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    Toy Dangers Not Confined To Lead

    Even safe toys can be dangerous if broken or mishandled

    December 4, 2007
    While parents are worried about potentially dangerous toys this holiday season, retailers are just as worried that parents will bypass the toy aisle this year. Both concerns are very real.

    I am very concerned about what toys to buy, says Linda Mata, who is buying toys for her grandchildren. You may buy them now, and then find out later that there is a recall after the children have already played with them.

    Jolene Duckworth, a mother of two, is also being extra cautious this holiday season.

    It is very important to know what types of toys are safe. The recent recalls due to lead have made me very worried about what to buy, she said.

    While toys exceeding federal standards for lead content should be a concern, it should not be the only thing on parents minds while shopping this holiday season, says Sharon Swindell, M.D., a pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Childrens Hospital.

    The fact of the matter is that although these toy exposures are a concern for children, the biggest risk of lead exposure is still in the homes of the United States, she says. Parents need to really look at the toy carefully and read the labeling for many other things too, including if it is age-appropriate for your child.

    To help parents become smart toy shoppers, Swindell offers these five tips to pick the safest and most appropriate toys for kids this holiday season.

    1. Dont worry, but be vigilant. The toy recalls have raised concerns about a number of features on imported toys. Check online for up-to-date recall information before heading out to the stores. Look for warnings about small parts, breaking, fire and choking hazards, as well as information about lead paint. Even made in the U.S.A. does not mean it is a safe toy, so make sure to check all labels and recalls, Swindell cautions.

    2. Be cautious when shopping online. There are pros and cons to online shopping. While it may be more convenient, you are not able to hold the toy and examine it as effectively as you would in-person. If you prefer online shopping, Swindell recommends reading product reviews from multiple sources by other customers and independent panels to make sure the toy is safe.

    3. Chose toys wisely to make your children wiser. Toys that promote healthy behavior or require children to use their imagination should always be top picks. Toys such as a new bike, a puppet or doll, a book, or anything that involves the active engagement of the childs mind are good ways to promote mental activity and healthy habits.

    4. Inspect toys carefully and always read the labels. Toy testing is only done when the toy is intact, so even a safe toy can become dangerous. Broken toys must be thrown away. And before you purchase a toy, make sure it is well constructed. When pieces break off a toy, it can leave a sharp edge or cause a possible chocking hazard.

    When selecting a toy, make sure it is age-appropriate. Age recommendations are made by independent review panels that look at the size of the parts, strangulation and choking hazards as well as the ability of children to use the toys according to their motor skills, Swindell said.

    5. Research the toys on your little ones wish list. If your child has been dying for a toy all year and advertisements for it seem to be popping up everywhere, make sure to check it out before you buy. Look online for any recall information, product reviews by other customers and independent panels. If you find that the particular toy is just not right, look for other, similar options.

    If it is something that the kids have seen on TV or in a movie, try to find another toy that has that same theme but is just right, Swindell said. For example, consider a puzzle from your childs favorite movie instead of a movie action figure that may include small pieces.

    And, before you buy, be sure to consider these other toy-buying tips:

    • Buying a bike, tricycle, scooter, or anything with wheels? Make sure to buy a helmet.

    • Dont forget books they count as toys too.

    • Organic toys are becoming more popular, but Swindell cautions that there is not yet a designated label that provides information about a toy being organic.

    • Look for toys that are flame resistant, retardant or nonflammable.

    • If the toy is battery-operated or requires recharging of any sort, have a parent do it. Serious burns and other injuries may result if not done properly.

    • If you are buying a stuffed animal, doll or other toy that is filled, make sure the inside contents would not pose a choking hazard if the toy was ripped or broken. Avoid substances such as beans and pellets whenever possible.

    Toy Dangers Not Confined To Lead...
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    Indiana Sues Timeshare Marketers

    Promoters allegedly failed to honor refunds, award prizes, deliver the goods

    The State of Indiana is seeking penalties and restitution from three companies that operated a timeshare and travel club sales center out of Crown Point, Indiana before closing last summer.

    Harbor Management Corporation, Harbor Management of Colorado, LLC, and Vacation Resort Management, Inc. are alleged to have misrepresented terms of consumer contracts, failed to provide products and services, and refused to honor refunds and prize giveaways.

    This operation was like a vacation bait-and-release program based on the information weve received, Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter said. This is a marketing strategy that has gone awry and caused thousands of dollars of damage to people along the way.

    The lawsuit alleges that the companies did business in Indiana under various assumed and fictitious names, including Harbor Resort Management Group, Harbor Management Resort Group, Harbor Resorts, Vacation Resorts, Star Vacation Club, Star Vacations, and VRM.

    The violations alleged by the attorney general include:

    • Failing to disclose the retail value or odds for the prizes listed in mailing notices sent to consumers
    • Failing to disclose all the eligibility limitations and additional costs to receive prizes
    • Failing to provide promised prizes or an adequate substitutes
    • Telemarketing to consumers and making false representations of winning a prize or gift
    • Failing to file the required registration to sell timeshares in Indiana
    • Misrepresenting to consumers that they would receive a free prize or gift
    • Misrepresenting terms of contracts with consumers
    • Misrepresenting consumers financial obligations to third party finance companies
    • Misrepresenting the consumers rights and remedies and obligations for refunds and cancellation terms
    • Misrepresenting that they would perform the enrollment and fulfillment services for the consumers timeshare interests and vacation exchange club memberships.

    The three companies operated from Indiana from 2005 until last summer. The companies and their principal officers also have ties to three other states, including Illinois.

    Vacation Resort Management has offices in Batavia, Illinois and Oak Brook, Illinois. Harbor Management of Colorado, LLC has another location in Broomfield, Colorado.

    Harbor Management Corporation has a location in Las Vegas, Nevada. The principal officers named in the lawsuit are Madeline M. Allerton of Illinois, David W. Haddad of Las Vegas, Nevada and Lisa B. Jantalezio (a.k.a. Haddad, Alonso & Rogers) with addresses listed in Arkansas & Nevada.

    The lawsuit names nearly 15 consumers who entered into contracts and submitted down payments on timeshares and vacation club packages or memberships with the companies. The contracts ranged between $1,000 and $8,900. The attorney generals office anticipates that umber to rise as more complaints are processed.

    Harbor Management and Vacation Resort Management also have ties to another group sued last week by the attorney generals office for making illegal pre-recorded telemarketing calls and for violating the Indiana Do Not Call law.

    More Scam Alerts ...

    The State of Indiana is seeking penalties and restitution from three companies that operated a timeshare and travel club sales center out of Crown Point, I...
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    Amusement Park Rides Can Be Deadly

    Powerful lobbyists shield the industry from rigorous regulation

    December 4, 2007
    While part of the joy of amusement park rides is the fake element of risk, a report in today's Washington Post reveals that thrill rides may be outright deadly because there is nearly no effective federal or state safety oversight and industry lobbyists are spending millions to keep it that way.

    While the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates traveling carnival rides, each state has a patchwork of inspection rules responsible for other thrill rides. On average four people die and thousands more are injured every year, according to federal estimates.

    At the center of The Post's investigation was the Sizzler, a spinning carnival ride manufactured by Wisdom Industries. Since 1997, the approximately 200 Sizzlers believed to be in operation have killed at least four and injured dozens more.

    The CPSC, which operates with a stretched budget and shrinking staff, has 90 field investigators responsible for ensuring the safety of carnival rides and 15,000 other products within the U.S. Rather than taking proactive investigations into dangerous rides, they often arrive at the scene of an accident after the ride has been dismantled.

    Pay attention

    CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson told ConsumerAffairs.com that the agency does everything it can to prioritize an investigation after the agency learns of a serious injury or death at a traveling carnival.

    The most recent action taken for carnival rides was in 1999 when the agency prepared a repair program for the spinning Himalaya ride which killed two and injured three.

    The CPSC responded last year to the Sizzler deaths and injuries by saying ride operators need to pay "greater attention to safety."

    Traveling carnivals often sell a dangerous ride after it has killed or seriously injured a customer rather than fix it or put it out of service. State inspectors told The Post there's no way to track those rides.

    Carnival rides are a small portion of the thrill ride industry. Stationary ride companies, such as Disney and Six Flags, funnel millions of thrill-seekers into their parks every summer but have no federal oversight and a minimal state-by-state patchwork.

    Severed feet

    Four individuals died on rides this summer. But the gruesome story that grabbed headlines was that of 13-year-old Kaitlyn Lasitter whose feet were severed by a loose cable on the Tower of Power at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom. Surgeons could only reattach her right foot.

    Lasitter's father told The Post he was shocked to discover there is no federal inspection program for the ride that left his daughter traumatized and suffering from frequent nightmares.

    That exemption from federal oversight was the first of many power plays by high-powered Washington lobbyists.

    In 1981 industry lobbyists hired Washington lawyer Kenneth Starr to convince Capitol Hill that the CPSC, which then had jurisdiction over stationary rides and whose staff was more than double its current size, was causing unnecessary economic hardship to amusement parks.

    More safety measures might lessen the risk but would "make the ride worthless," lobbyist John Graff told Congress at the time, the newspaper reported. "The activities of the commission must be limited."

    The exemption has left oversight in the hands of state programs, some which have no inspectors or enforcement powers.

    By invitation only

    In Florida, for example, safety inspectors can only come to an amusement park when invited. The consortium of parks in Florida do invite the inspectors once a year to an educational seminar, but do not allow the inspectors to inspect anything.

    So far, the only worried voice in Washington is that of Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) who first introduced legislation after four people died on rides in one week in the summer of 1999.

    Markey secured a half-hour hearing in the then-Republican Congress on his legislation that would reinstate federal authority.

    The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions responded to that hearing by quadrupling its lobbying funds to $430,000 in 2001 while providing campaign contributions and expensive trips to amusement resorts to key House Energy and Commerce Committee representatives and their staff. Even Markey received $23,000 in campaign contributions. His legislation died.

    "Every summer there is a flurry of interest as the accidents and injuries happen," Markey told The Post. By autumn, "nobody decides that this is a big issue. ... Very few industries have been able to build a loophole in federal law and hold it for as long as they have. They are a powerful lobbying force."

    Markey has reintroduced his 2000 legislation and there is expected to be a hearing this week. The House Energy and Commerce Committee website does not have it on the calendar yet.

    While part of the joy of amusement park rides is the fake element of risk, a report in today's Washington Post reveals that thrill rides may be outright de...
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      Hannah Montana Fans Skip the Scalpers

      Same-day tickets save the day for Kansas City fans

      By Lisa Wade McCormick

      December 4, 2007
      All the headaches and frustration a Kansas City mom endured to get two of the much-coveted tickets to Hannah Montanas concert paid off Monday night.

      Claire N. and her 8-year-old daughter joined more than 12,000 screaming young fans who packed Kansas Citys Sprint Center and had the rare opportunity to see the 15-year-old teen idol perform some of her most popular songs, including Lifes What you Make It, Rock Star, and Pumpin up the Party.

      It was worth it for the sake of my daughter, Claire said of all hoopla surrounding the Best of Both Worlds Tour in which pop star Miley Cyrus performs as Hannah Montana and herself. My daughter loved it and to see all the excitement she and her friends hadit was definitely worth it. My daughter even thanked me again this morning.

      Getting tickets to the concert turned out to be a nightmare for Claire and parents across the country whose children have caught the Hannah Montana fever thats sweeping the nation.

      Claire tried in September to buy tickets -- online and over the phone right when they went on sale -- but discovered the concert was already sold out.

      She and other Missouri fans, however, immediately found scores of Hannah Montana tickets at various brokers for hundreds of dollars over face value.

      ConsumerAffairs.com heard from parents nationwide who experienced the same problems when they tried to buy Hannah Montana tickets for their children.

      Claire also couldnt get any of the 4,000 tickets that went on sale early through Hannah Montanas fan club even though her daughter is a member.

      She finally snatched up two tickets in October -- thanks to action taken by Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon.

      The attorney general sued three brokers for allegedly scalping Hannah Montana tickets and -- at the same time -- reached an agreement with Ticketmaster to sell an additional 1,000 tickets to the rock stars Kansas City concert.

      Claire paid $56 dollars apiece -- or face value -- for two of those tickets when they went on sale in late October.

      Unsold blocks

      But on her way to Monday nights concert, Claire discovered that scores of additional Hannah Montana tickets had suddenly become available.

      Another mom -- whose daughter is friends with Claires -- told her that she bought two tickets around 4 p.m. That was a little more than three hours before the concert.

      And that mom didnt pay hundreds of dollars for the tickets, either. She paid $56 apiece for seats on the floor.

      Claires cell phone started ringing as news spread that parents had another chance to get Hannah Montana tickets.

      My brother is down at the Sprint Center and says theyre releasing more tickets, she said.

      A few minutes later, her phone rang again.

      He got them, she exclaimed. He got two tickets! And not just any tickets. Claires brother scored two front-row tickets.

      He got them at 4:50, she said. And he paid face value -- $56 apiece

      Before the concert started, Claire learned that a handful of other friends and family members were also able to get tickets -- at the last minute -- to much-touted concert that also features the Jonas Brothers.

      I know of five families that were able to get tickets just hours before the concert, she said, clicking off their names. The scalpers (brokers) turned in the tickets they couldnt sell.

      Claire, however, met one scalper before the concert who had no trouble selling his tickets.

      He told me that he had 40 tickets to the show -- he sold 38 and kept two for himself. And he said that he made enough money off those tickets to pay for Christmas this year, next year, and then some.

      As Claire reflected on her Hannah Montana-mania experience, she said she learned a lesson about frantically trying to get tickets to popular concerts.

      Its a lesson she wants to share with other parents especially those who live in cities where the pop diva has not yet performed on her concert tour.

      My message for other parents who are worried about getting Hannah Montana tickets is to be patient and go to the venue the day of the show, Claire said. Try not to buy tickets from scalpers because -- from what we witnessed in Kansas City -- you can get good tickets at the last minute for face value.

      So just be patient good things happen to those who wait.

      Hannah Montana Fans Skip the Scalpers...
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      Feds Propose New Rules for Credit Bureaus

      Consumers could dispute bad data directly with lenders

      Consumers frequently complain that they have tried in vain to correct inaccuracies in their credit reports. Now a federal task force has issued proposed rules that might make the process a little easier.

      The proposed rules would let consumers dispute data in their reports directly with lenders rather than with the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.

      The 191-page document was crafted by a multiagency task force that included the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), and the Office of Thrift Supervision.

      The definition of "accuracy and integrity" takes up a considerable part of the report, with the agencies submitting two types of definitions apiece for the "regulation" and "guidelines" sections.

      The "regulation" definition provides that "information furnished to a CRA may be technically 'accurate' yet lack 'integrity' because it presents a misleading picture of the consumer's creditworthiness by omitting critical information, such as a credit limit on a revolving credit account."

      The "guidelines" approach "does not address the omission of any term the absence of which could contribute to an incorrect evaluation by a user of a consumer's creditworthiness," the report said, emphasizing that the data "furnisher" should investigate and verify that information it provides is accurate and up-to-date.

      Among the specific policies and procedures the agency report recommends for data accuracy are:

      • Using standard data reporting formats and standard procedures for compiling and furnishing data, such as the electronic transmission of information about consumers to CRAs.

      • Ensuring that the furnisher maintains its own records for a reasonable period of time, not less than any applicable record-keeping requirement, in order to substantiate the accuracy of any information about consumers it furnishes that may be subject to a direct dispute.

      • Training staff that participates in activities related to the furnishing of information about consumers to CRAs to implement the policies and procedures.

      • Ensuring that technological and other means of communication with CRAs are designed to prevent duplicative reporting of accounts, erroneous association of information with the wrong consumer(s), and other occurrences that may compromise the accuracy and integrity

      • of information contained in consumer reports.

      Data In Dispute

      The report recommended that data furnishers directly investigate a dispute of data if the dispute related to a consumer's liability for the debt in case of identity theft, the validity of the debt, the debt's payment status or balance, or any other information that "bears on the consumer's creditworthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living attributed to the furnisher on the consumer report."

      Exemptions from the direct dispute regulation would be any information reported by the lender that comes from public records, such as bankruptcy filings, property purchases, tax liens, and criminal judgments, as well as inquiries related to past or present employment.

      The agencies advised that data furnishers provide an address "clearly and conspicuously specified" for submitting data disputes both in writing and electronically, though the data furnishers would not be held liable if a credit reporting agency got the address wrong when providing a report to consumers.

      The report also mandates that in order for a dispute to be investigated and not dismissed as "frivolous," consumers must provide specific information detailing the dispute and contact information including a name, address, and telephone number.

      The report is available as a free PDF download. The report will soon be published in the Federal Register, and the agencies have included information for submitting comments on the proposal for up to 60 days after publication.

      The proposed new rules were mandated by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) of 2003, an update to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) which governs credit and consumer reporting agencies.

      As per section 312 of FACTA, "the Agencies are proposing guidelines for use by entities that furnish information about consumers to a consumer reporting agency regarding the accuracy and integrity of the information that they furnish," according to a joint statement.

      "The Agencies are also proposing regulations that would require each entity that furnishes information to a consumer reporting agency to establish reasonable policies and procedures for implementing the guidelines," the report said.

      Feds Propose New Rules for Credit Bureaus: Now a federal task force has issued proposed rules that might make the process a little easier....
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      Japanese Dominate Car Owner Satisfaction Survey

      Europeans Gain Slightly, Domestics Inch Upward

      Japanese vehicles continue their domination over domestic and European brands in Consumer Reports' Annual Car Owner Satisfaction Survey.

      Of the 39 car models that made CR's latest Most Satisfying car list, 18 toted Japanese nameplates with 10 of those built by Toyota.

      For the fourth straight year, the Toyota Prius hybrid was identified by those surveyed as the most satisfying of any vehicle, with 92 percent of Prius owners indicating they would definitely buy one again. Following closely, were the BMW 335i coupe/convertible and Porsche Boxster, which drew scores of 91 and 90 respectively.

      European models accounted for 12 cars on the list -- a slight increase from last year. Domestic models remained steady at seven, and for the first time, two South Korean models, the Hyundai Azera (83) and Hyundai Santa Fe (80), made CR's Most Satisfying car list.

      Domestics inch upward

      For the first time in five years, domestic models have gained ground in the family car category, which has been consistently dominated by Japanese nameplates.

      The Ford Fusion V6 with all-wheel-drive and Saturn Aura were identified by respondents as two of the top four most satisfying family cars behind the Toyota Prius and Toyota Camry Hybrid. The inclusion of the Lincoln MKZ AWD was also a five-year first for a domestic model to be found among the most satisfying Luxury/Upscale cars.

      "These latest results suggest that domestic carmakers are getting better at capturing what people want in the car they drive every day," said Rik Paul, automotive editor for Consumer Reports.

      Euros top sports category

      European models dominated the sporty car and roadster categories taking 10 of the top 14 spots.

      While the BMW 335i RWD (91), Porsche Boxster (90) lead the way, the Mini Cooper proved to be a very satisfying vehicle, three versions -- the Cooper S (88), Cooper Convertible (81) and Cooper Hatchback (80) all made the list. Performance generates a strong passion amongst owners; of the top 12 most satisfying cars, half were sports cars.

      Consumers Reports Annual Car Owner Satisfaction Survey asks subscribers if they would buy the car or truck they own again, considering its price, performance, comfort, reliability, and enjoyment. In all, subscribers rated their experience with more than 415,000 vehicles and more than 300 separate models, in the survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

      Least satisfying domestics

      Among the least satisfying cars, domestics accounted for 20 of the 22 in the lineup, 15 of which are from General Motors. These included the least satisfying vehicles to own: the Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander and Saturn Relay minivans, with only 34 percent of those asked reporting they would definitely buy or lease one again.

      There were no European nameplates listed among the Least Satisfying Car list, but several popular European nameplates, including Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Saab and Volvo were absent among the Most Satisfying car list.

      Consumer Reports Most Satisfying vehicles are those for which at least 80 percent of owners said they would definitely buy or lease the vehicle again. CR's Least Satisfying vehicles are those for which less than 50 percent of owners said they would do so.

      Models are listed within categories in order of most satisfying:

      Most Satisfying

      • Small Cars: Honda Fit, Volkswagen Rabbit
      • Family Cars: Toyota Prius, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Ford Fusion V6 (AWD), Saturn Aura
      • Large Cars: Hyundai Azera, Toyota Avalon
      • Upscale/Luxury Cars: Lexus LS 460, Acura TL Type-S, BMW 330i/335i (sedan),
      • Infiniti M35 RWD, Lincoln MKZ (AWD)
      • Sports Cars/Roadsters: Porsche Boxster, Porsche Cayman, Chevrolet Corvette, Mini Cooper S (hatchback), Honda S2000, Porsche 911 Carrera, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Audi S4, Mini Cooper (Convertible), Ford Mustang (V8), Volkswagen GTI, Mini Cooper (hatchback)
      • Coupes/Convertibles: BMW 335i (RWD), Volkswagen Eos
      • Wagons/ Hatchbacks: Mazdaspeed3
      • Minivans: Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey
      • SUVs: Lexus RX350, Ford Edge, Toyota Land Cruiser, Chrysler Aspen (4WD), Hyundai Santa Fe, Toyota RAV4 (V6), Toyota 4Runner (V6)
      • Pickup Trucks: Honda Ridgeline, Toyota Tundra (V8)

      Least Satisfying

      • Small Cars: Chevrolet Cobalt (coupe, nonturbo), Saturn Ion (sedan), Chevrolet Cobalt (Sedan), Chevrolet Aveo (sedan)
      • Minivans: Ford Freestar, Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander, Saturn Relay
      • SUVs: Chevrolet Trail Blazer (6-cyl., RWD) GMC Envoy (6-cyl., RWD), Suzuki Grand Vitara, Jeep Commander (V6), Chevrolet Equinox, Jeep Grand Cherokee (V6, gas)
      • Pickup Trucks: Dodge Dakota, Chevrolet Colorado (5-cyl.), GMC Envoy (5-cyl.), GMC Canyon (4-cyl.), Ford Ranger, Mazda B-Series, Chevrolet Colorado (4-cyl.), GMC Canyon (4-cyl.)
      Japanese vehicles continue their domination over domestic and European brands in Consumer Reports' Annual Car Owner Satisfaction Survey....
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      Spoofed Credit Union E-Mails Could Ruin Consumers' Holidays

      Brazen new scheme takes 'phishing' one step further

      December 3, 2007
      A dangerous new identity theft scheme is targeting credit union customers across the country.

      According to consumer and credit union groups, spoof e-mails are directing credit union customers to call a telephone number and confirm their personal information. Consumers who make the call do not reach their credit union, but instead end up on the telephone with a scam artist who wants to steal their identity.

      Savvy consumers have increasingly learned to identify and delete spoof e-mails that falsely appear to originate from legitimate banks or credit card companies. Known as phishing, these e-mails direct consumers to a decoy Web site that allows the scammers to collect all the information they need to empty the customers bank accounts and ruin their credit.

      Phishing scams have been around for years, but increasingly sophisticated criminals now send e-mails instructing consumers to call a telephone number instead of clicking on a link. This tactic, known as vishing, can be especially effective because consumers who encounter a live person are much more likely to let down their guard.

      The latest vishing scam immediately disarms consumers by specifically warning about similar schemes. One recently circulated e-mail reads:

      Dear Credit Union Customer,

      We regret to inform you that we have received numerous fraudulent emails which ask for personal account information. The emails contained links to fraudulent pages that looked legit. Please remember that we will never ask for personal account information via email or web pages.

      Because of this we are launching a new security system to make Credit Union accounts more secure and safe. To take advatage [sic] of our new consumer Identity Theft Protection Program we had to deactivate access to your card account.

      To activate it please call us immediately.

      The e-mail provides a telephone number with a U.S. area code, adding to its air of legitimacy. In an especially brazen move, the e-mail offers identity theft tips and links to the Federal Trade Commissions identity theft prevention Web site.

      Consumers who think the e-mail is legitimate call the number and furnish sensitive information to a person they believe is a trusted credit union employee. Only when their identity is stolen do they realize it was all a scam.

      These vishing scams combine the phishing ploy with a Web-based telephone scheme. The telephone numbers that appear in these e-mails are set up through VoIP, which is an Internet-based telecommunications service. Even though the phone number appears to be based in a familiar U.S. area code, the scammers are most likely in other countries and impossible to track down.

      Consumers who receive this or any other unexpected e-mail or phone call seeking personal information should not respond.

      Consumers who have concerns about their account should contact their credit union by calling the telephone number that appears in the local directory or on their periodic statements. Never click on a link or call a telephone number that appears in an unexpected e-mail.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Spoofed Credit Union E-Mails Could Ruin Consumers' Holidays...
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      Video Professor Goes After Critics

      'Professor' claims consumer complaints are fabricated

      John Scherer, also known as the "Video Professor," has promised for years on late-night infomercials that he is so confident in his product, he will give you -- yes, you! -- a free computer lesson.

      But after hundreds of consumers have complained on the Internet that the lesson is not free at all, the "professor" is responding to critics with threats of a lawsuit.

      For 20 years, Scherer, the bald, friendly, mustachioed Video Professor has promised one free disc to computer illiterates who struggle with the Internet, Windows, Word, or a handful of other software titles. But as the consumers tell it, that disc is not free. In fact, it is the beginning of a subscription service that costs $79.95 a month and includes more computer guides, even for software the customer may not own.

      Scherer's business model -- which appears similar to the Girls Gone Wild video series and the Columbia House DVD club -- has produced numerous angry customers, especially on the consumer complaint website Infomercialscams.com.

      Now, Scherer has gone after the website's owner, Justin Leonard, and has demanded that he reveal the names of 100 consumers who have posted complaints about Video Professor.

      Leonard has refused to give up the names and has turned to Public Citizen, the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader, for legal help.

      We've basically told Video Professor that we're not going to give them any information unless they give us some real proof that there's some real defamation going on here, Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen, said.

      Levy said he believes Scherer wants the names of those consumers so that he can personally sue them for libel.

      Fabricated complaints?

      Scherer told ConsumerAffairs.com that that is not the case.

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

      Scherer said he hopes to get the names of the customers because he believes that at least some of the complaints may be fabricated by Leonard or that his competition is posting them.

      However, Leonard's website is just one of many avenues that consumers have used to share their Video Professor gripes.

      The Better Business Bureau has received 590 complaints in the past 36 months. ConsumerAffairs.com has received 37. Even the Denver Post has complaints on file. Complaints can be read on at least five other websites, including Ripoff Report, Epinions, Complaints.com. Complaints Board and The Squeaky Wheel.

      It's not credible that competitors would send consumer-sounding complaints to the Denver Post and BBB, Levy said.

      There has to be some truth because there's too many consistencies, said Levy.

      But Scherer insisted that the complaints can't be true and said that if they are, he will compensate his unhappy customers. He suggested that the onus falls on Leonard and requested that he contact all the people who have complained on Infomercialcams.com and explain that they can get a refund if they expose themselves to Video Professor.

      But Levy doubts Scherer's intentions are that good-willed.

      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.

      If Video Professor wins the case, which is currently in the Colorado District Court, and is given the names of those posters, it could have a chilling effect on free speech and the marketplace of thought, Levy said.

      Scherer said he does not want to impede free speech but questioned whether people should be allowed to post anonymously.

      I think that people should be allowed to post anonymously the truth, Scherer said. Nobody should be stopped (from posting anonymously).

      What amendment that is that we have the right to be anonymous and defame someone, he later said.

      Why do people have to hide in the shadows? I'll post all day long with my name. I'm not worried about being sued if I tell the truth, he said.

      However, most consumers do not have their own legal counsel, nor do they have the time and money to defend themselves against lawsuits. And, in fact, while the truth is a defense against libel, the person who is sued still faces considerable time and expense in convincing a court that the statements were truthful.

      The biggest danger is that people are just intimidated by the fact of the litigation. 'Oh gee, I could get sued so I'm just going to remain quiet,'" said Levy. "What we need are more victories in this area so that people gain the reassurance that if this happens to them, they too will be protected.

      The Colorado case is currently pending filing of a motion by Video Professor's attorneys, due by mid-December.

      Next: A visit to the professor's 'classroom'

      But after hundreds of consumers have complained on the Internet that the lesson is not free at all, the "professor" is responding to critics with threats o...
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      Veterinarians Solve Pet Food Death Puzzle

      Combination of two chemicals proved lethal

      Veterinarians say the mystery behind the deaths of dogs and cats across the country that ate tainted pet food earlier this year has been solved.

      The veterinarians now blame the deaths on the combination of two chemicals the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found in the more than 60 million containers of recalled pet food: melamine and cyanuric acid.

      Melamine is used to make plastic. Cyanuric acid is used to chlorinate pools. Neither is approved for use in pet food.

      Those two chemicals -- which FDA officials discovered in the imported wheat gluten and rice protein concentrated use to make pet food -- can combine and form crystals in the animals bodies, the veterinarians say.

      And those crystals can impair the animals kidney function.

      Either one of those chemicals alone wouldnt cause these (deaths), Dr. Barbara Powers, immediate past president of the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD) and director of Colorado State Universitys Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, told us on Friday. It has to be the combination of the two.

      So its not melamine alone.

      Dr. Powers comments support a theory raised earlier this year by the University of Guelphs Animal Health Laboratory in Ontario about what might have caused pets to die after eating the tainted food.

      Tests conducted at the university revealed that melamine and cyanuric acid could react to form crystals that block kidney function.

      When the study came out in May, John Melicherik, director of analytical services for Guelph's laboratory services, told The Toronto Star: "This is a piece of the puzzle, a significant finding. We have found these crystals in cats that have suffered renal failure."

      Story continues below video

      Thousands of deaths

      Dr. Barbara Powers

      Since Menu Foods announced its massive pet food recall in March, the FDA has received 17,000 complaints from consumers who said their dogs or cats suffered kidney problems or died after eating the tainted food. FDA officials, however, only confirmed 16 pet-food related deaths.

      In the months that followed Menus recall, ConsumerAffairs.com heard from scores of pet owners who said their dogs or cats became seriously ill or died after eating the adulterated food. Many had lost two, three or even more pets.

      And were still getting complaints.

      Some consumers even hired a private laboratory in Texas to analyze their pets food for possible toxins. That facility is Expertox Analytical Laboratory, which has confirmed to us that it detected the pain killer acetaminophen in some samples of pet food.

      But Dr. Powers downplayed Expertoxs findings.

      Thats not an AAVLD lab and acetaminophen has never been confirmed (in pet food) by other labs, she said. Thats a not a valid finding.

      Meanwhile, veterinarians now have a better idea of just how many dogs and cats died after eating the contaminated pet food.

      Dr. Powers told us that a recently released survey by the AAVLD found the number of confirmed deaths linked to the tainted pet food -- ones that met specific criteria for kidney failure -- now stands at 226.

      Of those deaths, 143 were cats and 83 were dogs.

      But there absolutely could be more deaths from the tainted pet food, Dr. Powers said, adding veterinarians across the country participated in the organizations survey. This survey didnt catch all the deaths that happened. In order to be counted in our survey, you had to meet certain criteria.

      She added: If someone had a pet that died and they buried it in their background, they werent eligible for our survey. We had to have confirmed exposure to the recalled pet food, proof of toxicity, and clinical signs of renal failure. So this is only a percentage of the deaths that are out there. Theres no way to guess how many pets were affected.

      More cats died

      The AAVLDs Pet Food-Induced Nephrotoxicity" survey also discovered that more cats than dogs became sick or died after eating the tainted food.

      We dont know why it affected cats more than dogs, Dr. Powers said. It could very well have to do with the animals size -- cats are smaller than dogs. Or it could be the animals metabolism. Cats have a different metabolism than dogs.

      What about smaller dogs?

      We broke the breeds down into small, medium, and large and discovered that small dogs were affected more by the tainted pet food, Dr. Powers said. So there is certainly a size factor there.

      Her colleague, Dr. Wilson Rumbeiha, associate professor at the Michigan State University Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health, agreed.

      Even among dogs, small- to medium-size dogs were affected the most, he said.

      The AAVLDs voluntary survey included more than 550 cases nationwide, but only 347 met its specific criteria for kidney failure caused by the tainted food, Dr. Powers said.

      The impetus for us to do this survey was because we as association members started seeing these cases (earlier this year) showing up in our labs across the country. We have a listserv where we chat among ourselves and we were talking about us seeing all these deaths in dogs and cats. I was president of the association at the time and said we need to do a survey and see whats going on and what the extent of this problem is. Thats how this got started.

      Quicker response needed

      The organizations next goal, she said, is to obtain federal funding that would allow labs across the country to respond more quickly if theres another tainted pet food or other type of toxicological crisis.

      Its hard to prevent something like this from happening again, she said. Im sure there are now safeguards in place, but you cant check for every toxin under sun. And who would have ever thought to screen for melamine and cyanuric acid. Those were chemicals that werent on anyones radar.

      Veterinarians Solve Pet Food Death Puzzle...
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