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    Feds Revise Child Safety Seat Ratings

    New guideliness measure ease of use, installation procedures

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has revised the consumer ratings system for child safety seats in an effort to clear up confusion about the variety of seats available and the installation methods required.

    A new five-star government rating system will grade child safety seats on how easy they are to properly install and will help guide parents in choosing the right car seat to keep their children safe, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said.

    NHTSA data indicates that seven out of 10 child safety seats are either the wrong size for the child or are seriously misused, reducing their effectiveness in a crash, according to the agency reported.

    NHTSA estimates properly-used child restraint systems will reduce fatal injury by 71 percent for infants and 54 percent for toddlers in passenger cars. The reduction declines in light trucks to 58 percent for infants and 59 percent for toddlers.

    The new rating system is designed help consumers assess the safety seats on the ease with which they can be used by parents.

    Even the safest car seat can't protect a child if it isn't installed correctly, Secretary Peters said. These new star ratings arm parents with the best information and challenge manufacturers to make car seats that are easier for parents to use.

    The five-star rating system will award an overall star rating as well as individual star ratings in four categories: securing the child, vehicle installation features, labeling and instructions. Five stars represent the highest rating and one star signifies the lowest rating.

    These changes will make it easier for consumers to compare products and determine which child safety seat is easiest for their daily routines, said NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason.

    Transportation officials said the new ratings system does not indicate how effective a seat is in protecting a child in a crash but compares the ease of use. The new system replaces an older ratings program which used letter grade

    Feds Revise Child Safety Seat Ratings...
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    High-Definition TV Doesn't Have to be Expensive

    We build a 125-inch projection system for $1,650

    I never considered myself one of those Audio/Video guys. But after my friends and I finished the final touches to my high definition (HD) projector, and we sat down to watch The Bourne Identity on my 125-inch HD screen, I realized why some men flip over home theaters.

    But what I didn't understand is why they would spend as much as $10,000 to do it. I built a knock-out home theater system for $1,650 less than the price of almost any new 40-inch HDTV. Here's how I did it:

    The final product eats up a lot of wall space.

    Before I bought anything, I spent two weeks researching sorting through the online myths, legends and generally inaccurate home theater guides that saturate the Internet.

    Before buying a projector, there are some practical obstacles to consider. The first is how much natural light is in the projector's environment.

    Even the brightest machine cannot overcome direct sunlight and most indirect sunlight. A basement or windowless room is ideal. You also need a large blank wall to project the images and a place to mount the projector so that guests and other objects don't become a part of the show.

    I'm in the fortunate position -- well, fortunate in some ways anyway -- of living in a small apartment at the end of a dark alley in an old building with high ceilings and I can't afford any nice art for my large white walls, so too much natural light is definitely not a problem. It's like the architects of my building knew 100 years ago what I would be using it for.

    A projector is not like a TV. It's an extremely high tech-piece of equipment with many more options and it's likely there's only one that fits your needs and budget, which is why research is so important.

    I spent most of my research poring over the hundreds of digital projectors available on the market and determined these are the key attributes to weigh:

    Lumen: This is the measure of perceived light power. There's no such thing as too much. The brighter the image, the more detail can be seen and the more vibrant all the images appear. High lumen is particularly important if there is any ambient light in the room. If there are windows or if you plan to operate the projector with any lights on, you'll want something with at least 2,500 lumen.

    Native resolution: Just like TVs, projectors have a maximum resolution. They range from 640x480 (standard definition [SD] TV) to 1920x1080 (true 1080 HDTV) and everything in between. Higher resolution projectors can display lower resolution images and lower resolution projectors can receive higher resolution images, but must convert them and then display them on the projector's actual native resolution. I can't tell you what resolution is best. But if the projector is for home use, you'll want at least 1280x720 (720 HDTV) so that you can enjoy your massive screen in HD. The higher resolution 1080 projectors display a crisper image, but are a relatively new technology and are not as bright and more than double the cost of their 720 counterparts.

    Native aspect ratio: Similarly, projectors have a native aspect ratio, usually 4:3 (SDTVs and most computer monitors) or 16:9 (HDTVs). Again, each can receive non-native feeds, but must convert the image by either stretching it and distorting it or by placing black bars on the sides or top and bottom of the image. For home use, 16:9 is the preferred format since HDTV broadcasts are 16:9.

    Lamp life: just like rear-projection TVs, digital projectors have a bulb that will eventually either burn out or become so weak, the feed is difficult to watch. At $250 to $400 per bulb, you'll want a projector with a long estimated lamp life. Lamp life ranges from about 2,000 hours to 4,000.

    DLP versus LCD: While LCD projectors are still in production, DLP has nearly taken over the market and for good reason. DLP's pictures are brighter, more colorful and do not blur fast-moving images. They also require next to no maintenance. DLP projectors are slightly more expensive, but this is probably the one area where you'll pay the least for the greatest gain.

    While there are other considerations such as contrast, fan noise and inputs, the five mentioned above are by far the most important.

    Since my new toy was to completely replace my TV, I needed long lamp life and brightness so I could watch it during the day or with the lights on.

    The components

    After all of my research, I settled on BenQ's SP830. At 3,500 lumen it's one of the brightest beamers on the market, it has DLP technology, up to 4,000 hours lamp life, both DVI and component inputs, a 16:9 aspect ratio and is capable of projecting 720p HDTV.

    I bought it for just under $1,500 from about $1,000 less than its price at a local store. It is advertised as a business projector, but like many business models, does a splendid job of everything else.

    While the projector is the single most important and most expensive portion of any home theater, you also need to factor in a screen, audio system, installation and cables.

    I basically went the cheapest route possible but it still looks brilliant.


    For the moment I am projecting the image on a bare white wall. Because the SP830 projects at a stunning 3,500 lumen, its light reflects off almost any surface. But a weaker projector will definitely require a screen not to mention most people don't have vast, white, empty wall space.

    Many home theater projections range between 100 to 130 measured diagonally. While high-end 16:9 screens in that size can cost as much as $1,000, cheaper versions for less than $300 will dutifully work for any projector with at least 1,500 lumen.

    If you're confident that the home theater is in a permanent location, there are a few manufacturers that make screen goo that can be painted onto a wall. Some swear that screen goos reflect the best pictures.

    Regardless of how you reflect the image, always install the projector before you buy a screen. You don't want to end up with a screen that's too big or worse yet, too small.


    Today's latest digital surround systems can add a new dimension to any home theater -- and a price tag that may double the whole project.

    For my audio, I re-used a decent subwoofer/computer speaker package that was easy to install onto the wall on either side of the projected image. I think I paid $60 for the package a few years ago. Since it's only stereo, rather than surround, it was easy and cheap to install a single stereo audio cable from my cable box in the back of the room to the speakers in the front.


    Eric DeGrass makes final adjustments to the projector

    When I asked a friend who recently purchased an HDTV for advice on buying cables, he said, cables are the one area you don't want to go cheap on. That's what the salesman at Best Buy told him at least, and he paid $90 for a 6-foot Monster Cable.

    However, many engineers will tell you that cables are the biggest scam in the whole home theater business generally perpetrated by salesmen at Circuit City, Best Buy and the rest of the big boxes. Yes, you need cables, but what you don't need to do is pay hundreds of dollars for them.

    There is almost an endless flow of research available on the Internet that reveals that cheap yet reliable cable manufacturers perform at the same level as Monster the monster that has attacked consumers' wallets at big box stores for years. came highly regarded on many forums and for less than $80 including shipping, I ordered 50' worth of heavy gauge HDMI and component cables along with an assortment of connectors, converters and widgets.

    The only thing to watch out for with any cable, regardless of its price, is length. The research comparing cheap cables to expensive cables revealed that picture quality may decrease if the cable is longer than 25 feet. If you must do it longer, there are video boosters you can install.


    The final step is installation.

    I used a standard universal ceiling mount and ran all the cables along the wall and ceiling through brackets. Even my rudimentary installation was too much for one person so I lured a few of my buddies and their power tools to my apartment with cheap beer. In all it cost me $75 including the mount and beer and it doesn't look half bad.

    Running cables through the walls is definitely the classier approach, but also more expensive, time-consuming and permanent. It also makes it difficult to upgrade to a future technology that may require new cables.

    Mesmerized friends Chris Soto, Natalie Leonhard and Eric Degrass

    When I began my hunt for an HDTV, I never thought it would result in the 125-inch goliath that now dominates my northern wall. But with a little more research, planning and energy, I made it happen for a few hundred less than what I would have paid for something a third the size.

    Now I just need some sort of technology that makes my friends go home and watch their own tiny screens.

    It's an extremely high tech-piece of equipment with many more options and it's likely there's only one that fits your needs and budget, which is why resear...
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    House-Swapping Trend Emerges

    "I'll buy yours if you'll buy mine"

    If you've been trying to sell your house for over a year now, you should pay attention to this story.

    Instead of relying on Realtors, free giveaways and other gimmicks to get some traffic into your house, how about swapping your house with someone who may be in the market to sell a house that you could see yourself moving into?

    It's doing business the old-fashioned way: bartering, except that new technology now puts you closer to achieving this American dream. And more than 16,000 people around the country are apparently roped in to this trend, according to industry estimates.

    As the real estate market deteriorated over the last two years with buyers developing cold feet, web-savvy entrepreneurs sensed an opportunity. Close to half a dozen websites have now cropped up to cater to this market. connects sellers of homes in different areas to see if they may be a fit to swap properties.

    To avoid any last-minute hiccups, the site recommends that both sides of the swap use one title company so the two transactions close at once, thus avoiding the possibility of one party holding two simultaneous mortgages. The site also recommends that people not get involved with a seller who owes more than what their house is currently worth.

    Swapping homes could potentially save large fees traditionally paid to Realtors, recommends A simple one-time fee of $19.99 could connect you to a specific seller that appears on the website's database.

    Other players in this market are and Not to mention the online classifieds giant, Craigslist, is also emerging as a player in this game as it sees a jump in real estate swap ads on its site.

    "Ironically, many of the houses listed on some of these sites are listed by brokers," said Mohammad Khurram, a realtor with Fairfax, Va.-based Ikon Realty. "In the heated market, Realtors were the ones that got into this game and they know how to play the game and could be the ones pushing these kinds of schemes."

    Khurram warns that this could be a ploy by Realtors to attract business in a tough market. "It may not be exactly bait-and-switch, but it sounds pretty darn close."

    Local Realtor boards around the country are said to be watching this trend closely to ensure that no illegal activities are being conducted by their members, and also to protect their members' interests, should realtors be cut out of such transactions.

    House-swapping, which sounds like an easy exit, may be fraught with perils.

    • You may not get the exact property you want and may have to settle for something less

    • You don't know who you are dealing with - on the web

    • You may have to buy optional owners title insurance, which adds extra costs at the settlement table, to protect yourself in the event of a bad or shoddy title to the property. Typically, a bank buys title insurance when you buy a property to protect it's interests in the house. But as a buyer purchasing "owners title" is usually optional. Fees for owners title usually runs in the thousands.

    • You may have no legal recourse if the deal goes bad, or there are defects in the house once you've move in, because a licensed Realtor was not involved in the transaction.

    House-swapping may be one strategy that may work in a market that has largely evaporated as buyers shift their momentum toward rent, or rent-with-an-option-to-own programs.

    And searching for a property online for a swap, could be a bit like online dating.

    As they say: "The odds may be good, but the good may be odd."

    As the real estate market deteriorated over the last two years with buyers developing cold feet, web-savvy entrepreneurs sensed an opportunity....
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      Winter Weather Warning for Prius Drivers

      Traction control shuts down engine on slippery surface

      One Vermont Prius driver, suffering through a recent January snowfall, described Toyota Prius traction control as "dangerous in mountainous snow country...

      More Bad News about Cough Medicine

      CDC finds 7,000 children treated in ERs for side effects

      The news about cough medicine just keeps getting worse. Not only is it potentially hazardous to small children and largely ineffective for adults, it can also result in a trip to the hospital.

      Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say an estimated 7,000 children ages 11 and younger are treated in hospital emergency departments each year because of the non-prescription drugs. The study was published online today by the American Academy of Pediatrics journal, Pediatrics.

      This study found that children ages 2 to 5 accounted for 64 percent of all adverse drug events from cough and cold medications, and nearly 80 percent of the events for this age group were from unsupervised ingestions.

      Among all age groups, 93 percent of the children did not require hospital admission, however, one-fourth needed additional treatment to eliminate the medicine from their bodies.

      The CDC researchers reviewed 2004-2005 data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System Cooperative Adverse Drug Event Surveillance project to describe emergency department visits due to cough and cold medications.

      "Parents need to be vigilant about keeping these medicines out of their children's reach," said Dr. Denise Cardo, director of CDC's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. "They should refrain from encouraging children to take medicine by telling the children that medication is candy."

      Cardo also said that adults should avoid taking adult medications in front of young children.

      Recently, such products marketed to infants and toddlers less than 2 years old were voluntarily withdrawn from the market due to safety concerns. The safety of these products for children ages 2 to 11 is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

      The researchers say parents also should not use products intended for older children to treat young children, and, as stated in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's mandated label warning, parents should keep all cough and cold medications out of the reach of children. Parents and caregivers should throw away previously purchased products marketed to infants and toddlers age 2 and younger.

      The over-the-counter cough and cold products examined in this study include these ingredients: decongestants (for unclogging a stuffy nose), expectorants (for loosening mucus so that it can be coughed up), and antitussives (for quieting coughs).

      The medications may also have included antihistamines (for sneezing and runny nose) in combination with the ingredients above. The terms on the label could include "nasal decongestants," "cough suppressants," "expectorants" and "antihistamines."

      The news about cough medicine just keeps getting worse. Not only is it potentially hazardous to small children and largely ineffective for adults....
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      Air Purifiers Under Scrutiny Again

      Ozone-emitting devices may be a health hazard

      Sounds strange but the very device you put in your master bedroom to clear the air may in fact be creating more pollution.

      The Wall Street Journal reports in today's editions that air purifiers may produce a highly-reactive ozone gas, that while being beneficial as a filter of harmful ultra-violet rays, may also be serving as a pollutant on the ground.

      Air purifiers have been a source of controversy for years. In 2005, Consumer Reports magazine said that even the best air cleaner can be a frivolous investment and said there was little evidence that the devices will reduce the effect of indoor pollutants for those with asthma or allergies.

      "Ozone is considered a toxic gas by the EPA, and its adverse effects include lung damage, exacerbated asthma symptoms and, at high levels of exposure, an increased risk of death," said the WSJ report.

      Consumer Reports has reported previously that people with asthma or respiratory allergies are especially sensitive to indoor ozone, an irritant that can worsen asthma, deaden sense of smell, raise sensitivity to pollen and mold, and may cause permanent lung damage.

      Consumers have for years reported their concerns about the unforeseen effects of the devices.

      "I purchased a Living Air Flair in 2004, thinking that I was doing something good for my family because we lived in Valencia, CA where the air quality is often very poor. We used that machine almost daily," said Lindsey of Lincoln, Calif. "My son developed asthma about 2 months after we started using the machine."

      In 2000, a federal judge ordered Alpine Industries, Inc., a Greenville, Tennessee, manufacturer of ozone generating air treatment machines to stop claiming that their machines provide relief from any medical condition or remove a wide variety of indoor air pollutants.

      A jury had earlier determined that the defendants' claims that Alpine machines could control the ambient level of indoor ozone using a sensor installed in the machine were not supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.

      The latest report puts another cloud over the popular retail product, which is today sold by many leading online and retail stores, such as Sharper Image and Brookstone.

      Five specific products, the Zontec Perfect Air 100, Jenesco FM-1 air purifiers, Friedrich C-90B, the Kenmore K6 85264, and the Honeywell QuietClean, were mentioned in the WSJ report.

      Representatives of the air purifier industry defended the products and called for more scientific research.

      One manufacturer was quoted as saying that he was aware of the health hazards posed by some air purifiers. He was quick to add that he warns customers that they should turn on the air purifiers in their homes when they are away -- either at work, or running errands on the weekends.

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC, which has jurisdiction over residential air purifiers, hasn't set ozone limits for such devices," the Journal noted.

      Air purifiers may produce a highly-reactive ozone gas, that while being beneficial as a filter of harmful ultra-violet rays, may also be serving as a pollu...
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      Scam Artists Jump on Tax Rebate Plan

      Need Social Security number to issue check, callers tell victims

      Con artists in Missouri are exploiting consumers' hopes of receiving hundreds of dollars in tax rebates -- proposed under last week's federal economic stimulus package -- in their latest scheme.

      The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) today warned taxpayers that scam artists are contacting consumers at home and claiming to be with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The con artists tell consumers they need their Social Security and bank account numbers to send their rebate checks.

      But this is simply a ploy to steal consumers' identity, FBI officials said.

      "They're calling people on the phone and asking for their personal information, and the people are thinking they're going to get some money quicker than they normally would," Special Agent Jeff Lanza, spokesman with the FBI Bureau in Kansas City, told WDAF-TV.

      Lanza said four Kansas City consumers have received these calls and his office is worried some unsuspecting taxpayers might fall for this scam.

      "It's got credibility because it's been in the news," Lanza told reporters. "Everyone is talking about the rebate. They'll probably get more people to respond because of that."

      Lanza, however, said the IRS would never ask consumers for such personal information over the phone or through e-mail. Neither would any other governmental agency.

      And Congress has not yet approved the tax-rebate plan.

      Consumers who receive these calls should immediately hang up, FBI officials said.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Scam Artists Jump on Tax Rebate Plan: Con artists in Missouri are exploiting consumers' hopes of receiving hundreds of dollars in tax rebates in their late...
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      Retiring Boomers Flock to Rural Areas

      Many move to quieter regions of their home state

      Many baby boomers contemplating retirement are looking for something besides a gated community in the Florida sunshine. After all, this is the generation that defied convention, and those attitudes extend to choosing a place to live once they complete their careers.

      While Florida and Arizona continue to rank at the top of the list of retirement destinations, some non-traditional retirement locales, such as North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, are becoming favorite spots as well, according to Pulte Homes' annual baby boomer survey.

      A MetLife Mature Market study found that 25 percent of retiring boomers say they plan to stay in a different region of their current state.

      A number of rural areas are drawing retirees' attention, offering a break from the hustle and bustle of the urban areas where their jobs are located. In Virginia, a rural peninsula called the Northern Neck, surrounded by Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, has drawn an influx of retirees and boomers who have purchased second homes, with an eye toward retirement.

      Retired nursing professors Ruth Harris (left), Ada Jacox and Carol Spengler, who founded Athena Vineyards in rural Virginia.

      "This area is very rural with a slower pace and a high quality of life, yet is two hours from four major cities," said, Jason Patton, owner/broker at United Country Bay River Realty, in the tiny village of Callao, Virginia.

      In the last five years, baby boomers from Washington, Baltimore, Richmond, Norfolk and other East Coast cities have been buying up property some for weekend homes but an increasing number for full-time residences.

      While there is no way to know how many of the homes built in the last five years are full time residences and how many are vacation properties, anecdotal evidence suggests the number of fulltime residents is rising.

      "I know that I see a lot more cars on the highway now than I did a couple of years ago," said Kenny Eades, Administrator of Northumberland County, one of four counties that make up the Northern Neck. "I used to drive to work without passing another car. Now, there are a lot more."

      Still, "a lot" is a far cry from the chronic traffic congestion for which Virginia's Washington, D.C. suburbs are notorious. Locals say the closest thing to a traffic jam in the Northern Neck is a slow-moving tractor on the highway.

      Lancaster County businessman Shawn Donahue has also seen a large increase in the retiree population. In the last two years Donahue has opened several upscale stores and restaurants, and he says retirees make up a huge percentage of his customers.

      "Retirees probably make up 75 percent of our market," Donahue told "We wouldn't be in business without them."

      Patty Long, Executive Director of the Northern Neck Tourism and Economic Development Council, fields an increasing number of inquiries from people interested in moving to the area. Most, she says, are looking for the same thing.

      "I hear repeatedly that they want a small-town ambiance, safety from crime, and a simpler, hassle-free life," Long said. "The fact that property here is less expensive than in many other areas on the East Coast is an added benefit."

      And those who move to rural areas are not exactly looking to sit on the front porch all day. Most are seeking some form of community involvement, whether it's a second career or volunteer work.

      In the Victorian fishing village of Reedville, Virginia, the Reedville Fishermen's Museum attracts dozens of highly skilled and experienced professionals, who lend their talents to the museum's wide-ranging projects.

      In 2006, when museum volunteers began constructing a replica of the Capt. John Smith Barge, the museum's executive director, Chuck Backus, had a wealth of talent at his disposal that might have cost thousands of dollars in consulting fees if he had to pay for it.

      "During the construction I could look out my office window and watch a retired fishing boat captain working alongside a fourth-generation waterman, alongside a retired Navy test pilot, alongside a curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, alongside a retired steel mill executive," Backus said.

      "It's amazing that we have such a diverse pool of retirees. These are folks who found success at the national and international level. Now they bring these unparalleled skill sets with them in service to our community."

      Of course, many of the "retirees" are not retired at all, but have embarked on new careers most far removed from their previous working lives. In 2002 three nursing professors colleagues for years retired to the Northern Neck and opened a vineyard. With no previous experience, the three women enlisted the help of an experienced winemaker and began growing grapes.

      "We wanted to do something where we could use some of the skills we had honed all our lives, and do something that would make life interesting," said Carol Spengler, one of the three partners in Athena Vineyards.

      The influx of retirees has brought a new demand for services and amenities. Two modern hospitals serve the area and private physician practices continue to grow. Several Richmond-based doctors keep weekly appointments at offices in Kilmarnock, the Northern Neck's largest town. A new cancer center recently opened in Westmoreland County.

      There are very few franchise restaurants, and many residents say that's one of the area's charms it doesn't look like "fast food America." And while there are no Starbucks, the region boasts three independently owned coffee shops that have become focal points in their respective communities.

      To help boomers get better acquainted with the area, the tourism council said it is sponsoring a "pre-retirement tour" May 16-17, inviting prospective retirees to the area to sample the Chesapeake Bay culture and small town atmosphere. Attendees will be given packets of information about the area and directed to a number of festivals, farmers markets and other weekend activities that provide a flavor of the region.

      While there are retirement homes and assisted living communities in the Northern Neck, the region doesn't have any more than you'd find in a typical rural area. Most retirees choose to live in their own homes, many on the water. It's one of the area's strong attractions and Long thinks it will continue to lure the next generation of retirees.

      "Baby boomers have always done things differently, and that's probably going to extended to retirement," she said. "They seem to want the small town life they remember, and we certainly have plenty of that."

      While Florida and Arizona continue to rank at the top of the list of retirement destinations, some non-traditional retirement locales are becoming favorite...
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      Feds Delay Roof Strength Rule

      Safety advocates say latest proposal is inadequate

      Safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are having a difficult time updating the controversial standard for vehicle roof strength.

      The present standard has been on the books since 1971 and a proposed new standard has been repeatedly delayed. Now, NHTSA has asked for yet more information from automakers, safety advocates and the public about the proposed new standards.

      The most recent version of the rule under consideration at NHTSA would require both sides of a vehicle roof to support at least two and half times the vehicle's weight. But safety advocates aren't buying it.

      "The proposal is still a static test -- one based on mathematical calculations, rather than a dynamic physical test -- and it still is at 2.5 times the weight of the vehicle," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, who headed NHTSA from 1977 through 1981..

      The agency has pondered the regulation since the first NHTSA revision of the roof strength rule was panned by both automakers and safety advocates.

      The existing standard mandates that just one side support at least one and half of the weight of a vehicle weight. The initial revision of the roof strength rule from NHTSA required support of two and half times vehicle weight but would have continued testing on one side only.

      NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason now says that double-sided testing is a viable alternative approach.

      Safety activists have demanded a "dynamic" rollover test which would require rolling a moving vehicle to gather data.

      Automakers insist such a test will be costly and accidents involving rollovers include too many variables to design a reliable test.

      Each year, nearly 10,000 people die in rollover crashes but government data suggest that only a small percentage of vehicle occupants are killed by collapsing roofs; most are killed because they aren't wearing seat belts, safety regulators say.

      Claybrook said it's not that simple.

      "The proposal absolutely ignores ejection and containment in the vehicle during rollovers, in which 10,500 people die each year and another 17,000 are seriously injured. To justify a strong rollover protection standard, the agency should address roof crush, ejection and containment as one standard," she said.

      Congress most recently directed NHTSA to adopt a new roof standard by April 2009. NHTSA plans to issue a new rollover rule later this year.

      Feds Delay Roof Strength Rule...
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      EdebitPay Agrees to $2.2 Million Settlement

      Unauthorized debit, deceptive marketing at issue

      A company that marketed Visa- and MasterCard-branded prepaid debit cards to subprime consumers has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it made unauthorized debits from consumers bank accounts and engaged in deceptive marketing practices.

      The settlement requires EdebitPay, LLC, EDP Reporting, LLC, EDP Technologies Corporation, Secure Deposit Card, Inc., Dale Paul Cleveland, and William Richard Wilson, all located in Los Angeles, to pay $2,258,258 for consumer redress, plus the proceeds from the sale of an automobile.

      In addition, Dale Paul Cleveland must pay taxing authorities an additional $667,288.

      According to the FTCs complaint, the defendants marketed bank-issued prepaid debit cards under a variety of names through Web sites and pop-up and e-mail advertisements that directed consumers to sites for the individual cards (including Acclaim Visa, Impact Visa, Sterling Visa, VIP Advantage Visa, Vue Visa, Elite Plus MasterCard, Impact MasterCard, Secure Deposit MasterCard, VIP MasterCard, and Vue MasterCard).

      They also marketed unrelated short-term loans on Web sites such as and

      The complaint also contends that, among other things, the defendants debited, without authorization, a $159.95 application and processing fee from consumers bank accounts, including from consumers who did not submit an online application for the prepaid cards or who had applied for an unrelated short-term loan.

      Under the proposed settlement, the defendants are prohibited from debiting a consumers account or causing billing information to be submitted for payment without first obtaining the consumers express informed consent.

      The order also prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting any fact material to a consumers decision to apply for or purchase any product or service.

      In addition, it requires them to disclose clearly and conspicuously certain material information before a consumer applies for or purchases any product or service, such as any charge that will be assessed against the consumers bank account; any method that will be used to debit the account; that the consumers personally identifiable information will be used to debit the account; that such information will be sold or transferred to third parties for marketing purposes; the material attributes of the product or service being offered; and, if a representation is made about a refund or cancellation policy, a statement of all material terms and conditions of the policy.

      EdebitPay marketed Visa MasterCard-branded prepaid debit cards to subprime consumers has agreed to settle FTC charges that it made unauthorized debits from...
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      High Mercury Levels Found In Sushi

      Study finds high levels in tuna and swordfish sushi

      Millions of consumers who have developed a taste for sushi are getting something else with their meals higher than normal levels of mercury. That's the warning contained in a new report by the conservation group Oceana.

      The group reports recent independent laboratory testing of 94 samples of fish and sushi bought in 26 U.S. cities revealed that the mercury content of fresh tuna and swordfish approaches or exceeds levels that may pose risks to human health, particularly for children and women thinking of having kids.

      The fish tested were purchased at grocery stores and sushi restaurants, and included tuna - both steaks and sushi - swordfish, tilapia and sushi mackerel. The new report also evaluates seafood counter personnel knowledge about the Food and Drug Administration's FDA mercury advisory.

      Some of the test results were surprising and suggest that the FDA and seafood retailers could do more to inform consumers.

      Among the results:

      • The average mercury concentration for tuna steaks bought in grocery stores was 0.68 parts per million (ppm), which is nearly double the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's estimate of 0.38 parts per million for fresh or frozen tuna.

      • Mercury content in sushi tuna was even higher, with an average value of 0.86 ppm. Fully one-third of sushi tuna samples contained mercury exceeding the FDA "action level."

      • When grocery store seafood counter attendants were asked about the FDA's advice about mercury for women thinking of having children, 87 percent gave either incorrect or incomplete information or simply said they did not know.

      • As an alternative to high mercury swordfish and fresh tuna, sushi mackerel and tilapia tested low in mercury.

      In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency and FDA formally advised women of childbearing age and young children that they could eat up to 12 ounces of low mercury seafood per week, but to avoid swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel and shark.

      The agencies also advised that those women and children limit consumption of canned albacore tuna and tuna steaks to six ounces per week or less. Yet the tuna warning is often overlooked or ignored, even though tuna is the most consumed fish and thus the primary source of mercury exposure.

      "We were shocked that mercury levels in tuna were as high as those in many of the fish on FDA's 'do not eat' list," said Oceana senior campaign director, Jacqueline Savitz, who led this project. "If seafood is on the Lent menu, wild salmon or tilapia might be a safer choice so women and kids can get the nutritional benefits of fish without the risks.

      "Unfortunately, most shoppers will not get that message until grocery chains like Costco, Giant Eagle and others get with the program and start posting signs for their customers," Savitz said.

      Simple solutions

      To help consumers make informed seafood choices, Oceana launched its Campaign to Stop Seafood Contamination in 2005, and asked all the major grocery chains nationwide to post the EPA and FDA mercury advice at the point of sale.

      Since then, five major companies, including roughly 3,000 grocery stores, representing about 14 percent of the nation's grocery market, have voluntarily agreed to post this information, according to the group.

      Companies that are actively helping consumers protect their health include Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Safeway, Trader Joe's and some Albertsons stores. Oceana said it is urging the other national grocery chains, including Costco, Giant Food, Publix, A&P and Giant Eagle, to join them.

      Oceana said it recommends that:

      • All grocery stores that sell fish and sushi should post the FDA advice on signs at the point of sale.

      • The FDA should require warning signs to be posted where fish covered by U.S. government advisories are sold, including at grocery store seafood counters.

      • The FDA should consider including fresh tuna (including steaks and sushi) on its "Do Not Eat" list.

      • The FDA should increase the frequency of its testing of commonly consumed fish, especially fresh tuna of all species commonly consumed.

      "The FDA needs to do a much better job of informing Americans about the risk of mercury exposure from fish consumption," said Michael Bender, executive director of the Mercury Policy Project. "These latest tests confirm that the consumer is playing Russian roulette when they are kept in the dark about the mercury levels in tuna and swordfish."

      High Mercury Levels Found In Sushi...
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      Existing Home Sales, Prices Keep Falling

      Re-Fi's up, but potential buyers staying out of the market

      The U.S. housing market ended 2007 with another big decline in sales in December, capping one of the worst markets in a quarter century. The National Association of Realtors reports December sales dropped 2.2 percent to an annual rate of 4.89 million.

      Mortgage applications jumped as homeowners rushed to refinance, hoping to lock in lower interest rates.

      But falling home values are a major cause for concern for both Realtors and homeowners, as December saw a decline in the median price of a single family home. It was the first price decline since the 1960s.

      "Home sales remain weak despite improved affordability conditions in many parts of the country, but we could get a quick boost to the market if loan limits are raised in combination with the bold cut in the Fed funds rate," Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said.

      "Home prices are lower, mortgage interest rates continue to decline and incomes are higher, but many potential buyers are delaying a purchase."

      According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage fell to 6.10 percent in December from 6.21 percent in November; the rate was 6.14 percent in December 2006.

      Last week, Freddie Mac reported the 30-year fixed rate dropped to 5.69 percent.

      "Although interest rates on jumbo loans have fallen somewhat, they remain well above conventional mortgage rates," Yun said. "It isn't surprising that the share of single-family homes selling for more than $500,000 fell to 12.4 percent of transactions in December from 14.2 percent a year ago."

      Total housing inventory fell 7.4 percent at the end of December to 3.91 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 9.6-month supply at the current sales pace, down from a 10.1-month supply in November.

      "The fall in inventory in December is encouraging, but inventories remain elevated and buyers have a clear edge over sellers in many markets," Yun said.

      The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $208,400 in December, down 6.0 percent from a year earlier when the median was $221,600. But the Realtors said that because home sales have slowed the most in higher cost markets, there is a downward distortion to the national median as the mix of closed sales has changed over the past year.

      For all of 2007, the median price was $218,900, down 1.4 percent from a median of $221,900 in 2006.

      Refinancing drives mortgage applications

      People flocking to refinance their existing mortgages pushed mortgage applications up 8.3 percent last week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Associations Weekly Mortgage Applications.

      The MBAs Market Composite Index, a measure of mortgage loan application volume, was 981.5 compared with 906.4 one week earlier, and was up 63.7 percent compared with the same week one year earlier.

      "Refinance applications are up 92% since the beginning of November and purchase applications are up 7%. With tighter credit conditions we do not know how many of these applications will become loans, but it is clear that borrowers are responding to the 40-80 basis point drop in rates we have seen since November 2 across products," said Jay Brinkmann, Vice President of Research and Economics at the Mortgage Bankers Association.

      The Refinance Index increased 16.9 percent to 4178.2 from 3575.5 the previous week and the seasonally adjusted Purchase Index decreased 4.6 percent to 439.9 from 461.2 one week earlier.

      The Conventional Purchase Index decreased 5.5 percent while the Government Purchase Index (largely FHA) increased 1.0 percent. On an unadjusted basis, the Purchase Index increased 1.1 percent to 369.7 from 365.7 the previous week.

      The refinance share of mortgage activity increased to 66.0 percent of total applications from 62.7 percent the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 9.3 from 9.2 percent of total applications from the previous week.

      The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 5.49 percent from 5.62 percent, with points increasing to 1.07 from 0.94 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value (LTV) ratio loans.

      The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 4.96 percent from 5.07 percent, with points increasing to 1.22 from 1.09 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans.

      The average contract interest rate for one-year ARMs decreased to 5.51 percent from 5.77 percent, with points increasing to 1.01 from 1.00 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans.

      Existing Home Sales, Prices Keep Falling...
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      Is Nintendo's Wii Really Good Exercise?

      Study finds health benefits may be oversold

      It may be healthier than sitting on the couch, but an informal research project suggests the health benfits of Nintendo's revolutionary Wii video games hav..

      U.S. Diet Dishes Up Diabetes

      Burgers, fries, soft drinks lead to metabolic syndrome

      Otherwise-healthy adults who eat two or more servings of meat a day -- the equivalent of two burger patties -- increase their risk of developing metabolic syndrome by 25 percent compared with those who eat meat twice a week, according to research published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

      Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of cardiovascular disease and diabetes risk factors including elevated waist circumference, high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL or good) cholesterol and high fasting glucose levels.

      The presence of three or more of the factors increases a persons risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

      But its not just meat that adds inches to the waist, increases blood pressure and lowers HDL -- its fried foods as well, said Lyn M. Steffen, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., co-author of the study and an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota.

      Dairy products, by contrast, appeared to offer some protection against metabolic syndrome.

      Fried foods are typically synonymous with commonly eaten fast foods, so I think it is safe to say that these findings support a link between fast-food consumption and an increase in metabolic risk factors, said Steffen.

      The findings come from an analysis of dietary intake by 9,514 people in the Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities (ARIC) study, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

      Real food, real people

      Unlike other researchers who have investigated relationships between nutrients and cardiovascular risk, we specifically studied food intake. When making recommendations about dietary intake it is easier to do so using the framework of real foods eaten by real people, Steffen said.

      Researchers assessed food intake using a 66-item food frequency questionnaire. From those responses, they categorized people by their dietary preferences into a Western-pattern diet or a prudent-pattern diet.

      In general, the Western-pattern diet was heavy on refined grains, processed meat, fried foods, red meat, eggs and soda, and light on fish, fruit, vegetables and whole grain products.

      Prudent diet eating patterns, by contrast, favored cruciferous vegetables , things like cabbage, radish and broccoli, carotenoid vegetables -- carrots, pumpkins, red pepper, cabbage, broccoli and spinach -- fruit, fish and seafood, poultry and whole grains, along with low-fat dairy.

      Researchers also assessed associations with individual food items: fried foods, sweetened beverages, diet soft drinks, nuts and coffee.

      Nine years

      After nine years of follow-up, nearly 40 percent of the participants had three or more of the risk factors for metabolic syndrome.

      At baseline, participants were 45 to 64 years old -- ages at which many people gain weight.

      Steffen said weight gain over the years of follow-up might explain some of the cases of metabolic syndrome. But after adjusting for demographic factors, smoking, physical activity and energy intake, consumption of a Western dietary pattern was adversely associated with metabolic syndrome, she said.

      One surprising finding was while it didnt increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, there was no evidence of a beneficial effect of consuming a prudent diet either. I had expected to find a beneficial effect because we have seen that in other studies, Steffen added.

      Dairy products beneficial

      When researchers analyzed the results by specific foods, they found that meat, fried foods and diet soda pop all were significantly associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome, but consumption of dairy products was beneficial.

      The study did not address the mechanisms involved in the increased risk of metabolic syndrome seen with certain foods, but Steffen speculated that it may be a fatty acid mechanism since saturated fats are a common link and certainly overweight and obesity are contributing to the development of metabolic syndrome.

      She also said more research on the relationship between diet soda and its association to metabolic syndrome is needed.

      The fact that 60.5 percent of the ARIC population had metabolic syndrome at the start of the study or developed it during nine years of follow-up is troubling, researchers said.

      Steffen said the studys results are clear: Too much meat, fried foods and diet soda, do not add up to a healthy life.


      American Heart Association dietary guidelines for healthy Americans age 2 and older include:

      • Limit saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium in the diet.

      • Minimize the intake of food and beverages with added sugars.

      • Eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole-grain foods.

      • Select fat-free and low-fat dairy.

      • Eat fish at least twice per week.

      • Emphasize physical activity and weight control.

      • Avoid use of and exposure to tobacco products.

      • Achieve and maintain healthy cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

      U.S. Diet Dishes Up Diabetes...
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      Instant Tax Refund Always Carries a Price

      Nothing free about refund anticipation loans

      It's another income tax filing season, and that means consumer organizations are renewing their warnings to taxpayers to avoid "refund anticipation loans," normally targeted at low-income, cash-strapped consumers.

      What exactly is a refund anticipation loan?

      H&R Block, the nationwide financial services firm that pioneered the RAL, settled a class action lawsuit in 2006 that challenged the fees and interest rates it charged for refund anticipation loans. Now, on its Web site, it offers this disclosure to consumers:

      "A refund anticipation loan is a short-term loan secured by a taxpayer's anticipated federal income tax refund. The loan is made by a third-party lending bank and facilitated by H&R Block in its tax offices. "Taxpayers choose refund anticipation loans because they can receive money in one to two days, compared to waiting up to 15 days for a tax refund to be directly deposited into their existing bank account or three to eight weeks for a mailed IRS refund check."

      Note the time difference in when the taxpayer receives the money -- one or two days with an RAL, but "up to 15 days" by simply waiting for the refund from the IRS. So, what does it cost to save 10 or twelve days?

      "There are two bank fees associated with a RAL: a refund account fee and a finance charge," H&R Block says on its Web site.

      The amount of the fees varies, but when measured as payment for a loan of less than two weeks, the annual interest rate can be extremely high.

      Low-income taxpayers targeted

      "RALs continue to drain over a billion dollars from the pockets of American taxpayers including Earn Income Tax Credit recipients," said the Center For Responsible Lending, in a statement.

      The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable credit provided through the tax system and intended to boost low-wage workers out of poverty. The EITC is the largest federal anti-poverty program providing over $38.7 billion to 22 million families in 2004.

      So, even though these wage earners paid little or nothing in the way of taxes, they are entitled under the EITC to sometimes fairly large tax refunds. Consumer groups argue that many RALs are targeted at this group.

      In 2007 H&R Block introduced an option to its RAL program that adds even more fees. Now, instead of receiving a check or having the loan amount deposited directly in a bank account, taxpayers may get their loan proceeds on plastic.

      Prepaid credit cards

      "This year, clients can receive the proceeds of their loan payment on the H&R Block Emerald Prepaid MasterCard, which is tied to an FDIC-insured bank account," said Tim Gokey, President, H&R Block Retail Tax Services, in January 2007. "Clients can direct deposit funds to the account year-round with no fee for point-of-sale purchases, have access to a worldwide ATM network, and can avoid expensive check-cashing fees."

      While the card might prove convenient for someone who does not have a bank account, it does not come without fees.

      First, the user is charged $1.85 each time the card is used at an in-network ATM. There is an additional fee if the ATM is outside the network, and you may be charged, even if you don't complete the transaction. To add insult to injury, if you are denied cash when using your card at an ATM, you are charged 50 cents.

      While Internet account balance inquiries are free, you will be charged $1 a month for a statement through the mail. Need to talk to a customer service rep? It'll cost you $2.

      Really free

      But regardless of how the loan is paid, state attorneys general and consumer groups are nearly unanimous in their advice to consumers to avoid RALs in any form.

      "Taxpayers can save themselves expensive fees by saying 'no' to RALs," said the National Consumer Law Center and Consumer Federation of America, in a joint report. "If they want quick refunds, they can get them in two weeks or less by filing their tax returns electronically and having refunds directly deposited into their own bank accounts. That's a FREE quick refund."

      Instant Tax Refund Always Carries a Price...
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      Battat Recalls 'Magnabild' Magnetic Construction Sets

      January 23, 2008 
      Battat Inc. is recalling about 125,000 'Magnabild' magnetic building sets.

      Small magnets inside the building pieces can fall out. Magnets found by young children can be swallowed or aspirated. If more than one magnet is swallowed, the magnets can attract each other and cause intestinal perforations or blockages, which can be fatal.

      CPSC and Battat have received 16 reports of magnets coming out of the long flexible rods, 1-inch rods, and of the corners of square building pieces. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves the 293-piece (item number BB1502H) and the180-piece (item number BB1431H) Magnabild Magnetic Building System sets.

      Both sets come in rotating display cases that contain 1-inch and 4-inch rods with magnets, curved 1-inch rods, triangle and square pieces with magnets, square-shaped plastic building pieces, triangles and 5-sided pieces, and metal balls. The pieces come in different colors. All of the plastic building pieces, except the 4-inch flexible rods, have the word Magnabild in raised lettering on them. The item number is found on a hang tag attached to the set. The product is designed for children older than three years.

      The sets, manufactured in China, were sold at various retailers nationwide and online sellers from 2005 through 2007 for between $30 and $40.

      Consumers should immediately take the recalled Magnabild Magnetic Building System away from children and contact Battat to receive a pre-paid mailer to return the toy and to receive a free replacement product.

      Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact Battat at (800) 247-6144 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or visit the firms Web site at

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

      Battat Recalls 'Magnabild' Magnetic Construction Sets...
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      Cough Medicine Might Not Help Adults, Either

      Industry-backed studies more positive than others

      There's been plenty of research lately saying many non-prescription cough medicines don't help children with colds and might even cause harm. Now there's a study suggesting they don't help adults much, either.

      "I do not give my kids over-the-counter cough medicine," said Thomas Fahey, professor of general practice at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Medical School and review co-author. "I do not advise my patients to do so."

      In their review, Fahey and colleagues looked at both children- and adult-focused studies. Some reported that OTC cough medicines helped patients; others said they did not. With conflicting evidence, the various studies presented a non-cohesive picture.

      Conflicts of interest?

      Another issue concerned the researchers, who wrote, "Six out of the nine studies that were supported by the pharmaceutical industry showed positive results compared to three positive studies out of 16 trials that did not report any conflict of interest."

      On the other hand, "Most preparations appear to be safe based on those studies reporting side effects, which only described a low incidence of mainly minor adverse effects," the researchers found.

      The review of the studies appears in the latest issue of The Cochrane Library, a publication of The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research. Systematic reviews like this one draw evidence-based conclusions about medical practice after considering both the content and quality of existing medical trials on a topic.

      The Cochrane review encompassed 25 studies, 17 of which involved 2,876 adults and eight of which involved 616 children.

      During the past decade, physicians have increasingly voiced concerns about these medicines and the potential for overdosing young children.

      In August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned parents not to give over-the-counter cough and cold remedies to children under 2 years old without a doctor's approval. During a hearing before an FDA panel in October, federal health advisers said that children younger than six years should not take the medicines.

      Cure worse than the disease?

      Is it even necessary to cure a cough?

      People often worry about a cough if it has not gone away after a week, Fahey said. Actually, the duration of a cough is commonly two weeks in children and three weeks in adults.

      "I think there's the laymen's perception," Fahey said. The common conclusion is that "something should be done about it. It [coughing] is troublesome at night. But it is not a bad thing to be coughing. It could be helpful. It is a mechanism for shedding viruses."

      Cough Medicine Might Not Help Adults, Either...
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      De Beers Settles Class Action Suit

      Consumers, diamond merchants to split $297 million

      De Beers, the world's largest diamond importer, settled a class action lawsuit Monday worth $297 million, which would be divided roughly in half between consumers and diamond merchants and resellers.

      The lawsuit charged that De Beers and its subsidiaries violated antitrust, unfair competition and consumer-protection laws by monopolizing diamond supplies, and conspired to control the diamond prices by fixing and raising them as per their discretion.

      The South African company, which controls 40 percent of the world's diamond trade. was also charged with false advertising.

      Under the settlement, De Beers would pay $22.5 million to the "direct purchaser class members and $272.5 million to "indirect purchaser class members."

      Consumers who purchased diamonds from De Beers directly or indirectly between 1994 and 2006 will be eligible to receive a rebate. The rebate amount will be determined based on the quality of the diamond.

      The case is being heard in the US District Court for the District of New Jersey. The next hearing in the case is set for April 14.

      Diamond buyers have until May 19 to file a claim by going to

      The lawsuit charged that De Beers and its subsidiaries violated antitrust, unfair competition and consumer-protection laws by monopolizing diamond supplies...
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      Florida Sues Two Website Marketers

      'Business opportunities' deceptive, suit charges

      Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum has filed a lawsuit against two Utah companies for allegedly using deceptive practices to get consumers to buy expensive website-creation products and services.

      Imergent, Inc., and StoresOnline, Inc., run seminars in Florida and other states at which they tell consumers they can make a fortune doing business on the internet with the companies' software and related services.

      According to the lawsuit, the companies mislead consumers into thinking their products are easy to use and that they will provide technical support and business partners.

      "Many Florida consumers have been victimized by these types of get-rich-quick schemes and this type of behavior will not be permitted to continue," McCollum said.

      Imergent and StoresOnline lure consumers to seminars at local hotels and other venues with offers of "free training," free meals and free gifts, the complaint alleges. Teams from the companies were in Central Florida late last year and are expected to be in North Florida in the near future.

      More than 80 Florida consumers have complained to the Attorney General about the companies, which frequently make sales presentations in Florida. The complaints state that after paying thousands of dollars, consumers found the software and services were impossible to use and they couldn't get the technical assistance that was promised.

      Instead of providing help, Imergent and StoresOnline referred buyers to other companies with which they have contracts and, according to the lawsuit, these companies wanted consumers to pay thousands more. The lawsuit further alleges the companies failed to deliver on helping consumers find business partners whose products could also be sold.

      The companies also have lawsuits pending against them by Attorneys General in North Carolina, Illinois and California. Other complaints have led to consumer protection agreements in Indiana, Louisiana, Texas and Utah, as well as Australia.

      McCollums lawsuit is seeking compensation for buyers and penalties under the states Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The lawsuit also calls for changes in the companies' practices including full disclosure of the limited scope of technical assistance.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Bill McCollum has filed a lawsuit against two Utah companies for allegedly using deceptive practices to get consumers to buy expensive website-creation pro...
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      States Gear Up to Fight Foreclosure Rescue Scams

      'Rescue' schemes often make matters worse for troubled homeowners

      The wave of foreclosures has brought even more pain to some strapped homeowners a wave of mortgage rescue scams. Some attorneys general are gearing up to counter these fraudulent operations.

      In Iowa, Attorney General Tom Miller has drafted a package of legislation providing new safeguards to people taking out mortgages.

      Miller's package also contains a bill that directly addresses mortgage foreclosure rescue fraud scams that prey on people facing foreclosure by asking them to pay hundreds of dollars for so called assistance or "rescue" from the danger of foreclosure.

      "The problem is these 'rescue scams' just take people's money and fail to do almost anything to help them avoid foreclosure," Miller said. "And they take precious funds from people who are vulnerable and who can least afford to be cheated. This is the definition of adding insult to injury."

      Dan and Patricia Potter, Des Moines residents who were the victims of a questionable foreclosure "rescue" scheme, joined Miller at a news conference last week.

      The Potters were in danger of foreclosure, and paid $795 to a company that claimed it would set up arrangements to help them stay out of foreclosure. But Miller said the company made no attempt to make the arrangements, and then insisted on another $500 payment. The Potters were able to recover about half of the $795.

      "Foreclosure rescue scams are just starting to appear in Iowa," Miller said. "It's a symptom of the overall climate of an avalanche of foreclosures here and all over the country. We need this legislation to prevent the problem flaring up here as it has in many other places," he said.

      In Indiana, Attorney General Steve Carter filed a lawsuit against Indianapolis-based Capital Foreclosure, Inc. seeking nearly $20,000 in restitution for customers and an injunction to halt the company and its operators from illegal practices.

      "Some people lost their homes after placing their trust with this company," Carter said. "The company exploited the vulnerability of its customers who faced foreclosure."

      Carter says nearly 20 people sought "foreclosure rescue" and credit counseling services from Capital Foreclosure and its operators, Eriq Brye, Kenneth Brye and Sallie Brye. Individuals paid fees and other costs that ranged from $40 to as high as $4,100.

      The attorney general's office is seeking customer restitution totaling $19,176 and penalties and costs of up to $5,500 per violation.

      Miller, meanwhile, says foreclosure rescue scams take money people desperately need to address their foreclosure situation, and they may cause people to delay authentic efforts to modify a mortgage and come to terms with lenders that the borrower can afford.

      "Some rescue scams specifically tell people not to contact their lender or loan servicer, and that can just make matters worse," he said.

      Wave of foreclosures has brought even more pain to some strapped homeowners a wave of mortgage rescue scams. Some attorney general are ready to counter the...
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      Keeping Teens Safe Online

      Navigating the treacherous streets of MySpace

      There is one thing about being a teen that every generation experiences. A teen must have a place to hang out, a place to meet and socialize with friends.

      For some of us it might have been the malt shop, for others the mall.

      For today's teen, it's the Internet, especially MySpace, Facebook and other networking sites. These sites generally offer an excellent way for teens to keep up with their friends while making new friends along with the way.

      MySpace has grown to be the behemoth of the social networking websites, thanks in part to its openness that allows teens to be, well, open. But it's this openness that has created a headache for parents, teachers, teens, while raising serious issues of privacy and safety.

      Trying to restore its good name -- and to relieve mounting legal pressure from 49 states and the District of Columbia -- MySpace recently agreed to implement new measures to protect young users from sexual predators. Earlier MySpace had deleted the profiles of approximately 29,000 known sex offenders and predators.

      But deleting known predators doesn't solve the problem of young people who inadvertently give away too much information about themselves, or who, like 13-year-old Megan Meier, fall victim to hoaxes or harrassment.

      While recent research suggests that posting personal information is only one type of behavior that is linked to victimization, there is no doubt that a teen girl who posts too much information makes it much easier for anyone -- cyber-bully, ex-boyfriend or predator -- to find her.

      The acid test

      So, just how effective is MySpace's latest attempt to safeguard teens? We decided to find out for ourselves how difficult it would be to track down teens or their parents. Turns out, it wasn't difficult at all.

      We began by browsing profiles of 18-year-old females in the Midwest, something that any non-MySpace member can do. Out of the first 50 profiles, 36 were set on "public," which meant that we could see the information even though we were not a MySpace member.

      Amazingly, many profiles included details such as where the girl worked, where she went to school, and her first and last name. Additionally, some included cell phone numbers.

      After contacting the local police departments to let them know what we were doing, we called the girls, either at their work or cell phone numbers. Every girl was shocked that we found her.

      We asked a very simple question: What were you thinking when you posted all of your personal information? We heard the same answers each time: "I thought that only my friends would see it," or "I didn't think anything, I just did it."

      Unfortunately, this behavior is not uncommon. You might ask how anyone can be so open and naive as to post an abundance of personal information to the world, especially when it involves a teen girl.

      While it is sometimes argued that the problem is a lack of parental involvement, there are also some profound developmental issues to deal with.

      Teenagers' brains aren't fully developed yet," said Anne Collier, co-director of, and co-author of MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking.

      "The frontal lobe -- the executive part of the brain that controls impulses and thinks through the implications of actions -- isn't developed until people reach their early 20s," Collier said.

      This explains a lot about why teen-aged boys get in as much trouble as they do, but while girls may be generally better behaved, that doesn't mean they aren't also at risk of thoughtlessly putting themselves in danger.

      A profile

      For our next experiment, we created a MySpace profile and did a random search for 16- and 17-year-old girls. We clicked on each of the first 100 profiles that appeared.

      Out of the 100, not one profile was set on "private," a feature that would have required the teen to add us to her "friends" list before we could view her entire page.

      Many of the profiles included so much personal information that a reader would probably know more about the girl than her own parents would. It was markedly worse if the teen included a third-party "survey" on her profile. These surveys are in a question-and-answer format and will ask everything from middle and last name to shoe size.

      Although we did not contact any of these girls directly, we did easily track down some of their parents. Most were upset about what their teen had posted, while one mother said that she had previously disconnected the home Internet connection because of this very problem. Her child had simply created and updated the profile from school or elsewhere.

      Many adults will remember the days of writing in a diary, and there is a good chance you wanted that diary to include a lock. The only way to read your diary was to use the little key that you had hidden away from the world.

      Today's teens use MySpace and other social networking sites as their diaries, but instead of trying to lock their diary (by putting their profile on private), many teens simply leave their diary open to the world.

      "Part of the problem is that the Internet makes it hard to visualize the breadth of our exposure," said Daniel J. Solove, author of The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet.

      "Placing information on a website and writing blog posts and comments feels more akin to chatting with friends, writing a diary, or talking on the telephone than like broadcasting live on television, publishing a novel, or addressing a crowded auditorium," Daniel said.

      What to do

      What's a parent to do?

      Solove recommends that every parent and educator needs to fully understand the potential dangers and problems, then pass that information on to their kids.

      "It is very difficult to force MySpace or Facebook, which have hundreds of millions of profiles, to monitor each one," stated Daniel. "Parents should know what MySpace and Facebook are; they should know what a blog is; they should find out what their children are posting online; and they should teach them about the consequences and how to post responsibly."

      Online safety expert Collier agreed.

      "I'd tell parents to keep those lines of communication with your teenager as open as possible," she said. "Don't overreact or try to ban the Internet, because that's what sends teenagers underground, where they can run into even more trouble than if they're socializing online more openly, with you around."

      A parent can't monitor a child's every online move when their son or daughter is away from home, but every parent has a choice of tools that can be used on their home computer. While filtering software will block certain sites, a teen can easily access the blocked site from another location.

      However, monitoring software can track what your child is saying and seeing, at least on your home computer.

      From chat rooms to MySpace, monitoring software can record the keystrokes and online activities of your child and can send you a "log" of your child's activities online.

      Check out GetNetWise for a list of tools.

      Most of all, parents can't give up.

      "Parents who care enough to ask how to keep their kids safe are the very parents who most probably -- statistically -- have little to worry about," advised Collier.

      Keeping Teens Safe Online...
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      IRS May Limit 'Instant Refund' Loans

      No reason to give money away, consumer groups advise

      With the opening of another tax season, the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) and Consumer Federation of America (CFA) are warning taxpayers to steer clear of refund anticipation loans (RALs), one of the most avoidable tax-time expenses.

      New figures reveal that RALs drained the refunds of nearly 9 million American taxpayers in 2006. This figure has declined from a high of 12.4 million in 2004, but still represents $900 million in loan fees, plus over $90 million in other fees.

      In addition, another 10.8 million taxpayers spent $324 million on other types of financial products to receive their refunds.

      The price of RALs has declined significantly for some of the biggest players in the industry, introducing new price competition. Even with lower prices, however, consumer advocates urged taxpayers to avoid RALs.

      Taxpayers can save themselves loan fees altogether by just saying no to quick refund loans, advised NCLC Staff Attorney Chi Chi Wu. Taxpayers shouldnt forget that these are loans, and they carry the risk of loans, including unmanageable debt if your refund doesnt arrive as expected.

      RALs are bank loans secured by the taxpayers expected refund -- loans that last about 7-14 days until the actual IRS refund repays the loan. Thats the first indicator of just how unnecessary most RALs are: Most taxpayers could have their refund in two weeks or less even without the costly loan.

      For a free quick refund, file electronically and have your refund direct deposited to your own bank account, says Jean Ann Fox, Director of Financial Services for CFA, Youll generally receive an e-filed, direct deposit refund within 8 to 15 days.

      Using the most recent data available from the IRS, NCLC and CFA calculate that approximately 9 million taxpayers received RALs in the 2006 tax-filing season (for tax year 2005). For that year alone, about 1 in 14 tax returns involved a RAL.

      Although high, that 9 million figure is much lower than the high of 12.4 million RALs reported for 2004. Part of the 2006 decline, however, is probably due to better reporting.

      In 2006, the IRS required tax preparers for the first time to separately report RALs versus non-loan refund anticipation check (RACs) products. Thus, prior data may have included RACs that were erroneously reported by tax preparers as RALs.

      The IRS data for the first time help determine the amount taxpayers paid for RACs. In 2006, nearly 10.8 million taxpayers received a RAC, at a cost of about $324 million. Taxpayers who have a bank account can avoid the expense of a RAC (generally about $30) by having their refunds direct deposited into their account, which is just as fast.

      In addition, Block customers who received the Emerald Card last year can have their refunds direct deposited onto those cards, and avoid a RAL or RAC.

      The price of a RAL includes several components

      • A loan fee ranging from $32 to $130, which is usually broken down into a Refund Account fee and a Bank Fee.

      • A separate fee charged by the tax preparer, often called an application or processing fee, of about $40. H&R Block does not charge this fee. Jackson Hewitt does not charge the fee in its company-owned stores, but some franchisees might charge a fee.

      In general, the effective annual interest rate (APR) for a RAL can range from about 50% to nearly 500%. If application fees are charged and included in the calculation, the effective APRs range from about 80% to nearly 1,200%.

      Block and JPMorgan Chase have lowered their RAL fees, claiming that these loans bear an effective APR of 36%, which is the traditional small loan rate cap in many states.

      However, these figures do not include the Refund Account fee, which they claim is for the temporary account into which the taxpayers refund is later deposited to repay the RAL. If the Refund Account Fee is included, it more than doubles the APR.

      Nonetheless, Block and JPMorgans price reductions do represent a real and significant reduction in cost to consumers. For example, a RAL in the amount of $2,600, which is the average refund, costs from $57.85 to $110. Taxpayers should avoid RALs in the first place; but if they insist on getting one, they should shop around.

      Tax preparers and their bank partners also offer an instant same day RAL for an additional fee, from $25 to $85. Some of the APRs for an instant RAL of about $1,500 are 168% (Block) and 192% (Chase). Santa Barbara Bank & Trust offers an instant RAL of $1,000, which if the taxpayer applies for a traditional RAL, may be repaid from the proceeds of the second loan. In that case, the instant RAL could be a 1-day loan that carries an APR of over 1400%.

      On January 3, 2008, the IRS issued a request for comments regarding whether it should develop rules restricting the sharing of tax return information to market RALs, RACs, audit insurance and other financial products typically sold to low-income taxpayers.

      It appears that the IRS has taken a modest, but positive step, toward RAL reform. However, the critical question is whether the IRS will actually take action after receiving comments, and write tough rules governing RALs.

      IRS May Limit 'Instant Refund' Loans...
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      650,000 Retail Customers Exposed In Data Breach

      Lost data storage tape contains info from JC Penney, others

      A data tape containing information on 650,000 retail customers went missing from the Iron Mountain data storage company's vaults in October, the company reports. The missing tape contains personal information from customers of J.C. Penney and 100 other retailers, including 150,000 Social Security numbers.

      The loss was discovered when GE Money, the financial services branch of General Electric and payment processor for many retail operations, requested the tape from Iron Mountain.

      According to Iron Mountain, the tape was never checked out but could not be found. Representatives of the company claim that there was no evidence the information had been used for identity theft, and that accessing the information on the tape would be difficult without "specialized knowledge."

      An accidental loss of a back-up tape is not an identity theft issue or a crime; it is distinctly different from previous cases of malicious hacking or PC theft," the company said. "Since we notified GE Money of the missing back-up tape in October, there has been no evidence to suggest that any person's identity has been compromised as a result. And we don't know of any incident, ever, when a lost back-up tape has resulted in identity theft."

      Iron Mountain boasts on its Web site that it is "the leader in records and document management, so we know how to protect personal information. We use the strictest safeguards, including encryption, access controls, firewalls, intrusion detection, virus protection, and secure data destruction. We also have redundant systems, to ensure fast recovery in the event of a disaster."

      "You can absolutely depend on Iron Mountain to secure your backup data and ensure quick recovery of your vital information in the event of a loss," the company advertises.

      GE Money has offered to pay for a year's worth of credit monitoring for affected customers.

      Since the discovery of the tape and investigation of the incident, the company has sent letters to customers informing them "We have no reason to believe that anyone has accessed or misused your information. The pieces of information on the tape would not be enough to open new accounts in your name, and we have implemented internal monitoring to protect your account number from misuse due to this incident."

      Covering the tracks

      Exact links between data breaches and identity theft can be difficult to trace, due to many factors, such as the amount of lost or stolen records, what kind of information was lost, and "synthetic identity theft."

      Synthetic identity theft involves taking pieces of different people's personal information and combining them into a new identity, making its misuse harder to distinguish as fraudulent.

      A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that law enforcement agencies often could not track cases of identity theft back to data breaches, as some instances of fraud did not occur until a year or more after the breach.

      And the amount of exposed personal information continues to grow apace. According to the watchdog Identity Theft Resource Center's 2007 data breach report, there were 448 data breaches last year, exposing over 127 million personal information records to potential identity theft or fraud.

      The missing tape contains personal information from customers of J.C. Penney and 100 other retailers, including 150,000 Social Security numbers....
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      Kids Cough Medicine Recalled Over Dosing Issue

      Warning doesn't go far enough, Public Citizen charges

      This just in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued an advisory on cough and cold products for children, three months after the drug manufacturers themselves warned the products might be harmful to children under age two.

      In a Public Health Advisory for parents and caregivers, the agency recommends that over-the-counter cough and cold products should not be used to treat infants and children less than 2 years of age because serious and potentially life-threatening side effects can occur.

      Most U.S. pharmacies began to remove those products after the drug company's warning, issued on October 12, 2007. However, the recall was voluntary and not all of the products were immediately removed.

      The consumer organization Public Citizen said the FDA's warning is not only late but inadequate.

      "By simply warning parents not to administer over-the-counter cough and cold remedies to children under the age of two, the FDA has failed to properly address the glaring risks presented by this category of drugs," Public Citizen said.

      In fact, the group said, there is no evidence that these products are safe and effective for children over the age of two the group said. The agency didnt even follow the recommendation of its own advisory committee, which voted on Oct. 19 to limit these products to children over the age of 6, Public Citizen charged.

      Drugmakers have long claimed that pediatric cough and cold preparations, made popular through heavy marketing of a dizzying variety of combination products in child-friendly flavors, provide relief for cough and cold symptoms but Public Citizen said the products have never been proven to be effective.

      Ineffective, unsafe

      The advisory committee declared the products were ineffective in younger children, but we were not able to identify a single adequately designed study that compared the efficacy of these products in older and younger children, Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizens Health Research Group. Thus the products efficacy remains unproven in all children under the age of 12.

      The companies have known for decades that their products are unproven, yet they have continued to foist them on concerned parents who believe that the FDA protects them and their children from ineffective medications, said Lurie.

      Simply because these drugs are well-tolerated by many children is not an adequate rationale for allowing them on the market. The law is clear that ineffective medications are not to be sold, no matter how safe they appear to be, he said.

      Adverse effects

      This week's FDA advisory stated that there are a wide variety of rare, serious adverse events reported with cough and cold products. They include death, convulsions, rapid heart rates, and decreased levels of consciousness.

      "The FDA strongly recommends to parents and caregivers that OTC cough and cold medicines not be used for children younger than 2," said Charles Ganley, M.D., director of the FDA's Office of Nonprescription Products. "These medicines, which treat symptoms and not the underlying condition, have not been shown to be safe or effective in children under 2."

      The announcement does not include the FDA's "final" recommendation about use of OTC cough and cold medicines in children ages 2 to 11 years. The agency's review of data for 2-to-11-year-olds is continuing, according to the FDA. The agency said it would issue its recommendations on use of the products in children ages 2 to 11 years as soon as the review is complete.

      The FDA said that pending completion of the FDA's ongoing review, parents and caregivers that choose to use OTC cough and cold medicines to children ages 2 to 11 years should:

      • Follow the dosing directions on the label of any OTC medication,

      • Understand that these drugs will NOT cure or shorten the duration of the common cold,

      • Check the "Drug Facts" label to learn what active ingredients are in the products because many OTC cough and cold products contain multiple active ingredients, and

      • Only use measuring spoons or cups that come with the medicine or those made specially for measuring drugs.

      The FDA recommends that anyone with questions contact a physician, pharmacist or other health care professional to discuss how to treat a child with a cough or cold.

      October recall

      In October, Wyeth Pharmaceutical recalled some childrens cough medicine because the bottle caps, used to measure dosage, dont accurately mark the half-teaspoon level recommended for children ages 2 to 5.

      The recall affected several Robitussin products and Childrens Dimetapp Cold & Chest Congestion.

      While the company said there was nothing wrong with the medicine, dosage can be critically important when administered to young children. Public health officials, including the City of Baltimore Health Department, recently asked the Food and Drug Administration to ban cough medicines for kids because overdosing can cause serious injury and even death.

      A taste of honey

      A natural solution to the problem may be at hand.

      A study published in December found that a single dose of buckwheat honey before bedtime provided the greatest relief from cough and sleep difficulty compared with no treatment and an over-the-counter cough medicine in children with upper respiratory tract infections.

      The study was published in the December issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

      Kids Cough Medicine Recalled Over Dosing Issue...
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      Researchers Accuse Pharmas of 'Disease Mongering'

      Drugs for 'pre-osteoporosis' unnecessary and potentially harmful, researchers charge

      Pharmaceutical companies push a number of drugs to treat pre-osteoporosis or "osteopenia," but are they really necessary?

      New research published in the British Medical Journal suggests millions of low risk women are being encouraged to seek treatment and take drugs they don't need.

      The authors don't mince words, calling it "a classic case of disease-mongering: a risk factor being transformed into a medical disease in order to sell tests and drugs to relatively healthy people."

      Osteopenia or "pre-osteoporosis" is said to affect around half of all older women and, in at least one country, drug companies have already begun to market their drugs to women with osteopenia, based on re-analyses of four osteoporosis drug trials.

      But the authors, led by Pablo Alonso-Coello of Hospital de Sant Pau in Barcelona, argue the move raises serious questions about the benefit-risk ratio for low risk individuals, and about the costs of medicalizing and potentially treating an enormous group of healthy people.

      "These re-analyses tend to exaggerate the benefits of drug therapy," the researchers write. "For example, the authors of one reanalysis cite a 75 percent relative risk reduction, though this translates into only a 0.9 percent reduction in absolute risk.

      In other words, up to 270 women with pre-osteoporosis might need to be treated with drugs for three years so that one of them could avoid a single vertebral fracture.

      Most of the re-analyses also play down the risks of drug therapy, they add. For example, the reanalysis of data for the drug raloxifene focuses solely on the potential benefits, with no mention of an increased risk of blood clots.

      "Finally, like much of the published literature on osteoporosis, these analyses have potential conflicts of interest, the authors write. "For instance, all of the original drug trials being re-analyzed were funded by industry and, in three out of four cases, drug company employees were part of the team conducting the reanalyses."

      The World Health Organization is currently developing guidance on how to deal with women categorized as having osteopenia.

      "We need to ask whether the coming wave of marketing targeting those women with pre-osteoporosis will result in the sound effective prevention of fractures or the unnecessary and wasteful treatment of millions more healthy women," the authors conclude.

      Researchers Accuse Pharmas of 'Disease Mongering': Drugs for 'pre-osteoporosis' unnecessary and potentially harmful, researchers charge....
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      Ford Fire Hazard Recall Creeps Along

      Parts shortages delay repairs of fire-prone Fords

      More than 1.8 million Ford Motor Co. cars and trucks remain at risk of erupting into flames 5 months after the automaker recalled an additional 3.6 million vehicles because of a fire hazard in the cruise control system.

      Ford initially promised parts would be available for the massive recall to repair the vehicles by October 2007. The automaker then said the parts will not be available until later in 2007.

      An Oregon family's F-150 burst into flames in the driveway. Reader photo.

      When Ford first announced the delay because of a parts shortage, the automaker said there have been no supply problems for parts for SUVs. That is no longer true.

      The badly needed parts are still in short supply and discouraging some Ford truck owners from responding to the recall. Because Ford dealers are unable to accomplish the required repairs, as a temporary fix they disconnect the cruise control system when consumers respond to their notice from Ford.

      A Ford spokesman insists the automaker is doing all it can to complete the fire hazard recall.

      This was a large recall, and we're working with the supplier to meet the volume challenge as soon as possible, said Ford spokesman Dan Jarvis.

      Devastating consequences

      The continuing parts delay adds to mounting confusion in an already troubling situation for many Ford consumers faced with the cruise control recall. The consequences are sometimes devastating.

      An Oregon family lost their truck and almost lost their home to a fire that originated in their Ford truck.

      Friday January 11, 2008 my husband came home from work at 5:30 and parked his 2001 F-150 Supercrew in the driveway, they wrote. Just 45 minutes later the truck was fully engulfed in flames.

      Our garage door and siding on the front of our house was damaged but not destroyed. The truck on the other hand is a total loss, the wife said.

      The Oregon truck was part of the Ford recall, according to the owner.

      When we got the letter regarding the recall we called Ford and they said that they didn't have the part that was required to fix it but that since our cruise control wasn't working (It had stopped working about 2 months before the fire) it must already be disconnected and we should be fine, said the truck owner, who asked not to be publicly identified.

      The truck owner reports that Ford told them fires are rare so I wouldn't worry. From the sounds of all these stories they are not as rare as they would like the consumer to believe.

      The struggling automaker continues to insist the company is responding adequately in an effort to notify Ford customers to return their vehicles to a Ford dealership for repair of the fire hazard.

      We have sent multiple mailings to customers, based on current vehicle registrations, asking them to bring in vehicles. I dont have an exact figure, but about half of the total have done so to date. We have one of the highest return rates in the industry, based on update registration info, and sending multiple mailings, Ford spokesman Jarvis said in an email response to

      Liability waiver

      Some Ford dealers now require customers who decline to disconnect the cruise control system to sign a waiver of liability.

      A Florida woman with a Ford Econoline Van equipped with hand controls for a wheel chair faced the demand that she sign the waiver. I need my cruise control if I have to travel any amount of distance, she wrote.

      It has been since September 7 I have been waiting to get my van fixed, said this Ford owner. I tried to get Ford to fix the problem but they just want to plug it back in and if I sign the waiver and something happens they will no longer be responsible for any damages, she said.

      A Ford Explorer owner in Bainbridge Island, Washington is not satisfied with the automakers explanation.

      They say the part is back ordered. I also understand that this part was originally found unsafe back in 2005 although I was only notified in August 2007, he said.

      In San Jose, California another Ford owner encountered similar treatment.

      My local Ford dealer disconnected my cruise control in November 2007, saying that it was required if I was to get the defective part replaced but he could not replace the part because of a backlog on the part and that it would take one month, the owner wrote.

      Now it's been over 2 months and my dealer has no estimate on a replacement part. The dealer said that I could reconnect the cruise control but if the car caught on fire it would be my problem, he said.

      Back in Bainbridge Island, Washington that explanation has a hollow ring. I would like someone to put a fire under them, because they are not motivated to replace the item once they've disconnected it, the Explorer owner concluded.

      Ford Fire Hazard Recall Creeps Along...
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      Tax Breaks for Family Caregivers

      Elderly parents may qualify as dependents

      If youre supporting an elderly parent, you may qualify for some tax relief if you pass Uncle Sams tax test. Heres what you should know.

      If youre supporting your elderly mother (or father), to get a tax deduction, youll need to claim her or him as a dependent on your tax return. For the 2007 tax year, claiming an additional personal exemption would reduce your taxable income by $3,400. But to get this tax break, youll need to pass two tests:

      Income test: To qualify as a dependent, your parents 2007 income must be less than $3,400. Her income from Social Security does not count towards that total (disability payments dont count either). But if your parent receives more than $3,400 from other sources, such as pension benefits, interest and dividends from investments, or withdrawals from retirement savings plans, you cant claim him or her as a dependent.

      Support test: In addition to the income test, you must provide more than half of your parents costs for housing, food, medical care, transportation and other necessities. Even if all your mother's or dad's income is from Social Security, you cant claim him or her as a dependent unless you pay more than half your parent's living expenses.

      Note: Your parent doesnt have to live with you to qualify as a dependent, as long as she meets the income test and you provide more than half her financial support.

      If your mother lives with you, you can include a percentage of your mortgage, utilities and other expenses in calculating how much you contribute to her support. IRS Publication 501 has a worksheet that can help you with this.

      Shared support

      If you share the financial responsibility for your mother with other siblings, you may be eligible for the IRS multiple-support declaration.

      Heres how it works. If one sibling is providing more than half the parents financial support, only that sibling can claim the parent. But if each sibling provides less than 50 percent support, but their combined assistance exceeds half the parents support.

      In that case, any sibling who provides more than 10 percent can claim the parent as a dependent. But only one sibling can claim the tax break in any given year. Siblings can rotate the tax break, with one claiming the parent one year and another the next. The sibling who claims the parent as a dependent will need to fill out IRS Form 2120 and file it with his or her tax return.

      Medical deductions

      If you cant claim your mom as a dependent, you may still get a tax break for helping pay her medical costs. The IRS lets taxpayers deduct money spent on a parents health care and qualified long-term care services, even if the parent doesnt qualify as a dependent.

      To claim this deduction, you still must provide more than half your moms support, but your mom doesnt have to meet the income test. And the deduction is limited to medical, dental and long-term care expenses that exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income. You can include your own medical expenses in calculating the total. See the IRS publication 502 Medical and Dental Expenses, for details.

      Savvy Tips: You can access, download and print any of the IRS publications and forms mentioned in this column at Or call 800-829-3676 and they will mail them to you.

      And for help preparing your taxes, dont forget about AARPs Tax-Aide program. A free tax preparation and counseling service available to all taxpayers, middle and low income, with special attention to those 60 years and older and you dont have to be an AARP member to get help. To locate a Tax-Aide site near you, call 888-227-7669 or visit


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

      If youre supporting your elderly mother (or father), to get a tax deduction, youll need to claim her or him as a dependent on your tax return....
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      'Slim Coffee' Promoters Settle False Advertising Charges

      Weight-loss claims bogus, feds charged

      The marketers of Slim Coffee -- an instant coffee product purportedly containing hoodia -- have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that their advertising falsely claimed that their product would enable its users to lose significant amounts of weight without diet or exercise.

      Diet Coffee, Inc. and its principals, David Stocknoff and David Attarian, based in New York City, ran television ads claiming that drinking Slim Coffee had been clinically proven to cause weight loss of up to 5 pounds a week and up to 20 pounds a month.

      Theres no need to change your eating habits or what you eat, the ads claimed. Just replace your coffee with Slim Coffee and you will start to see results. Its that easy and all-natural.

      According to a complaint filed by the FTC in federal district court, the weight-loss claims for Slim Coffee were false and unsupported by any reliable scientific studies, in violation of the FTC Act.

      Among other things, the FTCs complaint alleged that neither Slim Coffee nor any of its individual ingredients, including hoodia, would enable its users to lose as much as two to five pounds per week, without reducing caloric intake or increasing physical activity.

      Under the proposed settlement, Diet Coffee, Inc. and its principals are prohibited from claiming that any product enables users to lose substantial weight without reducing caloric intake or increasing physical activity.

      The order also prohibits them from representing that any product or service causes weight loss, causes users to lose any specified amount of weight, reduces or eliminates fat, reduces or curbs appetite, or increases metabolism, or making any other health-related benefit or efficacy representation unless it is true, not misleading, and substantiated by reliable scientific evidence.

      In addition, they are prohibited from misrepresenting the existence, contents, validity, results, conclusions, or interpretations of any test or study concerning such products.

      Slim Coffee was advertised on the Internet, radio, and television, including on Oxygen, Fox Reality Channel, A&E Television, The CW, WE, and Bravo. Ads also have appeared in magazines and Sunday newspaper supplements, including SmartSource by News America Marketing FSI, Inc.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      'Slim Coffee' Promoters Settle False Advertising Charges...
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      New Group Promotes Buckle-Up Laws for Pets

      Unrestrained dogs and cats a menace in moving vehicles

      California woman, who recently founded the Bark BuckleUp, wants to educate dog and cat owners across the country about the importance of buckling up their ..

      FDA To Allow Cloned Animals In Food Chain

      Agency finds no reason not to eat cloned critters

      After years of study, the Food and Drug Administration says it sees no reason cloned livestock and their offspring cannot be used for food. The ruling comes in spite of opposition from some consumer groups and concerns by the food industry.

      The decision was not unexpected, as the agency had telegraphed its intentions as it completed work on the seven-year study.

      According to a summary of the final report posted on the FDA Web site, the government is not advocating or requiring any special labeling for products from cloned animals. Left unclear is when a voluntary moratorium on the use of cloned animals will be lifted.

      More than 30,000 people ranging from consumers to industry trade organizations -- filed comments with the FDA on the proposed lifting of the moratorium. Many lawmakers also expressed reservations, with Congress passing a measure urging the FDA to carry out more studies before making its decision.

      The agency, apparently, saw little reason for further study.

      Safe to eat

      "The FDA has concluded that meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine and goats, and the offspring of clones from any species traditionally consumed as food, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals," the FDA concluded in its report.

      But the report appeared to be cause for concern among dairy processors, who fear a consumer backlash against dairy products that might contain milk from cloned animals. Connie Tipton, President and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, said the FDA needs to take its time on the matter.

      "Nothing is more important to milk processors than the trust people have in milk and milk products," Tipton said. "That is why we urge the FDA to listen to the more than 30,000 comments the agency has received over the last year and take the time to respond to their comments and concerns before allowing milk from cloned cows into the food supply."

      By approving a "niche technology" too soon, Tipton argues, the government agency risks unintended negative economic, trade and public health impacts.

      Consumer groups also appear overwhelmingly against allowing cloned animal products into the food supply. Last month when the Senate added language to the Fall Bill instructing the FDA to slow down on the issue, Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director of the Center for Food Safety, applauded the move.

      "The FDA's flawed and cavalier approach to cloned food and its potential impacts called for a truly rigorous scientific assessment," Mendelson said. "At a time when the FDA has repeatedly failed the public, this amendment will ensure that the American consumer is considered before any special interest."

      FDA To Allow Cloned Animals In Food Chain...
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      Study Casts Doubt on Cholesterol Drug Vytorin

      Critics claim drug makers delayed releasing bad news

      Bad news for consumers with high cholesterol levels: A long-delayed study shows the expensive new drug Vytorin had no benefit on the buildup of artery plaque over the older drug Zocor and could even put users at greater risk, even though Vytorin cut bad cholesterol 40% more.

      Patients on Vytorin actually had more heart attacks, cardiovascular deaths and heart procedures than those who got Zocor, although researchers said the differences were small and could be due to chance.

      In addition, patients on Vytorin ended the study with slightly more plaque in their arteries, a result that could also be due to chance.

      Critics were quick to pounce. Sidney Wolfe, M.D., director of Public Citizens Health Research Group, said drug makers Merck and Schering-Plough and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lagged in warning the public about the drugs' risks.

      "We first warned against using Vytorin, a combination of Zetia and the cholesterol drug Zocor (now generically available as simvastatin), in December 2004 on our Web site,," Wolfe said.

      "At the time, we said the FDA's own pharmacology reviewer recommended against approval of Vytorin, warning that tests showed serious toxicity in laboratory animals, regardless of how small of an amount of this combination drug was used.

      Wolfe said the delays in releasing the study results were suspicious.

      "It is disturbing that the companies completed the trial in April 2006 but found excuse after excuse not to release the unfavorable results to the public until today," he said.

      Wolfe noted that the FDA's own pharmacology reviewer recommended against approval of Vytorin, warning that tests showed serious toxicity in laboratory animals, regardless of how small an amount of the drug was used.

      "Now, a clinical trial by Merck and Schering-Plough adds to our concerns. It is disturbing that the companies completed the trial in April 2006 but found excuse after excuse not to release the unfavorable results to the public until today," Wolfe said.

      Despite the worse outcomes experienced by some patients in the trial, some physicians are likely to ignore the study, arguing that cholesterol is a better measure of a drug's effectiveness than the measurement of plaque buildup.

      "Physicians should only use ... Vytorin as a last resort," Steven Nissen, head of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, said in a Forbes story. "It should not be used as a routine therapy for high cholesterol unless we see some additional evidence of benefit."

      The Vytorin Study: A Doctor's Advice

      Patients on Vytorin actually had more heart attacks, cardiovascular deaths and heart procedures than those who got Zocor, although researchers said the dif...
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      TSA Site Left Passenger Data Exposed To ID Theft

      Poor design, inadequate oversight, led to information breach

      It's a turn of events that Franz Kafka would have to admire.

      A site designed for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to help airline passengers remove their names from terrorist watch lists was so poorly constructed and lacking security that users of the site may be at risk for identity theft.

      House Democrat Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, blasted the TSA and a small Virginia Web services company called Desyne for launching a Web site that "violated basic operating standards of web security and failed to protect travelers' sensitive personal information."

      The 12-page report from Waxman's office found that "these security breaches can be traced to TSA's poor acquisition practices, conflicts of interest, and inadequate oversight."

      According to the report, the "Traveler Redress" Website was farmed out to Desyne in a no-bid contract with no other competition. Desyne's cozy relationship with the TSA could be traced back to Nicholas Panunzio, the head of the project, who knew Desyne's CEO for many years and and was a former Desyne employee himself.

      TSA investigators also failed to oversee the project adequately enough to catch conflicts of interest such as Panunzio's.

      Unsecured sites

      The Web site itself was not hosted on a government domain (i.e. ".gov,"), but on a commercial Web domain operated by Desyne. Many of the pages designed to submit sensitive personal information were not encrypted, and even pages with secure socket layer (SSL) encryption were not certified as actually being secure. In one case, Desyne signed its own security certificate for the page.

      These vulnerabilities could have enabled hackers to access the information without the user -- or the site owners -- being aware of it.

      The site's vulnerabilities were first discovered by University of Indiana student Chris Soghoian, a blogger who had earlier gained a measure of notoriety for creating an online "boarding pass generator" that could generate fake boarding passes. Soghoian claimed to have created the generator to demonstrate how easily the TSA's security procedures could be circumvented.

      Although the "Traveler Redress" site was redirected to a subdomain of TSA not long after the problems were exposed, neither Desyne or Panunzio were disciplined or penalized for the problems.

      Desyne has received $500,000 worth of no-bid contracts from TSA and the Department of Homeland Security, and an internal investigation of Panunzio found no wrongdoing on his part, since he did not personally profit from the contract, investigators said.

      Insecure flights

      The Desyne scandal is only the latest in a long string of security mishaps that have plagued TSA in recent years.

      Its "terrorist watch lists" have been roundly criticized for adding thousands of names based on dubious criteria.

      Removing oneself from a terrorist watch list is an onerous procedure, involving sending copious amounts of personal information to the TSA to prove one's identity. Security analysts have criticized the lists as a placebo measure that don't actually make it easier to track terrorists.

      The TSA had initially hired another contractor to collect data on millions of Americans as part of a study for its ill-fated "Secure Flight" program. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the data collection took place in violation of the Privacy Act and was done without public knowledge.

      The "Secure Flight" program, created to match passenger names to "watch lists," was eventually grounded after four years and $150 million spent, due to numerous security and planning problems in the project.

      TSA has also violated individual privacy by accident on several occasions. The agency lost a hard drive containing the personal information of 100,000 TSA employees in May 2006. Another contractor for TSA, Accenture, mixed up personal documents for 1,200 employees, sending them to the wrong addresses in September 2006.

      TSA Site Left Passenger Data Exposed To ID Theft...
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      Prius Again Tops Owner Satisfaction Survey

      BMW 335i, Porsche Boxster close behind

      Top 3 Picks

      Toyota Prius

      BMW 335i

      Porsche Boxster

      Toyota Prius owners continue to be turned on by their little hybrids. For the fourth year the Prius was the top car in owner satisfaction as reported by the Consumer Reports Car Owner Satisfaction Survey.

      The Prius was followed closely by the BMW 335i and Porsche Boxster.

      Ninety-two percent of Prius owners who responded to the survey said they would definitely buy or lease the hybrid again. Ninety-one percent of BMW 335i owners said they would be return customers and 90 percent of Boxster owners would buy or lease another of the Porsche cars.

      Toyota had 10 models on the most satisfied customer list as Japanese automakers dominated with 18 of the 39 car models.

      Three General Motors minivans -- the Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander and Saturn Relay -- brought up the rear in consumer satisfaction with a score of 34.

      Scores in the survey are based on the percent of CR subscribers who responded "definitely yes" to the question "Considering all factors (price, performance, reliability, comfort, enjoyment), would you get this car if you had it to do all over again?"

      The new consumer satisfaction results show the Prius is now an established cult leader in a time of increasing gas prices. The hybrid gets 44 miles per gallon and is an environmental icon. The Toyota Camry Hybrid at 34 mpg was the top midsized sedan in the survey with a score of 87.

      Of the top 12 cars, half were sports cars, including the Porsche Boxster, Cayman and 911 Carrera; Chevrolet Corvette; Mini Cooper hatchback; and Honda S2000. Overall, sporty cars made up almost half of the "Most Satisfying" models.

      The next largest group was SUVs, with the Lexus RX350 at the top of the list followed by the Ford Edge and Toyota Land Cruiser.

      Pickups, SUVs lag

      Pickup trucks and SUVs accounted for more than half of the models on the "Least Satisfying" list. American compact pickups are loosing their appeal with almost every model on the market listed among the least satisfying.

      The Honda Ridgeline and V8 Toyota Tundra were the only pickups to make the "Most Satisfying" list.

      Twelve European brands made the list along with 7 U.S. models. For the first time, two South Korean models, the Hyundai Axera sedan and Santa Fe SUV, also made the list.

      Other top models ranged from the small $16,000 Honda Fit, the Top Pick for budget cars as well as the $76,000 Lexus LS, which earned the highest test score in the ratings, 99 out of 100.

      The Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey were the only two minivans on the list.

      Of the 22 models on the "Least Satisfying" list, 20 were from American automakers. GM brands accounted for 14, Chrysler for three and Ford for three. The remaining two models were Japanese, including the Suzuki Grand Vitara SUV and the Mazda B-Series pickup.

      Ninety-one percent of BMW 335i owners said they would be return customers and 90 percent of Boxster owners would buy or lease another of the Porsche cars....
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      Toyota Sales for 2007 May Surpass GM

      GM has been No. 1 worldwide for 76 years

      Toyota reported 2007 worldwide sales of 9.37 million cars and trucks and that could be enough to propel the Japanese corporation ahead of General Motors to become the world's largest automaker.

      GM, which is held the title for 76 years, will report company sales figures January 23. Analysts, however, estimate GM sales for 2007 at approximately 9.3 million cars and trucks.

      Toyota sales increased of 6 percent in 2007 and the automaker predicts a 5 percent sales rise in 2008 to 9.85 million vehicles.

      Toyota executives have downplayed the importance of the milestone and have refused to celebrate overtaking GM.

      "It's just one moment," Shoichiro Toyoda, Toyota's honorary chairman, said . "We need to just keep working harder." Toyoda is a member of the founding family of the automaker and a former company president.

      GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner told auto industry reporters last week that he and the company continue to focus attention on restructuring GM.

      Toyota remains highly profitable as GM continues to struggle financially. GM has been downsizing its U.S. manufacturing operations to balance car and truck production with a declining market share.

      Toyota replaced Ford in 2007 as the number two selling name plate in the U.S. dropping Ford to third place.

      The popular Toyota Prius hybrid was a big winner in the U.S.and a reason for Toyota overtaking Ford.

      Prius sales dominated hybrid market with more than 50 percent of all hybrid sales. The Prius set a record for U.S. sales in 2007 at 181,221, a 53 percent gain over 2006.

      Toyota Sales for 2007 May Surpass GM...
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      Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute Continue Ford Fire Tradition

      The little SUVs can go up in flames with no warning

      A Beaverdam, Virginia home is the latest casualty in the familiar story of a trusted family vehicle erupting into a blazing inferno. This fire occurred just a week before Christmas.

      The garage that housed Janet's Mazda Tribute

      The home belonged to a reader named Janet who told us that we lost everything. I hope enough folks hear about this so that it doesn't happen to anyone else.

      Two of Janet's family cats perished in the fire and a third was badly burned and is recovering at an animal hospital. A child was injured by the smoke that filled the house and most of the home's contents were burned as the structure crumbled into asks.

      The remains of Janet's home

      The Beaverdam homeowner blames the fire on her 2002 Mazda Tribute. The small SUV was recalled in May 2007 because of a faulty ABS system. The ABS module may overheat resulting in burning odor, smoke or fire, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recall notice. An electrical short, NHTSA reported, might cause the malfunction.

      Janet said she did not receive the recall notice from Mazda.

      We were not notified and did not know there was a problem until after our Mazda caught on fire. Since then we've heard from several people who knew there was a problem with fire in these vehicles, she said.

      What's left of Janet's Mazda Tribute

      There is a strong connection between the Beaverdam fire and the Ford Motor Co. Ford is Mazdas largest shareholder and owns 33.4 percent of the company. Ford routinely advises consumers who have suffered a vehicle fire to call their insurance company.

      That's not much comfort to Janet, who lost her home and most of its contents.

      "The firemen got a few things out but we're not sure how much can be salvaged. We had 3 cats. One escaped but is burned and still at the vets. The other 2 perished in the fire. We lost the Mazda and our second car suffered paint damage and smells of smoke. My daughter had some minor problems with her eyelids due to the smoke. We lost so many things of sentimental value, it would be impossible to place a value on them, she wrote

      The 2007 Mazda recall covered 95,300 Tribute SUVs. The Tribute is similar to the Ford Escape. Both are built on the same platform in an effort maximize profits for the two automakers. Both went on sale in 2001 and share many parts in common.

      At the same time Mazda recalled the Tribute, Ford recalled 541,760 Escape SUVs because of an identical problem with the ABS system.

      Common problem

      ConsumersAffairs.Com readers reported their concerns with the fire-prone vehicles well before NHTSA announced the May recall. We have been reporting on fire problems in Ford vehicles since at least 2004.

      Some recent reports from readers:

      James of Monroe MI (02/21/07):
      I own a 2001 Ford Escape and when I got up to go to work this morning and went to the garage to leave my car was on fire.

      I popped the hood and it was coming from the ABS brake control box. The brake system had all been burned and melted. When I did some investigating online I saw that there had been other reports of this happening to the same make and year as my Escape. This seems to be a big concern as besides being extremely dangerous. It is also quite costly to fix.

      I called the dealership and told them because I wondered if there were ant recalls because of this but they said no. Does someone have to die before they do something?

      Keith of Brandon MS (03/21/07):
      Last night at 4 am I was awakened by my daughter who heard a loud noise in the driveway. When I went to the front door I saw that my wife's 2001 Ford Escape was on fire.

      After the Fire Department put out the fire the inspector stated the fire had started near the brake booster.

      Angela of Jacksonville FL (03/30/07):
      My 2001 Ford Escape had been parked for 2 days when in the late afternoon hours my alarm started going off. The vehicle was not locked, so the factory alarm should not have gone off at all.

      I saw smoke rolling out of the engine compartment. The car had not moved in 2 days and my brother came to the truck with me. We popped the hood and smoke was everywhere, but primarily coming from underneath the brake reservoir. You could tell by the smell that it was an electrical issue as the wires were melting and burning.

      Kara of Edmond OK (05/30/07):
      I noticed a lot of smoke coming up through the hood of the vehicle. I immediately pulled back up into the driveway told my daughter to get out and I jumped out of the drivers side.

      By the time I got around to the front of the car, smoke was billowing out from beneath the vehicle. The smoke was so thick. I guess where the braking system is was burned and melted.

      Lots of recalls, lots more fires

      The incidents cited above occurred before the May 2007 Mazda Tribute and Ford Escape recalls affecting 637,060 vehicles.

      Federal regulators at NHTSA along with the automaker have repeatedly closed the books on Ford fires, declaring their mission accomplished.

      Ford concedes that the company has recalled an additional 9.5 million trucks because of fire concerns with the cruise control deactivation switch but the total number of Ford vehicles recalled because of fire hazards exceeds 10 million. A Ford spokesman agreed that it's correct to say that the handful of recalls were related to the same issue.

      The most recent recall for Fords that might catch fire involved 3.6 million vehicles in August 2007.

      Daniel Jarvis who works as a spokesman for Ford Safety Policy told that it's important to note a key difference between the earlier recalls and the one announced in August 2007: Based on our own internal investigation and one conducted by NHTSA, the August '07 voluntary recall of 3.6 million vehicles did not have a vehicle population with a higher-than-average of fires, as defined by NHTSA.

      Jarvis said that the real story in the August 2007 recall is that Ford proactively and voluntarily recalls those vehicles not based on reports of fires, but to alleviate customer concerns.

      Photos furnished by readers

      Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute Continue Ford Fire Tradition...
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      Credit Card Defaults On The Rise

      Credit crisis may be spreading

      Subprime mortgages have led to a wave of home foreclosures as thousands of homeowners have defaulted on their payments. Don't look now, but the same thing may be happening in the credit card market.

      Within a 24-hour period this week, two giants in the consumer credit industry have raised storm warnings.

      Capital One Financial Corp., the largest independent credit card issuer in the U.S. reports rapidly rising losses from consumers unable to pay their credit card bills.

      "On a managed basis, the fourth quarter 2007 provision for loan losses was approximately $1.9 billion," Capital One said in a statement. "This is comprised of approximately $1.3 billion in charge-offs and an allowance build of about $650 million. The allowance build reflects fourth quarter delinquencies in the company's national consumer lending businesses, continued deterioration in the approximately $700 million Held for Investment portfolio of Home Equity Lines Of Credit originated by GreenPoint Mortgage, and expectations for a weaker U.S. economy in 2008, as evidenced in recently released economic indicators."

      American Express, once a card targeted to the most creditworthy consumers, said it would write off a $440 million loss in the fourth quarter of 2007, partly because so many cardholders are failing to pay their debts. The company also said a slowing in cardmember spending contributed to the writedown.

      American Express said it expects to report overall growth in worldwide cardmember spending of about 16 percent for the fourth quarter. The growth rate, however, trailed off to 13 percent in December with particular weakness in U.S. billings.

      The company also said it expects to report that delinquencies in U.S. loans increased to approximately 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007 from 2.9 percent in the third quarter, and that the write-off rate in this portfolio increased to approximately 4.3 percent from 3.7 percent for the same periods.

      As home prices surged during the real estate boom of 2003-2005, many homeowners tapped equity in the form of loans to finance major purchases and other consumer spending. With that money machine effectively shut down, many economists have worried that strapped homeowners would next max out their credit cards to remain afloat.

      Credit Card Defaults On The Rise...
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      Bank of America Buys Countrywide Financial

      Deal may help slow the mortgage-default crisis

      Bank of America has come to the rescue of Countrywide Financial, agreeing to buy the ailing mortgage giant for $4 billion in stock.

      The deal not only props up Countrywide but should help stave off a looming mortgage-default crisis that threatens to plunge the economy into a full-blown recession.

      "We believe this is the right decision for our shareholders, customers and employees," said Countrywide Chairman and Chief Executive Angelo R. Mozilo.

      Bank of America Chairman and CEO Ken Lewis said the deal would benefit Bank of America by giving it a stronger position in the home-financing field.

      "Mortgages will continue to be an important relationship product, and we now will have an opportunity to better serve our customers and to enhance future profitability," Lewis said.

      The acquisition agreement follows fears that Countrywide, the nation's largest mortgage lender, would have to seek bankruptcy protection. Yesterday, Countrywide reported that foreclosures and late payments rose to the highest on record in December, renewing concerns the lender may seek bankruptcy protection.

      Meanwhile, pending home sales dropped in the latest report as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said there is no evidence the market has hit bottom.

      Like most mortgage lenders, Countrywide has been hit hard by falling home prices, rising default rates and tight capital.

      Country's Mozilo has called the nation's housing slump the worst since the Great Depression.

      Countrywide said the foreclosure rate for the 9.03 million mortgages on which it collects and processes payments doubled to 1.44 percent from 0.70 percent a year earlier, and rose from November's 1.28 percent. The delinquency rate rose to 7.20 compared to 4.60 percent a year earlier.

      Pending sales

      Fewer home buyers were willing to sign a contract to purchase property in November. The National Association of Realtor's index of pending home sales dropped 2.6 percent during the month, to 87.6. The index had risen 3.7 percent in October.

      Treasury Secretary Paulson said he believes the nation's housing slump will continue.

      "There is no evidence it is bottoming," Paulson told interviewers on CNBC.

      In fact, Paulson said federal assistance to homeowners may need to be expanded beyond struggling subprime borrowers.

      To put the November pending sales numbers in context, the pending sales index was 19.2 percent below the November 2006 level of 108.4.

      Economists interpreted the numbers as the latest sign that more careful lending practices, belatedly adopted after the subprime mortgage collapse, would keep the housing market soft well into 2008.

      The Realtors, meanwhile, managed to find a silver lining. Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist, said he expects existing home sales to hold "fairly steady" over the next few months, then rise later in the year. He projects a full-fledged rebound in 2009.

      "On the one hand, we have a pent-up demand from the four million jobs added to our economy over the past two years of sales decline," he said. "On the other, consumers continue to wait for additional signs of market stabilization.

      "There are more people with financial capacity now than in 2005, but many are trying to market-time their purchase. As a result, the exact timing and the strength of a home sales recovery is a bit uncertain. A meaningful recovery in existing-home sales could occur as early as this spring, or it may be further delayed toward late 2008."

      South strongest

      Pending sales were strongest in the South, where they rose 2.3 percent in November to 100.7. But that's 19.8 percent below a year ago. In the West, the index slipped 2.1 percent to 86.6 but is 18.5 percent lower than November 2006. The index in the Midwest fell 4.1 percent in November to 82.1 and is 18.6 percent below a year ago. In the Northeast, the index dropped 13.0 percent in November to 70.1 from a spike in October, and is 19.1 percent below November 2006.

      NAR said existing-home sales for 2007 will probably total 5.66 million, which it notes is the fifth highest on record. Meanwhile, the group says existing-home prices for 2007 are likely to be down 1.9 percent to a median of $217,600, hold even this year and then rise 3.1 percent in 2009 to $224,400.

      "Rising home prices in the affordable midsection of the country are likely to offset declines in some of the previously hot markets," Yun said.

      The deal not only props up Countrywide but should help stave off a looming mortgage-default crisis that threatens to plunge the economy into a full-blown r...
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      MySpace Harassment Case Takes Odd Turn

      Localities looking at "cyber-harassment" laws

      In what the Los Angeles Times described as a "novel approach," a federal grand jury has reportedly begun issuing subpoenas to MySpace and others involved in the case of 13-year-old Megan Meier.

      Megan, who lived in the small community of Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, a half-hour drive north of St. Louis, hanged herself in October 2006 because of a relationship gone bad through the popular online hangout,

      Shortly after joining MySpace, Megan heard from "Josh Evans," who claimed to be a 16-year-old boy who had recently moved to the area. "Josh" and Megan struck up an online friendship, until a few weeks later when "Josh" turned against Megan.

      Although Megan and "Josh" had never met, Megan felt devastated by the betrayal, ran to her bedroom, and was later found hanging from her neck in a closet.

      Her parents had no idea who "Josh" was until weeks later when it was revealed that "Josh" was in fact a hoax, allegedly created from a home located four doors down from Megan's house, a home occupied by Lori Drew.

      Drew's 13-year-old daughter had been a friend of Megan's since elementary school, but recently the two teens had a falling out. It's now alleged that "Josh" was created to spy on Megan in an effort to find out if she was saying negative comments about the Drew's daughter, whose name has not been published because she is a juvenile.

      After a yearlong investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the St. Charles County, Missouri prosecutor, no charges were filed.

      "Lori Drew was not aware of any mean, nasty or negative comments made by anyone against Megan until after Megan took her own life," said James Briscoe, the attorney for Lori Drew. However, the police did report that Lori Drew initially said that she "instigated and monitored" the "Josh" MySpace account.

      As the Los Angeles Times first reported, an anonymous source has said that although the Meiers and Lori Drew live in Missouri, a California federal grand jury has begun issuing subpoenas in the case. Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorneys Office in Los Angeles, had no comment on the Times story.

      Federal prosecutors in California are involved because MySpace is headquartered in California. In effect, California prosecutors are considering whether MySpace is the "victim" based on allegations that Lori Drew or someone in her home created a fake MySpace profile, thus defrauding MySpace.

      This could lead to allegations that MySpace was defrauded by someone in the Meier home because, according to the MySpace terms of use, Megan was not old enough to have an account.

      Cyber-harassment laws

      Meanwhile, the case is leading local governments and politicians to take a closer look at "cyber-harassment."

      In Megan's hometown of Dardenne Prairie, the local Board of Aldermen passed a measure that makes cyber-harassment a crime punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a maximum $500.00 fine.

      According to the ordinance, a person commits the offense of cyber-harassment if they use an electronic device (e-mail, instant messaging, etc.) to intentionally harass another person. This includes taking actions meant "to alarm, annoy, abuse, threaten, intimidate, torment or embarrass any other person..."

      Such laws are likely to face vigorous challenges on First Amendment grounds, observers noted.

      MySpace Harassment Case Takes Odd Turn...
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      Fast-Acting Alzheimer's Therapy Excites Researchers

      New therapy gets results within minutes, study claims

      It is one of those claims that immediately sounds too good to be true. But researchers say a new therapy, currently used to treat arthritis, appears to reverse the effects of Alzheimer's disease within minutes.

      The study, published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation, details an Alzheimer's treatment based on administering a therapeutic molecule. It highlights the importance of certain soluble proteins, called cytokines, in Alzheimer's disease.

      "It is unprecedented that we can see cognitive and behavioral improvement in a patient with established dementia within minutes of therapeutic intervention," said Sue Griffin, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of the journal. "It is imperative that the medical and scientific communities immediately undertake to further investigate and characterize the physiologic mechanisms involved.

      "This gives all of us in Alzheimer's research a tremendous new clue about new avenues of research, which is so exciting and so needed in the field of Alzheimer's," she said.

      The study focuses on one of these cytokines, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF), a critical component of the brain's immune system.

      Normally, TNF finely regulates the transmission of neural impulses in the brain. The authors hypothesized that elevated levels of TNF in Alzheimer's disease interfere with this regulation.

      To reduce elevated TNF, the authors gave patients an injection of an anti-TNF therapeutic called etanercept. Excess TNF-alpha has been documented in the cerebrospinal fluid of patients with Alzheimer's.

      "Unprecedented" effect

      The authors say their study documents a dramatic and unprecedented therapeutic effect in an Alzheimer's patient: improvement within minutes following delivery of perispinal etanercept, which is etanercept given by injection in the spine.

      Etanercept (trade name Enbrel) binds and inactivates excess TNF. Etanercept is FDA approved to treat a number of immune-mediated disorders and is used off label in the study.

      The use of anti-TNF therapeutics as a new treatment choice for many diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and potentially even Alzheimer's, was recently chosen as one of the top 10 health stories of 2007 by the Harvard Health Letter.

      Similarly, the Neurotechnology Industry Organization has recently selected new treatment targets revealed by neuroimmunology (such as excess TNF) as one of the top 10 Neuroscience Trends of 2007, according to the authors. The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives has chosen the pilot study using perispinal etanercept for Alzheimer's for inclusion and discussion in their 2007 Progress Report on Brain Research.

      The lead author of the study, Edward Tobinick M.D., is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles and director of the Institute for Neurological Research, a private medical group in Los Angeles. Hyman Gross, M.D., clinical professor of neurology at the University of Southern California, was co-author.

      The study is accompanied by an extensive commentary by Sue Griffin, Ph.D., director of research at the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock and at the Geriatric Research and Clinical Center at the VA Hospital in Little Rock, who along with Robert Mrak, M.D., chairman of pathology at University of Toledo Medical School, are editors-in-chief of the Journal of Neuroinflammation.

      Griffin and Mrak are pioneers in the field of neuroinflammation. Griffin published a landmark study in 1989 describing the association of cytokine overexpression in the brain and Alzheimer's disease. Her research helped pave the way for the findings of the present study. Griffin has recently been selected for membership in the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit organization of more than 200 leading neuroscientists, including ten Nobel laureates.

      "Even though this report predominantly discusses a single patient, it is of significant scientific interest because of the potential insight it may give into the processes involved in the brain dysfunction of Alzheimer's."

      While the article discusses one patient, many other patients with mild to severe Alzheimer's received the treatment and all have shown sustained and marked improvement, the authors say.

      Fast-Acting Alzheimer's Therapy Excites Researchers...
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      More Teens Using Cell Phones While Driving

      NC study finds state law is widely ignored

      More teenage drivers are talking on their cell phones while driving in North Carolina despite a new state law forbidding young drivers to use the phones while behind the wheel.

      The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported the finding following a two-part study that coupled researcher observations of teenage driving habits with telephone surveys of teens and their parents.

      The North Carolina ban for drivers younger than age 18 using a cell phone is part of the state's graduated licensing system.

      Teenagers are gabbing away while driving even though young drivers and their parents said they strongly support the restrictions.

      Parents and teens alike told researchers the ban on hand-held and hands-free phone use is not being enforced in the state. The study concluded that the North Carolina law is not reducing teen cell phone use while driving.

      Just 2 months prior to the ban which began December 1, 2006, 11 percent of teen drivers were observed using cell phones as they left school in the afternoon.

      About 5 months after the ban took effect, almost 12 percent of teen drivers were observed using phones and driving.

      "Most young drivers comply with graduated licensing restrictions such as limits on nighttime driving and passengers, even when enforcement is low," said Anne McCartt, IIHS senior vice president for research and an author of the study.

      "The hope in North Carolina was that the same would hold true for cell phone use, but this wasn't the case. Teen drivers' cell phone use actually increased a little. Parents play a big role in compliance with graduated licensing rules. Limiting phone use may be tougher for them since many want their teens to carry phones," McCartt said.

      When surveyed after the cell phone restrictions took effect, teenage drivers were more likely than parents to say they knew about the ban. Only 39 percent of parents said they were aware of the cell phone law, compared with 64 percent of teen drivers.

      Support for the ban was greater among parents at 95 percent than teens at 74 percent.

      Most parents and teen drivers agreed that police officers weren't looking for cell phone violators. Seventy-one percent of teens and 60 percent of parents reported that enforcement was rare or nonexistent.

      Phone bans for young drivers are becoming commonplace as concerns mount about the contribution of distractions to teens' elevated crash risk.

      Seventeen states and the District of Columbia restrict both hand-held and hands-free phone use by young drivers. Six states and DC bar all drivers from using hand-helds.

      More Teens Using Cell Phones While Driving...
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      Countrywide Reports Ballooning Delinquencies

      Existing home sales drop as housing implosion worsens

      Countrywide Financial, the nation's largest mortgage lender, says that foreclosures and late payments rose to the highest on record in December, renewing concerns the lender may seek bankruptcy protection.

      Meanwhile, pending home sales dropped in the latest report as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said there is no evidence the market has hit bottom.

      Like most mortgage lenders, Countrywide has been hit hard by falling home prices, rising default rates and tight capital.

      Country CEO Angelo Mozilo has called the nation's housing slump the worst since the Great Depression.

      The company has shifted its focus to smaller home loans considered less likely to default, after losing $1.2 billion in the third quarter.

      Countrywide said the foreclosure rate for the 9.03 million mortgages on which it collects and processes payments doubled to 1.44 percent from 0.70 percent a year earlier, and rose from November's 1.28 percent. The delinquency rate rose to 7.20 compared to 4.60 percent a year earlier.

      Pending sales

      Fewer home buyers were willing to sign a contract to purchase property in November. The National Association of Realtor's index of pending home sales dropped 2.6 percent during the month, to 87.6. The index had risen 3.7 percent in October.

      Treasury Secretary Paulson said he believes the nation's housing slump will continue.

      "There is no evidence it is bottoming," Paulson told interviewers on CNBC.

      In fact, Paulson said federal assistance to homeowners may need to be expanded beyond struggling subprime borrowers.

      To put the November pending sales numbers in context, the pending sales index was 19.2 percent below the November 2006 level of 108.4.

      Economists interpreted the numbers as the latest sign that more careful lending practices, belatedly adopted after the subprime mortgage collapse, would keep the housing market soft well into 2008.

      The Realtors, meanwhile, managed to find a silver lining. Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist, said he expects existing home sales to hold "fairly steady" over the next few months, then rise later in the year. He projects a full-fledged rebound in 2009.

      "On the one hand, we have a pent-up demand from the four million jobs added to our economy over the past two years of sales decline," he said. "On the other, consumers continue to wait for additional signs of market stabilization.

      "There are more people with financial capacity now than in 2005, but many are trying to market-time their purchase. As a result, the exact timing and the strength of a home sales recovery is a bit uncertain. A meaningful recovery in existing-home sales could occur as early as this spring, or it may be further delayed toward late 2008."

      South strongest

      Pending sales were strongest in the South, where they rose 2.3 percent in November to 100.7. But that's 19.8 percent below a year ago. In the West, the index slipped 2.1 percent to 86.6 but is 18.5 percent lower than November 2006. The index in the Midwest fell 4.1 percent in November to 82.1 and is 18.6 percent below a year ago. In the Northeast, the index dropped 13.0 percent in November to 70.1 from a spike in October, and is 19.1 percent below November 2006.

      NAR said existing-home sales for 2007 will probably total 5.66 million, which it notes is the fifth highest on record. Meanwhile, the group says existing-home prices for 2007 are likely to be down 1.9 percent to a median of $217,600, hold even this year and then rise 3.1 percent in 2009 to $224,400.

      "Rising home prices in the affordable midsection of the country are likely to offset declines in some of the previously hot markets," Yun said.

      Countrywide Reports Ballooning Delinquencies...
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      Recession In 2008? What Does That Mean For Consumers?

      Slowing economic growth hurts those with high debt, scant savings

      Economic concerns dominate the beginning of the new year, highlighted this week when Wall Street brokerage house Goldman Sachs said it believes a recession has already begun. Sounds scary, but how, exactly, does a recession affect consumers?

      The technical definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth, as measured by a country's gross domestic product. So, by definition, a recession won't be formally declared until we'll actually been in one for six months.

      But how will consumers be impacted if a recession has already begun? How will they know?

      When the economy contracts, less business is getting done and less money is changing hands. Businesses often find themselves in a more difficult environment. They spend less with other businesses and, more important to consumers, often reduce their work force.

      "I think the key concern for a consumer in a recession is the worry that they'll lose their job," said Joel Naroff, Chief Economist at Commerce Bancorp. "If it's an extended recession, there will be fewer, and smaller pay raises and bonuses, so they'll be bringing in less income."

      However, job elimination has been happening with greater frequency over the last decade without a recession. The rise of the global economy has prompted many U.S. based companies to close factories and outsource the work to other countries.

      Credit crisis

      Some economists see debt, and the current credit crises, as a significant threat to consumers in a recession. Stephen Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley, points to the problems in the housing industry where home values have begun to fall as a chief concern for consumers.

      "That puts the income-short, saving-short, overly-indebted American consumer now very much at risk, Roach wrote in a note. "February's surprisingly weak retail sales report - notwithstanding ever-present weather-related distortions - may well be a hint of what lies ahead."

      So it would appear that consumers with a shaky job position at work and who are loaded up with debt would be most vulnerable in a recession. But what about consumers who keep working and have a manageable debt load?

      Naroff concedes it is possible that many of these consumers might actually benefit from a recession.

      "There's no question that businesses get more aggressive from a price standpoint in a recession," Naroff told "A consumer shopping for a new car, for example, may find a lot more deals and incentives than when times are good."

      Oil prices

      There's also the matter of gasoline prices, which have spiked again as crude oil briefly hit the $100 a barrel mark early in 2008. In past U.S. recessions, oil prices have tended to fall. But will that hold true this time, when economies in China and India keep world oil demand soaring?

      "That is the $20 a barrel question," Naroff said. "China, for example, is so dependent on the U.S. consumer for its economic growth, that a recession in the U.S. is likely to have some impact on China and its oil demand. The question is, how much?"

      At moment, it may be a moot point. Naroff does not share the view the U.S. economy has already begun a recession.

      "The economy is soft and the risk of a recession is rising, but I don't think we're at that point yet," he said.

      Recession In 2008? What Does That Mean For Consumers?...
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      InStep, Schwinn, Mongoose Trailer Bicycles

      January 9, 2008
      Pacific Cycle is recalling about about 7,000 InStep Pathfinder, Schwinn Run About, and Mongoose Alley Cat trailer bicycles.

      The coupler connecting the childrens trailer bike to the adults bicycle has welds that can fail, posing a fall hazard to children.

      Pacific Cycle has received one report of the coupler failing, resulting in a fall and abrasions to the rider.

      The "Pathfinder, Run About, and Alley Cat are single-wheeled, childrens bicycles that connect to an adults bicycle by a coupler. The recall includes model numbers: 12-PF250, 13-SC250, 13-SC350 and M5101. The model number is located on the lower seat tube of the frame. The affected couplers have welded plates; bicycles that have couplers with cast parts are not included in this recall.

      Not all recycle items are represented in the photos displayed.

      The items were sold at bicycle stores and retailers nationwide from January 2007 through August 2007 for between $80 and $120. They were made in China.

      Consumers should stop using the trailer bicycle immediately and contact the firm for a free repair kit.

      For additional information, contact Pacific Cycle toll-free at (877) 564-2261 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit,, or

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

      InStep, Schwinn, Mongoose Trailer Bicycles...
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      FDA Approves Daily Cialis Dosage

      Daily dose may let men be more spontaneous

      For men with erectile dysfunction, but who want to be ready whenever opportunity presents itself, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a once-a-day dose of Cialis, the ED drug made by Eli Lilly and Company.

      The Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical firm says when Cialis for once daily use is taken daily, men can attempt sexual activity at anytime between doses.

      Currently available in parts of Europe, this low-dose daily treatment option of Cialis may be most appropriate for men with ED who anticipate sexual activity of twice a week or more, the company said. For other men, Cialis taken as needed - the previously approved dosing regimen - may be most appropriate.

      In clinical trials, when taken without restrictions on the timing of sexual activity, Cialis for once daily use improved erectile function over the course of therapy, according to Lilly.

      "ED can be a chronic condition like diabetes or high blood pressure," said Ridwan Shabsigh, M.D., Director of the Division of Urology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York. "As a urologist, I know couples like to have choices and will appreciate the availability of Cialis for once daily use."

      Cialis for use as needed came on the market in 2003 and, the company says, has proven to provide sustained efficacy for up to 36 hours. Cialis for once daily use provides a new option for men who may be looking for a dosing option that can be taken without regard to timing of sexual activity.

      Lilly's wholesale pricing for Cialis for once daily use will be comparable to Cialis for use as needed, so that patients who currently use two or more pills per week of Cialis for use as needed should not experience higher treatment costs with Cialis for once daily use.

      Lilly said the FDA's approval of Cialis for once daily use was based upon the evaluation of the comprehensive data package for the daily dosing option.

      The data include results from three phase III randomized, double-blind, placebo- controlled studies. Men with ED who participated in these clinical studies and who took tadalafil 2.5 mg and 5 mg once daily without regard to their timing of sexual activity experienced improved erectile function compared with those taking placebo.

      Cialis 5 mg, 10 mg and 20 mg have been approved in the United States for as-needed treatment of ED since November 2003.

      For men with erectile dysfunction, but who want to be ready whenever opportunity presents itself, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a once...
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      Honda Recalls TRX 500 ATVs

      January 9, 2008
      American Honda Motor Co. is recalling about 40,000 TRX 500 ATVs.

      Water can enter the throttle position sensor and freeze, causing permanent damage if the rider forces the throttle lever. This could cause the throttle to stick open, posing a risk of injury or death to riders.

      Honda has received two reported incidents of the throttle sticking, no injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Model Year 2007 Honda TRX 500 ATVs, also known as the Honda Foreman and Foreman Rubicon. The adult-size ATVs are designed for use by riders age 16 and older. The 2007 model year ATVs are available in red, black, blue, olive, and camouflage. The Honda name and wing logo are printed on the fuel tank and the model name is printed on the side panel just below the seat.

      The ATVs were sold by Honda ATV dealers nationwide from June 2006 through December 2007 for between $6,500 and $7,600. They were made in the United States.

      Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled ATVs and contact any Honda ATV dealer to schedule a free repair. Registered owners of the recalled ATVs have been sent direct notice.

      For additional information, consumers can contact Honda (866) 784-1870 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site at

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

      Honda Recalls TRX 500 ATVs...
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      First National Card: Too Good to be True?

      Skipping the fine print can get expensive

      While junk e-mail keeps us busy hitting the delete button, unsolicited advertisements and offers through old-fashioned "snail mail" can also sow the seeds of confusion.

      Not many companies do this better than a Nevada-based credit offer called First National Card.

      First National Card -- offered by both Consumer Credit Services, Inc. (CCS) and Capital Credit Alliance, Inc. (CCA) -- is one of the most confusing and complained-about credit offers anywhere.

      Both companies -- CCS and CCA -- reside in the same Las Vegas office building and offer the same products but are owned by two different people. They generate numerous consumer complaints annually to consumer protection agencies, Web sites and just about anyone else willing to listen.

      Despite the volume of complaints, both companies have largely steered clear of trouble with the law.

      CCS had a spot of legal trouble in 1998, when the Federal Trade Commission charged that CCS defrauded consumers nationwide through the deceptive telemarketing of credit cards and lines of credit for an up-front fee. The company settled the complaint by agreeing to clean up its act.

      In 2006, the New York State Consumer Protection Board warned consumers to read the fine print in the CCS and CCA marketing offers.

      What it is

      So what exactly is First National Card? Most consumers assume it's a credit card, which is hardly surprising since that's what it looks like.

      Most of the offers that come in the mail begin with, URGENT-APPROVED, Your Card Has Arrived Call Immediately To Activate This Card. It goes on to say that youre approved for a $6500.00 credit limit.

      Many consumers stop reading at the point where the offer says $6500.00 credit limit, even though there is page after page of further information.

      But keep reading and you'll find that it's not a general-purpose credit card that you can use anywhere but rather an advance-fee credit offer that can only be used to order items from a catalog provided by CCA/CCS.

      Youll also see that if you activate by phone, you must provide banking information and youll have an 8 to 14-day "trial period" before your bank account is hit for $199.99.

      Additionally, activating by phone will enroll you in a 30-day trial of two great programs" that will cost $99.99 each if you dont cancel in time. Oh, and don't forget to tack on a $198.00 annual fee and a $29.99 rush processing fee.

      That adds up to $627.96 -- pretty expensive considering it gets you just about nothing of indisputable value.

      Unfortunately, many consumers -- perhaps short of cash and starved for credit -- don't read the offer carefully and have no idea how much they'll be paying upfront for something that may not help them.

      A typical complaint goes something like this: I just got this card in the mail and when I called to activate they said I needed to give them my checking account info. This is a scam!

      Other complaints say, I thought it was a credit card, or I believed this was a Visa, so Im gonna sue them!

      Unfortunately, it doesnt matter what any of us thought or believed. The only thing that matters is what the offer says. In the case of CCA, the front page says: Since your new card is not a general credit card and is authorized for CCA catalog purchases exclusively...

      Tellingly, there is no MasterCard or Visa logo anywhere in the offer.

      Credit establishment

      One of the benefits that consumers see in the First National Card offer is the phrase Credit Establishment plastered on the front of the envelope. Many people with bad credit see the offer as a way to re-establish their credit record, and then are surprised when the membership doesnt do that.

      Once again, the wording on the offer -- for those willing to dig through the verbiage -- is quite explicit: You may establish, re-establish or build your credit with CCA exclusively and this may or may not affect your credit with others.

      In other words, giving CCA your money will improve your credit with CCA. But since CCA isn't require to report your payment to the major credit reporting companies, it's not likely to have any effect on your overall credit rating.

      Offers to minors

      Another area of consumer consternation is the mailing of CCA and CCS offers to children.

      Cathy, of Cadillac, Michigan, complained that her minor child received the offer. I received a pre-approved card in my 12-year-old sons name with a $6,500 limit! The only number given is an activation number, Cathy said.

      This card was sent to my address in my daughter's name with a credit limit of $6,500.00. My daughter is an 8-year-old child! said Nancy, of Palm Bay, Florida. Apparently, information was filled out on a pop-up advertisement.

      Were sorry that minors receive these offers, said Kenitra Williams, complaint specialist for First National Card. We dont want minors to receive it because you have to be 18 to be a member. This is a consequence of using mass mailings.

      Obviously, many parents believe that federal law prohibits a minor from receiving a prescreened offer. However, according to Frank Dorman of the Federal Trade Commission, no such law exists.

      There is no prohibition against sending a prescreened offer of credit or insurance to a minor (unless, perhaps, there are any state laws to that effect), Dorman said.

      The opt-out

      Consumers are also often incensed about the opt-out provision included with every First National Card mailing. The notice says that to stop receiving prescreened credit offers from CCS and other creditors, just call 1-888-567-8688.

      This number (1-888-5-OPTOUT) is supposed to stop unsolicited prescreened offers, either for five years or permanently. Nevertheless, as Tracye of Long Beach, California found out, the number does not always work.

      I received an unsolicited credit card in the mail today for $6,500 worth of catalog credit with this company (CCS). This is strange especially since I am on a 5-year opt-out of unsolicited credit offers...

      Why would Tracye still receive offers from CCS?

      What Tracye didnt know is that 1-888-567-8688 is specifically tied to the consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian, Innovis and TransUnion. If CCS received your name and address from one of these companies, calling the opt-out number will indeed stop future offers.

      However, if CCS gathered your information from someone other than the credit reporting companies, calling 1-888-567-8688 will not stop future CCS offers.

      CCS says that if your approval number starts with anything other than 7, 8 or 9, your information was not gained from a credit reporting agency list. Therefore, calling 1-888-567-8688 wont help.

      For CCS or any other company that received your information from someone other than the major credit reporting bureaus, the only way to stop future offers is to opt-out directly with the company. You can opt-out directly with CCS at 888-884-0017 and with CCA at 888-877-1267.

      Is it a scam?

      We have over 160 complaints against these companies, said Commissioner James Campos of the Nevada State Consumer Affairs. Beyond saying that, I have no comment.

      Nicole Moon, spokesperson for the Nevada Attorney General, said, We cant comment about ongoing investigations, but will say that we take each complaint very seriously.

      While CCS and CCA may well be operating within legal boundaries, the dense wording and baffling legalese of the offer are the very definition of confusing. Companies know that when a consumer is confused, they're more likely to make mistakes.

      Throw in the fact that CCS doesnt have a website and you have the perfect recipe for mass confusion.

      However, not everyone falls into the trap.

      Like so many others, I immediately got online and saw nothing but complaints, so you think youve almost been had, Daniel of Westerly, Rhode Island said. Only later did I actually read the paperwork and realized this was just a junk-mail catalog shopping card, and I should have just tossed it out in the first place.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      First National Card, offered by both Consumer Credit Services, Inc. and Capital Credit Alliance, Inc, is one of the most confusing and complained-about cre...
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      The End of the World: Louisiana is Disappearing

      By Joshua Clark

      Cordellville, Louisiana lies at the exact point Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Its now my favorite vacation spot in the world.

      Cordellvilles only buildings are a small ring of FEMA trailers connected by Chuck Bulots patio. He built the patio with the few bricks Katrina left of the house he was born in. Its just two hours below my hometown of New Orleans. And life here is good.

      Cordellville, La.

      Hey, if I was doing any better, I wouldnt be able to stand it. Thats Chucks common refrain when I ask how hes doing.

      Hes not being sarcastic. Like last Christmas. I can still picture his grin while hes cleaning a 40-pound catfish half as long as himself as the moon rises red out of the Mississippi River across the street.

      The citizens of Cordellville are gathering around him for dinner on his patio. Each brings their own offering from their land and water oysters, crabs, redfish, speckled trout, a wild boar, and a nutria, a kind of giant swamp rat.

      Mike, one of Cordellvilles original inhabitants, cuts out the glands from the skinned nutrias hind legs and stuffs the muscles with finely chopped green and red peppers.


      I broke two ribs in the storm, but I been laughing so hard this last year they cant heal, he says, before sending me into his FEMA trailer to find some cayenne pepper. Spices are all that line his shelves and drawers and all the other spaces where the clutter of his life might have once been.

      Like the others, his trailers parked on a concrete slab, what was once the foundation of his house. Beneath his trailer his Rat Terrier, Lil Bit, curls up on the foundation where its favorite couch once was. Above Mikes door a wooden sign proudly declares HOME.

      Inside, theres a pot of gumbo simmering on one side of his mattress, oyster stew on the other. Dont you touch those! They only been cooking two days, he cautions me from outside, where laughter fills a landscape which Katrina once emptied of even a shadow.

      Laughter among the ruins

      For over two years now Ive been coming down here, and for over two years this laughter has been a source of great frustration to me. I keep thinking itll stop. But it just wont.

      You see, my own neighborhood in New Orleans survived the storm relatively well. So I started driving down here soon after the hurricane for the first time, for a day or two every month, loaded with survivors guilt, in order to suffer with these neighbors of mine.

      But they have made that impossible. They refuse to suffer.

      Cordellville is not on a map. It is a new community, and more than that, a frame of mind. You see, down there, towns dont really exist anymore.

      The name comes from the Cordell furniture store, north of New Orleans, whose corny commercials, starring an Elvis impersonator, repeated constantly after the storm, letting everyone know that the stores inventory was undamaged. And so Cordellville was named after a faraway place where everything is okay.

      It lies within Plaquemines Parish, a region known as The End of the World, because it contains the last 100 miles of the Mississippi River.

      Louisiana's disappearing wetlands

      Now only a thin tale of land between the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, Plaquemines, with Cordellville at its center, is the fastest disappearing landmass on Earth. And it is because of this that so many died in my own city of New Orleans.

      Disappearing land

      You gotta understand, Louisianas coast is unlike any other. It has almost no beaches. Its an intricate network of freshwater swamp, marsh and brackish bayous, a unique ecosystem married to a unique culture. In my short time on this planet, having lived and traveled in four continents, I have never met a kinder people. But their culture, with their land, is needlessly vanishing.

      Just 130 miles west of Cordellville, the Atchafalaya River is actually building land. Here, a river diversion canal rushes freshwater and sediment into the marsh. Cypress and oak trees hold their line flush with the Gulfs saltwater. Even in winter it rages green and nearly impenetrable.

      The ground is so firm, people have recently begun hunting in tennis shoes rather than duck boots. Each time I fly over it in a tiny airplane with whatever pilot I can coax into taking me, he shakes his head beside me because this land doesnt even appear on the planes navigation system.

      But just a dozen miles to the east, the opposite is true.

      Where there used to be farm land there are now only patches of marsh like torn scraps of cloth, the occasional row of dead cypress trees like skeleton hands reaches up toward us in the sky, a reminder of the saltwater intrusion which has decimated the swamps so swiftly nothing can adapt, and no mapping company can keep up.

      Over the next two hours, as I fly east toward Cordellville, it only gets worse as the few shards of remaining land marble into open water. Until all of a sudden nothing. We are over Plaquemines Parish, Cordellville a faint collection of trailers, size of a matchs flame on the dimming land. And I wonder what Chucks cooking up tonight.

      The Ghost of Louisiana

      Just as Cordellville was Ground Zero for Katrina, so too it is for coastal erosion.

      Tonight, up in the air, the setting sun rages crimson, the horizon circling me rimmed with pink, stars burning overhead, the water lit like mercury, the dark sliver of land shining endless debris back at us, such a confluence of natures beauty and mans destruction I have never seen.

      And then, as I look very closely, shivers run up my spine. There are stakes sticking out of the water beneath us. Tens of thousands of them, miles from land.

      We take the plane down low and I realize that sure enough they outline what was once land, perhaps stuck there at some intermittent point when it would just barely submerge below high tide.

      The ghost of Louisiana

      Ive never seen a ghost before. But there it is, the ghost of Louisiana, all this water shining silver beneath the dying day. And through it, just ahead, reaches the end of the worlds most powerful river, all its force constrained within its levees, the worlds largest human creations, as it dumps the sediment of the entire American valley uselessly off the continental shelf into the Gulf.

      Drained from 31 states and Canada, this sediment once made southern Louisiana. From the Montana Rockies to the Appalachians, the Dakota plains down through the Ozarks, the deserts of New Mexico to the hills of upstate New York, we live on tiny pieces of every landscape in America.

      But now, with levees blocking the addition of new sediment, we sink.

      And then the knockout punch: Tens of thousands of miles of channels dug for oil pipelines and navigation crisscross the marshes well past the horizon, funneling saltwater into them, decimating them.

      As I saw with the Atchafalaya River, the good news is we can build land through river diversion projects. And dredging and depositing sand can restore Louisianas crucial barrier islands. The science and the engineering is here, now. But the policy is not.

      If some other country annexed Rhode Island, I, for one, would be pissed. Well, Louisianas already lost more land than that.

      Since 1928, almost one third over 2,000 square miles of Louisianas coast has eroded, fallen into the Gulf of Mexico. And were still losing one football field of land every 15 minutes. Up to 35 square miles every year, the size of one and a half Manhattans.

      Ive spent much of the last two years crawling through Katrinas landscape mangled, mud-crusted and mold-filled homes, slabs of concrete, weeds over my head where there used to be yards, the splintered viscera of everyday existence that most people outside Louisiana take for granted asking myself Why? Why?

      Why When arguably not one levee would have failed after Katrina if the wetlands had been there. Storms feed off water. Wetlands slash their surge and gut their energy.

      An inconvenient choice

      The choice is simple. We can all cough up another $200+ billion after the next hurricane. Or we can protect our countrys interests, and citizens, by rebuilding its wetlands for a fraction of that.

      But lets face it, most of the country is thousands of miles from Cordellville, so why should they give a damn? And reading these words on your PC is fine and dandy, but how can we actually show the wetlands to you?

      Well, theyre right in front of your face. (In fact, they may be on your face since our pogie fish are the oil base for cosmetics.)

      The seafood you eat doesnt appear at your grocery and favorite restaurant by magic. Its caught in our marshes. The things you buy dont appear in stores by magic. They come through our port. The petroleum in your car doesnt get to the pump by magic. Nor does the natural gas that heats your home. It is drained from our soil.

      And the same thing protecting Americas oil, gas, seafood and the worlds largest port, is the same thing that should protect Cordellville and New Orleans from hurricanes. Wetlands. Make no mistake, their erosion is a dire national security crisis.

      Crawfish with FEMA filtered water

      Feds take the money

      Southern Louisiana boasts 28% of the entire US fisheries annual catch, 20% of all domestic oil production, 25% of natural gas, and 88% of our offshore oil and gas. But unlike tax revenues from land-based drilling, most revenues from offshore drilling are not yet allocated to states.

      So while our coast supplies the rest of the country with immense federal tax revenues, our ecosystem and homes face obliteration as a consequence.

      Six countries flags have flown over southern Louisiana and it might be argued that those countries have always used us more than we used them. But if America wants to continue doing so, we need our wetlands. And we can have them. For Heavens sake, if we can send a spaceship to Pluto, we should be able to stop destroying our wetlands.

      Katrina Fatigue

      Residents in Cordellville have all endured previous hurricanes, but with Louisianas diminished wetlands unable to abate Katrinas fury Well, lets just say that Loretta was one of the lucky ones.

      She found her house in one piece, more or less, two months after the storm. Only problem was that it now lay smack dab in the middle of Cordellvilles only road. She stood beside it and told me, Well, I suppose we oughtta make it a drive-thru daiquiri stand. That way we can service both northbound and southbound cars.

      Feeling forgotten by the press and the president alike, Cordellvilles citizens make due with the only band-aid they have: laughter. Theyve seen the alternative.

      Theres this thing they getting in the rest of the country they calling Katrina fatigue, Chuck tells me as he watches us devour the catfish he sauted in garlic and butter, garnished with the okra and tomatoes he grows. Well, we tired of it too. My daddy got so tired of it he caught himself a heart attack and died last month. Thats why that trailer is empty. You welcome to sleep in it tonight.

      He knows 23 other people who have died since the storm too.

      Its the older people, they cant handle this. After their whole lives, theres suddenly nothing left on this world for them, he says. The rest of us, were happy as newborn babies, because we got the same as they do.

      With the Mississippi across the street and the Gulf flush with their backyard, they have no choice but to live every day like its their last. In fact, thats Cordellvilles motto: Live every day like its your last and we guarantee youll die a happy man.

      That night, after I cant eat any more, and its clear that yet again theyre simply not going to let me suffer appropriately, I walk into Chucks fathers old trailer and squeeze onto the one empty bunk there, not quite big enough for a grown man, lamenting tomorrows drive back to the city, a faraway place where there are buildings older than two years.

      I know, as always, I will wake continually though the night, the bottoms of my feet aching from pushing against the wall in my sleep, trying futilely to straighten my body out. But Im getting used to it. Because without immediate wetlands restoration, these trailers, asbestos and all, are coming to my own neighborhood.

      I listen to the other three men in the bunks around me, who have become like family now, as they giggle like children who dont want to go to sleep yet.

      And for the first time, I give up. I laugh with them.

      And sitting here writing these words, I honestly cant even remember what it was about, which of their endless jokes theyd just told. But I do remember the sudden silence when they heard me laughing so hard I began crying, proud to be part of this stubborn colony at the end of the world.


      Joshua Clark, president of Light of New Orleans Publishing LLC, is the author of Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in its Disaster Zone.

      Photos by Ride Hamilton. Photos © copyright 2008 Ride Hamilton All Rights Reserved

      The End of the World: Louisiana's Wetlands are Disappearing...
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      Netflix To Deliver Movies Straight To TV Sets

      Wal-Mart quietly abandons its movie-download service

      As Wal-Mart sneaks quietly out of the online movie business, Netflix, the video rental company that pioneered renting movies by mail, now wants to bypass the U.S. Postal Service and send those videos directly to your TV, in high-definition, using an Internet connection.

      Netflix and TV set manufacturer LG Electronics, announced a joint project to develop a set-top box for consumers to stream movies and other programming from the Internet to HDTVs -- bypassing the need to use a personal computer. The companies say they hope to roll out the new technology in the second half of 2008.

      Wal-Mart quietly closed its movie-download service Dec. 21. Hardly anyone noticed, illustrating the retail giant's failure to make much of a dent in the business. In 2005, Wal-Mart gave up on trying to run a DVD rental service similar to that offered by Netflix.

      Netflix said the technology collaboration supports its core strategy of offering a multi-dimensional, or "hybrid," service that gives its more than 7 million members a variety of ways to receive movies and TV series for one monthly fee.

      The company did not specify how much it would charge for the service.

      Netflix subscribers currently have the ability to watch movies online, but must do so on their computer monitor.

      With the availability of the networked LG product planned for later this year, Netflix said its subscribers will be able to watch movies streamed from the Netflix Web site on their large-screen home theater HDTVs as well.

      Currently, mail subscribers may choose from among more than 90,000 titles delivered on DVD. The online service currently offers more than 6,000 titles, the company said.

      "Internet to the TV is a huge opportunity," said Netflix Founder, Chairman and CEO Reed Hastings.

      Fade to black

      Wal-Mart had launched its online movie business in February 2007, offering about 3,000 films and TV episodes. Its downloads were not usable on standard DVD players or on iPods, which analysts said hurt sales.

      In its little-noticed Web site notice announcing the abandonment of the service, Wal-Mart said customers who had already bought movies would be able to continue watching them.

      AOL also abandoned its online movie service recently. That leaves Apple's iTunes and to compete with the new Netflix offering.

      As Wal-Mart sneaks quietly out of the online movie business, Netflix, the video rental company that pioneered renting movies by mail, now wants to bypass t...
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      Consumers Fall Behind In Third-Quarter Loan Payments

      Higher gas prices, slumping home values blamed

      Consumers fell behind on loan payments in a number of categories in the third quarter, according to the latest numbers from the American Bankers Association.

      The bankers blamed much of the decline on problems caused by higher oil prices and slumping home values.

      Delinquencies for home equity lines of credit the lowest delinquency rate category rose seven basis points to 0.84 percent. Delinquencies for closed-end home equity loans rose 29 basis points to 2.28 percent and property improvement loan delinquencies went up 14 basis points to 1.60 percent.

      The number of delinquent accounts in the composite ratio, which tracks eight closed-end installment loan categories, increased 17 basis points to 2.44 percent.

      The lone bright spot was credit card delinquencies, which fell 21 basis points to 4.18 percent of accounts in the third quarter (seasonally adjusted). The ABA report defines late payments as 30 days or more overdue.

      "Credit card holders continued to improve on-time payments during the third quarter despite obvious stress in the housing market," said James Chessen, ABA chief economist. "Modest income and job growth helped ease consumers' financial stress even as they worried how to pay for the rising costs of gas, food, and energy."

      The fact that credit card repayment rates continue to improve as mortgage repayments worsen may seem contrary to conventional wisdom, Chessen said.

      "Consumers facing mortgage resets may be under financial pressure, but they still want to keep up with other payments," Chessen said. "They still need to heat their homes, put food on the table and fill their cars with gas."

      "Consumer loans directly related to the housing market were hit the hardest," Chessen said. "We anticipate delinquency rates will continue to rise on these types of loans in the fourth quarter of 2007 reflecting continued weakness in the housing sector."

      Get help fast

      "Any borrower experiencing financial stress should seek out their lender promptly as it's important to address the problem early when more options for help are likely to be available," Chessen recommended.

      ABA advises consumers to review their finances often and watch for the warning signs of overextended credit:

      • Paying only the minimum payment month after month;

      • Being out of cash constantly;

      • Being late on important payments such as rent or mortgage;

      • Taking longer and longer to pay off balances; and

      • Borrowing from one lender to pay another.

      For others having trouble paying down debts, ABA advises consumers to take action - sooner rather than later - to solve debt problems with the following tips:

      • Talk with creditors hiding only makes the problem worse;

      • Don't charge more purchases until your problems are solved;

      • Avoid bankruptcy it's a short-term solution with long-term consequences; and

      • Contact Consumer Credit Counseling Services at 1-800-388-2227.

      Consumers Fall Behind In Third-Quarter Loan Payments...
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      Antibiotic Leads to Tendon Ruptures

      Public Citizen sues FDA seeking faster action

      Despite long-standing evidence that fluoroquinolone antibiotics can cause tendon ruptures, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has failed to increase its warnings to patients and physicians about the dangers of the medicines, Public Citizen told a federal court today.

      Public Citizen sued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking the court to force the FDA to act upon a petition the consumer group filed with the agency 16 months ago.

      The FDA has failed to respond to the petition, which asked the agency to put a black box warning on fluoroquinolone antibiotics (such as Cipro, Levaquin and others) to make doctors and patients more aware of the risk of serious tendon injury before tendons actually rupture.

      The petition also urged the FDA to send a warning letter to physicians, as well as require an FDA-approved medication guide to be dispensed when prescriptions are filled.

      Public Citizen contends that the FDA is violating the Administrative Procedure Act by not acting upon the petition.

      Stronger warnings could lead to earlier intervention and prevent needless injuries by allowing doctors to switch patients to other antibiotics, said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizens Health Research Group.

      While the FDA sits idly by and ignores the problem, more people will suffer serious tendon ruptures that could have been prevented, Wolfe said.

      The current warning is buried in a long list of possible adverse reactions and is far too easy to miss.

      Injuries reported

      From November 1997 through December 2005, the FDA received 262 reports of tendon ruptures, mainly of the Achilles tendon, 258 cases of tendinitis and 274 cases of other tendon disorders in patients using fluoroquinolone antibiotics.

      An additional 74 tendon ruptures have subsequently been reported to the FDA for a total of 336. Because only a small fraction of cases are typically reported to the FDA, the actual number of ruptures and other tendon injuries attributable to the antibiotic is much higher.

      Antibiotic Leads to Tendon Ruptures...
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      New Rule Limits Lithium Batteries in Carry-on Baggage

      Batteries can start hard-to-fight fires

      Under a new rule that took effect yesterday, passengers can no longer pack loose lithium batteries in checked luggage on aircraft.

      There have been at least nine fires involving lithium batteries on airplanes or in cargo destined for planes since 2005, federal safety records indicate.

      Passengers are still allowed to carry the batteries in checked baggage if they are installed in electronic devices, or in carry-on baggage if stored in plastic bags.

      Common consumer electronics such as travel cameras, cell phones, and most laptop computers are still allowed in carry-on and checked luggage.

      But the rule limits travelers to bringing only two extended-life spare rechargeable lithium batteries, such as laptop and professional audio/video/camera equipment lithium batteries in carry-on baggage.

      Doing something as simple as keeping a spare battery in its original retail packaging or a plastic zip-lock bag will prevent unintentional short-circuiting and fires, said Krista Edwards, Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportations Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

      Series of fires

      Lithium batteries are considered hazardous materials because they can overheat and ignite in certain conditions, and there has been a series of fires and meltdowns involving laptops, cell phones and other electronic devices in recent years.

      In 2006, a man in South Venice, Fla. blamed his Dell laptop for burning down his house. Last year, a Macbook was blamed for a house fire in Australia.

      In one of the most celebrated cases, a Dell laptop was blamed for setting fire to a pickup truck parked in a remote mountainous area in Nevada last August. The fire not only destroyed the truck but set off a box of ammunition its outdoorsman owner had left in the glove compartment while he went fishing.

      Fires hard to fight

      Safety testing conducted by the FAA found that current aircraft cargo fire suppression system would not be capable of suppressing a fire if a shipment of non-rechargeable lithium batteries were ignited in flight.

      This rule protects the passenger, said Lynne Osmus, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assistant administrator for security and hazardous materials. Its one more step for safety. Its the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

      Two kinds

      Lithium batteries come in two forms. The lithium metal batteries are single-use and the lithium-ion can be recharged. Both store energy that generates intense heat in the event of a short circuit, if metal touches both terminals or if internal seals fail.

      In many cases, low-cost or counterfeit batteries lack safeguards against short circuits. More than 4 million lithium batteries of all sorts have been recalled in recent years.

      Bulk shipments of lithium metal batteries were banned on passenger flights in 2004, in part because fires in those batteries are especially hard to extinguish.

      New Rule Limits Lithium Batteries in Carry-on Baggage...
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      Top Ten Automotive Outrages of 2007

      Consumers pay for manufacturers' mistakes, government inaction

      The American motorist gets blamed for many things, including urban sprawl, global warming, unsafe streets, drunken driving and conspicuous consumption...