Current Events in November 2007

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    Google Will Bid In Wireless Spectrum Auction

    Tech giant will "put our money where our principles are," CEO says

    Google has committed to bidding in the upcoming FCC auction of 700mhz of the wireless spectrum, the company said today. "It's important to put our money where our principles are," Google CEO and chairman Eric Schmidt said.

    "Consumers deserve more competition and innovation than they have in today's wireless world," Schmidt said. "No matter which bidder ultimately prevails, the real winners of this auction are American consumers who likely will see more choices than ever before in how they access the Internet."

    As part of the shift from analog television to digital TV signals taking place in 2009, the FCC is auctioning off the 700mhz block to interested bidders.

    Google agreed to put up $4.6 billion for the auction if bidders agreed to adhere to its proposed principles for use of the spectrum, including enabling any device to connect to any network using the spectrum.

    Telecoms such as AT&T and Verizon, also interested in the spectrum, opposed Google's open access principles, and the FCC passed compromise rules that did not fully adopt Google's proposals, but did include the "open device" standard.

    The Wireless Chess Game

    Google's official commitment to bid in the auction comes several days after Verizon Wireless announced it would open its network to enable compatible devices and software to work with Verizon Wireless, even if the applications came from other providers or manufacturers.

    Verizon, which had been one of the most ardent proponents of the "walled garden" approach to its network, had tried to sue the FCC in order to lift the "open device" requirement of the auction, but later withdrew the suit. Its reversal of policy in adopting an open network was hailed as an innovative move, but a closer look revealed that Verizon may not be changing its stance completely.

    Verizon's network runs on the CDMA standard, as opposed to the more widely used GSM standard, meaning that only CDMA-enabled phones can work on the Verizon network. Although Sprint also uses the CDMA network, Verizon's biggest rival AT&T uses GSM, meaning the dream of an iPhone on Verizon is still far off.

    TechCrunch's Erick Schonfeld also reported that third-party applications developed for new phones compatible with the Verizon network would not be available to existing customers who bought phones through Verizon.

    "Unless it figures that out, Verizon is not really building an open network," Schonfeld wrote. "It is building a two-tiered network: One for its preferred customers who play by its rules...and one for the rabble not satisfied with its choice of phones and apps."

    The Next Move?

    Insiders speculate that Verizon may have made the commitment to open networks chiefly to prevent the FCC auction from instituting tougher rules regarding open usage of devices, much as it led the wireless industry in committing to cutting termination fees to prevent Congress from passing laws outlawing the practice.

    Google, meanwhile, has already raised the stakes with its Open Handset Alliance, a coalition of wireless and technology providers who are working together to support Android, Google's open mobile platform. Partners in the Open Handset Alliance include mobile players such as Sprint and T-Mobile and handset manufacturers such as Motorola, Samsung, and LG.

    Given the dizzying twists and turns in the chess game over the wireless spectrum, the next moves are becoming increasingly difficult to predict--but they promise to be interesting.

    Google Will Bid In Wireless Spectrum Auction...

    TJX Settles Visa Suit over Data Breach

    Nearly 100 million consumers may have been affected

    TJX Companies Inc., the corporate parent of retail chains T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, has reportedly agreed to a $41 million settlement with Visa in connection with a massive data security breach. The Associated Press reported the settlement Friday, without attribution.

    The company announced earlier this year that it had been hit with an "unauthorized intrusion" that exposed customers' credit and debit card data to the hacker. The breach apparently occurred in mid 2006 but wasnt detected mid-December 2006.

    The company claimed, at the time, it did not have a full estimate of the number of customers affected, or what the potential financial fallout might be.

    The TJX breach promoted warnings by Visa to banks throughout Massachusetts, as well as a wave of reissues of ATM and debit cards to customers.

    TJX faces suits by numerous banks and financial trade associations, who want to hold TJX liable for the costs of replacing the millions of credit and debit cards exposed as a result of the breach.

    Although the TJX company's initial estimates were that 46 million customers may have been affected by the breach, internal court filings in the bank lawsuit showed the numbers closer to 94 million, with costs to card issuers such as Visa ranging from $65 to $80 million.

    The hack itself involved the compromise of credit and debit card data from sales at TJX store chains in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico through 2003, and again in the latter half of 2006.

    At the time of the disclosure, TJX said it had identified "a limited number of credit card and debit card holders whose information was removed from its system," and was in the process of providing this information to credit card issuers.

    TJX said it also informed the Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies, as well as contacting IBM and General Dynamics to assist it with improving its security procedures and preventing further breaches.

    "We are deeply concerned about this event and the difficulties it may cause our customers," Ben Cammarata, chairman and acting CEO of TJX, said at the time. "We want to assure our customers that this issue has the highest priority."

    Class Action Settlement

    Earlier this month, the Attorneys General of ten states objected to a special "Customer Appreciation Sale" proposed as part of the class action settlement of the TJX data breach.

    Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley called the proposed three-day event "nothing more than a retail sale, which would primarily benefit the defendant, TJX Companies."

    Coakley, writing on behalf of nine other state Attorneys General, petitioned U.S. District Court Judge William Young to reconsider the sale, or "at the very least, subject the Special Event to heightened scrutiny before approval."

    Coakley argued that the sale would not offer any real benefit for members of the class-action suit, whether they were victims of fraud resulting from the breach or simply had their cards replaced.

    Coakley, who was a victim of identity theft in an unrelated case last year, said that TJX should not abuse the public's good will "for a sale that enhances its bottom line, nor should the classs attorneys reap large fees for an unquantifiable and dubious benefit."

    TJX proposed the settlement in September 2007 to ward off multiple class-action lawsuits against it for letting as many as 94 million customers be exposed to hackers in a data breach that occurred over several years. In addition to the three-day sale, TJX has offered store credit vouchers to victims of the breach who provide documentation to substantiate their claim.

    TJX Settles Visa Suit over Data Breach...

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      States Get Poor Grades on School Food

      Little progress seen since last year

      Kentucky and Oregon top the nation in healthy school food policies, but two-thirds of states have no or weak nutrition standards to limit junk-food and soft drink sales out of vending machines, school stores, and other venues outside of school meals, according to a school foods report card from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

      Over the last ten years, states have been strengthening their school nutrition policies, said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI. But overall, the changes, while positive, are fragmented, incremental, and not happening quickly enough to reach all children in a timely way.

      No states received an A grade, though two states (Kentucky and Oregon) received an A-; six states received a B+ (Nevada, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Washington and New Mexico); nine states earned a B or B-; six states and the District of Columbia received Cs; seven states got Ds; and 20 states got Fs.

      Most improved honors go to Oregon, which upgraded from an F in last years report card to an A-, and Washington state, which moved from an F to a B+.

      Since CSPIs last report card in 2006, Oregon passed a comprehensive school snack and beverage policy that limits calories, saturated and trans fat, and sugars in snacks in K-12 schools and limits the sale of most sugary beverages in schools. Both states previously had no guidelines beyond USDAs bare-bones rules.

      You would think that with all the concern about childhood obesity that getting junk food and soda out of schools would be easy. But, it took us six years of hard work to pass our school nutrition legislation, said Mary Lou Hennrich, executive director of the Community Health Partnership: Oregon's Public Health Institute, who led Oregons effort to improve school foods. We welcome national action to build on what we and other states have done and ensure that all children go to school in junk-food-free environments.

      Few rules

      CSPI found that only 11 states have comprehensive food and beverage standards that apply to the whole campus, the whole school day, for all grade levels. Thirteen states limit portion sizes for snacks, and only 11 states limit portion sizes for beverages.

      Fifteen states limit the saturated-fat content of school snacks, and only ten address trans fat. Just five states set limits on sodium in school foods.

      The majority of states still rely on the U.S. Department of Agricultures outdated school nutrition standards, said Wootan. Those national standards limit only the sale of jelly beans, lollipops, and other so-called foods of minimal nutritional value. Those standards dont address calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium, or other key nutrition concerns for children today.

      CSPI based its grades on five key considerations:

      • Beverage nutrition standards
      • Food nutrition standards
      • Grade levels to which policies apply
      • Time during the school day to which policies apply
      • Locations on campus to which policies apply

      Childhood obesity

      Over the last 20 years, obesity rates have tripled in children and adolescents, and only 2 percent of children eat a healthy diet, according to key nutrition recommendations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

      Despite that, about a third of elementary schools, 71 percent of middle schools, and 89 percent of high schools sell items such as sugary drinks, snack cakes, candy, and chips out of vending machines, school stores, or a la carte lines in the cafeteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions 2006 School Health Policies and Programs Study.

      Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over school foods, and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have legislation that would require USDA to update its standards for foods sold through vending machines, a la carte in the cafeteria, school stores, and elsewhere on the whole campus for the whole school day. Harkin and Murkowski plan to offer their school nutrition bill as an amendment to the Farm bill.

      Notably, the soft drink industry and many major food manufacturers are supporting, not opposing, the Harkin-Murkowski amendment.

      The amendment also is supported by 100 organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, American Dental Association, National PTA, American Association of School Administrators, and the American Federation of Teachers.

      The Harkin-Murkowski amendment would exclude sugary drinks from all schools at all times, but would allow low- or no-calorie drinks in high schools. So-called sports drinks such as Gatorade would be confined to athletic areas in high schools. The amendment also would set limits for calories, sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in school snacks.

      After years of fighting us, the food and beverage industry are now working with us on strong national standards for school foods and beverages, Wootan said. We hope that Congress will listen to parents, health organizations, and the food and beverage industry and strengthen the national nutrition standards for school foods this year.

      "Given the rising rates of childhood obesity, Congress cant afford to wait any longer.

      States Get Poor Grades on School Food...

      Ford Settles Explorer Rollover Lawsuits

      Consumers will get discounts on new Fords

      Ford Motor Co. has agreed to settle class-action lawsuits affecting 1 million consumers in four states who claimed that Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles were prone to rollover accidents.

      The agreement covers the remaining lawsuits that were filed following the Firestone tire recalls which damaged Ford's image.

      Owners of 1991 through 2001 Ford Explorers in California, Connecticut, Illinois and Texas will now be able to apply for $500 vouchers to buy new Explorers or $300 vouchers to buy other Ford, Mercury or Lincoln products, according to reports about the agreement.

      As part of the settlement, Ford will be required to distribute information about the rollover dangers of SUVs as well as limit safety claims for the vehicles in advertising.

      The settle was filed in Sacrament County Superior Court in Sacramento, California and is awaiting a judges approval. Ford will not disclose how much the company paid to settle the claims nor would Ford discuss terms of the deal other than to confirmed that an agreement was reached.

      "We believe the agreement is fair and reasonable and is in the best interest of our customers," said a Ford spokeswoman.

      The attorney would brought the lawsuit said that consumers will be able to apply for the Ford vouchers through a Web site as soon as Monday if the settlement is approved.

      Final approval of the agreement will be delayed until April so that people covered by the settlement have time to apply for the vouchers, according to Kevin Roddy, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

      Once the preliminary settlement is approved, Ford will publish a toll-free number and Web site for consumers as well as mail notices to Explorer owners.

      The lawsuits were filed in the following a federal investigation in 2000 after more than 250 people were killed and hundreds more injured in accidents involving tread separation on tires produced by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. Most of those accidents involved Ford Explorers.

      Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone each blamed one another for the accidents. Ford accused the tire manufacturer of producing an inferior tire. The tire maker charged that the design of the Explorer was the cause of the rollovers.

      In 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declared that the Explorer was no more rollover-prone than other SUVs.

      Ford Settles Explorer Rollover Lawsuits...

      Smokers Cost Taxpayers $10 Billion

      If all Medicaid beneficiaries quit smoking, taxpayers would be $10 billion richer

      Five years after all current smokers who receive Medicaid benefits quit smoking, program expenditures would be an estimated $9.7 billion lower, according to a new report by researchers at RTI International.

      The report, funded by the American Legacy Foundation, found that Medicaid expenditures attributable to current smokers account for 5.6 percent of total national Medicaid expenditures.

      "Reducing the number of smokers in the United States could save taxpayers billions of dollars in Medicaid costs," said Justin Trogdon, Ph.D., an RTI health economist. "Policy makers looking for ways to reduce health care costs in America would be wise to look at areas of health behaviors that both improve health and reduce health care costs."

      According to the research, New York smokers top the list, costing Medicaid $1.5 billion each year. Wyoming had the least Medicaid expenditures due to current smokers, but they still cost the program $15 million each year. The report showed that North Carolinians who smoke cost Medicaid $294 million each year.

      The researchers also looked at the cost of Medicaid over the lifetime of 24-year-old smokers because nearly all smokers begin smoking before age 24.

      "The benefits of preventing smoking initiation accrue over a longer time horizon," Trogdon said. "Life-cycle estimates are important in gauging the long-term impact of youth smoking prevention on state Medicaid programs. These estimates take into account the differences in life expectancy for smokers and nonsmokers as well as payments into the Medicaid system by smokers."

      "This study underscores the need for strong and effective smoking prevention and cessation campaigns," said Cheryl G. Healton, Dr. PH, president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation. "We hope that this report will serve as a tool for states to use when setting both long- and short-term goals for reducing Medicaid expenditures associated with tobacco use."

      Women smokers more costly

      The results showed that, over the course of their lifetime, today's 24-year-old smokers will cost Medicaid almost $1 billion. However, most of those costs are due to female smokers, not males.

      The researchers found that over the course of their lifetime, tax payments by young male smokers make up for most of their extra Medicaid expenditures from smoking, but the expenditures for female smokers cost Medicaid about $1,300 per person.

      This impact is highest in Texas, where the lifetime costs of 24-year old smokers to Medicaid is estimated to be $125 million. In North Carolina, those costs are expected to reach almost $37 million.

      "The lifetime costs of young smokers are for one cohort of 24-year-olds," Trogdon said. "Every year a new group of young people will turn 24. Based on these findings, preventing and reducing youth smoking, especially among females, could lower Medicaid costs by billions of dollars."

      The research is based on data from the 2000 through 2004 Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys.

      Smokers Cost Taxpayers $10 Billion...

      Latex Allergy Can Be Life-Threatening

      Fast-growing but little-known allergy is a major menace

      November 29, 2007
      Imagine. Youre trying to write a note with a pencil. You touch the rubber eraser, and all of a sudden, you break out in a rash and have trouble breathing. Your lips swell and you know you are in big trouble. It is time for 911.

      Millions of Americans live with this reality thanks to latex allergy. Latex allergy is one of the fastest growing, least known, and most dangerous allergies in the country. How come?

      Latex is everywhere, at home, work, in the hospital and in the doctor's office. Its in little daily things like bandages, balloons, erasers, bicycle handles, rubber toys, paints, shoes, condoms and the elastic band in your underwear.

      It is incredibly common in health care settings, like blood pressure cuffs, catheters, IV equipment, sterile gloves, tourniquets, bandages, and more.

      Latex is made from milky white sap which drips from rubber trees when the bark is cut. Manufacturers turn it into crepe rubber, the kind of hard rubber found in tires, which does not generally cause allergy.

      They also turn it into liquid latex, the kind which does cause allergies. They stretch it into rubber bands, balloons and surgical gloves.

      Latex: it's everywhere

      Since liquid latex blocks germs like staph and the AIDS virus, its use has skyrocketed in the last decade and so has latex allergy. Millions of Americans have allergies to latex, including nearly 10% of health care workers.

      This makes sense, because the more frequently and intensely you come in contact with latex the more likely you are to develop the allergy. Having other allergies may contribute as well. Hayfever sufferers and folks who are allergic to foods like bananas, avocado and chestnuts are more likely to develop latex allergy.

      How do you know if you have latex allergy? Well, if you have a reaction when you touch latex, simply breathe near latex, or touch something which came in contact with latex you may have latex allergy.

      For example, some folks are allergic to the corn starch in latex gloves or to IV fluids, which have touched latex in the IV line.


      Latex allergy can cause breathing problems like stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing or shortness of breath. It can cause skin rashes like hives or send you into anaphylactic shock, which can kill you.

      Doctors diagnose it by taking your history, doing a physical exam, and sending a blood test. There is no accurate skin test. Unfortunately the blood test misses a lot of people with latex allergy.

      The best way to treat latex allergy is to avoid latex and wear an allergy identification bracelet.

      If you develop symptoms of latex allergy, get immediate medical attention or head for the emergency room. If your symptoms are severe, call 911. You may need oral and/or topical antihistamines and/or steroids, inhaled asthma medicines and a shot of adrenaline to save your life.

      Most latex allergic patients carry adrenaline -- like the Epi-Pen or Twinject -- and other emergency medicines with them, just in case. Taking antihistamines every day may not prevent all reactions, but can take the edge off them. Taking extra precautions with latex allergy, a growing national health problem, makes a lot of sense.

      If you develop symptoms of latex allergy, get immediate medical attention or head for the emergency room. If your symptoms are severe, call 911. ...

      FTC Finds 8 Million Identity Theft Cases

      Costs, types of fraud vary widely

      November 28, 2007 
      Identity theft is still going strong in America, according to a new survey from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The agency said 8.3 million Americans, or nearly 4 percent of the population, were victims of identity theft in 2005.

      Of those victims, 3.2 million experienced fraud or misuse of their existing credit card accounts, 3.3 million suffered fraud or theft from non-credit card accounts, and 1.8 million were defrauded when thieves stole their personal information to open new accounts in the victims' names, known as "new account fraud."

      "Whether you're from Malibu or Manhattan, Tacoma or Tallahassee, no one is immune to identity theft," said Lydia B. Parnes, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

      "The important thing is that people learn how to deter identity thieves, detect suspicious activity on their financial records, and defend against the crime, should it happen," she added.

      The survey, prepared for the FTC by the Synovate polling and research firm, also looked at the costs of identity theft, finding that the value of goods stolen and the costs of recovering from the theft varied according to the type of fraud involved. Where the ID theft was limited to the misuse of existing accounts, the average loss was less than $500, although much higher losses were reported in some cases.

      But when the fraud was extended to "new account fraud," the losses were much higher--the median value of goods and services obtained by the thieves was $1,350. Ten percent of new account fraud victims reported losses of $15,000 or more in goods and services, with the top five percent of victims reporting losses of $30,000 or more in goods and services.

      Recovering from new account fraud was more time-consuming and costly to the victims as well. Ten percent of all victims reported out-of-pocket expenses of $1,200 or more. But for new account fraud, the top 10 percent of the victims incurred expenses of at least $3,000, and the top 5 percent incurred expenses of at least $5,000.

      Thirty-seven percent of victims reported experiencing problems such as harassment by debt collectors, being unable to get loans, having their utilities cut off, being subject to a criminal investigation or civil suit, being arrested, and having difficulties obtaining or accessing bank accounts.

      In cases of new account fraud, victims were more than twice as likely to report having one or more of these types of problems than when thieves misused only existing accounts, according to the survey.

      The unfamiliar enemy

      The survey also found that 84 percent of the identity theft victims polled did not know the thief, contradicting other studies that claimed the majority of identity theft crimes were committed by friends or relatives.

      Sixteen percent claimed some personal knowledge of the thief in their case, with six percent of victims reporting a family member or relative as the thief, eight percent claiming a friend or neighbor, and two percent claiming a colleague on the job was the thief. The victims who reported knowing the identity of the victim were also more likely to identify how the information was taken than those who did not.

      Thirty eight percent of the victims polled said the most trying part of the experience was dealing with authorities or agencies in order to get the effects of the theft reversed, including dealing with credit bureaus and lenders, and replacing credit cards and existing accounts.

      The study was conducted through interviews with 4,917 people between March 27 and June 11, 2006.

      FTC Finds 8 Million Identity Theft Cases...

      ExxonMobil Claims New Hybrid Battery Technology

      Could be good news for next-generation hybrids

      Oil giant ExxonMobil claims its chemical subsidiary has developed new film technologies for lithium-ion batteries that the company says has the potential to improve the energy efficiency as well as cost of next-generation hybrid and electric vehicles.

      ExxonMobil said the technologies could significantly enhance the power, safety and reliability of lithium-ion batteries. The project is a joint effort with ExxonMobil's Japanese affiliate, Tonen Chemical.

      By developing new film technologies that allow lithium-ion batteries to meet hybrid and electric vehicle requirements, ExxonMobil Chemical is helping to make next-generation vehicles more energy- and cost-efficient, as well as lighter, said Jim P. Harris, senior vice president, ExxonMobil Chemical Company.

      We are currently working with industry-leading battery manufacturers to expand the boundaries of current hybrid and electric vehicle applications, Harris added.

      Separator film is an integral part of the battery system design and critical to overall performance, according to the oil company statement. The Exxon technology reportedly combines advanced polymer to tailor products to battery manufacturer requirements.

      The Toyota Motor Co. recently postponed use of lithium-ion batteries in the third generation of the Prius hybrid.The Japanese automaker said the technology still raises safety concerns and requires additional research.

      General Motors Corp. is also developing lithium-ion technologies for use in a future plug-in hybrid.

      ExxonMobil will present the new film technologies at the Electric Vehicle Symposium and Exposition in Anaheim, California on December 2-5, 2007.

      ExxonMobil Claims New Hybrid Battery Technology...

      Canadian Lottery Scam Resurfaces

      Victims get phony check, lose real money

      The fake lottery scam is making the rounds again, trying to lure consumers at holiday time with promises of more than $200,000 in winnings.

      The scammers claim to represent Canadian-based Atlantic Lottery Company, a legitimate company that is warning Americans not to fall for the ruse.

      To be eligible for a lottery monetary prize from Atlantic Lottery, you must have purchased a ticket from an authorized retailer in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland & Labrador, or on our PlaySphere website, the company said in a statement. has received nearly a dozen complaints about this particular lottery scam from readers in the last month. They all describe similar circumstances.

      I received a letter and an official check for $4,985 from Chase Bank. It has the watermark and looks real, Lisa, from Somerset, Ky., told The letter stated I had won a promotional sweepstakes lottery from Atlantic Lottery Corporation held on May 30th, 2007. It has a claim number and says that I have won $262,000.00.

      Lisa was told that her name was selected through a random computer ballot system. There was a check for nearly $5,000, which she was told had been deducted from her winnings, and which she should use to pay taxes. She was instructed to wire $3,985 via MoneyGram at Wal-Mart, and not cash the check until after speaking with Cindy Hughes, at Atlantic Lottery.

      Rick, of Phoenix, got an identical check for $4,985 with instructions to wire $3,985 to pay taxes. Unfortunately, he did.

      Cindy Hayes said the rest of the money would be sent to me by Federal Express, Rick told When I called her back she said Customs was holding my money.

      The $4,985 check Rick deposited in his bank account was fake. The money he wired to the scammer was real. Once the bank discovers the check is a counterfeit, the deposit will be deleted and the $3,985 will be deducted from his account. If there was not $3,985 in his account at the time, he will have to get the money and pay back the bank.

      Unfortunately for Rick and other victims of this scam, U.S. authorities have, in the past, shown little interest in pursing the perpetrators running Canadian scams. Victims best hope is to contact PhoneBusters, a Canadian organization that investigates these crimes. Their toll-free number is 888-495-8501.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Canadian Lottery Scam Resurfaces...

      Keeping Santa Solvent

      Report picks best & worst of this year's batch

      November 26, 2007
      More consumers than ever before are expected to turn to gift cards this year, seeking a quick and easy one-size-fits-all present.

      But a report from Montgomery County, Maryland, consumer protection officials finds that there's nothing easy about picking a gift card. The report contains valuable information and recommendations regarding gift cards issued by 22 stores and restaurants and 20 banks and financial institutions.

      With consumers annually spending over $80 billion nationwide to purchase gift cards, it is important for them to have good information so they can buy the best cards and avoid the worst, said Evan Johnson, author of the report.

      Consumers looking to prepaid gift cards to assist in their holiday shopping are confronted with understanding and comparing a variety of fees, charges, time limits and rules, Johnson notes. In addition, more sellers this year are offering bank cards carrying the logo of American Express, Discover, MasterCard or Visa, which can be used at more than one store.

      Johnson's report analyzes cards based on several criteria, recommends cards with the most attractive features, and warns consumers about purchasing other gift cards. Among its findings:

      Top picks Out of the 22 retail cards studied, the 18 recommended are: Abercrombie & Fitch, Best Buy, Blockbuster, Circuit City, Crate & Barrel, Gap, JC Penney, KB Toys, Kohls, Lowes, Nordstroms, Old Navy, PetSmart, Sears, Sports Authority, Starbucks, Target and Wal-Mart.

      Thumbs down The four retail cards not recommended are: Bloomingdales, Claires, Macys and Shell. Bloomingdales and Macys have expiration dates, while Shell and Claires may impose monthly dormancy fees. Note that some states and localities now prohibit expiration dates and dormancy fees.

      Hidden costs All the bank cards studied impose a purchase/processing fee above the initial value of the cards. They also deduct post-purchase fees and have expiration dates. In addition, the report found that some bank cards, their packaging, or their websites do not adequately disclose the cards terms. Terms differ from state to state.

      Sellers certainly do not make it easy for consumers to comparison shop for these cards, said Office of Consumer Protection Director Eric Friedman. This report is intended to give consumers a fighting chance to make wise selections.

      The report is available online.

      Read the fine print

      Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, meanwhile, urges consumers to read the fine print before buying gift cards.

      We have worked to create protections from hidden fees and expiration dates that drain the value of gift cards before consumers have the chance to redeem them, Madigan said. But even with legal protections, a consumers number one protection this holiday season is to read the fine print and find out about any expiration dates or fees before purchasing gift cards.

      Little noted, soon forgotten

      It's also worth remembering that gift cards are easily forgotten.

      A study conducted for Consumer Reports found that 27 percent of gift card recipients have not used one or more of the cards, up from 19 percent at the same time last year. And among consumers with unredeemed cards from last season, 51 percent have 2 or more.

      Keeping Santa Solvent...

      Feds Probe Ford F-250, F-350, Five Hundred and Freestyle

      Loss of control plagues trucks, cars have instrument problems

      The National Highway Traffic Administration is investigating the Ford Motor Company's 2005 to 2007 model F-250 and F-350 trucks as well as Ford Five Hundreds and Freestyles to determine whether the vehicles have defects that will require recalls.

      NHTSA reports at least 78 complaints about steering and suspension oscillations in the two trucks. Some of the problems were so severe as to cause loss of control of the truck. The agency has no estimate of the number of Ford trucks on the road that could be affected by the steering and suspension fault.

      NHTSA also reported investigating nine complaints of instrument cluster failures in the 2005 Ford Five Hundreds and Freestyles.

      Consumers reported that the instrument panel illumination fluctuated, gauges stopped registering information, and turn signals failed.

      Roughly 174,000 of the Ford Five Hundreds and Freestyles are on the roads, according to the agency.

      NHTSA opened the investigations November 15 and 16, almost a week before the agency released information about them to the public.

      The agency routinely waits to publicly announce important recalls and safety investigations until late on a Friday afternoon are just before a holiday weekend, observers have noted.

      Reports of the two new Ford investigations was released Wednesday just before the Thanksgiving Holiday.

      Feds Probe Ford F-250, F-350, Five Hundred and Freestyle...

      Attorneys General Oppose TJX Data Breach Settlement

      Special sale said to help stores more than victims

      The Attorneys General of ten states are objecting to a special "Customer Appreciation Sale" proposed as part of the class action settlementof the TJX data breach.

      Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley called the proposed three-day event "nothing more than a retail sale, which would primarily benefit the defendant, TJX Companies."

      Coakley, writing on behalf of nine other state Attorneys General, petitioned U.S. District Court Judge William Young to reconsider the sale, or "at the very least, subject the Special Event to heightened scrutiny before approval."

      Coakley argued that the sale would not offer any real benefit for members of the class-action suit, whether they were victims of fraud resulting from the breach or simply had their cards replaced.

      Coakley, who was a victim of identity theft in an unrelated case last year, said that TJX should not abuse the public's good will "for a sale that enhances its bottom line, nor should the classs attorneys reap large fees for an unquantifiable and dubious benefit."

      TJX proposed the settlement in September 2007 to ward off multiple class-action lawsuits against it for letting as many as 94 million customers be exposed to hackers in a data breach that occurred over several years. In addition to the three-day sale, TJX has offered store credit vouchers to victims of the breach who provide documentation to substantiate their claim.

      TJX also proposed reimbursing claimants who had to replace drivers' licenses as a result of the breach, but the claimants must provide written documentation of the claim.

      The proposed settlement would not affect separate lawsuits filed against TJX by numerous banks and financial trade associations, who want to hold TJX liable for the costs of replacing the millions of credit and debit cards exposed as a result of the breach.

      Although the TJX company's initial estimates were that 46 million customers may have been affected by the breach, internal court filings in the bank lawsuit showed the numbers closer to 94 million, with costs to card issuers such as Visa ranging from $65 to $80 million.

      Attorneys General Oppose TJX Data Breach Settlement...

      Experts Offer Toy-Buying Safety Tips

      How to identify and avoid hazardous toys

      November 21, 2007
      With so much scrutiny on the toy industry, some consumer advocates say toys may actually be safer this holiday season than they have been for years, but they are still warning that there are almost certainly dangerous toys on store shelves.

      Given all the attention that has happened over the last few months with recalls, I am assuming and I gather that manufacturers, retailers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and consumer groups are all redoubling focus on the consumer marketplace, said Alan Korn, director of public policy at Safe Kids USA, a nonprofit that aims to protect children from consumer dangers.

      I'm fairly certain that this year is not going to be perfect but a lot of the lead-related toys and other dangerous toys are going to be washed out of the marketplace, Korn continued.

      Sally Greenberg, director of the nonprofit National Consumers League, agreed with Korn.

      I think the heightened level of scrutiny suggests to me that the testing from retailers in combination with all the toys that have been recalled suggest that toys are likely to be safer, she said.

      Jean Halloran, product safety expert at Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, was not as optimistic.

      At this point I wouldn't say they're safer, Halloran said. I think what we had is a trend as our toy industry has moved overseas which has happened in the last 10 years or so. I think there's probably been a growth in unsafe products.

      We've now moved to a situation where 80 percent of toys sold in this country are made in China, Halloran continued. There are obviously risks with those products that we haven't seen with domestic-made toys.

      Parents should be cautious

      All three agreed that parents still need to be cautious.

      There's still reason to be concerned, Korn said. There's still reason to exhibit caution and to use due diligence in buying toys. But I'm hoping that all this attention in the perfect storm focused on toy safety translates into a perfect marketplace.

      This year has seen an unprecedented number of recalls, most of which involved products imported from China, but the experts said it may not be feasible for parents to completely ban toys from that country.

      You don't have many (toys) to choose from if you rule out all the ones from China, Halloran said.

      Korn said, I have a seven-year-old. Am I personally not going to buy toys from China? My answer is 'no.'

      Greenberg suggested that if parents buy any toys from China they ensure the product has no painted surfaces, pieces of metal or magnets that could be swallowed.

      What to do

      The Consumers Union and Safe Kids USA gave these toy-buying tips:

      • Before shopping for toys, consider the childs age, interest and skill level.

      • When shopping, read labels. Look for well-made toys and follow age and safety information on the warning labels.

      • Keep toys with small parts away from children under age three. They can choke on small toys and toy parts. Korn said asphyxiation is the most common toy-related death.

      • Carefully read instructions for the assembly and use of toys.

      • Remove and discard all packaging from a toy before giving it to a baby or small child.

      • Although the CPSC insists that home lead tests are not accurate, Consumers Union encourages parents to use them to test suspicious toys. Lead Check and Lead Inspector are their preferred brands.

      • Avoid no-name products and be careful of toys purchased at dollar stores, street fairs, vending machines, thrift stores or yard sales.

      • Any toy or part of a toy that can fit through a toilet paper tube should be considered a choking hazard.

      • Beware of toys that can be broken into smaller pieces such as chalk, crayons, or caps from markers. They can pose choking hazards to toddlers and babies.

      • Do not give a bike without a bike helmet. Many states mandate that children wear a helmet while riding a bike.

      • Sign up for the CPSC's product safety alerts and cross-reference any toy purchased with the list of toys already recalled because occasionally those toys are not pulled off store shelves. All recalled toys can be found at's categorized recalls page.

      Both Greenberg and Korn said that they expect toy safety will improve even more so next year but that parents always need to be cautious when purchasing toys.

      CPSC's advice

      Although part of its charter is to respond to requests for information, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) did not return six phone calls and two e-mails to answer specific questions, but in a news release the agency offered these shopping tips:

      Ride-on Toys Riding toys, skateboards and in-line skates go fast and falls could be deadly. Helmets and safety gear should be sized to fit.
      Small Parts For children younger than age three, avoid toys with small parts, which can cause choking.
      Magnets For children under age six, avoid building sets with small magnets. If magnets or pieces with magnets are swallowed, serious injuries and/or death can occur.
      Projectile Toys Projectile toys such as air rockets, darts and sling shots are for older children. Improper use of these toys can result in serious eye injuries.
      Chargers and Adapters Charging batteries should be supervised by adults. Chargers and adapters can pose thermal burn hazards to children.

      To choose appropriate toys for children:

      • Be a label reader. Look for toy labels that give age and safety recommendations and use that information as a guide.
      • Select toys to suit the age, abilities, skills and interest level of the intended child. Look for sturdy construction, such as tightly-secured eyes, noses and other potential small parts.
      • For all children under 8, avoid toys that have sharp edges and points.

      Once the gifts are open:

      • Immediately discard plastic wrappings on toys before they become dangerous play things.
      • Keep toys appropriate for older children away from younger siblings or neighbors.
      • Pay attention to instructions and warnings on battery chargers. Some chargers lack any device to prevent overcharging.

      Experts Offer Toy-Buying Safety Tips...

      Senior-Friendly Holiday Gift Gadgets

      Everybody likes gadgets, even your grandparents

      Gadgets make fantastic presents! Everyone loves to receive gifts that make their life a little easier or more fun, and today there are thousands of gadgets for boomers and seniors that can accommodate almost any need. Here are some popular items to consider.

      Senior-Friendly Electronics

      For technology-adverse seniors who like things big and simple, theres a variety of electronic gadgets on the market that make great gifts.

      Some of the most popular include the no-frills Jitterbug cell phone (, which has features like large buttons, simple functions, easy-to-read text, voice dialing, and a cushion that cups around your ear to improve sound quality for $147. Also see the new Coupe cell phone ($50) designed for older adults at

      How about a senior-friendly camera? Check out Hewlett-Packards Photosmart R927 ($279; An 8.2-megapixel digital camera that has simple functions, a 3-inch-wide color screen that makes it easy to see what youre shooting, an image advice feature, which offers suggestions on how to improve your pictures, along with a menu that provides written explanations on the cameras screen. Or, if youre interested in a camcorder, the Flip Video ($150; is a wonderful product and simple to use.

      What about an easy-to-navigate GPS system? The TomTom One XL ($350; and TomTom Go 910 ($500) are dandy with a large 4.3 inch color screen thats easy to see in bright daylight and its touch-screen controls are smartly designed and easy to learn.

      And for the computer-less seniors out there, put a Celery ( on your shopping list. The Celery device that prints out e-mails and pictures sent via the Web, and gives seniors the ability to send handwritten letters as e-mails, all without a computer. It uses a color fax/printer ($99) connected to a standard phone line instead of a computer. Service fees are $140 per year. Also check out the HP Presto at

      Healthy Living Gifts

      Staying healthy as we age is a huge priority for most seniors. Thats why exercise gadgets like pedometers (step counters) make wonderful gifts.

      For around $20, a pedometer can help supply motivation to get moving, and the Digi-Walkers ( and Omron HJ-150 and HJ-151 ( are nifty little devices that are accurate and simple to use.

      Another great gift idea to help keep your elder loved ones healthy and strong is the Resistance Chair ($240; This all-in-one, home strength training tool is designed for seniors because it allows them to exercise in a safe seated position, using low-impact resistance bands, which minimizes the risk of exercise-related injuries.

      And dont forget that seniors need to keep their noggins sharp too! For this, see Nintendos Brain Age and new Brain Age 2 ( These are senior-friendly electronic games that offer mind-boosting games that are fun and mentally stimulating. Each game cost $20, but to play them, youll need to buy a palm-sized DS Lite game unit which costs $130.

      Helpful Household Gifts

      Believe it or not, magnifiers are a favorite gift idea among older boomers and seniors, and Great Point Light ( offers a variety of styles in a rainbow of colors to meet almost any need, all for under $20.

      For help in the kitchen, garden or tinkering around the house, you cant go wrong with OXO ( who makes a fabulous line of good grip products that are easy on aging hands. Everything from kitchen utensils to hardware and garden tools, OXO makes over 500 different products at prices, starting at around $5 per item. Two other great kitchen gadgets are the new One Touch Can and One Touch Bar openers ($20 each; and As the name implies, these small devices open-up any can or jar at the push of a button.

      And finally, because seniors are prime targets of identity theft, a Fellowes P-57C ($59. home power-shredder makes a smart gift.

      Savvy Tip: If you dont like these ideas, you can find thousands of other gadgets at, a Web portal that lists whats available and where you can buy it.


      Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior books.

      For technology-adverse seniors who like things big and simple, there's a variety of electronic gadgets on the market that make great gifts. ...

      Quality Auditor Charges Toyota Cover-Up

      Toyota denies safety was compromised

      A quality control inspector with 20 years of experience is suing New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. which is a joint venture between Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp.

      She claims managers harassed and demoted her for reporting production defects, including faulty seat belts and brakes.

      Katy Cameron, 54, an employee since 1985 of NUMMI in Fremont, California alleges that NUMMI managers altered her reports to delete references to defects that might harm the automakers image with consumers.

      Cameron claims that the cover-up included minor flaws and major mistakes that could have resulted in physical harm and injury to purchasers.

      The lawsuit says her reports included defective seat belts, non-functioning headlights, turn signals, inadequate brake, steering and transmission fluid.

      A spokesman for Toyota said the company would not discuss the lawsuit while insisting that quality has never been compromised in the California plant.

      NUMMI builds the Toyota Corolla sedan and Tacoma pickup as well as the Pontiac Vibe.

      Cameron claims in the lawsuit that she reported between nine and 15 defects per vehicle during 2005 and 2007. The lawsuit alleges that managers became concerned that she might send copies of her reports to Toyota officials and tried to fire her as a result.

      She claims the company demoted her to the assembly line and ordered her to undergo mental fitness evaluations because of her quality control reports.

      Quality Auditor Charges Toyota Cover-Up...

      Nissan Recall Expanded to 654,000 Sentras and Altimas

      November 21, 2007
      Nissan Motor Co. is expanding a U.S. recall of Sentra and Altima sedans to repair a defective crankshaft sensor in 2002 and 2005 to 2006 models. The faulty sensor could cause the engine to shut off.

      Nissan reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that the recall covers about 653,910 vehicles with 2.5-liter engines.

      The sensor's location may expose it to temperature changes that would interrupt signals the sensor sends to the engine control module, according to Nissan. Without those signals, the control module may shut off the engine in low-speed driving, Nissan said.

      Nissan Recall Expanded to 654,000 Sentras and Altimas...

      Chase to Stop Raising Rates Based On Credit Reports

      'Clear and simple' program debuts next year

      If you're a Chase customer you may be tired of seeing your credit card rate skyrocket if you miss a payment on your other bills -- even if you pay your credit card in full each month.

      Well, good news.

      Chase Card services says it will end the practice of raising customers' interest rates based on credit report information, beginning in March 2008.

      Chase Card Services CEO Gordon Smith announced the change as part of Chase's "Clear And Simple" plan, designed to "build lasting, loyal relationships between ourselves and our customers."

      The practice of using missed bill payments as an excuse to trigger interest rate hikes -- commonly referred to as "universal default" -- is widespread throughout the credit industry.

      Consumer advocates have long criticized the practice as unfair, noting that missing a single bill payment does not immediately indicate financial irresponsibility, and that positive bill-paying records were not used to raise a customer's credit score.

      Although Chase ended its usage of universal default in 2005, it continued to monitor credit reports and scores for excuses to raise interest rates. Under the new system, a Chase customer will only get hit with a rate hike if they make late payments, go over their balance limit, or bounce payments.

      Curtis Arnold, founder of credit card comparison site, called the change "a major step forward for consumers." "I commend Chase for being serious about making their cards more consumer friendly," wrote Arnold on the CreditBloggers personal finance blog.

      Chase's move follows a similar action by Citigroup, which announced in March that it was ending its practice of "universal default" and "any-time-for-any-reason" rate increases.

      The industry's sudden consumer-friendliness is widely perceived as an effort to fight off further regulation by Congress. The Senate held hearings on abusive credit card practices in March 2007 and threatened to more closely scrutinize lenders.

      Two Senators introduced legislation in May that would prohibit punitive fees levied on cardholders and restrict charging of interest on fees for certain transactions.

      Chase to Stop Raising Rates Based On Credit Reports...

      The Healthy Geezer -- Shingles

      The Healthy Geezer

      Q. I heard a comedian make a reference to "shingles" as if there was something funny about them. I had shingles and I didn't find any humor in the experience. Am I missing something?

      A. Shingles is a painful skin disease caused by the chickenpox virus awakening from a dormant state to attack your body again.

      Some people report fever and weakness when the disease starts. Within two to three days, a red, blotchy rash develops. The rash erupts into small blisters that look like chickenpox. And it's very painful.

      Does this sound funny? I don't think so....

      Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles. Half of all Americans will get shingles by the time they are 80. Shingles occurs in people of all ages, but it is most common in people between 60 and 80. Each year, about 600,000 Americans are diagnosed with shingles.

      The virus that causes chickenpox and shingles remains in your body for life. It stays inactive until a period when your immunity is down. And, when you're older, your defenses ain't what they used to be.

      The inactive virus rests in nerve cells near the spine. When it reactivates, it follows a single nerve path to the skin.

      The shingles rash helps with its diagnosis; the rash erupts in a belt-like pattern on only one side of the body, or it appears on one side of the face. It usually begins as a patch of red dots which become blisters.

      Physicians treat shingles with antiviral and pain medications. The antivirals don't cure shingles, but they weaken the virus, reduce the pain and accelerate healing. The antiviral medications work faster if they are started early -- within 72 hours from the appearance of the rash.

      The disease's name comes from the Latin word cingulum, which means belt. The virus that causes shingles is varicella-zoster, which combines the Latin word for little pox with the Greek word for girdle. In Italy, shingles is often called St. Anthony's fire.

      If you have had chickenpox, shingles is not contagious. If you have never had chickenpox, you can catch the virus from contacting the fluid in shingles blisters. However, you will not get shingles, but you could get chickenpox.

      The pain of shingles can be severe. If it is strong and lasts for months or years, it is called postherpetic neuralgia.

      Persistent pain is a common symptom in people over 60. However, most victims of shingles overcome their symptoms in about a month. And the odds are against them getting shingles again.

      Outbreaks that start on the face or eyes can cause vision or hearing problems. Even permanent blindness can result if the cornea of the eye is affected.

      In patients with immune deficiency, the rash can be much more extensive than usual and the illness can be complicated by pneumonia. These cases, while more serious, are rarely fatal.

      Researchers at the National Institutes of Health are now working on a shingles vaccine to prevent the disease in people who have already had chickenpox. It is designed to boost the immune system and protect older adults from shingles later on.

      The vaccine is basically a stronger version of the chickenpox shot, which became available in 1995. The chickenpox shot prevents chickenpox in 70 to 90 percent of those vaccinated, and 95 percent of the rest have only mild symptoms. Millions of children and adults have already received the chickenpox shot.

      Update: There is now a vaccine for shingles. It is Zostavax, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in people 60 years old and older to prevent shingles. Zostavax does not treat shingles or post-herpetic neuralgia (pain after a rash) once it develops. In a clinical trial, Zostavax prevented shingles in about half of the people and post-herpetic neuralgia in about two-thirds of those in the trial.

      I heard a comedian make a reference to "shingles" as if there was something funny about them. I had shingles and I didn't find any humor in the experience....

      College Students Warned Against Credit Card Trap

      Cards promoted heavily to students but hazards outweigh benefits

      November 19, 2007
      Iowa's attorney general is warning college students to avoid the campus credit card trap.

      Credit card companies badly want the business of college students, so students are flooded with credit card offers, Tom Miller said. Unfortunately, more and more students are slipping into high credit card debt with very serious long-term consequences.

      Miller said studies indicate high debt is forcing some students to take on more paid work and reduce their academic load or even drop out of school. He noted that an administrator at Indiana University once said, We lose more students to credit card debt than to academic failure.

      High debt or a poor credit record also can result in students paying higher rates for car loans or home mortgages, and lead to psychological problems from stress to suicide.

      Whatever you do, dont be seduced into obtaining several credit cards and maxing-out on them with a high debt load, Miller said. And dont play the credit card shuffle using advances on one card to pay down another.

      Miller said credit cards can serve a purpose they are good for emergencies, and national credit cards can help build a good credit record. But if you do get a credit card, determine what you can realistically afford to pay each month, and plan to pay off your bill completely each month.

      Shop around

      Miller said that before students choose a credit card, they should shop around carefully.

      Some cards are highly visible on campus because they have marketing rights, Miller said, but students still should shop for the card with the best terms for them.

      Customers should compare interest rates, stated as the APR or annual percentage rate of interest. Miller cautioned that some low teaser rates only apply for a few months as an introductory offer then much higher rates kick in. He also encouraged students to avoid cards with high penalty rates rates of 20% or even 30% if the card holder misses or makes a late payment.

      Miller said customers should look for hidden fees such as late-payment charges and over-the-limit fees.

      If a student does obtain a card, Miller said, it is crucial to avoid the revolving-debt trap.Dont think you can avoid trouble just by making the minimum payment each month, he said.

      He gave an example: Say that you make only minimum payments and you run up a $1,000 balance on a card with a 13% APR (annual percentage rate of interest.) Even if you never use that card again, if you continue to make only minimum monthly payments you will still owe over $500 three and one-half years later -- and paying off the debt will take over six years. (It will be much worse still if you are late on some payments and the card issuer raises your rate to 21% APR or higher.)

      What's the bottom line? Miller said. Consider whether you should just say no at this time to getting a credit card and taking on debt -- especially if you already have substantial student loans to pay off. If you do get a card, be extremely careful in selecting and managing your credit card account.

      Miller said studies indicate high debt is forcing some students to take on more paid work and reduce their academic load or even drop out of school. ...