Current Events in March 2008

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    Researcher: Cell Phones 'More Dangerous Than Smoking'

    Millions of deaths could result over the long term

    There have been a number of health warnings over the years about possible radiation risks associated with the use of mobile phones. In case anyone is not taking these warnings seriously, British health researcher Dr. Vini Khurana puts it in language designed to get your attention:

    "Mobile phones could have health consequences far greater than asbestos and smoking," he said.

    Khurana a neurosurgeon who has published more than 30 scientific papers reviewed more than 100 studies on the effects of mobile phones. He has written a paper based on the research, which is currently being peer-reviewed for publication in a scientific journal.

    Is he exaggerating? Khurana says the numbers bear him out. He points out that three billion people around the world now use a cell phone. That's three times the number of people who smoke, and smoking amounts for some five million worldwide deaths each year.

    But are cell phones really a serious risk? Khurana expresses little doubt, saying "there is a significant and increasing body of evidence for a link between mobile phone usage and certain brain tumors."

    The risks, he says, will become even more apparent in the years ahead.

    Action needed

    Khurana believes governments should act immediately, but stops short of saying exactly what they should do. Separating people from their cell phones, at this point, might be beyond the reach of any earthly power.

    Meanwhile, the cell phone industry remains unconvinced. Britain's Mobile Operators Association dismissed his study as "a selective discussion of scientific literature by one individual."

    In the U.S., exploration of a possible link between mobile phones and health is moving at a slower pace. In January the National Academy of Sciences reported on its review of scientific evidence, requested by the Food and Drug Administration, by identifying areas where more research is needed.

    Among the research requested by the Academy are human population studies of children and pregnant women, including childhood cancers and brain cancer; and a study of adults in the general population, comparing them with a group with medium to high exposure to mobile phones.

    Salivary gland

    Last month, a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, suggests that cell phone use contributes to at least some cancers.

    The study found focused on cancer of the salivary gland, looking at 500 Israeli citizens who had developed the disease and 1,300 healthy subjects.

    Researchers concluded that those who had held a mobile handset against one side of their head for several hours a day were 50 percent more likely to have a tumor in the salivary gland.

    Since cell phones were introduced in the 1980s, there has been speculation of a heightened risk of cancer, caused by holding an electronic device against the head. There have been a number of studies, but no conclusive evidence one way or the other.

    This latest study is different because it has focused on long-term users. Also, researchers say, previous studies have looked for tumor formation exclusively in the brain, not other parts of the body.

    Salivary gland

    Cancer of the salivary gland, they point out, is very rare, and its location so close to where a handset is held makes the tumor-cell phone connection all the more intriguing.

    The mobile communications industry has repeatedly questioned studies suggesting a cancer link. It argues cell phones have been shown to be safe, and should be considered so until they are conclusively shown to be unsafe.

    Skeptics worry that radio-frequency radiation emitted from the devices might be harmful to human tissue, and might contribute to the formation of tumors. Dr. Siegal Sadetzki, who headed up the research team, notes that cancer risks appeared to be higher among rural cell phone users, because their mobile phones put off increased radiation to compensate for weaker signals.

    But Sadetzki concedes her study is inconclusive and should be followed up with ongoing research. Even so, she says "precautions should be taken" in order to reduce risk, especially for children and young adults who use mobile phones.

    WiFi too

    Add to that worries about wireless computer networks. Last year, the British scientist who raised one of the early warnings about potential health hazards from cell phones has a new worry -- wireless Internet, or WiFi.

    Sir William Stewart, chairman of Britain's Health Protection Agency, is lobbying British authorities for an investigation into WiFi's possible health risks, according to Britain's The Independent.

    Stewart is concerned because wireless Internet may become more prevalent than mobile telephones.

    A few individuals are known to suffer from a heightened sensitivity to electromagnetic radiation, but in recent years more and more physicians have expressed concern that repeated and prolonged exposure might be harmful to the wider population.

    A study conducted in Finland found that people who have used cell phones for ten years or more are 40 per cent more likely to get a brain tumor on the same side of the head as they hold their handset. Research done in Sweden puts the risk at almost four times greater.

    Stewart is reportedly concerned because of the similarity of the radiation emitted by cell phones and WiFi systems. But whereas cell phone radiation exposes only the person using the handset, WiFi radiation could affect everyone in the general vicinity.

    Much of the concern is directed at children, who are seen as more vulnerable than adults to the effects of radiation, and because they will likely be exposed to increasing levels of radiation throughout their lives.

    The Austrian Medical Association is pressing the government to ban the deployment of WiFi in schools.

    Concerns about WiFi health effects have also been raised in the U.S.

    In 2003, parents sued an Illinois school that installed a WiFi system, claiming the radiation was causing headaches and memory problems. Last year, Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario refused to install a campus WiFi system, citing possible health concerns.

    Researcher: Cell Phones 'More Dangerous Than Smoking'...

    Connecticut Wants Craigslist to Pull Prostitution Ads

    Popular site violates its own rules against promotion illegal activity, state alleges

    Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is demanding that Craigslist purge apparent, often graphic, solicitations for prostitution which he says are rampant on certain sections of its website.

    The demand follows the arrest of a Connecticut woman on prostitution charges. She had allegedly used Craigslist to troll for clients.

    In a letter to Craigslist's attorney, Blumenthal demanded that the site better enforce its rules prohibiting illegal activity such as prostitution, and inappropriate ads and images.

    In spite of rules banning such content, Craiglist's "erotic services" section is rife with ads containing explicit language and images bordering on pornographic, as well as hourly rates and descriptions of services clearly sexual in nature, Blumenthal's office found.

    Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster took issue with Blumenthal's statements.

    Craigslist responds

    "In the New Haven Register, Attorney General Blumenthal is quoted as saying that our company profits from prostitution. That is both utterly false and significantly defamatory, as 100% of our revenue comes from paid job listings and broker apartment rental listings," Buckmaster said. "We certainly hope that the Attorney General was misquoted or misinformed, and we look forward to an immediate retraction of this false and damaging allegation."

    Blumenthal sent the letter after several months of discussions with Craigslist in which the site refused to take aggressive steps to curb apparent prostitution ads. The site acknowledged to Blumenthal's office that no staff members regularly check for such postings.

    "Craigslist is violating its own rules -- which bar illegal activity and inappropriate content -- by failing to remove ads promoting prostitution," Blumenthal said. "In Connecticut alone, certain site sections feature dozens of explicit, nearly pornographic photos, hourly rates and invitations to customers. Despite my office's repeated requests, Craigslist refuses to purge such postings -- stonewalling and denying the obvious.

    "I am especially troubled that Craigslist has disregarded and dismissed this serious and growing problem -- in effect turning a blind eye, refusing to hire or dedicate anyone to review postings that contain graphic nudity and solicitations with hourly rates, even in the 'erotic services' portion of the website," he said.

    "The company effectively denies the undeniable, incomprehensibly and unacceptably," Blumenthal said. "Although Craigslist touts measures to ban illegal activities and limit or remove inappropriate postings in its erotic services section, a cursory review of this section shows that its supposed solutions are woefully and obviously inadequate."

    Blumenthal's letter requests Craiglist's lawyer respond within 10 days with information on how the site plans to better enforce its rules prohibiting inappropriate content and use of the site to promote illegal activity such as prostitution.

    Discrimination decision

    Earlier this month, a federal appeals court has held that Craiglist could not be held liable for discriminatory real-estate postings.

    Civil rights attorneys in Chicago had argued that the site should be held responsible for apartment rental and home sale listings that specify racial or ethnic preferences.

    But the court said the Communications Decency Act protects Web sites from liability for third-party postings. It's the latest in a series of similar rulings.

    A staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Kurt Opsahl, said the ruling was "good news."

    The protection provided by the law is essential to the Internet's free operation, he said.

    Craigslist allows users to flag inappropriate language or material and removes postings that are identified as violating its terms of service.

    The appeals court noted that while Craiglist does not actively ban discriminatory postings, it does not encourage them either.

    "Nothing in the service Craigslist offers induces anyone to post any particular listing or express a preference for discrimination," the court held.

    Connecticut Wants Craiglist to Pull Prostitution Ads...

    Doctor Offers Antidote To 'Super-Size Me' Diet

    Organ damage can be reversed if consumers give up their unhealthy lifestyle

    Obesity is just one of the problems resulting from a diet heavy on fast food. A recent study from Europe showed that eating too much fast food a diet high in fat and sugar can cause serious damage to your liver.

    But is the damage permanent? Apparently not, says a leading liver specialist at Saint Louis University, who says people who give up their unhealthy lifestyle can actually reverse organ damage.

    "There's strong evidence now that a fast-food type of diet high in fat and sugar, the kind of diet many Americans subsist on can cause significant damage to your liver and have extremely serious consequences for your health," said Brent Tetri, M.D., professor of internal medicine at the Saint Louis University Liver Center and one of the country's leading experts on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

    "The good news is that most people can undo this damage if they change their diet and they keep physically active," Tetri said. "If they don't, however, they are asking for trouble."

    Particularly alarming, says Tetri, is that physicians are starting to see children and teenagers with cirrhosis, a serious liver disease once seen mostly in adults with a history of alcohol abuse or hepatitis C. Tetri suspects this is because many kids today eat far too much fast food or junk food and get far too little exercise the kind of behaviors that can lead to liver damage.

    "The fact we're starting to see kids with liver disease should really be a wake-up call for anyone eating a diet high in fat and sugar and who's not physically active," Tetri said.

    Tetri last year studied the effects on mice of a diet that mimicked a typical fast-food meal. The diet was 40 percent fat and replete with high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener common in soda and some fruit juices. The mice were also kept sedentary, mimicking the lifestyle of millions of Americans.

    The result: Within four weeks, the mice displayed an increase in liver enzymes a key indicator of liver damage and the beginnings of glucose intolerance, a marker for type II diabetes.

    Similarly, in February researchers in Sweden published the results of a study in which 18 healthy and slim adults ate fast food and restricted their physical activity for a month. The result: an average weight gain of 12 pounds and, within as little as a week, a sharp rise in liver enzymes.

    Tetri is quick to emphasize that fast food per se doesn't causes liver damage. Rather, he says, the harm comes from eating too many calories and too much fat and sugar which happens with a steady diet of burgers, fries, sodas and most other items on the typical fast-food menu.

    "The big issue here is caloric content," says Tetri. "You can put away 2,000 calories in a single fast-food meal pretty easily. For most people, that's more calories than they need in an entire day."

    For adults and children who've repeatedly indulged in fast food, Tetri urges four key steps to help reverse the damage they've done to their liver.

    1. Limit yourself to no more than one fast-food meal a week. For some people, that's going to be a major downshift. But for the sake of your health, a visit to a fast-food restaurant should be considered a treat not a regular event.

    2. When you do eat fast food, eat as healthfully as possible. Try the burger without mayo and cheese, and avoid fries and sugary soft drinks. Better yet, go for a grilled chicken sandwich, a salad with a lower-fat dressing and bottled water or a diet soft drink.

    3. Get active. If you don't already exercise at least three times a week, start now. Regular exercise helps keep your weight down and helps your body better metabolize and process the food you eat.

    4. Ask your doctor to do a blood test to check your level of liver enzymes, a key measure of the health of your liver. Many doctors now order test this routinely when doing blood work on adults, but kids who eat a lot of fast food especially need to have their liver enzymes checked.

    "Even for those people with the worst kind of diets, it's not too late to start exercising and eating right," Tetri said.

    "Good news is that most people can undo this damage if they change their diet and they keep physically active," Tetri said. "If they don't, however, they a...

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      States Raise Questions about XM-Sirius Merger

      Attorneys General say merger will create monopoly

      Eleven states want the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to consider blocking the proposed merger of the nation's only two satellite radio companies, saying the deal would create an illegal monopoly.

      The AGs sent a letter asking the FCC to step in after the U.S. Department of Justice failed to block the proposed merger of XM Radio and Sirius Radio. The DOJ dismissed concerns that the merger would create an illegal monopoly by leaving the nation with only one satellite radio provider.

      "A merger of XM Radio and Sirius radio meets the textbook definition of monopoly: a product controlled by one party," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. "The Justice Department's inaction regarding this combination defies law, reason and common sense. Even a child understands that owning every property from Baltic Avenue to Boardwalk is a monopoly.

      "This monopoly-making merger will leave Connecticut consumers at the mercy of a single company, leading to skyrocketing prices and diminished service. Customers unhappy with their service will have nowhere to go. The Justice Department's message to satellite radio consumers: Go pound sand.

      "My office, in partnership with other state attorneys general, is demanding the FCC to intervene against this flagrantly anti-competitive, anti-consumer merger. The FCC can and should protect the public interest and radio consumers by killing this monopoly before it's created," Blumenthal said.

      Among the opponents is the state of Wisconsin, whose attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, said the proposed merger is anti-competitive and anti-consumer. He said its impacts will be felt in Wisconsin, particularly in rural communities, where he predicts a significant reduction in the availability of sports and other programming.

      The proposed merger would eliminate competition in the satellite radio industry and the combined XM-Sirius companies would be free to raise prices, stifle innovation, and reduce program diversity, Van Hollen said late last year, when he wrote to Barnett asking that the merger be blocked.

      The Justice Department said last week that the combined satellite company won't be able to raise prices excessively because of competition from other entertainment media, including broadcast radio and MP3 players.

      There wasn't enough evidence the merger "would substantially lessen competition or harm consumers," Justice antitrust chief Thomas Barnett said.

      But the deal's not done yet. The companies are still awaiting approval by the Federal Communications Commission.

      FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has said the agency is close to a decision and said the FCC staff has been instructed to draft "various options."

      The deal has come under fire from critics who say it would reduce competition. The critics have also questioned whether existing receivers will be able to receive what proponents have said will be greatly expanded programming options.

      The proposed merger got a boost last September when former Federal Communications Commission chairman Mark Fowler said the deal would enhance competition. His comments came in a column in the New York Sun, whose parent company, Hearst Corporation, owns a stake in XM.

      "In spite of the fact that satellite radio constitutes only 3.4 percent of radio listening today, traditional over-the-air radio operators have understood the potential threat and have had no choice but to compete, and have been dragged, albeit kicking and screaming, into the digital age," Fowler wrote.

      The main argument that may prevent the current commissioners from allowing the merger is that it would create what critics say would be a monopoly. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), an industry group that lobbies on behalf of terrestrial radio broadcasters, has been by far the most vehement opponent.

      "The national satellite radio market currently is a two-company duopoly trying to become a government-sanctioned monopoly," NAB president and chief executive officer David Rehr said at a House hearing in March. "The fact is, this monopoly would reduce innovation for services and equipment for consumers since there will be no competition in their defined market."

      States Raise Questions about XM-Sirius Merger...

      Comcast Agrees To Stop Blocking Internet Users

      Will work with file-sharing companies and change network structure

      In the wake of bad publicity and a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigation stemming from Comcast's policy of blocking some subscribersfrom using file-sharing services such as BitTorrent, the beleaguered cable behemoth has made an about-face and announced it would work with BitTorrent to implement better "network management" practices.

      Comcast also announced plans to migrate its cable network to a "protocol agnostic" standard that would not be configured to interfere with certain kinds of traffic.

      "This means that we will have to rapidly reconfigure our network management systems, but the outcome will be a traffic management technique that is more appropriate for today's emerging Internet trends," said Comcast chief technology officer Tony Werner. "We have been discussing this migration and its effects with leaders in the Internet community for the last several months, and we will refine, adjust, and publish the technique based upon feedback and initial trial results."

      The budding Comcast-BitTorrent partnership would extend to developing technologies that would more easily ensure the distribution of rich media content, such as video downloads and file-sharing, over Internet service provider networks. "This should prove to be a productive partnership that will provide consumers with a better Internet experience," said Doug Walker, CEO of BitTorrent.

      Advocates of net neutrality, the principle that Internet users should be able to access all content equally, were pleased with the decision, but also said it was merely a start.

      "The issue of Net Neutrality is bigger than Comcast and BitTorrent," said Marvin Ammori, general counsel for Free Press. "This agreement does nothing to protect the many other peer-to-peer companies from blocking, nor does it protect future innovative applications and services."

      The FCC, which had agreed to investigate Comcast's network practices after consumer activist groups petitioned the agency, also had a mixed reaction.

      "If it had not been for the FCC's attention to this issue earlier this year, we would not be having the conversation that we are having now among network operators, edge content providers, consumers and government about the best way to implement reasonable network management," said Democratic commissioner Michael Copps.

      "While it may take time to implement its preferred new traffic management technique, it is not at all obvious why Comcast couldn't stop its current practice of arbitrarily blocking its broadband customers from using certain applications," said FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican.

      "Comcast should provide its broadband customers as well as the Commission with a commitment of a date certain by when it will stop this practice."

      Martin promised that a public FCC hearing held at Stanford University on April 17 would address the matter further.

      Comcast's Cable Conniptions

      Comcast had previously earned the ire of many of its subscribers and consumer advocates when its practice of cutting off heavy-bandwith users without notice became common knowledge.

      The company would often abruptly terminate the accounts of users who were allegedly causing network slowdowns for consuming too much bandwith, but Comcast would not commit to any hard "bandwith caps" for fear of scaring away subscribers who wanted "all-you-can-eat" bandwith pricing.

      After the Associated Press confirmed in November 2007 that Comcast was deliberately interfering with some users of BitTorrent, the company issued a flurry of denials even in the face of mounting media pressure and a lawsuit filed over what the plaintiff called "deceptive marketing practices."

      Comcast continued to balk, even in the face of mounting action by the FCC. Although Martin generally opposes new regulations supporting net neutrality, he has pursued an aggressive legislative agenda against cable companies since becoming chairman, even as he favors much more relaxed rules for telecom companies engaged in similar practices.

      The issue hit a peak in February 2008, when the FCC held its first public meeting to address the Comcast investigation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Comcast stacked the audience in its favor by paying employees, the homeless, and students to fill the auditorium and block critics from attending.

      Supporters of net neutrality said that Comcast's actions were proof that laws needed to be passed guaranteeing equal access to Internet content for all users. Although previous attempts to pass legislation enshrining net neutrality as law failed in the previous Congress, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a new bill that would not only preserve net neutrality, but empower the FCC to investigate all cases of content blocking or discrimination.

      House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-MI) held new hearings on the issue earlier this month, and expressed his belief that violations of net neutrality could be policed under antitrust laws preventing noncompetitive behavior in the marketplace.

      Comcast Agrees To Stop Blocking Internet Users...

      Massive Securities Fraud Ring Exposed In New Jersey

      Investors lost at least $50 million, prosecutors charge

      New Jersey officials say they have arrested 21 people in connection with a securities fraud scheme that scammed investors out of at least $50 million. State Attorney General Anne Milgram said the scheme, operating from Sao Paulo, Brazil and Miami, Florida, utilized the New Jersey securities market.

      Milgram said the "Heritage Financial" case involves an international criminal organization that operated over at least the last three years.

      The New Jersey Bureau of Securities initiated the investigation that later resulted in a joint investigative team consisting of the US Department of Justice Fraud Task Force, FBI, U.S. Postal Inspectors, Securities and Exchange Commission, the Brazilian Federal Police, as well as the New Jersey authorities.

      "Our Bureau of Securities uncovered an international securities fraud ring through the hard work and tenacity of its staff in its investigation of investor complaints," Milgram said.

      A federal grand jury in Miami, Florida returned indictments on Rodrigo Molina and Marcos Macchione for their involvement in the scheme as money laundering service providers for the fraud. The indictments follow major operations carried out in Brazil and Florida in February 2008 that resulted in the arrest of 18 subjects in Brazil and three in Florida.

      The Brazilian operation netted the alleged leader of the criminal organization, Doron Mukamal, as well as his partners, associates and employees. Also arrested in Brazil were the "doleiros" or money launderers that assisted the organization by providing a complicated maze of bank accounts that quickly hid money sent in by the victims. The three subjects arrested and indicted in Florida were responsible for the United States portion of the doleiro operations being managed out of Brazil, according to Milgram.

      Heritage Financial

      New Jersey investigators became involved in this case in 2005 when victims from around the world contacted the Bureau of Securities to report that a New Jersey securities broker had defrauded them. Heritage Financial of Trenton, N.J., one of the companies that was quickly determined by state investigators to be completely fictitious, offered to purchase nearly worthless stock from investors by paying much more than the stocks were worth.

      Shortly before the stock transaction was supposed to take place, the fictitious broker would require the victim to pay some sort of advance fee. These fees were purported to pay for taxes, escrow payments or other services not actually required in legitimate transactions.

      Once these "fees" were wired into bank accounts, mostly located in Miami, the fictitious brokers simply abandoned the transaction.

      On many occasions, the victims were told that the broker had located warrants that supposedly gave the victims the right to purchase additional shares of the stocks already held by the victims at a discounted price. Although these warrants were fictitious, the victims were enticed to advance additional monies for the warrants based on the brokers' offer to buy the warrants back from the investors at a purported huge premium to the investors.

      In many cases victims were further victimized when they were told that the broker had located warrants or the rights to purchase more shares held by the victims. These warrants were imaginary, but the con artists would offer to pay huge premiums to the investors for them. Again, lured by the promise of huge profits, the investors would remit large payments for further fictitious fees.

      Elaborate ploys

      "Many foreigners investing in American stocks were quickly confused by elaborate ploys conceived by this criminal organization that served to provide an air of legitimacy," said Vincent J. Oliva, Chief of the New Jersey Bureau of Securities.

      The con artists used well-designed websites to fool their victims into believing that they were legitimate securities brokers. The perpetrators, in order to carry out their scheme, stole the identities of real New Jersey broker-dealers and created others that were fictitious, authorities said.

      In many instances, they even created false governmental entities that touted the legitimacy of the fictitious brokers. Additionally, voice over internet (VOIP) telephone providers were utilized so that the fictitious brokers had U.S. phone numbers even though they were located in Brazil and other countries.

      "When this operation utilized false New Jersey entities, victims thought they were calling their broker located in Trenton or Newark when in fact, they were calling the con artists who were operating 'boiler rooms' all over the world," said Criminal Justice Director Gregory Paw.

      Representatives of the SEC have advised that for at least the last three years, this fraud scheme is responsible for the greatest number of victim complaints received by them.

      To date, the Bureau of Securities has seized and/or frozen over $2 million through the investigation, and additional monies have been seized by federal authorities. The majority of those funds are now being returned to victims by a court-appointed receiver.

      Besides arresting the fraud scheme leader and managers, the Brazilian operation, called "Operacao Pirita", raided an operating "boiler room" located in a Sao Paulo hotel full of telemarketing con artists actively carrying out the fraud. In addition to the arrests, the Brazilian Federal Police, with the assistance of personnel from the NJ Bureau of Securities and N.J. Division of Criminal Justice, seized 17 guns, 17 vehicles, drugs, at least one home and over $1.5 million in cash and jewelry.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Massive Securities Fraud Ring Exposed In New Jersey...

      Rock 'N Ride Plush Rocker Toys

      March 27, 2008    
      Tek Nek Toys is recalling about 122,000 Rock 'N Ride plush rocker toys. The base of the rocker can become unstable and allow the rocker to tip forward or backward, posing a fall hazard to children.

      Tek Nek Toys has received 35 reports of the rockers tipping over, including ten reports of injuries such as bumps, bruises and lacerations.

      This recall involves Rock 'N Ride plush rocker toys sold in eight models: brown pony, pink pony, pink unicorn, deluxe pony, deluxe bull, lil' penguin, lil' propeller plane and Clifford big red rocker. The toys have molded plastic rocker bases and were sold for children at least 18 months old and up to 65 lbs. A button on the toy's ear, hat or dash activates songs and phrases when pressed. Rockers included in this recall have a date code from July 26, 2007 through December 29, 2007. The date codes are printed on a sticker inside the battery compartment.

      The toys were sold at Wal-Mart, Toys 'R' Us, Kmart, Target, Atwoods, and Pamida stores nationwide and Internet retailers from September 2007 through March 2008 for about $30. They were made in China.

      Consumers should immediately take the rocker toys away from young children and contact Tek Nek Toys for a free replacement base.

      Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact Tek Nek Toys toll-free at (888) 686-2728 anytime, or visit the firm's Web site at

      More photos are available on the CPSC site.

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

      Rock 'N Ride Plush Rocker Toys...

      Brief Gas Price Decline Ends

      Prices jumped half a cent overnight

      The short-lived relief from rising gasoline prices has ended, with the cost of a gallon of regular self-serve jumping more than a half a cent overnight, according to the motorist group AAA.

      The nationwide average price of regular unleaded gasoline hit $3.261 overnight, up from $3.255. the new price is 67 cents higher than one year ago and 12.4 cents higher than one month ago.

      Mid-grade gasoline now sells for $3.462 a gallon and premium sells for $3.588. Gas prices hit an all-time high of $3.285 a gallon March 16, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report Web site.

      The cost of diesel is still above the $4 mark at $4.027, according to AAA after recording a record price of $4.037 March 22.

      Hawaii now has the highest average gasoline prices in the country at $3.642. California is a close second at $3.624.

      Gasoline prices in Missouri, Minnesota and New Jersey are the lowest in the country averaging less than $3.10 a gallon.

      The most expensive gallon of regular gasoline is on sale in Mendocino, California for $4.30. The cheapest gallon is found in Springfield, Missouri for $2.88.

      Regional prices

      Over the last week on a regional basis, prices for regular gasoline fell throughout the country with the exception of the Rocky Mountain region.

      The average price on the East Coast was $3.241 per gallon. The price in the Midwest was $3.192. In the Gulf Coast region, regular gasoline averaged $3.166 per gallon.

      In the Rocky Mountains the price hit $3.198 and on the West Coast the average price remained the highest in the country at $3.517 per gallon, 50.1 cents above the price last year.

      Diesel fuel

      For the sixth week in a row, average retail diesel prices increased, and for the fifth consecutive week, the U.S. average price for retail diesel reached yet another all-time high. High prices for diesel fuel drive up the cost of transporting consumer products and may be quickly reflected in prices of groceries and other essentials.

      However, while prices continued to increase, the pace of the increase slowed.

      Prices remained at all-time high levels in all regions of the country, exceeding $4.10 per gallon in some areas.

      On the East Coast, the average price of diesel was up by 1 cent to $4.045 per gallon, $1.388 per gallon higher than last year.

      In the Midwest, the price increased by 0.6 cent, the smallest increase of any region, to reach $3.964 per gallon, an increase of $1.309 from a year ago.

      The price in the Gulf Coast went up 1.4 cents to $3.928 cents per gallon, the lowest price of any region.

      The average price in the Rocky Mountains increased the most of any region, moving up by 6.1 cents to $3.953 per gallon.

      On the West Coast, the average price increased by 3.8 cents to $4.056 per gallon, $1.253 above the price a year ago. The average price in California grew by 3.6 cents to $4.119 per gallon, $1.25 above the price a year ago.

      Brief Gas Price Decline Ends...

      Report: Attorneys General Deserve More Credit

      State AGs are consumers' front-line defense

      While most people might be able to identify their state's governor, they would probably have more difficulty naming their state attorney general. However, a new study suggests that when it comes to protecting consumers, the state attorney general is by far the more important, if least appreciated, public official.

      The study, by the Center for Justice & Democracy, finds that state attorneys general often target corrupt and harmful business practices on behalf of consumers, taking action on behalf of citizens in many diverse areas, including consumer protection, antitrust and utility regulation, and environmental protection.

      Perhaps as a result of that activity, the report finds, attorneys general are often the targets of unfair attacks by political opponents and business interests.

      "We tend to take for granted the important and sometimes understated work of state attorneys general, many of whom toil away in unglamorous offices as they fight for the public interest," said Center for Justice & Democracy Executive Director, Joanne Doroshow.

      Doroshow suggests corporate interests threatened by an active attorney general are increasingly attacking the states' use of outside counsel, because these private lawyers have proved effective in helping states reach huge settlements on behalf of their citizens.

      "If these business groups are successful and prevent AGs from doing their job, the difference could means hundreds of millions of lost reimbursements for states due to corporate wrongdoing, not to mention countless lives," she said.

      The study cites state tobacco litigation as a watershed case for attorneys general across the nation. In partnership with private attorneys, the state officials were not only able to force the industry to reimburse state funds expended to deal with one of the biggest public health disasters in modern times, the report notes they were also able to expose the industry's corrupt practices.

      According to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, "Never before [this lawsuit] has any tobacco company or member of the industry acknowledged that cigarettes cause cancer, nicotine is addictive and the industry targets its marketing to children and suppresses its own knowledge about how harmful its products are."

      "It is precisely this check on industry that so angers corporate interests," write report authors Emily Gottlieb and Amy Widman. "When attorneys general and private attorneys join together, the power of the state is made stronger by the additional resources, manpower and strategic advice provided by private counsel.

      "It increases their access to documents so the state can investigate exactly what was happening behind corporate doors. Also, because the state is involved, it can provide more whistleblower protection to insiders willing to speak the truth about industry misconduct," she added.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Report: Attorneys General Deserve More Credit...

      Home Warranties Not Always What They Seem

      Pre-existing conditions not covered, response time often lengthy

      "Protect your home, save money, and avoid the hassles of home repair now!" began the junk e-mail I received about American Home Shield, one of the largest providers of home warranties.

      Not to be confused with a builder's warranty, a so-called home warranty -- actually a service contract -- is typically purchased for existing homes, especially homes sold by real estate agents. These service contracts generally cost $300 to $600 for a yearly basic coverage plan that includes items such as ceiling fans, water heaters, and the furnace.

      Here's how a home warranty is advertised: Instead of calling a repair company when something breaks down, you call the warranty company, which sends out a local contractor to diagnose the problem. You'll pay the contractor a service-call fee, typically $50 to $100, and the contractor informs the warranty company what needs to be done to fix the problem.

      Once the okay is given, the contractor repairs or replaces the problem item and you don't pay a cent more. Or so the ads promise.

      Many consumers do find that these plans work just as advertised. However, many others are reporting serious problems with their warranty company, including American Home Shield (AHS).

      Popular with Realtors

      Owned by ServiceMaster, which also operates TruGreen and Terminix, AHS is a favorite among real estate agents who use the warranty as a home-selling perk.

      One such agent is Anna, of Northern California. "My clients used to complain about AHS, but I always gave benefit of doubt to AHS," Anna admitted. "I figured every company has their share of unhappy complaints."

      What Anna didn't know is that the same issues that plagued her clients would soon strike her personally.

      Anna had a bathroom faucet go on the blink, so she called AHS. Their contractor refused to make the repair, so Anna paid out of her own pocket for a different plumber to make the 10-minute repair.

      Her next problem came in the form of a malfunctioning air conditioner.

      "The service technician reported that there was lack of maintenance and therefore it has to be replaced and cannot be covered under AHS," Anna wrote. "I paid separately to another vendor and he said the A/C unit is perfectly fine except that there is a leak that has to be fixed."

      "Every time I call AHS for a problem, they deny the service either on grounds of lack of maintenance or abnormal wear and tear. How do you define abnormal wear and tear and lack of maintenance?" Anna asked.

      No response

      We contacted American Home Shield to ask the same questions, but they did not return our calls.

      In reality, AHS is no different from other home warranty companies when it comes to exclusions and small print. Warranty company contracts say that a claim can be denied for lack of maintenance, improper maintenance, improper installation, pre-existing problems, code violations, and numerous other reasons.

      Further, the contract says that coverage only applies if the item or system breaks down due to "normal wear and tear."

      Considering that most home warranty plans do not require a prior inspection, the contractors and warranty companies are the sole judge of what is classified as "normal wear and tear" and "lack of maintenance."

      "Our furnace self-destructed and AHS denied to fix it," said Phil, of Lake Forest Park, Washington. "AHS says we did not properly maintain the system, so they cancelled the warranty until we replace the furnace. I don't understand how a warranty we have been paying on for 7 years can be declared non-existent," Phil complained.

      Fine print

      The reason that a warranty company can call the shots is because of the contract. If you signed it, you're stuck with it, whether you read it or not.

      Steve, of Land O' Lakes, Florida, discovered the details of his contract when he filed a claim with Old Republic Home Protection .

      Steve's air conditioner was having major issues and Old Republic decided the unit needed to be replaced. As a real estate agent, Steve had recommended Old Republic to his clients, so he didn't think that getting his own problem fixed would be a problem.

      "Boy was I wrong," Steve said. "Even though I was told a replacement unit would cost at least $4,000.00, Old Republic said they would pay me only $500.00."

      After useless discussions with Old Republic managers, Steve ended up paying $4,200.00 to replace the unit himself. "Old Republic never did send me the $500.00," Steve said.

      Steve ran into a brick wall because of the Old Republic terms and conditions that say: "We reserve the right to provide cash in lieu of repair or replacement in the amount of our actual cost (less than retail) to repair or replace such item," a clause commonly found in warranty contracts.

      Contractors fume

      Home owners aren't the only people that have had issues with warranties. We also heard from contractors who weren't pleased with their dealings with the warranty companies.

      Ron, who owns a Louisiana-based heating and air conditioning company, told us that Old Republic called him, unsolicited, and asked him to be a contractor.

      "They faxed me a sixteen-page contract ready to sign me up as a repair company," Ron said. "It included ridiculous low rates where I would have to get the local permit, recover the Freon of an air conditioner, buy the equipment, and warranty the job for 30 days."

      Ron said that the pay was so low that his company would have made no profit and would have even lost money on labor costs. Additionally, there was the issue of getting paid.

      "I had a bad past experience with a warranty company who took months to pay me," Ron said. "Old Republic assured me this wouldn't be an issue, but to get paid promptly I would have to give up 5 percent of the invoice amount."

      Another contractor who asked to remain anonymous said that on the more expensive items, many contractors know they will lose money on the covered item. However, they will make it up in other ways such as upgrading the appliance or system to code specifications, hauling away the broken item, or cleaning an item before it can be serviced.

      Additionally, contractors typically still get paid the service fee even if the claim is denied.

      Insider advice

      So what's a homeowner to do? Many consumer advocates would say it's better to "self-insure" -- setting aside a reasonable sum each year to cover routine maintenance and finding reliable local contractors to do the work. This is true of "extended warranties" in general.

      Surprisingly, some industry insiders might agree.

      "I would not recommend someone buy a warranty when the home has lots of known pre-existing conditions," said Lorna Mello, Vice President of Old Republic Home Protection. "Home warranty plans cover items that fail due to normal wear and usage after the effective date of the plan."

      Mello also emphasizes the importance of reading the contract.

      "I would advise they read the home warranty plan to clearly understand the terms and conditions of coverage so they have a clear understanding of what to expect."

      Also keep in mind that it's the warranty company that decides what an emergency is, not you. This is a lesson that Nancy of Columbus, Ohio, learned the hard way when her furnace failed in February.

      "We called AHS and was told no-one was available to take care of emergencies. We informed them that we had a 9-month-old infant in the house, and the home was very cold (Ohio winter weather)," she told

      Nancy also learned that the homeowner generally has no choice about which contractor shows up to do the work.

      "The company, Brokaw Heating, was assigned to come out within 1-2 days (horrible service). When we called Brokaw, they hung up on us and continue to be unresponsive. We have called 6 times to AHS only to hear the same thing -- nothing."

      Home Warranties Not Always What They Seem...

      International Recalls School Buses, Trucks

      The buses could catch fire

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports on its Web site that International Truck and Engine Corporation is recalling 34,993 MY 2006-2008 school and transit buses along with heavy duty trucks.

      The recalled vehicles have the potential to catch fire in extreme cases, according to NHTSA.

      The vehicles were manufactured between June 1, 2006 and June 28, 2007 and are equipped with International DT466 or DT570 engines.

      The oil cooler base plate in the busses and trucks may crack, allowing pressurized oil to leak into the engine compartment. The leaking condition may cause either engine shut down without warning or in extreme cases, possible engine fire which can lead to property damage, injury or death, NHTSA reports.

      International trucks and buses involved in the recall are:

      IC/CECB2007 to 2008 model year
      IC/CESB2007 to 2008 model year
      IC/FECB2007 to 2008 model year
      IC/FESB2007 to 2008 model year
      IC/HC2007 to 2008 model year
      IC/RECB2007 to 2008 model year
      IC/RESB2007 to 2008 model year
      International/13002007 to 2008 model year
      International/32002007 to 2008 model year
      International/33002007 model year
      International/43002007 to 2008 model year
      International/44002006 to 2007 model year
      International/73002007 to 2008 model year
      International/74002006 to 2008 model year
      International/75002007 to 2008 model year
      International/85002007 model year
      International/CXT2007 to 2008 model year
      International/RXT2007 model year

      The NHTSA reports on its Web site that International Truck and Engine Corporation is recalling 34,993 MY 2006-2008 school and transit buses along with heav...

      Washington Sues Alleged Spyware Spammer

      Arizona man bombarded consumers with ads for pornography, Viagra

      The Washington Attorney Generals Office is accusing a Scottsdale, Ariz., man of coercing consumers to buy software to block computer pop-ups by first bombarding them with ads for pornography and Viagra.

      In a civil lawsuit filed today in King County Superior Court in Seattle, the state alleges that consumers who downloaded the software were further victimized when the program caused their computers to stealthily blast messages to other PCs at a rate of one every two seconds.

      Attorney General Rob McKenna said Ron Cook, owner of Messenger Solutions, LLC, violated Washingtons Computer Spyware Act and Consumer Protection Act while marketing programs under the names Messenger Blocker, WinAntiVirus Pro 2007, System Doctor and WinAntiSpyware.

      Our suit alleges that it wasnt enough for Ron Cooke to manipulate consumers into buying his software, McKenna said. His program maliciously turns victims computers into spamming machines.

      The suit alleges that computers capable of receiving Windows Messenger Service pop-ups, also known as Net Send messages, were vulnerable to the attacks. Windows Messenger Service, not to be confused with the instant-messaging program Windows Live Messenger, is primarily designed for use on a network and allows administrators to send notices to users. It comes preinstalled with some versions of Windows. Service Pack 2 disables the feature in computers running Windows XP. Windows Vista users are not susceptible.

      The suit accuses Cooke and Messenger Solutions of 10 specific violations of state law including transmitting malicious software, attempting to coerce consumers into purchasing software, misrepresenting the necessity of software for security purposes and deceptively causing consumers to violate the Computer Spyware Act.

      The Attorney Generals Consumer Protection High-Tech Unit has brought a total of six lawsuits under Washingtons Computer Spyware Statute, RCW 19.270, since the law was approved by the Legislature in 2005.

      Assistant Attorney General Katherine Tassi, who is overseeing the case, said the High-Tech Unit has seen a trend in deceptive advertising to sell software.

      Weve seen individuals and companies inundate consumers with Internet pop-up ads and Net Send services that frequently resemble system alerts, Tassi said. Their intent is to pressure consumers to buy a product that will supposedly protect a computer from pop-ups, viruses or spyware. Many consumers wind up paying for a program that is essentially worthless or may even leave the computer more vulnerable to malware.

      The office began investigating the case in October 2007 after a computer in the High-Tech Units lab received ads via Windows Messenger Service. The lab uses honey pots to detect hackers, spyware purveyors and other Internet mischief.

      Stream of pop-ups

      The states complaint alleges Cooke uses Windows Messenger Service to initially bombard consumers with a continuous stream of pop-ups advertising porn and sexual-enhancement products.

      Next, he uses Windows Messenger Service to send those same consumers another bout of pop-ups intended to simulate system warnings. The warnings claim that the consumers computer is vulnerable to security attacks and direct the user to a Web site to buy software to supposedly block pop-ups.

      The pop-ups persistently appear anytime the consumer is connected to the Internet, Tassi said. A consumer could simply be typing a letter using a word-processing program and the pop-ups crop up again and again, sometimes covering the entire computer screen.

      Consumers who visit the Web site are offered the opportunity to download Messenger Blocker, a program Cooke sells. In some cases, consumers are offered a free seven-day trial. On other sites, the product is available for $19.95 without the trial.

      The Attorney Generals complaint alleges that the pop-ups stop during the trial period. But once the trial expires, the consumers computer is bombarded with additional pop-ups that resemble those sent by Messenger Service but, in fact, are generated by Cookes software.

      The complaint further alleges that the software installed during the trial or purchase causes a consumers computer to secretly send out more ads to other computers, disables Windows Task Manager and adds a bookmark to the defendants Web site. The software is difficult, if not impossible, to uninstall.

      The Attorney Generals Office believes Cooke transmitted the messages and marketed his software from his home and that potentially hundreds of consumers in Washington state received the deceptive pop-up ads. Officials werent sure today how many people outside the state received the ads or how many consumers actually downloaded software in response to an ad.

      The states complaint requests injunctive provisions to stop the deceptive behavior, civil penalties and refunds for consumers.

      Washington Sues Alleged Spyware Spammer...

      Weight Loss Found Effective in Reducing Blood Pressure

      Study also finds orlistat helps relieve hypertension

      You may be able to lower your blood pressure by doing something as simple as taking off a few pounds or using the medication orlistat.

      Thats the conclusion drawn from a meta-analysis of previously published studies reported in the March 24 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

      High blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and is responsible for approximately 7 million deaths worldwide each year. Lowering blood pressure levels in those with hypertension has been shown to reduce cardiovascular risk, with corresponding decreases in illness and death.

      Weight reduction is recommended in major guidelines as an initial intervention in the treatment of hypertensive patients, the authors of the study write. Among the possible means of reducing body weight are lifestyle modifications and pharmacologic and invasive interventions.

      Researchers from the Medical University of Graz, Austria, performed a meta-analysis of 48 articles that were published before March 2007 and analyzed weight-loss interventions for patients with hypertension.

      Of those studies, 38 assessed diet and 10 focused on medications for weight loss, including five evaluating orlistat and five assessing sibutramine. No relevant articles were located regarding the weight loss drug rimonabant or evaluating surgical weight reduction.

      Patients assigned to weight loss diets, orlistat or sibutramine reduced their body weight more effectively than did patients in the usual care/placebo groups, the authors write. Reduction of blood pressure was higher in patients treated with weight loss diets or orlistat. Sibutramine treatment, however, did not lower overall blood pressure and appeared to increase systolic (top number) blood pressure.

      A reduction in body weight of approximately 8.8 pounds was necessary to achieve a reduction of approximately 6 milligrams of mercury in systolic blood pressure with dietary treatment and of approximately 2.5 milligrams of mercury with orlistat, the authors write. None of the studies provided data to answer the question whether risk of mortality [death] or other patient-relevant end points can be lowered by weight reduction.

      Weight Loss Found Effective in Reducing Blood Pressure...

      Verizon Wins Wireless Spectrum Auction

      Company forced to open network to all devices

      The $19.6 billion auction of a chunk of wireless spectrum frequencies is over, and Verizon Wireless is the clear winner. But its victory came at a cost--it will have to open any new networks it develops using the spectrum to any phone or device.

      The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that Verizon made the largest bid for the spectrum at $9.4 billion, followed by AT&T at $6.6 billion.

      Google, which had put up a bid of $4.6 billion in the auction, was not among the winners. But by placing its bid, it triggered the "open access" requirement of the auction, mandating that any company which bought the spectrum enable any phone or device from any network to use it.

      FCC chairman Kevin Martin hailed the auction as a success for competition. "A bidder other than a nationwide incumbent won a license in every market," Martin said. "As a result of the 700 MHz auction, there is the potential for an additional wireless 'third-pipe" in every market across the nation."

      Others disagreed with Martin's assessment. Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, said that "Since Verizon is already a dominant provider of DSL, the prospect of a genuine third pipe competitor in the wireless world is now slim to none. However, consumers will benefit from the emergence of some welcome competition within the wireless market."

      "As a result of the auction, consumers whose devices use the C-block of spectrum soon will be able to use any wireless device they wish, and download to their devices any applications and content they wish," said Google's telecom counsel Richard Whitt. "Consumers soon should begin enjoying new, Internet-like freedom to get the most out of their mobile phones and other wireless devices."

      The auction was also criticized due to bidders' failure to buy up another chunk of spectrum for building a "first response" wireless network. Only one bidder, who remains anonymous due to the rules of the auction, placed an insufficient minimum bid, forcing the FCC to re-auction the spectrum at a later date.

      "I believe that any new auction for the 'D-block' should be consistent with an overarching policy goal of advancing public safety objectives and ultimately achieving a state-of-the-art, broadband infrastructure for first responders," said Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA). "In developing a plan for a re-auction of the [spectrum] the FCC should also take into account the auction results to gauge the level of new competition achieved."

      Both Markey and Martin promised to investigate why the auction to buy the spectrum for the "first response" network failed.

      What's next?

      The auction was conceived by the FCC to raise money for the U.S. Treasury, and to make use of spectrum that would go unused as a result of the nationwide switch from analog to digital television signals, taking place on February 17, 2009.

      Originally seen as a playground for the largest telecom companies to buy up chunks of the spectrum to expand their markets, the auction went to a different level when consumer activist groups pressured Google to join the auction, in the hopes of creating a legitimate "third pipe" wireless Internet network to compete with existing cable and telecom companies.

      Google agreed to put up its bid if the FCC would mandate that the spectrum be used according to Google's four principles of open platforms, but the FCC made a compromise ruling that only supported the usage of open devices and applications on the network. Although both Verizon Wireless and AT&T threatened to withdraw from the auction--and Verizon even briefly sued the FCC over the adoption of the "open access" rules---both telecoms went ahead with their bids in the end.

      Since then, Verizon has shifted its stance on enabling non-Verizon phones and devices to connect to its network, proclaiming that it would open its formerly "walled garden" to all users beginning in 2008. However, its recently published technical standards indicate that Verizon would be operating a "two-tier" system, one for customers on the Verizon network, and one on the new "open" network.

      Devices to be used on the open network may take between 4-8 weeks to get approved for use by Verizon, and may cost considerably more than regular Verizon handsets, which are subsidized in part due to multi-year contracts and "termination fees."

      And iPhone users hoping to switch to Verizon and take their prize with them are still out of luck--the iPhone works on the GSM network, while Verizon's network is powered by the rival CDMA standard, making iPhones incompatible.

      Even without winning the auction, Google also stands to gain considerably from the new open network--it has spearheaded the Open Handset Alliance, a coalition of wireless companies and device makers who agree to develop and support Android, Google's mobile phone operating system, designed to work on multiple platforms.

      With Verizon's rivals Sprint and T-Mobile backing the alliance, wireless users may see a variety of "Googlephones" coming their way in the near future.

      Verizon Wins Wireless Spectrum Auction...

      Woman Indicted In Alleged Ebay Scam

      Buyer 'won' an auction but never got his Lexus

      With the growth of online auction and classified ad Web sites, scammers have taken advantage of consumers in the market for big-ticket items. Scammers often advertise an automobile for sale, take the buyer's money, then not deliver the car.

      In Kentucky, Attorney General Jack Conway has announced today the indictment of Erica L. McGinn, formerly of North Bend, Nebraska, in connection with her failure to deliver a Lexus automobile sold for more than $30,000 to a Prospect, Kentucy man on Ebay in January 2008.

      Investigators charged McGinn with one count each of Theft by Failure to Make Required Disposition of Property over $300 and Unlawful Access to a Computer Network in the First Degree. The theft charge is a Class D Felony and the unlawful access charge is a C Felony. If convicted, McGinn could face up to 10 years in prison.

      "The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it's also a tool for crime," Conway said. "I appreciate the multi-jurisdictional effort that was involved in this arrest, and those who are trying to scam Kentuckians online should know that the Office of the Attorney General will investigate and prosecute these crimes."

      The Lexus vehicle was listed for sale on the Internet auction web site Ebay. McGinn allegedly sold the Lexus to the victim, who wired the purchase price to complete the transaction.

      When the victim arrived in Omaha to meet McGinn and obtain the Lexus, McGinn reportedly did not meet him at the airport as promised, and he was unable to locate the defendant at the address provided.

      In fact, Conway says she never owned a Lexus.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Scammers have taken advantage of consumers in the market for big-ticket items. Scammers often advertise an automobile for sale, take the buyer's money, the...