-spyware and anti-virus software. Many of the malware programs installed by the Media Motor program were extremely difficult or impossible for consumers to remove from their computers.

      The FTC charged that ERG Ventures and its principals violated the FTC Act, which bars unfair and deceptive practices. Specifically, the FTC said the defendants failed to disclose to consumers that the free software they offered was bundled with malware. The agency also charged the defendants with using a deceptive End User License Agreement, which gave consumers the option to halt the installation of all software from ERG Ventures, but secretly installed malware whether consumers accepted or rejected the terms of the agreement.

      At the request of the FTC, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada froze the defendants assets and ordered a halt to their spyware operation pending trial.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Feds Shut Down Media Motor Spyware Scam: Scammers who infected more than 15 million computers with destructive, intrusive spyware will give up $330,000 in ...
      Read lessRead more

      NutriSystem: Day 5

      Muscle cramps and cardboard soup on the menu

      Dieting is hard.

      I assumed that going into it. But now I know. I'm on day five of the NutriSystem diet and day 28 can't come soon enough but who's counting?

      The first day of the diet was shockingly easy. I think I convinced my body that if I get hungry, this whole diet thing is going to be so much harder, so let's just not get hungry. Sadly, mind tricks only exist in Star Wars.

      The next morning, I woke up much earlier than expected, especially since it was a Saturday. I was starving. I rummaged through the NutriSystem box in my apartment and pulled out a blueberry muffin. Not only was it wholly inadequate calorie-wise, it also felt stale in my mouth and lacked any sort of recognizable flavor. I needed two glasses of water to wash it down.

      To take my mind off the hunger, I read the newspaper. Luckily the Saturday edition has no food section.

      Story continues below video

      The day was not too unbearable, and knowing I was to have a long night with friends, I spread out my meals as much as possible, finally having my dinner entree at 9 p.m.

      I allowed for two final snacks to finish my night a zesty Chex Mix rendition and about a dozen peanuts. The NutriSystem Zesty Herb Mix did absolutely nothing for me, forcing me to have my peanuts much earlier than I planned. Luckily, the peanuts, combined with about three glasses of water, held me over the rest of the night.

      I soberly watched my friends enjoy limitless flows of beer and food. While entertaining to watch -- similar to monkeys chasing each other at the zoo -- it didn't make for a delightful evening. According to Google Maps, I walked about two miles home that night from the bar for my daily exercise.

      I regretted that walk the next morning when a terrible cramp in my right leg shocked me out of bed. According to WebMD, cramps, like the one I had, are caused by dehydration (definitely not an issue), too much exercise (possible, but not likely) and a lack of nutrients (bingo).

      Regardless, I felt restless the next day and wanted to check out some exhibits at the Natural History Museum and also wanted to enjoy the sun. It's almost a two-and-a-half-mile walk from my apartment to the museum, but it felt good to stretch the twinging muscle.

      Halfway through touring the exhibits, I began to run low on energy. The hunger I felt as I moseyed back to my apartment Sunday afternoon is only topped in my life by the time I went on a 36-hour fast in high school to raise money for Sudan relief.

      I went out of my way to avoid streets with lots of restaurants and street vendors not out of fear that I would cave, but because the smells and sights only made my hunger worse.

      Cardboard soup

      Joe's meat loaf and mashed potato dinner

      To make matters worse, that night I had by far the most disgusting NutriSystem meal to date. It was the meat loaf and mashed potatoes.

      Although the meat loaf was bland, it wasn't horrendous. The mashed potatoes, on the other hand, were so disgusting, I only forced myself to eat them out of necessity. It looked, felt and tasted like the remnants of a dried-out cardboard soup and I'm not a picky eater.

      Yesterday and today, so far, have been much easier. Yesterday, I even skipped one of my two allowed desserts. It's hard to imagine any real transformation in my body's operations in so few days after years of uncalculated feeding, but I hope that's what's happening. I'm not sure I can handle many more hunger pangs like those I had Sunday.

      Interestingly, NutriSystem called me yesterday. Apparently my first story caught their attention. Not sure how he got my cell phone number, but NutriSystem representative Curt Bauer simply called to offer any support and to inform us of a slight error in reporting: it doesn't cost more to select a NutriSystem menu, he informed me.

      Many consumers have complained to us about NutriSystem swapping out meals they selected over the Internet, a service they thought they were paying more for.

      The way their website is designed, it may not be immediately clear that having the company choose the meals for you is the same $371.50 per 28 days, as the user-selected menu. When I signed up, I thought it was a premium service.

      The only savings occur when a consumer decides to have the food auto-shipped at the end of each month, rather than just for 28 days. The auto-ship method costs $320, a savings of more than $50.

      NutriSystem: Day 5...
      Read lessRead more

      Infiniti Holds Top Spot in Consumer Reports Luxury Vehicle Tests

      Mercedes E-Class close behind

      The Infiniti M35 is still the class leader in Consumer Reports' tests of six luxury sedans. However, two versions of the freshened Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the diesel-powered E320 BlueTec and the gasoline-powered E350, are close behind with "Excellent" overall scores.

      The other luxury cars include the freshened BMW 535i, "Very Good" overall; the gasoline/electric hybrid Lexus GS 450h, "Very Good"; and the redesigned Volvo S80, "Very Good". Prices for the group range from $45,305 for the Volvo to $60,172 for the Lexus.

      The diesel-powered E320 delivered excellent fuel economy, 29 mpg overall in CR's own fuel economy tests -- comparable to that of a small sedan such as the Toyota Corolla. Fuel economy for the other vehicles in the group ranged from a high of 23 mpg for the GS 450h to a low of 19 for the M35.

      Consumer Reports tested the rear-wheel-drive M35 as an update to the all-wheel-drive M35X that was previously tested; the M35X was CR's 2007 Top Pick in the luxury car category. The previously-tested M35X garnered an overall score of 97 points, while the newly-tested M35 was close behind, with an overall score of 95 points.

      The magazines November issue also includes tests and ratings of two $70,000-plus ultra-luxury sedans: the $76,572 Lexus LS 460L and the $90,200 Mercedes-Benz S550. The LS 460L easily outdistanced the Mercedes in that group, achieving a 99-point overall test score; the maximum score is 100. The S550 received an 86-point score, considerably lower than the Lexus but still in the "Excellent" category.

      "Both versions of the Infiniti M35 are well-rounded, nimble cars that successfully blend sportiness with comfort," said David Champion, Senior Director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center in East Haddam, Connecticut. "The M35s are as capable handling a twisty road as they are cruising the highway."

      Four of the vehicles are recommended by Consumer Reports -- the BMW 535i, the Infiniti M35, Lexus GS 450h and the Lexus LS 460L. The Mercedes E-Class and S-Class have subpar reliability in CR's subscriber surveys, while the Volvo S80 is too new for CR to have sufficient reliability data.

      Consumer Reports recommends only those vehicles that have performed well in its tests, have at least average predicted reliability based on CR's Annual Car Reliability Survey of its own print and web subscribers, and performed at least adequately if crash-tested or included in a government rollover test.

      Infiniti Holds Top Spot in Consumer Reports Luxury Vehicle Tests...
      Read lessRead more

      Farm Bill Provision Would Cut Meat Inspections

      Congressman wants to help smaller meat packers

      With concerns mounting daily over the safety of the U.S. food supply, it might make sense that Congress would mandate an increase in food inspections.

      But instead, a provision of the House-passed version of the 2007 Farm Bill would actually require fewer inspections for some meat.

      The provision, authored by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), would require fewer federal inspections for meat that is processed by small companies and shipped to another state.

      Currently, meat lacking a federal inspection stamp can only be sold in the state where it is produced. Only state inspections are required for those products.

      The Chicago Tribune reports the change is intended to help small meat packing plants in the Midwest. The newspaper quotes congressional staff as saying these small companies could greatly expand their business if allowed to ship nationwide.

      But in the wake of last weeks massive Topps Beef hamburger recall, many consumer advocates dont see it that way.

      They, along with the federal meat inspectors union, are opposing this particular aspect of the Farm Bill, currently making its way through the Senate. These critics argue that state inspection standards are hardly consistent, and that uniform, federal standards are the only way to protect the public.

      In the Topps case, the recalled hamburger patties were suspected of E. coli contamination. So far this year, the Department of Agriculture has recalled nearly 28 million pounds of ground beef.

      Stan Painter, a USDA inspector and an official with the American Federation of Government Employees union, which represents federal meat inspectors, told the Tribune that small plants may apply to have a federal inspector on site, but that wouldnt necessarily help them.

      I'm not sure the smaller plants are capable of meeting federal standard, Painter said.

      Petersons proposal appears to be at odds with other Democrats in Congress, who have called for greater federal inspections of the food supply.

      In September, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, introduced the Fresh Produce Safety Act of 2007.

      It would require the FDA to develop and enforce mandatory good agricultural practices for growers and manufacturers in the US. Currently, there are only voluntary guidelines.

      Farm Bill Provision Would Cut Meat Inspections...
      Read lessRead more

      Wal-Mart Expands $4 Generic Program

      Newly-added drugs treat glaucoma, ADD/ADHD, acne, fertility conditions

      Wal-Mart Stores, which began offering a number of generic drugs at $4 last year, says it is expanding the program. The program which the company says has saved Americans more than $610 million in its first year has been expanded in two key ways:

      • More medicines will now be available for $4 for a one-month supply. Among the drugs added to the program are drugs treating glaucoma, attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), fungal infections and acne. Fertility and prescription birth control will also be included at $9, compared to national average prices ranging from $24 to $30 per month and saving women an estimated $15 to $21 per month $180 to $250 annually.

      • Wal-Mart says it will add new drugs more quickly. For example, one month ago, the antifungal Lamisil had an average price of $337.26. The generic equivalent, terbinafine, is now available through the Wal-Mart discount program for $4 for a commonly dispensed quantity up to a 30-day supply.

      With the changes Wal-Mart said it now covers most commonly treated medical conditions with its $4 generic program. The discounts are offered through Wal-Mart, Sams Club and Neighborhood Market stores.

      This announcement reinforces our commitment to driving costs out of the health system and saving money for our customers so they can live better, healthier lives, said Dr. John Agwunobi, Wal-Mart senior vice president and president for the professional services division.

      The savings were a big deal 12 months ago and an even bigger deal today for customers struggling with spiraling healthcare costs. Everyday, they turn to our pharmacy for prescriptions to manage conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, or even simple colds, Agwunobi said.

      After phase two of the program, a total of 361 products made up of 157 medication compounds are now available at Wal-Mart pharmacies nationwide. With the changes, $4 prescriptions are available for most commonly treated medical conditions, the company said.

      Wal-Mart said it has added 24 new $4 prescriptions including timolol maleate (glaucoma), terbinafine (antifungal), carvedilol (cardiac), and three $9 womens medications including generic birth control product for Ortho Cyclen and Ortho Tri-Cyclen, and a fertility product, Clomiphene.

      The $4 prescription program was initially launched in Tampa, Florida on September 21, 2006 and expanded to 49 states by November 28, 2006. Today, the program is available at 4005 Wal-Mart, Sams Club and Neighborhood Market pharmacies throughout the United States.

      Wal-Mart Expands $4 Generic Program...
      Read lessRead more

      FDA Cracks Down On Cough Medicine For Kids

      Hydrocodone not approved for treatment of coughs, colds in children

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it will take enforcement action against companies marketing cough and pain medications for children that contain hydrocodone.

      The agency says the narcotic has not been approved for treatment of coughs and colds in children, though it has been cleared for other, limited uses.

      Hydrocodone is one of the strongest medications available to treat pain or to suppress cough. The drug has also been an extremely popular drug of abuse and can lead to serious illness, injury, or death, if improperly used, the FDA said.

      Hydrocodone overdose can result in breathing problems or cardiac arrest, and its use may impair motor skills and judgment.

      The FDA said it has received reports of medication errors associated with formulation changes in unapproved hydrocodone products and reports of confusion over the similarity of the names of unapproved products to approved drug products. As part of the drug approval process, the agency considers the possibility of medication errors and name confusion.

      Some hydrocodone pain-relief products, such as Vicodin, are FDA-approved. However, most of the hydrocodone formulations now marketed to suppress coughs have not been approved. The agency said it is particularly concerned about improper pediatric labeling of unapproved hydrocodone cough suppressants, also known as antitussives, and the risk of medication error involving the unapproved products.

      Companies marketing these unapproved products have not demonstrated the safety and efficacy of these drugs, said Steven K. Galson, M.D., M.P.H., director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER).

      A case in point no hydrocodone cough suppressant has been established as safe and effective for children under 6 years of age and some of these unapproved products carry labels with dosing instructions for children as young as 2 years of age, Galson said.

      The action is part of FDA's broader initiative on the marketing of unapproved drugs that was announced in June 2006.

      enforcement approach to these products.


      There are a number of alternatives for patients who might be using unapproved hydrocodone cough suppressants.

      There are seven FDA-approved cough suppressant products containing hydrocodone. There also are a variety of approved antitussive products that do not contain hydrocodone. Consumers should consult a health care professional for detailed guidance on treatment options, the agency said.

      Anyone marketing unapproved hydrocodone products that are currently labeled for use in children younger than 6 years of age must end further manufacturing and distribution of the products on or before October 31, 2007.

      Those marketing any other unapproved hydrocodone drug products must stop manufacturing such products on or before December 31, 2007 and must cease further shipment in interstate commerce on or before March 31, 2008. Further legal action could be taken against those failing to meet these deadlines.

      FDA Cracks Down On Cough Medicine For Kids...
      Read lessRead more

      Minnesota Sues Sprint Nextel

      Company 'tricked' consumers by extending their contracts without permission

      The state of Minnesota has filed a lawsuit against Sprint Nextel Corporation for violating Minnesotas consumer protection laws by extending consumers' contracts without their knowledge or permission.

      According to the complaint, Sprint Nextel extended the terms of consumers wireless contracts for up to two years without giving adequate disclosure or obtaining the knowing consent of the consumer when consumers made small changes to their wireless phone service.

      Some of the changes that resulted in contract extensions included adding extra minutes or decreasing minutes, purchasing or replacing a phone, responding to solicitations for additional products or services, or receiving courtesy discounts.

      Often the result of such practices is that the consumer is charged early termination fees of up to $200 when they try to cancel their wireless service.

      When you receive complaints across the board, from firefighters to lawyers, from retirees to construction workers, all of whom feel they were unfairly manipulated by their cell phone company, you have a problem, Attorney General Lori Swanson said. She was joined at a State Capitol news conference by a number of Minnesota consumers who described their problems with the company.

      Sprint Nextel is no stranger to complaints about its business practices. The Better Business Bureau reported that as of July 2007, it has received nationwide over 30,000 complaints against Sprint Nextel in the past 36 months. has about 2,300 active complaints about the company's practices.

      Indeed, in the last three years, the cell phone industry has generated the most complaints with the Better Business Bureau than any other industry in America (there are over 3,600 other industries).

      Consumers "tricked"

      In a normal transaction, you have two parties coming together and making an agreement about a purchase. For these consumers, there was no real meeting of the minds. Rather, the company has tricked consumers into unknowingly extending their contract simply because they made a basic change to their plan, Swanson said.

      The states complaint contends that Sprint Nextel violated Minnesotas Consumer Fraud Act and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

      The suit seeks to enjoin the company from further violations of the act. It also seeks civil penalties and restitution for Minnesota consumers injured by the companys practices.

      Minnesota Sues Sprint Nextel...
      Read lessRead more

      800,000 Job Seekers At Risk In Gap Data Breach

      Laptop containing applicant data stolen from contractor

      A laptop containing personal information on 800,000 people who applied to work for The Gap retail clothing chain was stolen from a third-party vendor for the company, The Gap announced.

      The missing laptop contained data on job seekers from the United States and Puerto Rico who applied between July 2006 and June 2007, such as Social Security numbers. Canadian applicants' data was also on the laptop, but Social Insurance numbers were not included.

      The Gap claimed that the unidentified vendor used by the company to process job applicant data stored the information on the laptop without encrypting it, a violation of The Gap's policies, according to company CEO Glenn Murphy.

      What happened here is against everything we stand for as a company," Murphy said. "Were reviewing the facts and circumstances that led to this incident closely, and will take appropriate steps to help prevent something like this from happening again.

      As is typical in data breach cases, The Gap claimed there was no evidence that the stolen information was being used for identity theft or fraud. The company also promised a free year of credit monitoring and fraud resolution services for affected applicants. The Gap also claimed it used multiple vendors to manage job applicant information, ensuring that not every applicant would be affected.

      Too Many Fingers In The Pie

      Outsourcing of business processes such as billing, payroll, and employee data to third parties has been a primary cause of data breaches in recent years. Third-party companies that handle personal data often do not adhere to the privacy standards of the companies or government agencies they are contracted to, and simply passing data through multiple hands increases the risk that it may be lost, stolen, or misused.

      Business outsourcing company ACS misplaced a compact disc containing personal information on 2.9 million Georgia residents in April 2007. The company had been hired by Georgia's state government to handle health care billing and claims for its state Medicare administration and child health care program.

      Government contracting agency SAIC transmitted information on 580,000 military personnel and their families without using encryption in July 2007. The information was also stored on an unsecured server, putting the individuals at greater risk of identity theft and fraud if the information was stolen.

      And Connecticut sued Accenture in September 2007 for removing state bank account and taxpayer information from the state's computer system, which was later downloaded onto a laptop that was stolen from an intern for the Ohio state government. Accenture had been hired by both Connecticut and Ohio to handle upgrading and modernizing of the states' billing and payroll systems.

      A laptop containing personal information on 800,000 people who applied to work for The Gap retail clothing chain was stolen from a third-party vendor for t...
      Read lessRead more