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Current Events in December 2007

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    FCC Votes To Relax Media Ownership Rules

    Congressional opposition likely; White House supports measure

    Despite staunch opposition from Congress and media watchdog groups, the FCC voted 3-2 to relax its rules against businesses consolidating ownership of media outlets in a given region.

    Under the new rules, broadcasters in the nation's 20 largest media markets can now also purchase newspapers for their business, not that there has been any great rush to snap up moribund print properties, with the obvious exceptions of Dow Jones and the Tribune Company.

    The 3-2 vote was strictly along party lines, with FCC Chair Kevin Martin and commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Tate, all Republicans, supporting the rule change. Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, both Democrats, opposed it.

    Critics of the vote say it will open the door to more corporate buyouts of local media and decrease quality local journalism. The Free Press media coalition blasted the decision, with executive director Josh Silver saying that FCC chair Kevin Martin was "ignoring the public will and defying the U.S. Senate."

    "[Martin's] decision to gut longstanding ownership rules shows once again how the largest media companies with their campaign contributions and high-powered lobbyists are corrupting the policymaking process at the expense of local news coverage and independent voices," said Silver.

    Martin's push to pass the new rule also faces opposition in Congress. Prior to the vote, 25 senators from both parties wrote Martin to demand he slow down the vote and give the public more time to comment on the issue, as is customary with most proposed government regulations.

    The letter, signed by Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye and all four Senate Democrats running for President -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden -- as well as Republicans Ted Stevens and Olympia Snowe, said that Martin "shortchanged the comment process...you have not completed a full review of localism prior to forcing a vote on a rule change dealing with media ownership limits."

    "When you proposed a new rule on the effects of communications towers on migratory birds, you allowed for a 90 day comment period," the Senators wrote. "How could you decide to allow 90 days for a migratory bird rule and then shortchange the public on the media ownership rule?"

    Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who signed the letter, said prior to the vote that Martin's decision would have "consequences." Congress is certainly not afraid to take action against the FCC, said Cantwell. "In the Senate, were going to make sure that if we have to pass legislation stopping the FCC, we will.

    Friends in high places

    Martin, however, has the backing of the White House to pursue the media consolidation changes. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prior to the vote, warning him that the Bush administration would fight any "attempt to delay or overturn these revised rules by legislative means."

    Martin, a former Bush campaign operative whose wife Cathie has worked for both Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, has aggressively pursued a conservative, free-market agenda since succeeding Michael Powell to become FCC chair in 2005.

    Martin oversaw the mega-merger of BellSouth and AT&T, creating -- once again -- the world's largest telecommunications company. Martin has also opposed legislation protecting the right of "net neutrality," enabling small Internet publishers equal access to the network.

    Martin has been a friend indeed to the telecommunications industry, supporting video franchising rules that enable Verizon and AT&T to roll out high-speed service to communities without complying with local or state franchising regulations -- regulations that cable companies still have to abide by.

    But Martin's generally hands-off attitude towards market issues comes to an end with the cable industry. Martin has continually pushed for greater regulation of cable companies and diversification of cable subscriptions in given areas, as well offering of "a la carte" channel packages that enable subscribers to only buy channels they want.

    Many critics see the "a la carte" move as a back-door attempt to starve out cable channels that present adult-oriented content.

    Martin recently introduced a proposal to reinstate a cap on cable companies owning more than 30 percent of the national market, a move that was supported by consumer groups and bitterly opposed by the cable industry -- and expected to be voted on at today's meeting.

    Change in the weather

    Martin's rush to push the media consolidation relaxation waiver may be due to several large media deals that would run into problems without it, such as Rupert Murdoch's buyout of the Dow Jones corporation and Sam Zell's desire to purchase the Tribune publishing company, though Martin has granted both deals waivers to continue.

    The rush may also be attributed to Martin's tenure as FCC chair coming to an end. With a presidential election looming and the possibility of a Democrat taking the White House and the Democrats strengthening control of Congress, industry insiders speculate that Martin may be ensuring both the goals of the Bush administration and his own future political or lobbying ambitions.

    Former FCC commissioners usually wind up practicing communications law on Washington's K St., offering advice and counsel to the media conglomerates they tenderly regulated during their time in office. Thus, one's actions today can lay up rewards in the next life, i.e., the private sector.

    FCC Votes To Relax Media Ownership Rules...

    Video Professor Drops Subpoena, Goes After Wikipedia Users

    Comcast protects its customers, Wikipedia surrenders

    Video Professor, Inc. has dropped its subpoena asking Infomercialscams.com for the names of 100 John Does who anonymously posted their gripes about the computer lessons but still has an active lawsuit against defamatory anonymous poster s and is now trying to unmask the identities of Wikipedia posters.

    Video Professor (VPI), which hawks its computer lessons on light-night TV, dropped a similar subpoena against RipoffReport.com but is still has an active vague lawsuit against anonymous Internet posters, said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with nonprofit consumer rights organization Public Citizen, Public Citizen provided legal assistance to Infomercialscams.com in its fight to keep its posters anonymous.

    The lawsuit doesn't name anyone in particular and Levy said it's possible that VPI is using the outstanding lawsuit to go after other websites. There are at least seven websites, including ConsumerAffairs.com, that post the complaints of VPI customers.

    Most of the complaints are in regard to the company's implied-consent automatic-renewal business model, which hooks customers with the promise of one free disc and then starts charging them $79.95 per month. Many customers say they weren't told about the renewal process while others say it's difficult to cancel.

    I ordered a free lesson through an 'introductory offer' in which I only had to pay $6.95 for shipping, Jacquelyn of Honolulu, Hawaii, wrote in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

    A few weeks later, I received a second lesson (without placing an order) and my credit card was charged $77.95. A week later, my card was charged for another $5.95; the next day it was charged for $2 and the following day, another charge appeared for $1.

    I returned the second lesson and wrote a note asking Video Professor to stop sending lessons, Jacquelyn continued. Although I did not receive any further CDs, my card was charged twice more for $77.95, as well as multiple charges of $5.95 and $1.

    Complaints fabricated?

    The company's founder, CEO and TV frontman, John Scherer, told ConsumerAffairs.com in an interview in early December that he believed the complaints on Infomercialscams.com were fabricated by either the website's operator or VPI's competitors and that he has no intention of suing his customers.

    We have never sued a customer and we never will sue a customer, Scherer said.

    Scherer said if any of the complaints are true, he would reimburse his unhappy customers.

    If he wants to help them why doesn't he post something that says, 'Hey, I want to help you, I don't want to sue you. Come tell me what we've done wrong and we'll refund your money.' And that ought to be sufficient but obviously he does want to sue them, Levy said in December.

    Scherer has now focused his efforts on a single Wikipedia poster. Wikipedia, without much of a fight, handed Scherer the IP addresses of posters who supposedly wrote defamatory comments about VPI and now Scherer has taken one of those addresses and subpoenaed Comcast on December 12 for identifying information relating to the most flagrantly defamatory anonymous poster on Wikipedia, according to court documents.

    Comcast has no intention of giving up the poster's identity because under terms of the Cable Act, a cable company can only reveal a customer's identity from a court order, not a subpoena, Charlie Douglas, Comcast representative said.

    Comcast holds customer privacy in the highest regard, Douglas wrote in an e-mail. Comcast will only provide customer information in private civil cases pursuant to a valid court order and only if Comcast's records contain information sufficient to identify the customer account on the date(s) listed in the court order. Comcast will also provide notice to its customers who are the subject of any such court orders.

    Wikipedia wimps out

    It's unclear why Wikipedia forfeited the IP addresses. A Wikipedia spokesman returned ConsumerAffairs.com's call but did not have the information requested. The individual with specific information regarding the subpoena did not return a phone call and e-mail.

    Comments posted by unregistered users on Wikipedia display the user's IP address. Comments posted by registered users display the user's chosen user name.

    On the Wikipedia discussion page for Video Professor there are appear to be a handful of registered users who try to include potentially negative information in the posting and one person, named Skporganic who keeps trying to delete those negative comments.

    At one point Skporganic added this to the VPI Wikipedia page: Video Professor is known for its enthusiastic customer service employees, and the customer service department is known as the liveliest place to work at Video Professor headquarters. ... The department is heavily adorned with motivating signs featuring catchy slogans such as 'Ya Gotta Wanna,' festive balloons and colorful banners, all designed to create a supportive, positive working environment. The department is filled with row after row of customer service agents in cubes speaking enthusiastically with customers."

    Despite the Wikipedia subpoena and the continuing lawsuit, Levy declared the dropped subpoena a success with a few loose ends. He said the next step is to get VPI to drop the lawsuit.

    VPI representatives did not return two phone calls and an e-mail.

    Video Professor Drops Subpoena, Goes After Wikipedia Users...

    Lead Poisoning Hazard in Sesame Street Toy Medical Kits

    Illinois tests once again find high lead levels in Fisher-Price toys

    December 17, 2007
    On the heels of her Dec. 3 announcement about red blood pressure cuffs found in Fisher-Price toy medical kits, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is warning consumers of a similar toy that presents a potential lead poisoning hazard the green blood pressure cuff found in Sesame Street Giggle Fisher-Price toy medical kits.

    Madigan urges parents to take the green blood pressure cuff toys away from their children immediately.

    The toy kits are sold at retail stores nationwide, but Fisher Price has notified retailers to pull the product from store shelves only in Illinois, Madigan's office said.

    Fisher-Price discovered that some of the green blood pressure cuffs from the Sesame Street medical kits contain more than 600 parts per million total lead in violation of Illinois law and immediately reported this finding to Madigan's office.

    Fisher-Price has agreed to remove the toy medical kits from Illinois store shelves and offer a replacement part for families who already possess the toy. Consumers who wish to obtain a replacement blood pressure cuff can do so by contacting Fisher-Price at 800-298-0638 . Only the green blood pressure cuffs found in the Sesame Street Giggle Fisher-Price toy medical kits are affected by this alert.

    I am pleased that Fisher-Price took the initiative to test its products, self-report a violation, quickly remove the affected blood pressure cuffs from store shelves, and offer replacements to consumers, Madigan said. I continue to urge manufacturers and retailers to review and tighten up their quality control procedures so consumers can be confident that the items on store shelves are safe for their children.

    Madigan's office enforces the Illinois Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, which prohibits the sale of toys, clothing, jewelry or any other product intended for use by children that contains lead in excess of 600 parts per million. This law is among the strongest lead laws in the country.

    Madigan stressed that there are millions of individual items already in children's homes and places they visit, such as grandparents' homes and daycare centers, that may pose a threat to children's safety.

    Madigan has initiated a recall hotline at 1-888-414-7678 to help callers identify recalled products in their homes and explain how to contact companies to repair or return affected products. The hotline has received more than 500 calls in its first two months of operation and has been successful in providing information to consumers, especially those without access to the Internet. Consumers are also encouraged to sign up for e-mail alerts about the latest government recalls at www.recalls.gov.

    Current recalls and archived recall notices are also available in ConsumerAffairs.com's Recall Section.

    Lead Poisoning Hazard in Sesame Street Toy Medical Kits...

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      Sprint Removes Three Fees, Adds Two New Ones

      Company claims new charges will "defray costs"

      Sprint customers got a little surprise in their holiday stocking this week. The company announced it was removing three of the extra fees it bills to customers from their monthly charges, including fees assessed for 911 service, number portability, and costs of compliance with federal programs.

      However, the company also sent along a lump of coal by offering two new fees -- an "administrative charge" of 75 cents monthly, and a "regulatory charge" of 25 cents.

      According to Sprint, the administrative charge will "help defray various costs imposed on us by other telecommunications carriers" while the regulatory charge is "being assessed to help defray costs of various federal, state and local regulatory programs."

      These charges are not taxes and are not amounts we are required to collect from you," the carrier said.

      While customers may receive a minuscule savings from the new fees, what are they and why, if the company isn't required to charge them, does it do so?

      The mysterious fees, or "unfees" as disgruntled customers call them, are basically thinly disguised price increases or, to put it a little more generously, ways to pass on increased business costs to consumers. It's a common, if unpopular, practice and is not limited to the wireless industry, though wireless carriers are certainly fond of it.

      When Verizon won temporary relief from paying into the Universal Service Fund (USF), rather than pass on the savings to customers, it promptly replaced the USF fee with a new fee that almost exactly mirrored the USF fee.

      BellSouth tried to do the same but both telecoms backed down after Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Kevin Martin threatened an investigation for violating the agency's "Truth In Billing" requirements for customer service charges.

      Congress attempted to gain some relief for consumers when Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced the "Cell Phone Consumer Protection Act of 2007," which would ban the charging of any extra fees beyond what government regulations mandate, and require wireless carriers to spell out fees in clear, comprehensible language.

      But the bill has languished since its introduction, with no sign of forward motion before Congress adjourns for the holidays.

      Sprint, meanwhile, bowed to consumer pressure and competition from its larger rivals AT&T and Verizon Wireless when it recently announced that it would prorate its contract cancellation fees and not charge customers who want to change plans by locking them into new contracts.

      But the "unfees" continue to frustrate those who want to pay a flat, fair price for the services they get. As one commenter at Broadband Reports put it, "If I go to a grocery store to buy something, I see the price that is charged, and I pay a sales tax ... If I wanted, I could look at other stores carrying similar items, and comparison shop based on price, knowing that another store isn't showing an artificially low price that includes an 'unfee.' "

      Sprint customers got a little surprise in their holiday stocking. The company announced it was removing 3 of the extra fees it bills to customers from thei...

      Senate Passes Home Loan Reform Bill

      Legislation would help borrowers refinance into government loans

      The Senate has voted overwhelmingly to support legislation that would enable homeowners trapped by adjustable-rate mortgages or loans with subprime terms to refinance into new loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).T

      he Senate voted 93-1 to support lowering the down payments for FHA-backed loans from 3 percent to 1.5 percent. The legislation would also raise the limit on mortgages that could be backed by the FHA, from $362,000 to $417,000.

      The loan limit raises were designed to target beleaguered borrowers in states with high real estate prices, such as California and New York, where "jumbo" mortgages beyond FHA limits comprise large parts of the faltering housing market.

      "It was past time to approve a proposal like this that can help a good number of Americans save their homes," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY). "This is a good first step in the larger effort to bring relief to distressed homeowners trapped in the mortgage mess."

      FHA loans have been a traditional staple for first-time homebuyers since their creation in 1934, but fell out of favor with the advent of the subprime lending industry, that promised flexible lower payments and little or no money down for their products.

      But with the subprime mortgage industry now moribund due to massive defaults on loans and slowing home sales, FHA loans have come back into vogue, leading to the push to modernize their terms in order for more borrowers to qualify.

      The Senate bill must be reconciled with a similar bill in the House of Representatives which offers higher loan limits for FHA-backed mortgages, and more flexible payment terms for borrowers.

      The Bush administration has voiced support for raising the FHA loan limits, but it opposes the limits set in the House bill.

      The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), who has also introduced legislation designed to combat predatory lending abuses and reform bankruptcy rules that would enable homeowners declaring bankruptcy to protect their homes.

      Bush plan

      The Bush adminstration is supporting a plan championed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that would enable homeowners trapped by rising mortgage payments or bad loan terms to qualify for a "loan freeze" from their lender for five years.

      The plan relies on voluntary cooperation from the financial and lending industries, and has been characterized as a "bailout" by Wall Street, while consumer advocates criticized the plan for not doing enough to help homeowners already falling behind on their mortgage payments.

      Industry insiders say that the Bush plan's chief objective is to scuttle legislative attempts for stronger measures for homeowner protection, including the bankruptcy reform bills but Wall Street opposes the measure because it could affect the earnings of wealthy investors.

      Senate Passes Home Loan Reform Bill...

      Toyota Tundra Pickups Recalled

      Toyota Motor U.S.A. is recalling 15,600 2007 Toyota Tundra pickups because a transmission part could fail.

      Toyota said the rear propeller shaft on four-wheel-drive Tundras could separate at a joint.

      Toyota discovered the flaw after a consumer complained of abnormal noises coming from the shaft.

      No accidents or injuries have been reported because of the faulty shaft.

      Owners of the recalled Tundras will receive notification in the mail later this month, Toyota said in a statement.

      The recall is not related to the previously reported rumbling sound coming from the Tundra torque converter after failing to change gears. That problem has not resulted in a recall but has prompted Toyota to replace entire transmissions.

      Toyota also replaced some Tundra engines this year because of faulty camshafts.

      Toyota projects 200,000 sales of the redesigned full-sized trucks this year.

      Toyota Tundra Pickups Recalled...

      Car Warranty Scams Target Seniors

      High-pressure tactics used to sign up unwary seniors

      You pick up the mail and theres a postcard warning your cars warranty is about to expire. It urges you to call a toll-free number to renew it. But be careful these warnings are often just a clever scam.

      These offers target seniors and other car owners with post cards and phone calls that sound urgent, said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose office is investigating the post cards and calls. They want to pressure you into buying an expensive car warranty. Dont let a high-pressure sales pitch talk you into something you dont want or need.

      In the past month, Coopers office has averaged around thirty calls a week from consumers whove received these post cards in the mail or calls on the phone urging them to renew their car warranties before they expire.

      Since May, a total of 25 North Carolina consumers have filed written complaints with Coopers Consumer Protection Division about the pitches. Many of these consumers got pre-recorded phone messages, mailings, or both asking them to purchase an extended warranty. The solicitations have especially targeted seniors.

      The post cards and phone messages include phrases like motor vehicle notification, final notice or priority level: high in large letters to make the offer seem urgent.

      When consumers who receive one of the phone messages or post cards respond by calling the number listed, they are pressured to buy an expensive extended warranty for their car.

      Callers are told they must make a down payment before they can get information about the warranty. Cooper offered consumers the following tips:

      • Beware of mailings that appear to come from your automobile manufacturer offering extended warrantycoverage.

      • Beware of pre-recorded phone calls. In North Carolina, its illegal for telemarketers to use pre-recorded messages unless a live person first asks you if you want to listen to the recording.

      • Never give out personal financial information like your bank account number or Social Security Number over the phone.

      • Check to see if you already have a car warranty, or if your warranty has already expired. Many of the consumers whove gotten these offers say their car warranties expired long ago.

      • When considering an extended warranty, always get information in writing before you agree to sign up or pay any money.

      • Check out a business with your state Attorney Generals Office and your local Better Business Bureau before you agree to do business with them.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      They want to pressure you into buying an expensive car warranty. Dont let a high-pressure sales pitch talk you into something you dont want or need....

      Study: Shingles Virus Common among Healthy Adults

      More adults should get shingles vaccine, researchers conclude

      When a vaccine to prevent shingles was approved for use in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration recommended the vaccine for people age 60 and older who previously had chickenpox.

      But two issues -- the vaccine's cost and the perception that shingles primarily affects adults with weakened immune systems -- have left some physicians undecided about whether healthy adults need the vaccine.

      This uncertainty prompted a group of researchers led by Barbara Yawn, M.D., of Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, to gather new data about the incidence and impact of shingles in unvaccinated patients.

      Published in the November issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Dr. Yawn's research findings suggest that shingles and the complications associated with it may have a greater impact upon healthy adults than most physicians previously assumed.

      "The best way to make a decision about who we should vaccinate is by gaining a better understanding about the true impact of this virus," notes Dr. Yawn. "Physicians have access to very few recent studies that tell us how many people in the United States get shingles, what age groups the virus affects most, and how many of these people go on to develop related complications or other problems."

      Shingles isn't a life-threatening condition, but it can cause a painful rash or band of blisters during an outbreak and other painful complications that can persist for months or even years.

      The goal of this study was to establish accurate, up-to-date data about the incidence and impact of shingles in the United States before the vaccine was introduced. Dr. Yawn and her team recorded the number of adult residents of Olmsted County, Minn., who were diagnosed with shingles and shingles-related complications from Jan. 1, 1996, to Dec. 31, 2001. Over the course of the study, 1,669 patients were included.

      Researchers calculated that shingles affects at least 1 in every 278 adults in the United States each year. Study data also showed that shingles is even more common among people ages 50 to 59, affecting about one in every 24 people each year.

      "Overall, our data suggests that researchers and physicians also need to consider preventing shingles in people ages 50 to 59," says Dr. Yawn. "Future research is needed to understand the risk of recurrence of shingles to better advise people who previously had shingles about the value of receiving the shingles vaccine."

      Dr. Yawn noted that study data also challenged the assumption that shingles primarily affects adults with weakened immune systems.

      "More than 92 percent of the study subjects with shingles did not have any conditions like cancer or other serious illnesses that affected their immune system," says Dr. Yawn.

      Post-herpetic neuralgia was the most common complication noted, occurring in about 8 percent of all people and increasing with age. This sometimes debilitating complication causes the skin to remain painful and sensitive to touch for months or even years after the rash clears up.

      "About 18 percent of people age 80 or older experience pain that lasts more than 90 days beyond the shingles," explains Dr. Yawn.

      When a vaccine to prevent shingles was approved for use in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration recommended the vaccine for people age 60 and older....

      Student Loan Company Agrees to End Kickbacks to NCAA Division I Schools

      Code of Conduct Aims to Prevent False, Misleading Direct Marketing of Student Loans

      New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has reached a settlement with a student loan consolidation company specializing in the direct marketing of student loans -- the first such settlement in this growing segment of the student lending industry.

      A four-month investigation found that Clearwater, Florida-based Student Financial Services Inc. (SFS), which also operates under the banner of University Financial Services (UFS), had agreed to pay some of the nations top universities, school athletic departments, and sports marketing firms for generating loan applications, in a kickback scheme euphemistically known as revenue sharing.

      The company had contracts at 63 colleges nationwide, 57 of which are National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I schools.

      Under these agreements, the company also paid for the rights to use school names, team names, colors, mascots, and logos to advertise their loans directly to students. This practice, known as co-branding, was intended to imply that the company was the official lender of the school, or that it was actually a part of the school. Schools, athletic departments, and sports marketing firms made these agreements without evaluating the quality of the loans.

      When lenders use deceptive techniques to advertise their loans, they are playing a dangerous game with a students future, said Cuomo. Student loan companies incorporate school insignia and colors into advertisements because they know students are more likely to trust a lender if its loan appears to be approved by their college.

      "We cannot allow lenders to exploit this trust with deceptive, co-branded marketing. A student loan is a very serious financial commitment, and choosing the wrong loan can lead to devastating consequences, he said.

      Under the settlement, which was joined by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, SFS has agreed to:

      • End all lending-related agreements at a total of sixty-three schools including Georgetown University, Wake Forest University, University of Kansas, Central Michigan University, St. Johns University, University of Washington, University of Oregon, University of Texas El Paso, Rutgers University, Georgia Tech, Florida State University, Florida Atlantic University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Pittsburgh. SFS has until December 31, 2007 to comply;

      • End all lending-related agreements with five sports marketing companies that, in some instances, were sold the right to market the schools insignia, colors, and mascot, and in turn signed an agreement with SFS. These companies are ESPN Regional Television, Inc., International Sports Properties, Inc., Host Communications, Nelligan Sports Marketing, Inc., and Learfield Communications, Inc. SFS has until December 31, 2007, to comply;

      • Launch a print advertising campaign at 63 schools alerting students through their top-circulating newspapers that they must protect themselves when shopping for a loan;

      • End the practice of cash-based inducements, including paying students up to $50 to refer their peers to the company and encouraging students to apply for SFS loans by creating contests where they could win up to $1,000.

      Also under the settlement, SFS has agreed to adopt a new Code of Conduct that prevents false and misleading direct loan marketing to students. The Code expressly prohibits lenders and marketers from buying rights to a college or universitys name, team name, colors, logo, and mascot for loan marketing purposes.

      It also requires lenders and marketers to provide important disclosures to students in connection with loan transactions and prohibits a variety of misleading and deceptive practices identified by the investigation of the industry.

      Student Loan Company Agrees to End Kickbacks to NCAA Division I Schools...

      Noisy Toys Can Be Dangerous Too

      Electronic gadgets can quickly damage young ears

      December 10, 2007 
      With all the emphasis on lead paint in recalled toys, health advocates say another, very real threat is being overlooked.

      The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association warns that many popular toys can negatively affect hearing.

      When the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released a list of unsafe toys last month, the ASHA says hearing damage from noisy toys or electronic devices was missing from the list. Yet electronics are one of the fastest-growing segments of the toy market, and are being marketed to younger and younger children.

      It is up to adults to safeguard our children and protect them from dangers that we can easily avoid, including lead, choke hazards and hearing damage from loud toys or playing videogames and music too loud, too long, said Noma Anderson, Ph.D. president of ASHA.

      Loud toys and personal listening technologies that arent used safely pose a threat to ears of all ages. Once damaged, ears do not heal. For children, hearing loss can also lead to other problems, including difficulties in academic and social development.

      As younger and younger children are asking for and receiving electronic toys and music devices like MP3s and iPods, it is critical that parents learn how to protect their childrens hearing and teach them safe listening habits.

      The group offers these simple guidelines:

      • If you must raise your voice to be heard, it is loud enough to damage hearing.

      • When evaluating toys for small children, bear in mind that their arms are short and they tend to hold toys close to their face, making noises even louder.

      • If you can hear music from someone elses earphones three feet away, its too loud.

      • Give your ears a break from continuous listening.

      • Upgrade headphones so that they isolate music from background noise. Lower volumes can then be used.

      • Set volume limiters before allowing children to use electronic items.

      • www.listentoyourbuds.org is a fun website created by hearing experts and educators with video games for kids, and information for teachers, parents and reporters to learn about hearing safety. The site is also available in Spanish.

      A lawsuit filed last year against Apple claims its iPods are too loud and could damage users' hearing.

      Lawyers for John Kiel Patterson charge the mp3 players are "inherently defective" in design and do not provide sufficient warning to consumers that the volume could result in hearing loss. The suit says the iPod can produce sounds at more than 115 decibels, which it says can damage hearing if exposed to as little as a half minute per day.

      Noisy Toys Can Be Dangerous Too...

      Consumer Reports Snubs Toyota Highlander

      Magazine withholds its coveted "Recommended" designation

      The 2008 Toyota Highlander led the Consumer Reports list of top mid-size, three-row SUVs but the magazine withheld its automatic "Recommended" designation.

      The new Highlander is the first vehicle to be hit by the magazines October 16 decision to not automatically award the Recommended designation to Toyota vehicles because of reliability issues with the automaker.

      Nevertheless, the 2008 Highlander scored better than 13 competing mid-size, three-row SUVs to take the segments top spot in the magazines January ratings.

      The Highlander was not officially recommended because we recommend only models with sufficient data to predict average or better reliability, according to David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.

      If Toyota vehicles return to levels of sustained reliability Consumer Reports considers to be excellent, the magazine will resume automatic recommendations, according to a press release.

      Other vehicles tested in the January issue were the Buick Enclave, Ford Taurus X and Subaru Tribeca, whose ratings along with the Highlander were added to the magazines existing rankings of 10 other midsize, three-row SUVs.

      The Tribeca and Taurus X received a Recommended designation from Consumer Reports.

      Toyota toppled

      In October, Toyota Motor Co. was dropped from the top spot in Consumer Reports vehicle reliability survey.

      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.

      Consumer Reports Snubs Toyota Highlander...

      Bush, Paulson Unveil Mortgage Rescue Plan

      Qualified borrowers could get five-year rate freeze

      President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson offered a plan today that would supposedly enable as many as 1.2 million homeowners with risky mortgages to stay in their homes.

      Bush and Paulson stopped shy of calling the plan a "bailout," saying that no federal money would be involved, but that federal guidelines would be needed to help the financial industry handle the potentially massive number of loan defaults that may occur as adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) begin to "reset" in 2008.

      "[T]he current system for working out those problem loans would not be sufficient to handle the anticipated 1.8 million owner-occupied subprime mortgage resets that will occur in 2008 and 2009," Paulson said. " Instead, the industry needed a streamlined approach to address this increased volume."

      Under the plan, homeowners with adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) originated between Jan. 1, 2005, and July 31, 2007, not scheduled to reset between Jan. 1, 2008, and July 31, 2010, may be able to qualify for a five-year rate freeze at their present, lower payment rate.

      Only homeowners who live in their homes can qualify for the plan, leaving speculators and those who bought homes to "flip" for a quick profit out in the cold.

      But the plan also penalizes homeowners who are already struggling, as only borrowers who have been making payments regularly would qualify for the rescue. Those who have already fallen too far behind or are in default would not qualify for the plan.

      Also, homeowners who are deemed able to pay their mortgages after the ARM resets would also not qualify.

      Early leaked details about the plan drew lukewarm responses from both the financial sector and consumer advocates, not to mention other politicians.

      New York Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has offered a mortgage rescue plan of her own, said the Bush/Paulson plan was "going to give struggling homeowners far less than they need."

      "[I]t appears that the president is pushing a freeze for a very narrow group of borrowers," Clinton said. "That is unfortunate because this crisis demands a more comprehensive approach that is adequate for the scale of the problem."

      Clinton supports a five-year rate freeze on ARMs, as well as a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures of owner-occupied homes with subprime adjustable-rate mortgages, and regular reports from the mortgage industry on the number of loans they are modifying.

      Bad Business

      Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal editorial page excoriated the plan as violating the contracts of investors in mortgage-backed securities, who may lose money as a result of the rate freezes.

      "When securitizers purchase loans, the Pooling and Servicing Agreements normally assign servicers a fiduciary duty to maximize cash-flows for the investors," the editors wrote. "In some cases, servicers can modify loan terms if this is consistent with 'standard industry practice.' This plan establishes a new 'standard industry practice.' We trust everyone is prepared to fight that out in court, maybe for years to come, because the lawsuits are going to test that 'standard' practice claim."

      The Bush administration said it was supporting legislation offered by Republican Congressman Mike Castle (R-DE) that would immunize financial institutions that supported the rate freeze from shareholder lawsuits, just as airlines were largely shielded from liability following the 9/11 terror attacks.

      Mortgage Maelstrom

      No matter the preferred solution, consensus seems to be that something needs to be done to stem the mortgage and housing slump, as the bad news just keeps on coming.

      National home values fell 1.3 percent in the third quarter of 2007, the largest drop in 25 years. Excess inventory of unsold homes and uncertainty in the financial markets due to tightening of credit and lending standards contributed to the fall.

      The U.S. Conference of Mayors warned that the subprime mortgage meltdown would have massive economic consequences nationwide, contributing to as much as $1.2 trillion in lost home equity value from foreclosed homes, losses of over 500,000 jobs across metro areas and nearly $6.6 billion in lost tax revenue.

      President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson offered a plan today that would supposedly enable as many as 1.2 million homeowners with risky mortgage...

      Minneapolis Jumpin' Jeep Injures Two at Car Wash

      Jeep owners beware: Jeeps and car washes don't mix

      Unintended acceleration with Jeeps at car washes continues to endanger owners, car wash employees and bystanders.

      The most recent report involved Neil in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee suddenly accelerated out of a Minneapolis car wash damaging four vehicles, totaling one of them and seriously injuring two bystanders.

      Three people were struck by the runaway Jeep.

      One remains paralyzed 18 months after incident. My letter to NHTSA says probably driver error, Neil reported to ConsumerAffairs.com.

      Jumpin' Jeeps have caused near-catastrophes at three Virginia car washes in the last several months as well.

      In Fredericksburg, Bruce drove his 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee through the wash and when the wash was complete he shifted the vehicle to drive and it accelerated on its own to full throttle.

      Bruce told ConsumerAffairs.com that he stood on the brakes but could not stop the vehicle. I hit a wall behind the car wash and then bounced into a boat that was being dried.

      The boat owner got out of the way and was not hit.

      The local Jeep dealer could not explain nor understand why this happened, Bruce said.

      Other reports of unintended acceleration with Jeeps at Virginia car washes include an incident with a 2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee slamming into a truck in Newport News.

      At a Virginia Beach car wash a 2006 Jeep commander crashed into a brick wall.

      A Chrysler spokesman claims, it's not an issue of sudden acceleration but pedal misapplication" or put another way, simply driver error.

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has refused to order a safety recall because the agency found no evidence to indicate the influence of a manufacturing defect.

      ConsumerAffairs.com has received reports of unintended acceleration in the Grand Cherokee since at least 2000.

      Minneapolis Jumpin' Jeep Injures Two at Car Wash...

      Pediatricians Alarmed About Wheeled Shoes

      Kids can roll right into the emergency room

      You see them roll by in schools and malls kids are head over heels for them, but before you buy your kids a pair of wheeled shoes this holiday season, pediatricians have a warning:

      The ultra-popular shoes that seem to give supernatural abilities to kids can be the magic carpet that soars right into the emergency room.

      Its actually becoming a little more commonplace to see bone injuries from children wearing wheeled shoes, says Gregory Sonnen, M.D., pediatrician on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. In fact, Sonnen and his colleagues say they see at least one or two broken bones a month from this latest fad.

      The problem with the wheeled shoes is that parents are buying them as casual footwear, said. Sonnen.

      Many pediatricians are now recommending these shoes are instead treated like a skateboard or rollerblades, not everyday shoe wear.

      When your child is wearing their wheeled-shoes they should also wear their safety equipment as well, Sonnen said. If we look at them as a piece of sporting good equipment I think people will be safer. However, if we look at them as a casual shoe as most people do, I think were going to continue to see a lot of injuries from accidents on wheeled shoes, Sonnen said.

      Head injuries

      According to Sonnen, most kids tend to injure their wrists and elbows when wearing wheeled shoes, but the injuries parents and pediatricians fear most are head injuries.

      Sonnen recommends that helmets should always be worn when wearing wheeled shoes.

      Pediatricians also add that most of the injuries occur during the first week kids wear them so its especially important for parents to make sure they are well protected while theyre learning to walk and roll in them.

      Pediatricians Alarmed About 'Wheeled' Shoes...

      GE, Kenmore Microwave Combo Wall Ovens Recalled

      December 5, 2007
      General Electric is recalling about 92,000 microwave combo wall ovens. The door switch in the microwave oven can overheat and ignite plastic components in the control area, posing a fire hazard. The lower thermal oven does not pose a hazard.

      GE is aware of 35 incidents of minor property damage and one incident in which a fire damaged adjacent kitchen cabinets. No injuries have been reported.

      The recall includes GE combination microwave and conventional built-in wall ovens sold under the following brand names: GE, GE Profile and Kenmore. The ovens were sold in white, black, bisque and stainless steel. The brand name is printed on the lower left corner on the front of the microwave door. The following model and serial numbers can be found inside the microwave oven on the left interior wall.

      Recalled ModelsSerial number
      begins with:
      GE / GE Profile JKP85B0A3BB, JKP85B0D1BB, JKP85W0A3WW, JKP85W0D1WW,
      JKP86B0F1BB, JKP86C0F1CC, JKP86S0F1SS, JKP86W0F1WW,
      JT965B0F1BB, JT965C0F1CC, JT965S0F1SS, JT965W0F1WW,
      JTP85B0A2BB, JTP85B0A3BB, JTP85B0A4BB, JTP85B0A5BB,
      JTP85B0D1BB, JTP85W0A2WW, JTP85W0A3WW, JTP85W0A4WW,
      JTP85W0A5WW, JTP85W0D1WW, JTP86B0F1BB, JTP86C0F1CC,
      JTP86S0F1SS, JTP86W0F1WW, JTP95B0A2BB, JTP95B0A3BB,
      JTP95B0A4BB, JTP95B0A5BB, JTP95B0D1BB, JTP95W0A2WW,
      JTP95W0A3WW, JTP95W0A4WW, JTP95W0A5WW, JTP95W0D1WW
      AZ, DZ, FZ, GZ, HZ,
      LZ, MZ, RZ, SZ, TZ,
      VZ, ZZ, AA, DA, FA,
      GA, HA, LA, MA, RA,
      SA, TA, VA, ZA, AD,
      DD, FD, GD, HD, LD,
      MD, RD, SD, TD, VD,
      ZD, AF, DF, FF, GF,
      HF, LF, MF, RF, SF,
      TF, VF, ZF
      (All model numbers
      start with 911)
      41485991, 41485992, 41485993, 41485994, 41489991, 41489992,
      41489993, 41489994, 49485992, 49489992, 47692100, 47699100,
      47862100, 47869100, 47812200, 47813200, 47814200, 47819200,
      47792200, 47793200, 47794200, 47799200
      0, 1, 2, 3

      The ovens were sold at department and appliance stores from January 2000 to December 2003 for between $1,500 and $2,000. They were made in the United States.

      Consumers should stop using the microwave oven immediately. Consumers should contact GE regarding their GE/GE Profile micro-oven combo or Sears for their Kenmore unit.

      GE is offering a free repair or rebate on a new product, a $300 rebate toward the purchase of a new GE brand unit, or a $600 rebate toward the purchase of a new GE Profile brand unit. Sears is offering a free repair or $300 rebate toward the purchase of a new Kenmore brand unit. Consumers can continue using the lower thermal oven.

      Consumer Contact: For additional information on GE /Profile units, contact General Electric toll-free at (888)-240-2745 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET Saturday, or visit GE's Web site at www.geappliances.com. For additional information on Kenmore units, contact Sears toll-free at (888) 679-0282 from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET Monday through Saturday, or visit Sears' Web site at www.sears.com

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

      GE, Kenmore Microwave Combo Wall Ovens Recalled...