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Researcher: Cell Phones 'More Dangerous Than Smoking'
Millions of deaths could result over the long term03/31/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Researcher: Cell Phones 'More Dangerous Than Smoking'...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Connecticut Wants Craigslist to Pull Prostitution Ads
Popular site violates its own rules against promotion illegal activity, state alleges03/31/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Connecticut Wants Craiglist to Pull Prostitution Ads...
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.
"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.
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.
Melons may carry Salmonella, FDA warns03/31/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Honduran Cantaloupes Linked To Salmonella...
Doctor Offers Antidote To 'Super-Size Me' Diet
Organ damage can be reversed if consumers give up their unhealthy lifestyle03/30/2008ConsumerAffairs
"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...
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.
States Raise Questions about XM-Sirius Merger
Attorneys General say merger will create monopoly03/29/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
States Raise Questions about XM-Sirius Merger...
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."
Comcast Agrees To Stop Blocking Internet Users
Will work with file-sharing companies and change network structure03/27/2008ConsumerAffairs
Comcast Agrees To Stop Blocking Internet Users...
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.
Massive Securities Fraud Ring Exposed In New Jersey
Investors lost at least $50 million, prosecutors charge03/27/2008ConsumerAffairs
Massive Securities Fraud Ring Exposed In New Jersey...
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.
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.
"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.
Rock 'N Ride Plush Rocker Toys03/27/2008ConsumerAffairs
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 www.teknektoys.com.
More photos are available on the CPSC site.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Thieves steal and sell your house, leaving you stuck with the mortgage03/27/2008ConsumerAffairs
'House Stealing' Scam Combines Identity Theft, Mortgage Fraud...
Brief Gas Price Decline Ends
Prices jumped half a cent overnight03/26/2008ConsumerAffairs
Brief Gas Price Decline Ends...
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.
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.
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.
Report: Attorneys General Deserve More Credit
State AGs are consumers' front-line defense03/26/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Report: Attorneys General Deserve More Credit...
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.
Home Warranties Not Always What They Seem
Pre-existing conditions not covered, response time often lengthy03/26/2008ConsumerAffairs
Home Warranties Not Always What They Seem...
"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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ConsumerAffairs.com.
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."
Counterfeit prints sold to unsuspected art lovers03/25/2008ConsumerAffairs
The scheme, which included art dealers in Illinois, Florida, and New York, cost victims around the world more than $5 million, according to the Federal Bur...
International Recalls School Buses, Trucks
The buses could catch fire03/25/2008ConsumerAffairs
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...
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/CECB||2007 to 2008 model year|
|IC/CESB||2007 to 2008 model year|
|IC/FECB||2007 to 2008 model year|
|IC/FESB||2007 to 2008 model year|
|IC/HC||2007 to 2008 model year|
|IC/RECB||2007 to 2008 model year|
|IC/RESB||2007 to 2008 model year|
|International/1300||2007 to 2008 model year|
|International/3200||2007 to 2008 model year|
|International/3300||2007 model year|
|International/4300||2007 to 2008 model year|
|International/4400||2006 to 2007 model year|
|International/7300||2007 to 2008 model year|
|International/7400||2006 to 2008 model year|
|International/7500||2007 to 2008 model year|
|International/8500||2007 model year|
|International/CXT||2007 to 2008 model year|
|International/RXT||2007 model year|
Mercedes-Benz is recalling 3,283 2008 S Class luxury cars because of a faulty transistor.03/25/2008ConsumerAffairs
Mercedes-Benz Recalls S Class Sedans...
Washington Sues Alleged Spyware Spammer
Arizona man bombarded consumers with ads for pornography, Viagra03/25/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Washington Sues Alleged Spyware Spammer...
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.
Weight Loss Found Effective in Reducing Blood Pressure
Study also finds orlistat helps relieve hypertension03/24/2008ConsumerAffairs
Weight Loss Found Effective in Reducing Blood Pressure...
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.
Midwest has the latest infestation of the fast-spreading scam03/24/2008ConsumerAffairs
A buyer sends counterfeit money order to the seller often for an amount greater than sales price. The buyer then asks the seller to cash the money order an...
Fifty illnesses reported in the U.S. so far03/24/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Honduran Cantaloupes Linked To Salmonella...
FCC Releases Broadband Report, Admits Data is Faulty
But agency proclaims U.S. broadband competition is healthy03/21/2008ConsumerAffairs
FCC Releases Broadband Report, Admits Data is Faulty...
In an odd sequence of events that could only happen in Washington, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a report on March 19 proclaiming that broadband Internet competition in America was healthy and thriving -- while simultaneously publishing an order admitting that their process for collecting data on broadband was deeply flawed and needed improvement.
The FCC issued its "Section 706" report on wireline broadband competition, with chairman Kevin Martin claiming that broadband adoption has grown 950% from just over 9 million lines to over 100 million lines during his tenure as Commissioner.
"The ability to share increasing amounts of information at greater and greater speeds, increases productivity, facilitates interstate commerce, and helps drive innovation," Martin said.
"Our analysis indicates that more than 99% of the country's population lives in the more than 99% of ZIP codes where a provider reports having at least one highspeed service subscriber," Martin said. "Accordingly, I support the conclusion in the Section 706 report that broadband services are currently being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion."
Not all of Martin's fellow Commissioners agreed.
"The fact is the U.S. has dropped [in broadband adoption rankings] year-after-year," said Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein."This downward trend and the lack of broadband value illustrate the sobering point that when it comes to giving our citizens affordable access to state-of the-art communications, the U.S. has fallen behind its global competitors."
Adelstein pointed to data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranking the U.S. at 11th and 21st among developed nations for broadband adoption.
Fellow Commissioner Michael Copps also criticized the Section 706 report for what he called "the indefensible way we have gone about gathering dataand still gather it today."
Broadband brass tacks
The key criticism of the FCC's broadband reports has been its reliance on a "Broadband Data Improvement Act" that measures broadband availability by ZIP code. If even one subscriber in the ZIP code has access to broadband, the entire region is deemed successful, regardless of whether or not other residents have broadband connections.
The FCC's reporting methods also fail to account for pricing of the broadband packages available to residents of the region, which overlooks the possibility that consumers may not be getting all the bang for the buck they should be. Moreover, the FCC's standard for "broadband" is a woefully slow 200 kilobits per second, not even equal to the slowest DSL connection.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the FCC's data-gathering process in 2006, and many consumer groups have called on the agency to reform its procedures -- or for Congress to do it for them. Senator Daniel Inouye introduced the "Broadband Data Improvement Act" in July 2007 specifically to force the agency to adopt new standards for its broadband measurements.
Although the Act itself did not become law, the issue became a focal point of criticism for the FCC.
The FCC's new broadband data collection order will require broadband providers to report numbers of broadband subscribers by census tract, broken down by four speed tiers and several technology types, with the new "floor" for broadband speeds set at 768 kilobits per second. 64 megabits per second will be the fastest of the four tiers.
Copps praised the FCC for improving its practices while stating the agency still has far to go in its mission to provide accurate broadband information for the United States.
"The truth remains that, time and time again, we have failed to heed the call of scholars, industry, consumers, and the Government Accountability Office to improve our datagathering," Copps said. "It is truly shocking that we still rely on an absurdly dated definition of broadband speed and a 5-digit ZIP code methodology that didn't pass the red face test even when we introduced it many years ago."
Verizon Wins Wireless Spectrum Auction
Company forced to open network to all devices03/21/2008ConsumerAffairs
Verizon Wins Wireless Spectrum Auction...
The $19.6 billion auction of a chunk of wireless spectrum frequenciesis 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.
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.
Woman Indicted In Alleged Ebay Scam
Buyer 'won' an auction but never got his Lexus03/21/2008ConsumerAffairs
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...
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.
Hannaford Bros. Faces Class Action Over Data Breach
Hacker broke into grocery chain's system03/21/2008ConsumerAffairs
Hannaford Bros. Faces Class Action Over Data Breach...
Days after supermarket chain Hannaford Bros announced a data breach, the company finds itself defending a class action lawsuit, filed on behalf of customers who credit or debit card data was stolen.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine by the law firm of Berger & Montague, PC. The complaint alleges that Hannaford was negligent for failing to maintain adequate computer data security of customer credit and debit card data, which was accessed and stolen by a computer hacker.
On March 17, 2008, Hannaford announced on its website that there was a "data intrusion into its computer network that resulted in the theft of consumer credit and debit card numbers."
The stolen data included "credit and debit card numbers and expiration dates," which were accessed from Hannaford's computer system "during transmission of card authorization." The intrusion affected all Hannaford stores located throughout the North Eastern U.S., as well as Sweetbay stores in Florida.
Published news reports indicated that 4.2 million unique credit and debit card numbers have been exposed to potential fraud. To date, there have been approximately 1,800 cases of reported credit and debit card fraud stemming from the breach.
The suit claims the breach began on December 7, 2007 but wasn't contained until March 10, 2008. Hannaford stated that it became aware of the breach on February 27, 2008. However, Hannaford did not publicly announce the breach until almost three weeks later, on March 17, 2008.
The suit maintains that because of Hannaford's inadequate data security, its customers have had their personal financial information compromised, have been exposed to the risk of fraud, have incurred and will continue to incur time to monitor their accounts and dispute fraudulent charges, and have otherwise suffered damages.
Company CEO Ron Hodge said the attack has been contained.
"No personal information, such as names or addresses, was accessed. Hannaford doesn't collect, know or keep any personally identifiable customer information from transactions," Hodge said in a statement on the company's Web site.
"The stolen data was limited to credit and debit card numbers and expiration dates, and was illegally accessed from our computer systems during transmission of card authorization," Hodge said.
Hannaford said it is cooperating with credit and debit card issuers to ensure those customers who may be affected by the theft are protected. It said it has also alerted law enforcement authorities, and is working closely with them to help identify those responsible.
Survey Finds Extended Car Warranties Often a Bad Deal
Missouri cracks down on St. Louis-area warranty companies03/20/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Survey Finds Extended Car Warranties Often a Bad Deal...
Pricey new-car extended warranties are usually poor deals, according to a recent survey and in-depth report published in Consumer Reports'Annual Auto Issue. Providing further evidence is action by the Missouri attorney general against several warranty companies in the St. Louis area.
Sixty-five percent of more than 8,000 Consumer Reports readers surveyed by the Consumer Reports National Research Center earlier this winter said they spent significantly more for a new-car warranty than they got back in repair cost savings.
Extended warranties are very lucrative for dealers, who are being squeezed by lower commissions and better pricing information. On average, dealers collected around $800 on each extended warranty they sold.
Meanwhile, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon took legal action against several businesses, most of them based in the St. Louis area, that he said used misrepresentation and deception to sell motor vehicle extended service contracts to consumers around the country.
Nixon said the coordinated filings of lawsuits and settlements, dubbed Operation Taken For A Ride, involve scores of consumers who were misled into paying for extended service contracts on their vehicles that, in most cases, they did not need.
In the Consumer Reports survey, respondents cited warranty costs of $1,000 on average that provided benefits of $700 -- an average $300 loss.
Some 42 percent of extended warranties were not used, and only about a third of all respondents used their plan to cover a serious problem. About one in five respondents (22%) said they had a net savings. Seventy-five percent did not buy extended warranties at all.
"Extended warranties sell costly 'peace of mind' for repair nightmares that probably won't occur," said Rik Paul, automotive editor, Consumer Reports. "Sellers know what tends to break, and in most cases consumers are betting against the house."
Extended warranties were, however, a better deal for those who bought more troublesome cars scoring lower in CRs reliability ratings, such as those from Mercedes-Benz. Still, only 38 percent of Mercedes-Benz owners said they saved money. The average loss was $100.
Lexus and Toyota owners lost the most money: $600 on average for Lexus and $550 for Toyota. Owners of Pontiacs and Jeeps broke even because on average they had covered repairs that equaled the warranty cost.
Consumer Reports' analysis of specific car makes was based on 5,465 responses from a December 2007 online survey of CR readers who owned 2001-2002 vehicles.
What to do
Consumer Reports experts suggest, among other things, shoppers put the $1,500 to $2,300 they might spend on an extended warranty into a money market savings account or mutual fund instead, to insure against unlikely significant repair costs.
For consumers who want absolute peace of mind and don't mind paying for an extended warranty, Consumer Reports offers the following advice:
• Don't feel pressured to buy an extended warranty at the same time as buying a new car. Instead, shop about six months before the vehicle's factory warranty runs out.
• Ask for and have a trusted mechanic review sample contracts before buying.
• Bargain hard -- sales commissions can be large.
'Taken for a Ride'
Missouri AG Nixon said the companies targeted by his office used use high-pressure, misleading tactics.
Its rather insidious how these companies prey upon consumers fears, sending misleading letters informing them that their current motor vehicle warranties were about to expire, when in fact many of the consumers possessed factory warranties that wouldnt expire for several months, Nixon said.
That was the hook to sell these consumers unneeded motor vehicle extended service contracts for hundreds or thousands of dollars. When consumers canceled the contracts, many received only a partial refund or no refund at all.
Nixon says the companies mislead consumers in letters and postcards with boldfaced statements such as Notification of Interruption! and Important Dated Material Enclosed leaving the impression that they are sent from the manufacturers who produced the consumers vehicles or the dealers who sold the vehicles to them.
In fact, Nixon said, the defendants fail to inform the consumers that they are not affiliated with the manufacturer, dealer or any local, state or federal government agency, and that the mailings amount to advertisements for the companys service contracts.
Many consumers confused, but not wanting their car warranties to expire went ahead and purchased the new, but in most cases unneeded, service contract the company was hawking, Nixon said.
In one case, an elderly consumer received a postcard stating that her motor vehicle warranty was expired or about to expire in March 2007, even though her actual extended warranty through General Motors wouldnt expire until November 2008. The consumer purchased a new service contract for $1,898 from the company, and the company refused to issue a refund when it was requested.
Nixon filed one of his lawsuits against that company, Vehicle Services Inc., of St. Peters, in St. Charles County Circuit Court, requesting injunctions, restitution for consumers, penalties and other relief. In addition, the Attorney General filed lawsuits today against the following businesses:
• TXEN Partners, which does business as Service Protection Direct of St. Louis; and a related company, United Warranty Solutions, for using misleading notification letters to pressure, confuse and intimidate consumers into purchasing MVESCs they did not need. The defendants failed to disclose coverage requirements to consumers who purchased MVESCs (such as the requirement to use a specific brand of oil to receive reimbursement for repairs); failed to honor contract terms and perform repair on consumers vehicles; and failed to issue refunds to consumers, including one consumer who is owed as much as $3,800. The lawsuit was filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court.
• Dealer Warranty Services of St. Charles, for using misleading notification letters to pressure, confuse and intimidate consumers into purchasing MVESCs they did not need. The defendant also misrepresented to consumers the cost of purchasing the MVESCs and debited the bank accounts of several consumers without authorization. The lawsuit was filed in St. Charles County Circuit Court.
• Certified Auto Warranty Services Inc., of Lenexa, Kan., which promised a 100 percent Money Back Guarantee to those consumers who purchased and canceled MVESCs, but then issued only partial refunds or no refunds at all. One consumer who paid $1,335 canceled her contract, but has received no refund to date. The lawsuit was filed in Greene County Circuit Court.
• National Dealers Warranty Inc., of St. Peters, which sent consumers postcards and letters informing them that they had limited time to purchase renewed, extended warranties for their vehicles. The company neglected to inform consumers that it was not affiliated with the dealers or manufacturers of the vehicle, or that it was actually offering to sell MVESCs instead of warranties. The lawsuit was filed in St. Charles County Circuit Court.
• National Auto Warranty Services Inc., of Wentzville, which also sent consumers postcards and letters informing them that their warranties were about to expire, and that it was offering them their final chance to purchase a renewed, extended warranty. The company failed to inform the consumers that it was not affiliated with the dealers or manufacturers of the vehicle, and that it was actually offering to sell MVESCs instead of warranties. In addition, the company violated the Missouri No Call Law by calling Missourians who were on the No Call list, as well as federal telemarketing laws by contacting consumers by phone and failing to honor their requests not to be called. The lawsuit was filed in St. Charles County Circuit Court.
• Smart Choice Protection of St. Louis, doing business as Direct Dealer Warranties, which also sent consumers postcards and letters informing them that their warranties were about to expire, and that it was offering the final chance to purchase a renewed, extended warranty. The company failed to inform the consumers that it was not affiliated with the dealers or manufacturers of the vehicle, and that it was actually offering the sell MVESCs instead of warranties. The lawsuit was filed in St. Louis City Circuit Court.
In addition to the lawsuits, the Attorney General filed assurances of voluntary compliance with two companies to settle allegations of misrepresentation in the selling of extended warranties:
• Carhill Enterprises, which does business as Consumer Protection Services, of 1232 Washington Avenue in St. Louis, will pay $7,209 restitution to eight consumers and $4,000 to the state to cover the costs of the investigation and enforcement of the case. The company also agreed to injunctive relief which requires them to inform consumers upfront of specific details of their product prior to purchasing. The agreement was filed in St. Louis City Circuit Court;
• Warranty Activation Headquarters, of 12244 Tesson Ferry Road in St. Louis, satisfactorily responded to all consumers who complained. The company will pay $5,000 to the state to cover the costs of the investigation and enforcement of the case, which was filed in St. Louis City Circuit Court. The agreement also requires the company to provide full refunds to any consumers who cancel within 30 days.
Nixon encouraged consumers who have complaints about businesses selling motor vehicle extended service contracts to file complaints with his office, by either going online to ago.mo.gov or by calling the Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-392-8222.
Tiny Virginia Town Stands Up To Payday Lenders
Town steps in when state legislature feared to tread03/19/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The town council of tiny Kilmarnock, Virginia, has done what the mighty Virginia General Assembly could or would not do -- banned payday lenders....
The town council of tiny Kilmarnock, Virginia, has done what the mighty Virginia General Assembly could or would not do -- banned payday lenders.
The Virginia legislature, after grappling with the issue of payday loans, came up with a compromise measure last week that would cap interest rates at 36 percent, lengthen the time that borrowers have to repay a payday loan, limit how many loans borrowers can get each year, and prevent lenders from making loans to members of the armed forces.
However, much to critics' chagrin, the measure allows payday lenders to keep in place some of the more objectionable "loan fees" that they say keep borrowers hooked on high-priced credit. The measure awaits the signature of Gov. Tim Kaine (D).
But in Kilmarnock, population 1,244, members of the town council voted 4-2 to keep payday lenders from setting up shop in the community. The vote came after a lengthy public hearing in which townspeople jammed the tiny council chambers to overwhelmingly express their disapproval.
It was a zoning ordinance that provided the town the opportunity to slam the door on payday lending for the town, located on Virginia's "Northern Neck," an isolated peninsula that juts into Chesapeake Bay .
The town's commercial zoning allows for banks, but had created a separate category for "small lending businesses." That category is currently not allowed under the ordinance and speaker after speaker urged the council to keep it that way. Many of the opponents were local clergy, or otherwise represented churches in the community.
"I can assure you that the clergy represented here today reflect a wide range of the political spectrum, but on this issue we are united," said the Rev. Megan Holloway, Assistant Rector at Kilmarnock's Grace Episcopal Church.
The sole proponent of amending the zoning was Randy Phelps, manager of the Advance America lending store in a nearby town. His company, whose Web site says it operates 2,800 stores nationwide, was seeking to open a cash advance store in a new strip shopping center, part of the town's new Wal-Mart complex.
"We're not evil people," Phelps protested to the council. "We provide a needed service."
But many, including Ward Scull, of Newport News, Virginia, disagreed. Skull, founder of a group called Virginians Against Payday Lending, had failed in his attempt to convince the Virginia legislature to ban payday loans in the state. He found a more receptive audience in this small Virginia town.
"Simply put, these are usurious loans that put people in a debt trap they can't get out of," Scull said. Payday lenders have spent millions of dollars to advertise and lobby against reform over the past year and given a reported $310,000 to state legislators' campaigns. But that spending did them little good in Kilmarnock, a picturesque village that was settled in the mid-1600s. The town is named for Kilmarnock, Scotland and occupies all of 2.69 square miles.
Watch for Scams in Vacation Packages, Travel Deals
Secret fees, misleading ads, hard-sell tactics are common03/18/2008ConsumerAffairs
Watch for Scams in Vacation Packages, Travel Deals...
With spring break here and families planning for summer vacations, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is warning consumers to be wary of the various scams and fraud which could be associated with vacation packages and other travel-related services.
McCollum encouraged consumers to report travel-related fraud involving Florida companies to his office (at myfloridalegal.com, particularly issues related to improperly disclosed surcharges, misleading advertisements or problems associated with timeshares.
Florida is well-known for its allure to travelers, from both within the state and other locations, and we must protect not only our citizens and our guests but also our reputation as an attractive destination, said McCollum.
The Attorney Generals Office announced settlements earlier this week with two cruise lines over the imposition of a fuel supplement on cruise passengers. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Celebrity Cruises agreed to refund $21 million to consumers nationwide who were charged the fuel surcharge after they had booked their cruise.
Other common travel-related problems are associated with vacation timeshares, which give consumers the right to use a vacation home for a limited, preplanned period. Timeshare scams occur both at the time of the original purchase and at the point of resale.
Victims of unscrupulous timeshare sales companies are often contacted either over the phone or are mailed a postcard asking the victim to call a toll-free phone number. Before consumers decide to either purchase or resell a timeshare, McCollum advised them to consider the following tips:
Be wary of the hard sales pitch When it comes to purchasing a new timeshare, the salesperson may give the impression that the papers have to be signed that same day. Consumers should remember that they always have the right to leave the sales office and come back later.
Consumers should always read their contracts to determine what cancellation rights they have after the papers are signed. Before buying a timeshare, consumers should consider whether they will want to return to the same vacation spot each year.
Be wary of too-good-to-be-true claims when it comes to resales The company's salespeople are likely to claim that the market in the area where the resort is located is "hot" and that they are being overwhelmed with buyer requests for that resort. In some cases, the salespeople may even claim they have a buyer waiting in the wings who wants to buy the timeshare. Consumers should be skeptical of these types of claims.
Question up-front fees Most resale companies require consumers to pay a $300-500 advance listing fee before the sale of the timeshare can take place. In a typical real estate transaction, the fee is paid from the proceeds of the sale at the time of the sale. Consumers should also find out if the salespeople are licensed real estate brokers and should contact the licensing agency in the state where the company is located to determine if their license is valid, and whether there are any complaints lodged against the broker.
Consider other options when it comes to resale Consumers may want to try selling their timeshares "by owner" by placing advertisements in a newsletter or magazine read by potential timeshare buyers. A licensed real estate broker in the area where the resort is located may be another option. Some companies also offer contracts which allow consumers to exchange their timeshares for units in different areas.
United To Reduce its Fleet By 4 Percent
Fuel costs squeezing airlines, leaving passengers with fewer flights03/18/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
United To Reduce its Fleet By 4 Percent...
In a bid to become more profitable, many U.S. airlines reduced their number of flights and are now more quick to cancel or consolidate flights. While that might help the bottom line, it has done nothing to lift passengers' spirits, or make air travel a more pleasant experience.
Now, with skyrocketing fuel costs, this trend appears to be continuing. Speaking at the JPMorgan Aviation and Transportation Conference, Jake Brace, United Airlines executive vice president and CFO, said the company may reduce its fleet by 20 aircraft, or four percent of its aircraft.
He did not say how many, if any, flights would be eliminated, but said United would continue to reduce capacity this year.
It's just one of the moves Brace said will be necessary to offset what could be more than a $1 billion increase in fuel costs in 2008. A company press release, written for financial reporters in advance of the conference, reveals what else consumers can expect from the friendly skies.
"The company is executing against its fuel conservation plan, leading efforts to pass commodity costs onto customers, and identifying new sources of revenue by unbundling services," the release states. "United recently announced a $25 second bag fee for non-elite customers that is expected to generate $100 million in annual revenue."
Brace said the aircraft targeted for mothballs are generally older, narrowbody planes that are less fuel efficient. Additionally, he said the company has increased its fuel hedges since January, and now has 20 percent of its fuel hedged for full year 2008.
Brace said United is looking to further reduce other costs and is reviewing non-aircraft capital spending having already delayed the purchase of new aircraft until the industry recovers to a level where he says those assets can earn a reasonable return.
"We are taking a prudent step now by reducing our fleet, taking assets out of the network that don't make sense at these fuel prices, to better position United to be successful in an ever-challenging environment," Brace said. "United has an aggressive five-year plan focused on creating shareholder value. We have led the industry in reducing domestic capacity and continue to lead efforts to pass commodity costs onto our customers, as other industries do."
But as airlines such as United reduce domestic capacity, consumers are left with fewer, and more expensive options for air travel.
Prediabetes: What You Should Know
You may be able to prevent full-blown diabetes03/18/2008ConsumerAffairs
A diagnosis of prediabetes doesn't mean that you're destined for diabetes. Prediabetes can be reversed, and diabetes prevented, by making some basic lifest...
Underlying todays growing epidemic of type 2 diabetes is a much larger epidemic called prediabetes which is when the blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be called diabetes.
Fortunately, a diagnosis of prediabetes doesnt mean that youre destined for diabetes. Prediabetes can be reversed, and diabetes prevented, by making some basic lifestyle changes. Heres what you should know.
Almost everyone who has type 2 diabetes has passed through prediabetes first. According to the American Diabetes Association there are around 54 million people in the United States who have prediabetes. If left untreated, it almost always turns into diabetes within 10 years.
And even if its not high enough to be labeled diabetes, high blood sugar can significantly harm your body causing high blood pressure and damage to your heart, blood vessels, kidneys and eyes.
Do you have it?
Prediabetes is like the warning light in your car that comes on when youre about to run out of gas, letting you know theres a problem looming, but you still have time to do something about it. But, prediabetes can be tricky too because it usually causes no outward symptoms, so most people that have it dont realize it.
The only way to know for sure is to get a simple blood test done by your doctor. (Tip: Check your personal risk at www.yourdiseaserisk.com click on diabetes). Here are the factors that increase your risk of prediabetes and diabetes. If you fall into one or more of these categories you need to get tested:
• Over age 45. Prediabetes risk increase with age.
• Are overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more. To calculate your BMI see www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi. The heavier you are the greater your risk. Also, having excess fat around your waist, rather than around the hips and thighs, increases risk.
• Have a family history of diabetes.
• Have high blood pressure (140/90 or higher).
• Have low HDL (good) cholesterol and high triglycerides.
• If youre Hispanic, Asian, African or Native American.
• Had gestational diabetes (high blood sugar during pregnancy) or gave birth to a baby weighting over nine pounds.
Being diagnosed with prediabetes doesnt mean that youre destined for type 2 diabetes. Prediabetes can actually be reversed and diabetes prevented by making some simple but consistent lifestyle changes that include:
• Losing weight: If youre overweight, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight coupled with moderate exercise can reduce your risk of developing full-fledged diabetes by nearly 60 percent.
• Exercising: Regular exercise (about 30 minutes at least five days per day) helps control your weight and blood glucose level. Talk to your doctor about what types of exercise might be appropriate for you.
• Eating healthy: Eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables high in fiber, limit fat consumption and go easy on the salt and sugar. Visit www.diabetes.org and click on Nutrition and Recipes for healthy diabetic food tips, recipes and other nutrition information.
• Not smoking: Smokers are more likely to become diabetic.
Note: Oral diabetes medications may also be an option to reduce your risk of developing full-blown diabetes. Or, if you have high blood pressure or abnormal cholesterol levels, medication for these conditions may be necessary to lower your risks.
Savvy Tips: For more information and dozens of free publications on all aspects of diabetes visit the National Diabetes Education Program at www.ndep.nih.gov or call 800-860-8747. Or for extra help, contact the American Association of Diabetes Educators (800-338-3633, www.diabeteseducator.org) to locate a diabetes professional in your area.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book.
Missouri Sues Branson Timeshare Business
Executive Timbers Resort accused of deception, fraud, misrepresentation03/18/2008ConsumerAffairs
Nixons investigation revealed that many consumers have lost between approximately $7,000 and $17,000 in dealing with Branson Log Homes, although some consu...
Nixon seeks restitution for consumers from Branson seller of timeshares Forsyth, Mo. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon is seeking restitution for consumers from a southwest Missouri business that allegedly used deception, fraud and misrepresentation in the sale and advertisement of timeshare memberships, plans, property and resale brokerage services.
Nixon filed suit Branson Log Homes, which does business as Executive Timbers Resort and Golf Course, seeking injunctive relief and civil penalties, as well as the restitution.
Consumers who contacted Nixons office complained that Branson Log Homes:
Failed to provide required notice to consumers of their right to cancel contracts, and failed to allow consumers to cancel those contracts within five days after they purchased the timeshare membership or property;
Billed consumers for maintenance or upkeep fees on property they were trading in, after neglecting to inform consumers that they would be required to pay such fees;
Didnt reimburse consumers for maintenance fees after telling them those fees would be reimbursed;
Promised that consumers who purchased a timeshare membership, plan or property from the defendant would receive specified benefits or other merchandise, such as membership in a travel club, but then didnt make good on those promises; and
Didnt tell consumers that the defendant was more than $30,000 in debt to the travel club it counted on to provide travel club memberships to consumers.
A number of consumers spent thousands of dollars and attempted to trade in their existing timeshares as part of an agreement to purchase a new timeshare from Branson Log Homes, Nixon said. Many were promised travel club memberships that were never delivered. Others are still paying out of their own pockets for maintenance on timeshares because the defendant omitted essential information about the timeshare trade process and implied that the consumer would no longer have to pay.
Nixons investigation revealed that many consumers have lost between approximately $7,000 and $17,000 in dealing with Branson Log Homes, although some consumers may have lost more.
The lawsuit is requesting that the court order the defendant to stop violating state consumer protection laws. In addition, Nixon is asking the court to order Branson Log Homes to pay restitution to all consumers who suffered a loss due to the defendants unlawful conduct, appropriate civil penalties and all costs associated with the investigation and prosecution of the case.
Pennsylvania Sues Exchange Student Business
Operators accused of diverting funds, misleading parents and misrepresenting program03/18/2008ConsumerAffairs
Pennsylvania's attorney general has filed a civil lawsuit against an Allentown, Pa., couple from the international "foreign exchange student" business they...
Pennsylvania's attorney general has filed a civil lawsuit against an Allentown, Pa., couple accused of diverting in excess of $100,000 from the international "foreign exchange student" business they operated.
Attorney General Tom Corbett said the lawsuit was filed against Timothy H. Sweet and Tina Sweet, doing business as United Student Exchange and United International Studies.
According to the lawsuit, the Sweets brought more than 50 foreign students to Pennsylvania with promises of carefully selected host families and placement at private schools. They are accused of diverting more than $100,000 which was intended to pay for school tuitions and to support the students while they were in the United States.
"The Sweets and their business - United Student Exchange - took advantage of families hoping to send their children to America to enjoy once-in-a-lifetime educational experiences," Corbett said. "Instead, visiting students and their U.S. host families were met with empty promises and disappointment - left to fend for themselves by a business that claimed to be 'uniting the world with Christ, one student at a time'."
Corbett said his office has also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Sweets from bringing additional foreign students into the United States, along with a request that the court order an immediate freeze of any bank accounts and other assets controlled by the Sweets, believed to contain money that has been paid for program fees, tuition and host family payments.
According to the lawsuit, the Sweets, operating as United Student Exchange, advertised the placement of exchange students in Christian communities. Exchange students were primarily recruited in Korea.
Currently, the program is believed to have 56 students, from 8th through 12th grade, in the U.S., with the majority of the students located in Lehigh, Berks and Lancaster counties.
Corbett said that exchange students and their families were promised a "dedicated" and "full service" program to support the students during their visit, using carefully screened host families that were pre-selected for the students.
According to the lawsuit, arriving students often learned that their host families had not yet been recruited. Foreign students without a host family were placed in "temporary" homes or housed in the Sweets home, as many as eight students at a time.
Corbett said that the Sweets and United Student Exchange are also accused of recruiting host families under false pretenses -- claiming that pre-arranged host families had suffered an illness or had a previously scheduled activity, such as a vacation, which required the temporary relocation of a visiting student.
Host families recruited after the arrival of students did not complete a "host family application form," and were not required to supply references or undergo a background check, or only received a cursory review, contrary to advertised claims by the Sweets about their family screening and selection process.
According to the United Student Exchange website, maintained by the Sweets, visiting students would be offered free trips throughout the year, so that they could see other parts of America, along with other services which were not provided.
In addition, host families were also told that United Student Exchange was dedicated to providing assistance to the visiting students during their stay, though families were allegedly left without support -- with the Sweets failing to reply to email messages or respond to telephone calls.
Corbett said the families of visiting students paid a "service fee" of $3,500 to the Sweets and United Student Exchange in order to locate a school and host family. The Sweets also received an additional $2,500 fee, intended to pay the host family for their expenses, along with added costs for school tuition. Full payment of all fees was required prior to the students' arrival in the United States.
According to the lawsuit, the majority of payments were made directly to the Sweets and United Student Exchange, who maintained control over the balance of the funds. Despite pre-payment of all school tuition and host family fees, a number of schools and host families report receiving only minimal payments from the Sweets, or no payment at all.
Additionally, the lawsuit states that complaints from students, host families and schools about unpaid expenses or missing funds were occasionally met by threats from the Sweets to send visiting students home prior to the end of their 10-month stay -- resulting in the forfeiture of all payments and also sign of dishonor for families whose children had not completed the school year.
Corbett noted that United Student Exchange and other related businesses names used by the Sweets have not been registered with the Pennsylvnia Department of State, as required for any fictitious business name.
The Sweets and their businesses are also not recognized sponsors under the federal J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa program, which is closely supervised by the U.S. State Department and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Corbett said that the violations of the Consumer Protection Law listed in the civil lawsuit filed against the Sweets include:
Failure to pay host families, as promised.
Failure to pay school tuition, as promised.
Misrepresentation of support to students and host families.
Contract terms in violation of Consumer Protection Law.
Failure to register fictitious business names. Corbett said the civil lawsuit filed against the Sweets and their businesses seeks the following:
Permanently prohibit the Sweets and their companies from placing additional foreign students in the U.S.
Permanently prohibit the Sweets from housing foreign students at their residence.
Prevent the forced return of any student prior to the end of their contracted visit to the United States.
Declare that illegal sections of exchange student contracts are null and void.
Provide all host families and schools with all payments collected by the Sweets and their companies which were intended for tuition and host expenses.
Civil penalties of $1,000 for each violation of the Consumer Protection Law, increasing to $3,000 for each violation involving a victim over 60 years old.
Prohibit the Sweets and their businesses from operating in Pennsylvania until all restitution, costs and civil penalties have been paid.
Corbett said that a court order, obtained on March 6, 2008, prevents the Sweets from engaging in any further student exchange activities, prohibits them from housing students in their home and prevents them from involuntarily returning students to their home countries.
Corbett said the court order also requires the Sweets to preserve all business and financial records and open all records and accounts to investigators from the Attorney General's Office. Additionally, the Sweets are subject to court-ordered restrictions on the withdrawal of funds from various bank accounts.
Corbett encouraged any student, host family or school experiencing difficulty with the Sweets, United Student Exchange or United International Studies to contact the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection at 1-800-441-2555 (inside Pennsylvania) or the Allentown Regional Office of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at 610-821-6690.
Xbox or PC Stolen? Don't Forget to Cancel Your Credit Cards
Credit card information may be in your machine's memory03/17/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Xbox or PC Stolen? Don't Forget to Cancel Your Credit Cards...
You walk into your home and make an anguishing discovery you've been the victim of a burglary. Besides your TV, some jewelry and your PC, the thief got away with your Xbox 360 video game console.
Granted, it's not a good situation, but if you stop after calling the police and your insurance agent, the burglary could get even worse. If you've used your credit card to open an account on Xbox Live, the thief could be downloading games and buying points. Because your credit card is tucked safely in your wallet, you may be none the wiser.
The Belgian gamers' blog Fragland.net has reported just such an occurrence in Canada. It is advising its readers to keep credit card information off their game consoles.
The post raises an important point in this era of e-commerce. Our fictional burglary victim might also be vulnerable to credit card theft when a computer is lost or stolen.
If the owner is a frequent e-commerce customer, at a site such as Amazon.com, he may have a credit card on file for purchases. He may also have checked the box that says "remember me on this computer," so that his user name and password automatically pops up. It's an open invitation for the burglar to go on a shopping spree.
The best advice is to immediately contact your credit card company if a burglar steals your Xbox or PC.
No Easy Remedy for Imposter Postings on Social Networking Sites
Like grafitti, phony postings are offensive but hard to control03/17/2008ConsumerAffairs
No Easy Remedy for Imposter Postings on Social Networking Sites...
In November, 2007, a 13-year-old Ohio boy used his home computer to create a fake MySpace profile titled "Your Princeypal." Although no name was included, the profile featured a picture of the principal at the boy's school and the statement, "I am the hillside middle school principal."
The profile goes on to describe the supposed poster as a child molester who performs sex acts in his office and enjoys watching gay porn.
School officials took action and in February, 2008, the 13-year-old was expelled from school for the offense of "malicious harassment." However, according to The Smoking Gun, the parents, Toader and Marianna Osan, have now sued school officials for violating the free speech rights of the 13-year-old.
Questions also exist as to why a 13-year-old was on MySpace when the required minimum age is 14.
As the tragic case of Megan Meier proved, fake and impostor social networking profiles are no laughing matter, as numerous ConsumerAffairs.com readers have discovered.
"Someone has created a false account with all my personal information/pictures," complained Jennifer, of Bronx, New York. "They are also making false accusations causing unknown people to try and contact me. They have provided strangers with my phone numbers and job/home address."
Steve, of San Diego, California, wrote, "Someone constructed a web page using my daughter's personal information including her pictures, phone number, etc. They portrayed her as someone soliciting sex of different types. We have contacted MySpace via email numerous times but no one has replied."
And Leslie, of Alpharetta, Georgia, said that someone set up a MySpace account using her daughter's picture and identity. "My daughter is 10 years old. I have sent emails to have the myspace removed to no avail," Leslie wrote.
More space, more profiles
MySpace began as a way for bands to promote their work and intermingle with other musicians. Today, however, MySpace has grown to be the social networking monster of the Internet with over 100-million active profiles, most of them teens looking for their own "space" to hang out.
As MySpace has grown, so have the number of impostor profiles. While many fake profiles can be labeled a "parody," other profiles are made with the clear intent of causing harm or harassment to another individual. And creating an impostor profile is easy thanks to the fact that MySpace has no age or identity verification.
Critics accuse MySpace of not caring but there are some very real hurdles. While it might be feasible to verify the age and identity of someone 18 or older, trying to verify a minor's identity is very difficult.
"When it concerns a kid, how do we want to manage children's information and data in the United States?" said Marsali Hancock, President of the Internet Keep Safe Coalition. "Who will hold the information and how will it be shared? It's not something that can be easily implemented," Hancock said.
Without verification, it takes only an Internet connection to create a real or fake profile. But getting a fake profile removed is another story entirely.
MySpace includes a link at the bottom of every profile to report abuse, but many people misuse this to harass someone who has posted a legitimate profile. In addition to the "report abuse" link, MySpace recommends the victim send a "salute."
What is a salute?
To submit a salute, MySpace says that you'll need to send them a picture of yourself holding a handwritten sign with the word "MySpace.com" and your "Friend ID." You'll also need to include the address of the impostor profile.
"I think the salute is ridiculous. At the time it was put in place, I told them it was ridiculous," said Parry Aftab, Internet privacy and security attorney and the Executive Director of WiredSafety.org.
Requiring this "salute" puts the burden on the victim instead of the person who made the fake profile, critics say. Further, if someone is impersonating you and you don't have an account with MySpace, you must create a profile before sending the salute.
This can be a real problem for someone who doesn't have access to the Internet.
"My son is incarcerated in prison and has no access to the internet or email," wrote Dana, of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. "Someone has created a Myspace page for him that is disgusting and vile."
Dana said that she has repeatedly contacted MySpace because her son was extremely upset, but the profile remained online. "People think it is his page," Dana wrote.
ConsumerAffairs.com made numerous requests to MySpace asking for comment, but the company, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, did not respond to our calls and e-mails.
Angry victims harbor visions of suing the Web site and the person responsible for creating the fake profile. However, suing MySpace, Facebook, or any other social networking site is difficult due to something called the Safe Harbor Provision.
Under the Safe Harbor Provision, most Web sites are immune from prosecution as long as they cooperate in tracking down the person that created the impostor profile.
But this doesn't mean that the impostor can't be taken to court.
"One of the things intriguing to me is that people will do things on the Internet that they wouldn't think of doing in a newspaper or magazine," said John Nockleby, Professor of Law at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
"Masquerading as another person certainly could potentially violate several torts. A tort is a civil wrong."
"One example would be misrepresentation, where a person misrepresents another person and causes some kind of harm. Another example is false light, which means that even if a statement isn't defamatory, it could still be false and put the person in a false light," Nockleby said.
"A few areas to consider would be defamation and violation of privacy," said David Sorkin, Associate Professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. "However, if it's a privacy case, a lawsuit can open those details to the entire world, especially if the media picks it up."
"You also have to realize that if the profile is seen as just a parody, there may be no legal violations" and therefore no remedy, Sorkin added.
Here to stay
Under current law, impostor profiles and other objectionable Web content are here to stay, at least until social networking Web sites take the responsibility of setting up effective verification procedures.
But it's not likely that will happen, said one attorney knowledgeable in the topic, because Web sites potentially open themselves to a greater risk of prosecution by trying to verify all postings than by verifying none.
"Once you voluntarily assume responsibility for the content on your site, you also take on the very real risk that you will be held accountable if some of the content is inaccurate or defamatory," said Joan E. Lisante, a Northern Virginia lawyer who has worked with Internet publishers, including ConsumerAffairs.com.
Thus, it's likely there will be many more parents who feel like Christine, of Levittown, Pennsylvania.
"Someone created an account with my 16 year old son's picture which was doctored to be pornographic. I'm going to need to see a doctor for help myself if it isn't removed soon."
Travel and Tour Operator Accused of Preying on Senior Citizens
New York sues American Heritage Tours03/17/2008ConsumerAffairs
Travel and Tour Operator Accused of Preying on Senior Citizens...
The state of New York is suing a Connecticut-based travel and tour provider who repeatedly defrauded consumers, including several senior citizen groups.
The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Peter Heyel, owner of American Heritage Tours and other tour and travel operations, to pay full restitution and damages to defrauded customers, plus penalties and costs. The suit also seeks to permanently ban Heyel from the travel industry unless and until he posts a $100,000 performance bond.
We are confident our investigation of Mr. Heyel and the resulting lawsuit will put an end to his practice of victimizing senior citizens, said Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. Travel agents have an obligation to operate in an honest and reliable fashion.
According to court documents, between 2005 and 2006, Heyels American Heritage Tours, also known as Heritage Tours, Connecticut Heritage Tours, Amtrak Tours and Voyages TC, accepted large deposits and payments in advance for bus tours, weekend travel and Broadway show packages. Heyel then canceled or severely altered the itinerary of the trips and failed to provide refunds.
In particular, the suit contends that he operated in a deceptive and fraudulent manner, made numerous misrepresentations regarding accommodations, transportation and travel insurance and refused to provide refunds after failing to provide promised services.
According to court documents, Heyel charged consumers for travel insurance policies that were never obtained and ignored repeated consumer inquiries regarding refunds for canceled trips.
Among the allegations:
A senior center paid Heyel $5,247 for 55 people to take a trip into Manhattan for lunch and to see the Broadway show Chicago. Heyel canceled the trip two days beforehand and never refunded the money.
A retirees club paid Heyel $5,148 for a trip for 54 people, including bus travel from Poughkeepsie to New York City, lunch and tickets to Broadways Beauty and the Beast. The trip was canceled and no refund given.
22 senior citizens arranged a 3-night trip to Niagara Falls and Toronto through Heyel, which was to include bus transportation, lodging, breakfast and dinner each day. He accepted a $3,000 deposit. At the last minute, Heyel informed the group that he was unable to charter a bus and that they would have to get their own if they wanted to go on the trip. The trip was canceled and no refund was given.
A seniors group paid $7,102 for a trip to New York City including lunch in Times Square and tickets to The Lion King. Heyel told the group at the last minute that he couldnt get tickets to the play and never rescheduled the trip or refunded the payment.
Heyel also failed to file a certificate of doing business in Queens, Rockland and Dutchess Counties -- a violation of New York state law.
The Attorney Generals Office is seeking more than $29,000 in restitution, a penalty of $5,000 for each instance of deceptive and unlawful practice, a $10,000 penalty for deceptive practices targeting senior citizens and $2,000 in costs.
Identity Theft: One Woman's Story
Mysterious data breach causes months of frustration03/17/2008ConsumerAffairs
Identity theft can happen so suddenly and so quickly that a simple unexplained purchase on an account can trigger months of investigation and frustration....
Identity theft can happen so suddenly and so quickly that a simple unexplained purchase on an account can trigger months of investigation and frustration, and hundreds of hours spent preventing serious financial losses. Just ask Suzanne Finch.
"Once your information is out there, it can be compromised at any time," she said. "It can happen to anyone."
As Chief Communications Officer for the College of Business Administration at San Diego State University (SDSU), the sharp-tongued and sharp-witted Finch is accustomed to pressure-cooker situations. So it was that when she noticed an unexplained attempt to charge $2900 to her MasterCard, she didn't waste any time digging in to investigate the problem.
"I applied for a Sears store credit card in 1985," Finch told ConsumerAffairs.com. In 2001, Sears turned over their card accounts to Citibank, which converted them into true MasterCard credit cards -- apparently a perfectly legal practice."
In June 2007, Finch received notice that her card information had been used to make purchases at Stein Diamonds, an online jewelry store in Los Angeles. Finch's personal information had also been used to open up another new credit account in her name, but without her consent.
"The thieves used the Internet to change the billing address for the card to one...in Indianapolis, Indiana," Finch said. "I contacted Stein Diamonds to find out it was they who contacted Sears CitiBank MasterCard...they had noticed an unusually large amount of activity coming from Sears Citibank MasterCards. It was only after Stein alerted Citibank that I received the call from [Citibank]."
Finch filed reports with the police in San Diego and Indianapolis. Indianapolis police detective Brett Seach was assigned to her case and visited the address being used as Finch's, and found it was a freight forwarder shipping goods to Russia.
The freight forwarder noticed the unusual amount of activity and contacted another detective in Seach's division to investigate. The police told Finch they suspected a data breach inside Citibank, "but could do nothing."
Finch estimated she spent roughly 600 hours dealing with the breach, including setting up fraud alerts on her credit reports and "hours and hours on the phone with Citibank." She also contacted the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego for assistance. Statistics from the Center indicate that the average identity theft victim spends $6,000 and 600 hours dealing with fallout from the breach. Finch was "dubiously honored" to find out she was a leading statistic.
But the story doesn't end there.
In October 2007, Finch found a post on the Free Money Finance blog detailing a case of a data breach and identity theft remarkably similar to hers, dated August 14, 2006.
"Both my wife and I had out IDs stolen this year," a reader wrote. "[T]he first card was opened in my name at Sears (whose credit is run by Citi) and the thieves spent $2400. Citi thought that this was unusual, so they red flagged it, and found out that the phone number the thieves put down didn't match the one on my credit report. They called me to ask if I had opened an account in Phoenix that morning. Living in Oregon, I told them I hadn't. They closed the account and advised me to call the credit agencies, which I did, and put the fraud alert on my account. Good thing too, I stopped these bastards from opening 3 more cards in my name."
A furious Finch contacted Citibank again as well as the Attorney General of South Dakota, where Citibank's credit card division is located. Citibank representative Mark Browne responded to her in November 2007, saying that the bank "had no knowledge of any compromise," and that this was an "isolated incident" not related to a system breach or an "unauthorized release of cardmember information" by Citibank or Sears.
"Information compromises can happen at a variety of places external to Citibank," Browne wrote. "[W]e have no way of identifying when or where your personal information was compromised."
But Finch wasn't convinced.
"Even if Citibank wasn't responsible, all of the paths lead back to them," Finch told ConsumerAffairs.com. "They told me the information might've been stolen from a doctor's office or an employer," she said.
Finch sent her case to the FBI, which passed it through multiple agents before telling her again that there was no way to follow up on what happened.
"I had three attorneys on the case, all of whom advised me that Citibank is only obligated to alert customers, not fix the security breach for which they may be responsible, or provide assistance to identity theft victims. There's simply nothing anyone can do."
Finch also found Citibank's offer of a year of free credit monitoring insufficient. "One year's just not enough, particularly when more fraudulent activity could happen at any time. I want to be able to monitor my credit on a long-term basis without having to pay for something that wasn't my fault."
What Really Happened?
"Flipping" store cards into true credit cards, without the cardholder's consent or sometimes even without their knowledge, is indeed a common practice in the industry, especially by Citibank.
Macy's store card owners had a similar experience to Finch's in October 2007, when many of their cards were converted into Citibank MasterCards, often with different interest rates and terms. Not only does the conversion potentially harm the cardholder's credit rating, it also creates a brand-new account that identity thieves can use to buy merchandise or open other new accounts.
In March 2006, a few months before the August fraud incident that was similar to Finch's, Citibank shut down thousands of its ATM and debit cards in several countries as a result of a breach of the network used to process payment transactions on behalf of Visa, who co-owned the Citibank debit cards.
Neither Visa or Citibank would comment on the particulars, but industry analysts pieced together that a contractor may have been storing personal identification numbers (PINs) without sufficient security, enabling hackers to steal the numbers and create "clone" cards to make withdrawals from unsuspecting victims' accounts. While debit cards were chiefly affected by this breach, someone may have gotten access to Finch's information and held onto it to use later.
The truth is that there may never be a way to detail what happened.
The financial industry has made an art of revealing only the barest amount of information about any data breach to the public, regularly claiming that there was no evidence of fraud or theft at the time, offering free credit monitoring to the affected, and simply moving on without any large-scale efforts to improve security or provide consumers more options.
Finch's colleague at SDSU, associate professor Murray Jennex, is a certified information security professional and identity theft expert. In an article for SDSU's "Insights Executive Education" magazine, Jennex said that "Eighty percent of the risk for security breaches come from within the company while 20 percent of the risk is from outside the company. A lot of it comes from disgruntled employees or people who aren't aware of what they need to do for security."
"It takes a lot of intelligence to be good at security because there's so much technology and so many things to learn about your particular systems so that it can be implemented properly," Jennex wrote. "On the other hand, the tools are so easy to use that you don't have to be all that smart to be an effective hacker. And most of these tools are available online, for free."
Suzanne Finch is one of the luckier ones. She suffered no financial losses from the breach, and moved quickly to get assistance from experts in the fraud and identity theft realm with her case. But she recognizes that her personal information -- her life -- "is seriously compromised. This could keep you from buying a home," she said.
"There's no justice," Finch said. "In the end, all we have is our good name, and we have to do all we can to protect it."
Cars can catch fire even when parked and idle, automaker warnsDon't park them in your garage!03/14/2008ConsumerAffairs
Ford Fires Continue Despite Much-Delayed Federal Warning...
Report: FCC Failing To Resolve Consumer Complaints
Agency spars with investigators over allegations of poor follow-through03/14/2008ConsumerAffairs
Report: FCC Failing To Resolve Consumer Complaints...
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has increasingly been positioning itself as one of the few avenues for consumer redress in recent years.
Even as the agency often supports preempting state laws enabling investigation and enforcement of consumer complaints, it offers itself up as the means for frustrated citizens to demand action on issues ranging from identity theft to bad cable service.
But a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) alleges that the FCC may receive hundreds of thousands of complaints, but does a poor job of following through and tracking them to resolution.
According to the GAO, though the FCC processed 95 percent of the complaints it received, opened up 46,000 investigations, and closed 39,000 between 2003 and 2006, 83 percent of the cases were closed without any enforcement action.
"[The] FCC has not set measurable enforcement goals, developed a well-defined enforcement strategy, or established performance measures that are linked to the enforcement goals," the GAO said. "Limitations in FCC's current approach for collecting and analyzing enforcement data constitute the principal challenge FCC faces in providing complete and accurate information on its enforcement program."
Among the GAO's findings:
• The FCC received a total of 454,000 complaints in the three-year review period, from a low of 86,000 in 2003 to a high of 132,000 in 2005. The FCC levied $73 million in fines and payments through settlements, of which about $53 million has been collected.
• The FCC uses five separate databases and manually searches tens of thousands of paper case files to track case progress and ensure enforcement within the cases' statutes of limitations. The GAO criticized the agency for using incompatible systems that limited its overall effectiveness.
• 65 percent of the complaints received dealt with violations of the Do-Not-Call list and receiving solicitations during forbidden hours. The next highest category was complaints about telephone service, both landline and wireless, with a high of 36,000 in 2004.
• 9 percent of the cases investigated ended with enforcement actions being taken; of the FCC's wide repertoire of potential remedies in an investigation, it chiefly relied upon admonishments and warnings, rather than orders to cease and desist.
• The GAO found that "the amount of the fines and payments negotiated through consent decrees decreased, from about $25 million in 2003 and $26 million in 2004, to almost $11 million in 2005 and $12 million in 2006a decrease of more than 50 percent."
The FCC offered a 109-page response to the GAO report, questioning the GAO's methodology and conclusions while trumpeting its own achievements in handling consumer complaints. The FCC said it had collected $65 million in fines, forefeitures, and fees since the beginning of current chairman Kevin Martin's tenure, and now "responds to 100 percent of consumer complaints."
"During Chairman Martin's tenure, the Commission has implemented standardized enforcement performance goals to better manage the enforcement process and automate portions of this process," Enforcement Bureau chief Kris Monteith said.
The GAO report comes on the heels of the continuing investigation of the FCC by the House Energy & Commerce Committee over charges that the agency has not been acting to handle consumer complaints in a timely fashion.
Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell said that "When more than 80 percent of complaints investigated by the FCC are closed without any meaningful enforcement action, and it isn't possible to determine why no action was taken, then it appears that the FCC has abdicated its duty to protect consumers."
The GAO report was commissioned at the behest of Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), in his capacity as Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman for the House Energy & Commerce Committee. Markey issued a response to the report, stating that "Without an effective FCC enforcement program, consumers are left out in the cold."
"[T]he GAO's report makes clear that any legislation establishing national consumer protection rules for the wireless market, must have meaningful, supplementary enforcement at the state level. Unfortunately, solely relying upon FCC enforcement for consumer protection is utterly unreasonable in light of the GAO's findings," Markey said.
Markey had recently introduced legislation to strengthen consumer protection laws on the state and national level for wireless communications providers, including a stronger enforcement role for the FCC. He also introduced a bill guaranteeing that Internet users could access all content equally under the "net neutrality provision," which tasks the FCC to investigate claims of content blocking by service providers.
Floating Due Date Snags Chase, Citibank Customers
Banks offer no explanation for the surprise switcheroo03/14/2008ConsumerAffairs
Floating Due Date Snags Chase, Citibank Customers...
Consumers complain that Chase and Citibank are routinely changing the due dates on their statements from month to month, often making customers with automatic payments late, thereby saddling them with late fees and higher interest rates.
(Citibank) moved my due date to cause me to be late and give them the ability to charge a late fee and move my rate from 3.99% (for the life of the balance) to 24.44%, wrote Jeff of Noblesville, Ind. I have always paid electronically on the 24th. ... It sent my monthly bill for Citibank from $211 to $495.
While the exact numbers are difficult to quantify, ConsumerAffairs.com has found numerous complaints, some going back as far as 2001. Consumer advocates say the banks' tactics are greedy, unnecessary and more than coincidence.
The consumer groups all agree this is a serious problem. We all get complaints about it, said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.
It's really too bad because this likely affects consumers with serious debt, said Norma Garcia, senior attorney with the Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. If it's through autopay they're likely trying to resolve their debt through their bank.
It is common for the credit card companies to change due dates as much as six days or more from month to month according to Mierzwinski and to consumer complaints.
For the first time that I can recall in 14 years of using my Chase MasterCard, they decided to change the due date making it several days SOONER than it used to be, from approximately the 20th to the 14th, wrote Karen of Middlefield, Ohio.
Mierzwinski said the companies frequently use the excuse of operating on a fixed 30 or 31-day schedule regardless of the actual length of the month. But he said that doesn't explain why there are often six days or more of a discrepancy from one month to the next.
I don't know of anyone that has a 35-day month followed by a 25-day month, he said.
The credit card companies advertise the ability to choose your due date as a service to their customers, but most of the complaints ConsumerAffairs.com received are from consumers who chose a particular date, only to have the bank fail to honor it.
The benefit of that offer would be undone if they changed the date without the consumer's consent, Garcia said.
Sara of Brooklyn, N.Y. had to cancel her Chase credit card when three months in a row she asked for a due date of the 19th and three months in a row her due date was the 13th.
I am still being expected to pay my $29 late fee, Sara wrote.
Chase aims to make it easy for our customers to do business with us, Chase representative Megan Stinson wrote in an e-mail. We offer flexible payment methods for customers and the ability for them to choose their payment due date to help them better manage their finances.
When an account is opened, it is clearly disclosed that the payment due date may vary slightly, by up to five days, from statement to statement depending upon the number of days in the month, Stinson continued. This information is also communicated to our customers when they request a new payment due date, whether that is online or with a Chase representative.
However, Stinson did not answer many of ConsumerAffairs.com's specific questions including why Chase does this, how long it has been doing it and how consumers can get their money and lower interest rates back.
Citibank is mum
For two days, Citibank representative Samuel Wang promised to answer ConsumerAffairs.com's questions but did not do so and now is not returning e-mails or phone calls.
ConsumerAffairs.com could find no similar complaints involving other large credit card companies.
Arkansas Warns of Prison Phone Scam
Inmates use idle time to dial for dollars03/13/2008ConsumerAffairs
McDaniel said he has no evidence that this scam is being operated out of Arkansas prisons and jails, but is asking corrections officials to investigate. ...
Probably every consumer hopes the people who are running scams get caught and sent to jail. But what if the people who are running scams are already in jail? Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel says it's a disturbing possibility.
McDaniel recently warned consumers in his state to be on the lookout for a recurring telephone scam. And, he says, he's received information leading him to believe the whole thing is being orchestrated by prison inmates who, let's face it, have a lot of time on their hands.
In the prison phone scam, prisoners make collect calls at random. Once the inmate connects with a person on the other end of the line, he lies to the unsuspecting individual and states that there has been an accident and that this was the listed emergency contact number for the "unidentified victim."
The inmate then instructs the person to call his supervisor at *72 and the number to the jail. Once the person calls the number, however, they are not connected to anybody, but rather, they unknowingly provide the inmate with open access to their own residential phone line.
The inmate can then call anyone he wants and talk as long as he wants. Some victims of this scam have been defrauded out of hundreds of dollars in long-distance calls.
"If you get a call like this, it's important to stay calm and stay alert," said McDaniel. "Verify the information through an independent source, such as the police department, phone operator or hospital, which will help prevent you from suffering emotional, and possibly financial, stress."
Here are some other tips to help you avoid falling victim to this scam:
Ask the caller for his or her name, position and contact information;
Verify your loved one's whereabouts and health by calling them directly;
Never dial an unknown number at the request of an unsolicited caller;
Do not always rely on what appears on your caller ID as the actual person or entity calling you; check it out for yourself, especially if you are being asked for personal information;
Never dial a number you do not know or did not find on your own; and
Always trust your instinct. If the information you receive over the phone sounds fishy, just hang up.
McDaniel said he has no evidence that this scam is being operated out of Arkansas prisons and jails, but is asking corrections officials to investigate. He says he has learned that it is being run from other states, and is concerned that such scams can spread rapidly and are often adopted in copycat fashion.
Net Neutrality Supporters Testify
House Committee hears testimony on Internet access03/12/2008ConsumerAffairs
Net Neutrality Supporters Testify...
Supporters of net neutrality took their case to Capitol Hill Tuesday, as the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the need to write into law principles guaranteeing the right to access all Internet content equally.
Committee chairman John Conyers (D-MI) set the tone for the hearing in his opening statement, when he said that the power exerted by incumbent telecom and cable companies over Internet access could best be fought with antitrust enforcement, and preserving net neutrality would be a part of that.
"Under [the] proposed business models, what treatment you get will be determined by how much you pay or, potentially, whether the Internet Service Provider approves of the content you are sending over their pipes or, perhaps, has a financial interest," Conyers said. "To be sure, if we go in this direction, it will stifle future innovation on the Internet."
The committee heard testimony from a diverse group, including Damian Kulash, lead singer of rock band OK Go.
Kulash, whose group won fame for their creative videos posted on YouTube, said that, "If people wonder whether the music industry will benefit from Net Neutrality they can look no further than us." "There is a real consensus with us that Net Neutrality is good for music. I'm here to ask Congress today to preserve Net Neutrality and the future of the Internet," Kulash said.
Caroline Frederickson, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, echoed Conyers' sentiments by saying that, "We do not want to regulate the Internet we just want to ensure that nondiscrimination rules continue to apply to the [Internet service providers] that provide Internet access."
"Otherwise, the Internet will be transformed from a shining oasis of speech to a desert of discrimination that serves to promote only the [Internet service providers'] commercial products," Frederickson said.
Michele Combs, vice president of communications for the Christian Coalition, a charter member of the "Save the Internet" coalition dedicated to preserving net neutrality, discussed the importance of the Internet for religious organizing and community building.
"Simply put, free speech should not stop when you turn on your computer or pick up your cell phone," Combs said. "The Christian Coalition testified some time ago on this issue and many members of Congress promised to act if network operators blocked political speech. We are here today to say, 'network operators are blocking political speech.'"
The speakers referenced several recent examples of Internet service providers or network providers interfering with access to content, such as Verizon Wireless' brief ban of text messages sent from NARAL Pro-Choice America and its abrupt reversal of policy, AT&T; censoring a Webcast of Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder's criticism of President Bush, and Comcast's blocking users from file-sharing services such as BitTorrent.
"There are now multiple examples of discrimination by ISPs against certain groups and particular content," Frederickson said. "These rather stark instances of censorship in the face of very close public scrutiny highlight the need for Congressional action."
Although members of both houses of Congress tried to pass legislation protecting net neutrality in the previous Republican-dominated majority, the efforts were stalled. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey brought the issue back to life last month when he and Mississippi Republican Chip Pickering introduced the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act," mandating that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) use its power to investigate antitrust violations to investigate allegations of Internet content discrimination.
The issue also received fresh press when Comcast was exposed as having paid people off the streets to fill up seats at an FCC hearing discussing their content blocking activities in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The placeholders prevented many critics of Comcast from attending the meeting, sparking fresh outrage at what some observers called "underhanded tactics."
Dialing for dollars doesn't work; disputing the charge often does03/11/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
In 2005 ConsumerAffairs.com received hundreds of complaints about this little-known membership services program after its charges began showing up on consu...
Obesity A More Costly Workplace Health Issue Than Smoking
Workers' weight problems cost companies billions03/10/2008ConsumerAffairs
Obesity A More Costly Workplace Health Issue Than Smoking...
Obesity not only takes its toll on health, it also has an impact on a company's bottom line. A new report by The Conference Board, a business research group, finds that obese employees cost U.S. private employers an estimated $45 billion annually in medical expenditures and work loss.
The report examines the financial and ethical questions surrounding whether, and how, U.S. companies should address the obesity epidemic.
"Employers need to realize that obesity is not solely a health and wellness issue," said Labor Economist Linda Barrington, Research Director of The Conference Board Management Excellence Program and co-author of the report.
"Employees' obesity-related health problems in the United States are costing companies billions of dollars each year in medical coverage and absenteeism. Employers need to pay attention to their workers' weights, for the good of the bottom line, as well as the good of the employees and of society," she said.
Among the report's findings:
Obesity is associated with a 36-percent increase in spending on healthcare services, more than smoking or problem drinking. More than 40 percent of U.S. companies have implemented obesity-reduction programs, and 24 percent more said they plan to do so in 2008.
Estimates of ROI for wellness programs range from zero to $5 per $1 invested. ROI aside, these programs may give companies an edge in recruiting and retaining desirable employees. Meanwhile, some say it may be more effective just to award employees cash and prizes for weight loss rather than devote resources to long-term wellness programs.
Employers need to weigh the risks of being too intrusive in managing obese employees against the risks of not managing them. There is evidence that as weight goes up, wages go down. Employers should be fully aware of any potential discrimination risk before addressing employees' weight, whether for the employee's own good or that of the company.
The jury is still out on the costs and benefits of paying for employees' weight-loss surgeries. While obese employees medically eligible for bariatric surgery (about 9 percent of the workforce) have sharply higher obesity-related medical costs and absenteeism, some say companies are unlikely to recoup surgery costs before these employees have left for other jobs.
How employers communicate a wellness or weight-loss program is as important as how they design it. Companies should involve employees in planning health initiatives, rather than working from the top-down, and should make sure personal privacy is protected.
The report includes three case studies: Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), a large self-insured utility with high BMI and low turnover, targets obesity as a major plank in its multifaceted wellness initiatives.
H-E-B, a Texas-based retail chain, believes retail's high turnover can make it all the more important to catch employees, from checkout clerks to executives, under the wellness umbrella. And Aetna Inc. says that adding incentives increased participation in its wellness programs and produced major savings.
FDA warns of harm from allergic reactions, misuse03/10/2008ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
The Food and Drug Administration has received at least 73 reports of adverse reactions, including at least one death, related to the use of denture cleanse...
Massachusetts Sues Mortgage Broker
Broker allegedly inflated information supplied to lenders03/10/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Lehi Mortgage faces lawsuit for fraudulently procured mortgage loans being submitted to lenders asset and income information for loan applicants that was f...
Mortgage brokers, who arranged loans, then sold them to banks and to Wall Street, are in the crosshairs of various state government investigators, as the subprime mortgage debacle continues to unwind.The state of Massachusetts has filed a lawsuit against Lehi Mortgage Services, Inc., a Quincy-based mortgage broker, alleging that Lehi Mortgage fraudulently procured mortgage loans by submitting to lenders asset and income information for loan applicants that was fabricated or inflated.
The suit, filed by Attorney General Martha Coakley, seeks injunctive relief to prohibit Lehi Mortgage from acting as a mortgage broker, civil penalties, and reimbursement of Commonwealth's costs and attorney's fees.
Coakley said her office took after following a referral by the Massachusetts Division of Banks, which said its probe found brokering misconduct in numerous mortgage loans arranged by Lehi.
In addition to filing the lawsuit, Coakley obtained a temporary restraining order to prohibit Lehi Mortgage from destroying documentation related to the business of brokering mortgage loans and prohibiting Lehi Mortgage from transferring or otherwise disposing of company assets.
"Irresponsible behavior by mortgage brokers has directly contributed to the foreclosure crisis that has devastated communities across the state," Coakley said. "Our office will continue to hold businesses accountable for their role in fraudulent mortgage lending, and will continue to work closely with the Division of Banks in doing so."
The complaint asserts that Lehi Mortgage violated the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act by:
• Soliciting, arranging, and submitting loan applications to lenders that it knew or should have known contained false or inflated asset information;
• Soliciting, arranging, and submitting loan applications to lenders that it knew or should have known contained false and inflated income;
• Failing to make timely and complete mortgage broker disclosures as required by law; and
• Providing loan applicants with loan "pre-approval" letters in violation of Division of Banks regulations that prohibit "pre-approvals" by brokers.
The suit claims that Lehi Mortgage secured mortgage loans for consumers who would not otherwise have qualified for such loans, and, as a result, Lehi Mortgage received fees from lenders it otherwise would not have received had it submitted accurate information.
Last week, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has issued subpoenas to Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., and Wells Fargo Financial Illinois, Inc., to determine whether the lenders unfairly steered African American and Latino borrowers into higher cost home loans in violation of fair lending and civil rights laws.
Madigans probe follows a Chicago Reporter study finding that the Chicago area led the country in high-cost home loans for the second year in a row.
The study also found marked disparities in loan pricing between white and non-white borrowers, with African American borrowers three times as likely as white borrowers to receive a high-cost home loan and Latino borrowers twice as likely.
FTC Warns Consumers About Tax Rebate Scams
Crooks try to steal information over the phone03/08/2008ConsumerAffairs
FTC Warns Consumers About Tax Rebate Scams: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued an alert warning consumers to avoid the latest form of fraud....
Now that tax returns are slowly making their way to the government and rebate checks will be winging their way to eager consumers' wallets, identity thieves and scammers are gearing up for a new round of hunting for vulnerable targets to bilk out of their financial rewards.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued an alert warning consumers to avoid the latest form of fraud.
According to the FTC alert, identity thieves will call unsuspecting citizens pretending to be a representative of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Social Security Administration (SSA), or another government agency.
The scammer will claim that the citizen needs to provide some kind of personally identifying information in order to process their rebate check, such as a Social Security number or bank account number.
Fraudsters may also use official-seeming emails to "phish" for consumers who may submit their personal data to what they think is a government Web site, but is in fact a fake, or which may install spyware or keylogger programs on the unsuspecting consumer's computer.
"Neither the IRS nor the SSA collects information about government rebate qualifications by telephone or email," the FTC said. "The FTC urges consumers who are contacted by phone or e-mail not to provide any personal information and to report the contact to the IRS at firstname.lastname@example.org or the SSA at 1-800-772-1213."
The IRS issued a similar alert in January reminding citizens that the agency does not send unsolicited emails containing tax information to anyone. The IRS also urged anyone who received a phishing email to forward it to email@example.com in addition to notifying the agency about the scam.
Using the phone to con victims into releasing personal data, a technique called "vishing," is one of the newest forms of identity theft. Vishing is rapidly eclipsing other forms of information gathering as the leading means of thieves to steal victims' data.
Although industry studies such as those conducted by Javelin Research & Strategy have claimed that identity theft has been on the decline in recent years, research indicated that there was a pronounced jump in the usage of "vishing" to get personal data, increasing from 3 percent in 2006 to 40 percent in 2007.
Identity theft has topped the FTC's consumer fraud complaint list for the better part of a decade. In 2007 alone, of 813,899 total complaints received in 2007, 258,427, or 32 percent, were related to identity theft. Total losses from consumer fraud totaled $1.2 billion for 2007, with the average monetary loss for an individual at $349.
Toothpaste Importers Face Charges In California
Criminal charges grow out of last year's toothpaste recalls03/07/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Toothpaste Importers Face Charges In California...
Authorities in Los Angeles have filed criminal charges against the executives of two companies that imported and distributed toothpaste later found to be tainted with toxic chemicals.
Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, the City's chief prosecutor, working in conjunction with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has cited Vernon Sales, Inc., and Selective Imports Corporation, two California companies that allegedly imported and distributed more than 70,000 tubes of toothpaste containing the poisonous chemical diethylene glycol (DEG), also known as diglycol.
The toothpaste, manufactured in China, was recalled after it was found to contain the substance, which is banned from entering the U.S. in certain products.
Kamyab Toofer, President of Vernon Sales, Inc., and Pejman Mossay, the company's vice-president, were each charged with 14 criminal counts for receiving, selling and delivering an adulterated drug any product containing a banned substance. Frahad Nazarian, President of Selective Imports Corp., and Yones Ghermezi, the company's vice-president, were also charged with two criminal counts each for receiving, selling and delivering products containing DEG. Each count carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
In addition to its common use in antifreeze and as a solvent, diethylene glycol is used in China as a thickening agent substitute for glycerin, a sweetener used in cough syrup and toothpaste. The use of DEG in toothpaste and cough syrup is strictly prohibited by the FDA, as there are potential risks of toxicity and injury from chronic exposure in certain populations including children and individuals with kidney or liver disease.
In May 2007, the FDA initiated an investigation after authorities were alerted to the importation of 74,000 tubes of "Cooldent" toothpaste from China into Long Beach, California. The toothpaste had been flagged for immediate impound after a similar shipment of the product to Panama by the same Chinese manufacturer was previously discovered to contain DEG.
In the course of the FDA investigation, Delgadillo say it was discovered that between December 2005 and May 2007, approximately 78,336 tubes of Spearmint-flavored "Cooldent" toothpaste were sold by the Vernon-based Selective Imports Corporation to distributors across the country. Additionally, nearly 10,000 tubes of Fluoride "Cooldent" toothpaste were also distributed in early 2007.
Delgadillo says quantities of the toothpaste were purchased by Vernon Sales, Inc., which resold some of the toothpaste to stores and businesses located in the City of Los Angeles.
Investigators believe Selective Imports Corporation and Vernon Sales, Inc., in just the last 12 months alone, distributed 480 tubes of "Cooldent" toothpaste containing DEG to stores and businesses in the City of Los Angeles most of which was placed on store shelves for purchase by the public.
"The FDA Office of Criminal Investigations considers this illegal conduct very serious and is fully committed to investigating and supporting the prosecution of those who may endanger the public health with tainted products," said Dan Henson, Special Agent in Charge, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, Los Angeles Field Office. "We continue to look forward to working with our law enforcement partners and commend the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office for their diligence."
Congress Takes On Credit Card Interchange Fees
Bill would let merchants negotiate fees with card companies03/07/2008ConsumerAffairs
Congress Takes On Credit Card Interchange Fees...
For years, retailers and merchants have been waging a quiet war with the financial industry over "interchange fees" -- the hidden costs of processing credit and debit card transactions that can wipe out a store's profits while earning banks a pretty penny.
Now Congress has stepped into the fracas with new legislation that would enable merchants to negotiate the fees they pay for taking plastic.
The "Credit Card Fair Fee Act of 2008," introduced by House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-MI), would require lenders possessing "substantial market power" to negotiate with merchants and retailers on terms for fees paid when processing card transactions.
If a voluntary agreement cannot be reached, both sides would have to submit to binding arbitration overseen by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
"This legislation is intended to give merchants a seat at the table in the determination of these fees," Conyers said. "It is not an attempt at regulating the industry and does not mandate any particular outcome. This legislation simply enhances competition by allowing merchants to negotiate with the dominant banks for the terms and rates of the fees."
Utah Republican Chris Cannon, who co-sponsored the legislation, said that the bill was designed to reinforce transparency and competition in the credit card industry, two principles key to what he called "the greatest economic system in the world -- free-market capitalism."
"The current system of setting fees that merchants pay for credit card transactions is anti-competitive and secretive," he said. "This bill does not set prices. Instead, it would require that fees be set in a transparent manner so other companies can compete for business and consumers would not pay artificially high rates."
Consumers are generally unaware of interchange fees, as they are folded into the total price of items bought and are not disclosed on receipts. But merchants are acutely aware of the fees, as they force storeowners and retailers to raise prices on all their items in order to make a profit, effectively penalizing customers who shop only with cash and don't pay fees of any kind.
$350 per family
Interchange fees cost the average American family $350 per year, according to statistics from the National Retail Federation (NRF). Americans pay interchange fees of two percent on all transactions made with plastic, higher than any industrialized nation in the world.
Visa and Mastercard kept their interchange fee structure hidden for many years, preventing merchants from accurately gauging how much they are really paying, and leading a group of merchants to file a class-action lawsuit demanding changes to the system. Both Visa and Mastercard have since published their fee breakdowns, although critics charge the structures are still too complex for anyone to understand.
Both Visa and Mastercard have set aside considerable war chests to pay for the potential costs of losing the litigation, and have committed to massive initial public offerings (IPOs) in order to defray more risk onto shareholders.
Retailers testified to Congress in July 2007 on the hidden penalties of interchange fees, and today welcomed the new legislation. "This legislation would use the nation's antitrust laws to rein in the greed of the credit card companies," NRF senior vice-president Mallory Duncan said.
"Rather than allowing these fees to continue to be set in secret and imposed on a take it or leave it basis, this legislation would require negotiations and allow retailers to seek fair terms and conditions that will ultimately mean a better deal for consumers," Duncan said.
"Consumers are already angry at the way they've been treated by credit card companies, and this bill is an important step toward making credit card companies treat both merchants and their customers with respect."
Air Tran picked as #1 in annual quality survey03/07/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Airline Industry Gets Record Low Rating from Consumers...
Drivers Impaired Just by Listening to Cell Phone
Listening drivers make mistakes similar to drunken drivers03/06/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Drivers Impaired Just by Listening to Cell Phone...
Just listening to a cell phone while driving is a significant distraction, and it causes some of the same types of mistakes as drunk drivers make, according to scientists at Carnegie Mellon University.
The use of cell phones, including dialing and texting, has long been a safety concern for drivers. But the Carnegie Mellon study, for the first time, used brain imaging to document that listening alone reduces by 37 percent the amount of brain activity associated with driving.
This can cause drivers to weave out of their lane, based on the performance of subjects using a driving simulator.
The findings, to be reported in an upcoming issue of the journal Brain Research, show that making cell phones hands-free or voice-activated is not sufficient in eliminating distractions to drivers.
Drivers need to keep not only their hands on the wheel; they also have to keep their brains on the road, said neuroscientist Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging.
Other distractions, such as eating, listening to the radio or talking with a passenger, also can divert a driver. Though it is not known how these activities compare with cell phone use, Just said there are reasons to believe cell phones may be especially distracting.
Talking on a cell phone has a special social demand, such that not attending to the cell conversation can be interpreted as rude, insulting behavior, he noted. A passenger, by contrast, is likely to recognize increased demands on the drivers attention and stop talking.
The 29 study volunteers used a driving simulator while inside an MRI brain scanner. They steered a car along a virtual winding road at a fixed, challenging speed, either while they were undisturbed, or while they were deciding whether a sentence they heard was true or false.
Justs team used state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) methods to measure activity in 20,000 brain locations, each about the size of a peppercorn. Measurements were made every second.
The driving-while-listening condition produced a 37 percent decrease in activity of the brains parietal lobe, which is associated with driving. This portion of the brain integrates sensory information and is critical for spatial sense and navigation. Activity was also reduced in the occipital lobe, which processes visual information.
The other impact of driving-while-listening was a significant deterioration in the quality of driving.
Subjects who were listening committed more lane maintenance errors, such as hitting a simulated guardrail, and deviating from the middle of the lane.
Both kinds of influences decrease the brains capacity to drive well, and that decrease can be costly when the margin for error is small.
The clear implication is that engaging in a demanding conversation could jeopardize judgment and reaction time if an atypical or unusual driving situation arose, Just said. Heavy traffic is no place for an involved personal or business discussion, let alone texting.
Because driving and listening draw on two different brain networks, scientists had previously suspected that the networks could work independently on each task. But Just said this study demonstrates that there is only so much the brain can do at one time, no matter how different the two tasks are.
The study emerges from the new field of neuroergonomics, which combines brain science with human-computer interaction studies that measure how well a technology matches human capabilities. Neuroergonomics is beginning to be applied to the operation of vehicles like aircraft, ships and cars in which drivers now have navigation systems, iPods and even DVD players at their disposal.
Every additional input to a driver consumes some of his or her brain capacity, taking away some of the resources that monitor for other vehicles, lane markers, obstacles, and sudden changes in conditions.
Drivers seats in many vehicles are becoming highly instrumented cockpits, Just said, and during difficult driving situations, they require the undivided attention of the drivers brain.
Employment Resources for Retirees
Working after retirement can make you healthier, wealthier03/06/2008ConsumerAffairs
Employment Resources for Retirees...
The financial strains of retirement and the reality that 20 or more years of total leisure may not be all that satisfying is drawing millions of retirees back into the workforce, and is shaping the retirement views of many baby boomers.
Recent surveys show that more than three-quarters of baby boomers plan to work after retirement, but many want to change careers, and only about 5 percent want to work full time.
Whatever your reasons for working longer you need the money, or you just want to stay active and involved the benefits can be significant.
Researchers have found that people who work (at least a few hours a week) during their retirement years live healthier and longer than those who dont. And by working just a few extra years, you can make a huge difference in your retirement nest egg.
What to do?
Looking for interesting and rewarding work opportunities after retirement but arent sure what to look for? Here are some resources that can help you find your niche and maybe even a job to boot:
- Career One-Stop Centers: There are more than 3,000 career centers located around the country that provide free resources and services to help people plan their next career, locate training, find a new job and much more. To find a center near you call 877-348-0502 or go to www.servicelocator.org .
- The Next Chapter: This is an outreach initiative that offers programs in dozens of communities nationwide to help people nearing retirement figure out whats next. Visit www.civicventures.org/nextchapter - click on Directory.
- My Next Phase ( www.mynextphase.com ): A retirement counseling firm that provides a personality test as well as coaching, seminars and Web-based programs to help retirees find their passions.
- Vocation Vacation (www.vocationvacations.com): This is a company that lets you test-drive different careers that interest you by matching you up with existing businesses. They currently offer two and three day immersions in more than 125 unique careers, through around 300 expert mentors.
- Career counseling: Another option is to see a certified career counselor. These are trained professionals that can help you clarify your interest, abilities and goals. You can find a counselor at www.ncda.org .
Whatever your working interest full-time, part-time, temporary or seasonal there are a variety of free online employment networks that can connect you with companies that are interested in hiring older workers. Here are some good ones to check out:
- Seniors4Hire.org: A job-search site that offers job seekers (age 50 and older) access to thousands of U.S. based jobs from businesses that actively recruit and hire older workers and retirees.
- RetirementJobs.com: Another job-search site that brings together mature workers with companies who seek them. You can also post your resume online for companies to find you.
- RetiredBrains.com: A job-listings and resume posting site for older workers and retirees.
- Employment Network for Retired Government Experts ( www.enrge.us ): Matches retired government employees with private companies seeking to fill contract jobs in all kinds of fields. You post your resume on their site where a large pool of potential employers can review it and contact you if interested.
- YourEncore.com: An online recruitment firm that hires retired scientists, engineers and product developers and connects them with companies that need contract employees for projects.
- ExperienceWorks.org: A national, nonprofit organization that offers training, employment, and community service opportunities for lower-income seniors.
Start a Business
If youre interested in starting your own business but need some help getting started turn to the U.S. Small Business Administration. They offer tips, tools and free online courses you can access at www.sba.gov . Also see www.bizstarters.com , a company that (for a fee) provides materials, coaching and training to people over age 50 who want to strike out on their own. And visit www.score.org for free business advice for entrepreneurs.
AARP also offers an excellent resource for choosing a career and job-searching at www.aarp.org/money/careers.
Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior books.
Easy Money Scams On The Rise As Times Get Tough
North Carolina cracks down on 'free grant' promoter03/05/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Easy Money Scams On The Rise As Times Get Tough: Government and foundation grants are hard to get and come with many strings attached....
Government and foundation grants are hard to get and come with many strings attached. Still, each year thousands of consumers are victimized by fast-talking scam artists who convince them they can get "free" money, just by paying a small "registration" fee.
A Raleigh, North Carolina company marketing easy-to-get but non-existent grants has been shut down by the state's attorney general.
"Outfits like this use the lure of free grants to try to take your money," said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. "This company took money from dozens of people but didn't win a single grant. Now they won't be taking money from anyone else, period."
A North Carolina judge has entered a default judgment against Aron Andrew Willis and his company, Grant Quest, Inc., of Raleigh. Willis and anyone else associated with Grant Quest are permanently banned from operating or working in a business that claims to help people win grants or other financial assistance. The court also ordered the defendants to pay $40,000 in refunds and civil penalties.
Cooper filed suit against Grant Quest and Willis in 2005 charging that they deceived North Carolina consumers into paying an upfront fee and then failed to help them secure cash grants as promised.
As alleged in Cooper's complaint, Grant Quest began placing advertisements in North Carolina newspapers in March of 2004 that claimed, "Cash grants available immediately!" The ads stated that as much as 30 million dollars in grants from private foundations and the government was available and that Grant Quest would show customers "exactly how and where" to win grants that did not have to be paid back.
At least 69 people responded to the ads. Cooper says these consumers each paid Grant Quest $139 for help but Grant Quest and Willis failed to win grants for any of their customers. Some people received nothing in exchange for their payment, while others got some sketchy information downloaded from the Internet about how to apply for grants and loans.
Despite offers of a full refund in the company's ads, Grant Quest allegedly refused to pay refunds when asked.
Grant scams are on the rise as credit becomes harder for many consumers to get, Cooper said. Many of these schemes make their pitch via the Internet or through telemarketing calls. The scams operate by taking money upfront and then fail to provide any grants.
"Offers of easy money can be tempting, especially when families are struggling to make ends meet," said Cooper. "No matter how good the deal sounds, don't waste any of your money on these empty promises."
AARP Report Finds Seniors' Drug Costs Rising
Drug prices 'exploded' after Medicare Part D began03/05/2008ConsumerAffairs
AARP Report Finds Seniors' Drug Costs Rising...
Food and gasoline aren't the only prices going up. Prices of 220 brand name prescription drugs most commonly used by people in Medicare Part D have surged since the drug benefit was implemented in 2006, according to AARP.
The seniors' group said it has studied drug prices since 2002 and reported the findings in a series of Watchdog reports. The latest report expands on the series by focusing its analysis on those brand prescription drugs most widely used by people enrolled in Medicare Part D.
The Watchdog report, which was produced by AARP's Public Policy Institute (PPI), found that prices of brand name drugs most commonly used by people in Medicare Part D rose by an average of 7.4 percent in 2007 nearly two and a half times the rate of general inflation.
The report concludes that rising prices threaten consumers by increasing the likelihood of higher insurance premiums and the chance that people will fall into the Medicare coverage gap, and increasing the out-of-pocket expenses of those who find themselves in this "donut hole."
"Medicare Part D is helping millions of people afford their prescription drugs, but as brand name drug costs continue to soar more needs to be done to keep drugs affordable," said John Rother, AARP Director of Public Policy. "The Medicare Part D benefit helps more people afford their prescription drugs. But we must make greater progress in putting downward pressure on drug prices."
The average treatment cost exploded from $80 per year per prescription in 2002, to $151 in 2007, according to the report.
A person who took three brand name prescriptions to treat a chronic condition over this period saw an increase in their yearly costs of more than $1,600 between 2002 and 2007. The study found brand name drug prices increased far greater than general inflation since 2002, with dramatic spikes since 2006, the period when Medicare Part D was implemented.
"This report raises questions about why the pharmaceutical companies so dramatically increased the costs of popular brand name drugs at the same time Medicare began offering drug coverage," said Rother. "When pharmaceutical companies raise wholesale prices, consumers are ultimately stuck with the bill.
"In the meantime, our elected leaders need to find sustainable solutions to the skyrocketing costs of drugs that are squeezing government programs like Medicare, employer-sponsored health plans, and individual consumers."
'Miracle Cold Buster' Settles Lawsuit
Feds, states scrutinize supposed 'miracle' cold cure03/05/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Airborne a multivitamin and herbal supplement whose labels and ads falsely claimed that the product cures and prevents colds will refund money to consumers...
Thats the bottom line in a settlement under which the company that makes Airborne -- a multivitamin and herbal supplement whose labels and ads falsely claimed that the product cures and prevents colds -- will refund money to consumers who bought the product.
As part of a $23.3 million class action settlement agreement, Airborne also will pay for ads in Better Homes & Gardens, Parade, People, Newsweek, and many other magazines and newspapers instructing consumers how to get refunds. No ads on the Web, though.
Concocted by second-grade teacher Victoria Knight McDowell and her screenwriter husband Thomas Rider McDowell, Airborne promised to boost your immune system to help your body combat germs and instructed users to take it at the first sign of a cold symptom or before entering crowded, potentially germ-infested environments.
The companys folksy created by a school teacher! slogan and insistence that the product be stocked with real cold, cough, and flu medicines instead of with dietary supplements, helped turn the company into an overnight success, as did an appearance by Victoria Knight McDowell on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
But in February 2006, ABC News revealed on Good Morning America that Airbornes much-touted lone clinical trial was actually conducted without any doctors or scientists -- just a two-man operation started up just to do the Airborne study.
Soon after the plaintiff notified Airborne of his intent to file suit in March 2006, the company stopped mentioning the study and began toning down the overt cold-curing claims in favor of vague immunity boosting language.
In 2007, the Federal Trade Commission and a group of state attorneys general began investigating the various cold busting claims that Airborne has made since its launch in 1999. Those investigations are continuing, since the packages cartoony germs and suggestion for use in school, playgrounds, airplanes and other crowded spots still imply that Airborne is aimed at the common cold.
Airbornes basic formula contains Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as other nutrients common in multivitamins; the amino acids glutamine and lysine, and an herbal extract proprietary blend.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) cautions that Airborne may provide too much vitamin A, since just two pills provide 10,000 IU -- the maximum safe level for a day -- and the package directs customers to take three per day.
In addition to several flavors of the original formula, other Airborne products include Power Pixies, an artificially sweetened powder version for children; Airborne Seasonal, which is described as a non-drowsy formula containing a nutritional blend which promotes normal histamine levels; Airborne On-the-Go; and Airborne Nighttime.
Theres no credible evidence that whats in Airborne can prevent colds or protect you from a germy environment, said CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt, who reviewed Airbornes claims. Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill thats been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed.
Consumers seeking refunds for purchases of Airborne can obtain a claim form by writing to the Airborne Class Action Settlement Administrator, PO Box 1897, Faribault, MN 55021-7152, calling 1-888-952-9080, or by visiting www.AirborneHealthSettlement.com.
Ford Fires Continue Despite Much-Delayed Federal Warning
Feds waited years to issue 'urgent' advisory about fire danger03/05/2008ConsumerAffairs
Ford Fires Continue Despite Much-Delayed Federal Warning...
The inept Ford Motor Co. attempt to recall fire-prone cars, trucks and vans has stumbled and sputtered as federal safety regulators in Washington fretted over the automotive inferno spreading throughout the country.
The rash of Ford Motor Co. vehicle fires has destroyed homes, trucks and cars, sometimes killing people and family pets. ConsumerAffairs.com has received 15 reports of Ford vehicles erupting into flames since the first of the year. No one knows precisely how many fires have occurred or how many lives have been lost.
On February 28, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) -- years after it first learned of the problem -- took the unusual step of issuing what it called an "urgent warning" to more than 5 million owners of Ford vehicles that are likely to catch fire.
The safety agency advised that the fire danger is present regardless of the age of the vehicle, and could even occur while the vehicle is parked and unattended. Several dwelling fires have been attributed to the problem, NHTSA noted.
NHTSA urged owners of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury SUVs, pickup trucks, vans, and some passengers cars that are equipped with the faulty cruise control system to have the system disconnected immediately before the vehicle catches fire.
Disconnecting the system is a temporary solution that is necessary because Ford has failed to obtain the necessary parts to properly repair the recalled vehicles.
But the federal agency's "urgent" warning came too late for many Ford owners.
• A Vidor, Texas man saw his mother's truck burning out of control less than a week after federal safety regulators issued the consumer advisory.
I heard a loud BOOM and then horns going off. I thought it was a wreck. When I looked outside a large gulf of flames was burning dangerously close to the house and truck, he said. We kept the flames from hitting the house until fire department got there.
The outrageous -- but common -- story of Ford vehicles catching fire was reported over and again throughout the country in February as NHTSA talked and worried in internal agency meetings about whether to issue the consumer advisory.
• On February 27 in Granite City, Illinois, the day before the NHTSA warning, a 2001 Ford F150 burned.
I was awakened by 2 small booms about a minute apart. I got up to check things out to find my 2001 F150 in the driveway fully engulfed in flames as well as my boat parked about 15 feet away beginning to burn, the Illinois truck owner reported. The truck, boat, contents, asphalt driveway are total losses, he said.
• A day later in Monticello, Florida a Ford F150 burned in a shopping center parking lot while the owner was inside a store.
• In early February in Fairview, New Mexico a 1997 Ford F150 burst into flames. We heard a loud boom which caused the dogs to start barking, the truck owner said. When the Monticello fire department arrived 30 minutes later the truck was still burning.
• An Orange Park, Florida Ford owner reported February 9 that his 1999 Lincoln Navigator caught fire and was destroyed.
• On February 9 a 1999 Ford Explorer caught fire in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
I had just parked at a Burger King for lunch. The truck caught fire minutes after I enter the restaurant, the owner said. The truck was fully engulfed when firefighters finally put out the fire. I am grateful no one was in the vehicle at the time but I am out the only truck I owned.
The Rhode Island Explorer owner told ConsumerAffairs.com that he was not aware of the recall issued in issued on August 2007 and said he was never notified of the important recall even though he had owned the vehicle for many years.
• On February 4, a Ford F150 Lariat caught fire in Virginia Beach, Virginia, even though the cruise control switch was previously repaired under the terms of the August recall.
• In Alta Loma, California a ConsumerAffairs.com reader found his Ford truck on fire while eating lunch at home. Surprisingly every Ford rep was extremely rude and acted as though it's my problem not theirs, this Ford truck owner reported.
• On January 22, a Ford Expedition XLT caught fire in Westminster California.
After driving the vehicle for approximately 20 minutes it was parked in the driveway, the owner said. Approximately 1 hour later the engine compartment was on fire and became engulfed within minutes. Fortunately the vehicle was not in the garage.
As the rampage continues, NHTSA safety officials are warning people with the recalled Ford cars, trucks and vans to bring their vehicles to a dealer repair shop immediately to have the cruise control switch disconnected.
NHTSA reported that many dealers will perform the temporary fix as a drive-through service so owners do not have to leave their vehicles at the dealership or schedule an appointment in advance.
There was no indication from the federal safety agency whether any steps have been taken to require Ford to produce the needed parts for a permanent repair.
5 million to go
Almost five million vehicles have been repaired, according to Ford, leaving more than five million passenger cars and light trucks on roads, parking lots, driveways and garages throughout the country with the faulty switches intact and in danger of catching fire.
In early February, the automaker was placed in the embarrassing position of having to recall 225,000 Fords for the second time to repair the fire prone cruise control system. Ford concluded that the initial recall to prevent a fire was ineffective because the replacement part failed to function as promised.
Ford vehicles covered by the second recall include the gasoline-powered 1992 to 2003 Econoline, 1992 to 1998 Crown Victoria/Grand Marquis, 1993 Bronco, 1995 to 1997 F series pick up, 1993 F series pick up, the 1993 to 1995 Taurus SHO and the 1992 to 1995 Town Car.
The clumsy and confusing Ford management of the recall is destroying the trust many Ford owners once had for the venerable automaker as they are put off time and again by dealers without the necessary parts to repair the fire hazard.
• A Rochester Hills, Michigan Ford Ranger owner reported the automaker has delayed repairs for his truck twice. Ford is obviously not much concerned about timely corrections of safety issues, he said.
• In Orange City, Florida a Ford truck owner immediately took his Ranger to the dealer when the August, 2007 recall was first announced. I had the cruise control disconnected in August 2007 and the part is still not available to complete the repair, he said.
• A 1999 Ford Ranger owner in Ranier, Minnesota heard the same excuse from Ford.
I am still waiting parts for the Ford cruise control recall to become available to my local dealer. I drive a 1999 Ford Ranger and cover long distances several time a month. The dealer has expressed frustration with Ford's inability to make the repair parts available or to even give a reasonable date they could be expected, he told ConsumerAffairs.com.
Ford issued the same excuse to a motor home owner in Lakeland, Florida.We had to cancel our spring trip as we have on idea when or if Ford will get around to sending a kit for our repair, the retired Ford owner told us.
One Pennsylvania Ford owner was able to find a dealer with the parts to repair the cruise control switch but the repair took two attempts by a Ford technician.
They replaced the switch on the brake master cylinder and added a fused link into the connecting harness. When I arrived back home I took a look at what had been done and noticed what appeared to be fluid appearing around the crimp of the switch, he said.
The truck owner returned for a second time to the Ford dealer. The dealer then took my truck inside and replaced the replacement switch. This does not give me a secure feeling knowing the new switch immediately leaked. Something needs to be done about this problem. This has gone on far too long without a satisfactory solution. How can I trust this? he asked.
The inability of ford to provide parts to complete the recall is repeated over and again throughout the country.
In Tucson, Arizona: Ford didn't have the recall part so they disconnected the speed control. Said they'd have the part in a month and to come back then. Called just before Christmas. Told part not in. Called back January. Called back in February. Told part not in. Meanwhile I have no speed control since last Fall. I live in a big state. Is there any way to light a fire under Ford, he asked. I'm tired of the stonewalling.
Without the proper Ford parts, the interim repair is all that is left to Ford owners driving the dangerous and fire-prone vehicles. NHTSA assures consumers that the fix will eliminate the risk of fire while affected Ford and Mercury owners are waiting for final repairs from the trouble automaker.
Here is the list of Ford vehicles, according to NHTSA, that ought to be taken to a Ford dealer and repaired immediately:
1. 1993 2004 F150
2. 1993 1999 F250 (gasoline engine)
3. 1993 1996 Bronco
4. 1994 1996 Econoline
5. 1997 2002 Ford Expedition
6. 1998 2002 Lincoln Navigator
7. 1998 2002 Ford Ranger
8. 1992 1998 Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car
9. 1993 1998 Lincoln Mark VIII
10. 1993 1995 Ford Taurus SHO with automatic transmission
11. 1994 Mercury Capri
12. 1998 2001 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer
13. 2001 2002 Ford Explorer Sport and Explorer Sport Trac
14. 1992 1993 and 1997 2003 Ford E-150-350 gasoline or natural gas vehicles
15. 2002 E-550 gasoline engine vehicles
16. 1996 2003 E-450 gasoline or natural gas vehicles
17. 1994 2002 F-250 through F-550 super Duty trucks (gasoline engine)
18. 2000 2002 Ford Excursion (gasoline engine)
19. 2003 F250 F550 Super Duty, Ford Excursion
20. 1995 2002 Ford F53 Motor home chassis
21. 2002 2003 Lincoln Blackwood
Ford truck and SUV owners wanting more information about the fire danger in their vehicle or the recall may contact Ford at 1-800-392-3673 or NHTSA 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153).
Consumer Bankruptcy Filings Soar
February filings the highest since new bankruptcy law enacted03/04/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Consumer Bankruptcy Filings Soar...
U.S. consumer bankruptcy filings shot up more than 15.2 percent nationwide in February over the previous month, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI).
February's bankruptcy spike -- the highest single month since the 2005 law changes -- forecasts the start of more to come for the balance of 2008, said ABI Executive Director Samuel J. Gerdano.
Overall consumer filings totaled 76,120 in February, compared with from the 66,050 in January. The figure was also up 37.3 percent from February 2007.
Chapter 13 filings constituted 36.4 percent of all consumer cases in February, down slightly from last month. This category of bankruptcy is available for an individual with regular income whose debts do not exceed specific amounts. The data was compiled by the National Bankruptcy Research Center (NBKRC).
Chapter 13 is typically used to budget some of the debtors future earnings under a plan through which unsecured creditors are paid in whole or in part.
Other types of filings include:
• Chapter 7, which is available to both individual and business debtors. Its purpose is to achieve a fair distribution to creditors of the debtors available non-exempt property. Unsecured debts not reaffirmed are discharged, providing a fresh financial start;
• Chapter 11, the purpose of which is to rehabilitate a business as a going concern or reorganize an individuals finances through a court-approved reorganization plan; and
• Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code is designed to give special debt relief to a family farmer with regular income from farming.
Congress may act
Congress is considering changes to U.S. bankruptcy law, possibly giving judges wide authority to not only reduce interest rates, but actually reduce the amount of a homeowner's mortgage.
"Home ownership is a pillar of our economy, and an integral part of the American dream. But the headlines that have filled the newspapers lately have described a nightmare," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), author of the bill.
"Thousands of families are losing their homes, and millions more are at risk of foreclosure. Whatever the reason that families may find themselves unable to pay their mortgages, the effect of foreclosure is the same: disaster for the family, for the surrounding neighborhood, and for the economy," Durbin said.
The provisions of Durbin's bill have been folded into the Democratic foreclosure prevention package introduced earlier this month. Durbin says hundreds of thousands of homeowners would be able to modify their mortgages in bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure if his legislation were signed into law.
By some estimates, the collapse of the subprime mortgage market has put approximately 2.2 million families in danger of losing their homes. Durbin's bill, The Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, will allow these families, as a last resort, to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy and work with a judge and the lender to modify the mortgage so families can make affordable payments and keep their homes.
Consumer Reports 11 Worst Cars
U.S. SUVs again fill many of the slots, though Toyota gets two picks03/04/2008ConsumerAffairs
Automotive analysts for the magazine took a look at more than 260 vehicles in this year's evaluation and once again SUVs made in the U.S. dominated the fie...
Consumer Reports'annual list of the 11 worst cars in America is out. Automotive analysts for the magazine took a look at more than 260 vehicles in this year's evaluation and once again SUVs made in the U.S. dominated the field.
Surprisingly, two Toyotas hit rock bottom as well and Chrysler placed three models on the list of infamy with the Jeep brand.
The Consumer Reports list differs from ConsumerAffairs.com's annual listings of the year's biggest automotive outrages and the worst used cars. The Consumer Reports listings represent the opinions of the magazine's analysts while ConsumerAffairs.com's picks are based on the real-world experience of consumers who share their experiences.
Here are the results for 2008, according to Consumer Reports:
•Jeep Wrangler Unlimited: The Wrangler Unlimited is reported to produce poor ride and handling as well as dismal fuel economy, fit and finish.
•Hummer H3 five-cylinder:Consumer Reports rated this SUV as providing poor performance and fuel economy. The Hummer received a low rating for handling and reliability as well.
•Jeep Liberty Sport: Rated poorly for fuel economy as well as fit and finish.
•Chevrolet Aveo5: The Aveo5 suffers from poor acceleration and handling, according to the magazine.
•Dodge Nitro SLT:Consumer Reports rated this little truck as one of the worst in the field. The Dodge Nitro SLT was scored as having poor ride, handling, braking and fuel economy.
•Toyota FJ Cruiser: One of two Toyotas at the bottom of the list, the SUV requires premium fuel and provides a poor ride, poor handling characteristics, poor fit and finish.
•Toyota Yaris: The little Yaris is a popular subcompact but produces poor acceleration and steering, according to the magazine.
•Suzuki Forenza: The Suzuki Forenza received a poor rating because of lackluster acceleration, fuel economy, ride and low results in side impact crash tests.
•Jeep Patriot Limited: The third Jeep product to make the 11 worst list show up because of poor acceleration, engine noise, driver seating position, visibility, front seat comfort, fit and finish.
•Chevrolet TrailBlazer LT: The Trailblazer LT has been around a long time, maybe too long. The SUV, according to Consumer Reports, produces poor handling, braking and fuel economy.
•Mercury Grand Marquis: The aging dinosaur is the oldest design and largest passenger car made in America. The Grand Marquis makes the bottom of the list at Consumer Reports as one of the worst cars of 2008 because of grumbling engine sounds, poor ride, fuel economy and low results in side impact crash tests.
The differences in the two publications' picks are significant. While the ConsumerAffairs.com list also included Jeeps and some Ford products, it was headed by the often-fatal airbag failures that afflict many different cars and trucks, followed by the disastrous Ford fires, Ford trucks' propensity to spit out their spark plugs and the federal government's slow-moving response to various automotive crises.
Safety of Multivitamins Questioned
High levels of folic acid may be harmful03/03/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Safety of Multivitamins Questioned...
The use of some vitamin supplements can be controversial, with scientists and manufacturers arguing over their usefulness. But they don't spend much time arguing about the lowly and somewhat boring multivitamin.
No one has ever argued that multivitamins might not be good for you. Until now.
The Harvard Men's Health Watch, which once endorsed these popular supplements, now says that a reappraisal of that advice is in order.
The publication, in its March 2008 issue, notes that some recent studies have linked multivitamin use to prostate cancer. More convincingly, it says studies have linked high intakes of folic acid to colon polyps, the precursors of colorectal cancer.
Researchers speculate that high intakes of folic acid, which was first added to grain products in the 1990s, may have contributed to an increase in colorectal cancers in the mid-1990s.
What does all of this have to do with multivitamins?
Now that folic acid is added to so many grain products, it's easy to see how a healthy diet, combined with a multivitamin, could boost a person's daily intake to 1,000 mcg or more, potentially increasing the risk of colorectal and possibly prostate and breast cancers.
In light of this research, Harvard Men's Health Watch editors suggest that the average man give up the multivitamin, at least until scientists solve the puzzle of folic acid and cancer.
However, if you stop taking a multivitamin, the authors suggest you consider taking a vitamin D supplement. The typical diet for most men and women doesn't supply enough of this crucial vitamin, and while sun exposure boosts vitamin D production, it has health risks of its own.
Last month, a study suggested some multivitamins might increase cancer risk.
"Our study of supplemental multivitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E and folate did not show any evidence for a decreased risk of lung cancer," wrote the study's author, Christopher G. Slatore, M.D., of the University of Washington, in Seattle. "Indeed, increasing intake of supplemental vitamin E was associated with a slightly increased risk of lung cancer."
Findings of the study of 77,000 vitamin users were published in the first issue for March of the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Skipping Breakfast May Lead to Obesity
Study finds breakfast skippers more likely to be overweight03/03/2008ConsumerAffairs
Researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health have found further evidence to support the importance of encouraging young people to eat...
Your mother always told you to eat a good breakfast. Maybe there's something to that.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health have found further evidence to support the importance of encouraging young people to eat breakfast regularly. They found that kids who ate breakfast on a regular basis were less likely than their peers to be overweight.
The study examined the association between breakfast frequency and five-year body weight change in more than 2,200 adolescents, and the results indicate that daily breakfast eaters consumed a healthier diet and were more physically active than breakfast skippers during adolescence.
Five years later, the daily breakfast eaters also tended to gain less weight and have lower body mass index levels an indicator of obesity risk compared with those who had skipped breakfast as adolescents.
Mark Pereira, Ph.D., corresponding author on the study, points out that this study extends the literature on the topic of breakfast habits and obesity risk because of the size and duration of the study.
"The dose-response findings between breakfast frequency and obesity risk, even after taking into account physical activity and other dietary factors, suggests that eating breakfast may have important effects on overall diet and obesity risk, but experimental studies are needed to confirm these observations," Pereira said.
Over the past two decades, rates of obesity have doubled in children and nearly tripled in adolescents. Fifty-seven percent of adolescent females and 33 percent of males frequently use unhealthy weight-control behaviors, and it is estimated that between 12 and 24 percent of children and adolescents regularly skip breakfast.
This percentage of breakfast skippers, while alarming, has been found to increase with age, the researchers said.
"Although adolescents may think that skipping breakfast seems like a good way to save on calories, findings suggest the opposite," said Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., principal investigator of Project EAT.
"Eating a healthy breakfast may help adolescents avoid overeating later in the day and disrupt unhealthy eating patterns, such as not eating early in the day and eating a lot late in the evening."
Limited Recall to Repair Jeep Stalling Epidemic
But consumers say the problem is more widespread than Jeep admits03/03/2008ConsumerAffairs
Limited Recall to Repair Jeep Stalling Epidemic...
Chrysler is recalling 1,338 of the 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Commander SUVs to repair a stalling problem in the vehicles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that the the front control module may have been incorrectly manufactured. This could cause the engine to stall while driving or nor to start.
The safety agency also reported that the windshield wipers on the vehicle may fail. Engine stalling or inoperative wipers could cause a crash without warning, NHTSA said on its web site.
ConsumerAffairs.com readers report that the stalling problem is far more widespread than just a handful of 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokees and Commanders.
In Arlington, Texas, Joanna said her 2006 Jeep Commander stalls without warning during turns which are both from moving and stopped positions. It occurs during cold and hot weather, with electrical devices on or off, in park, neutral and drive, Joanna said.
From Anniston, Alabama, Deanna reported a similar condition with her 2000 Grand Cherokee.I can be traveling 65 mph or less or sitting in the drive-through when it stalls. All power is lost," she said.
Deanna said her Jeep is now dangerous to drive and she is afraid to get behind the wheel.
Elizabeth in El Paso Texas agreed.
I too have been having stalling problems with my 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, she wrote. I am scared to drive on the highway because it sputters and stalls suddenly. The problem has not been found. We have replaced the fuel pump, but the problem continues.
Chrysler should do something about all of the stalling problems," Elizabeth warned. By searching online, I found that dozens of people have the same problem with their Jeep. Too many people have had the same thing happen while driving.
For Jeeps part of the limited recall just announced, dealers will inspect the front control module and replace it if necessary. Jeep owners can contact Chrysler about the stalling problems at 1-800-853-1401 or NHTSA at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153).
Some TLs also recalled to fix windshield wiper03/03/2008ConsumerAffairs
Honda Recalls Acura TL Sports Sedans for Fire Hazard...
Big Banks, Telcos Top Identity Theft List
Bank of America, Sprint, AT&T biggest source of complaints03/02/2008ConsumerAffairs
Big Banks, Telcos Top Identity Theft List...
Consumers are constantly being exhorted to avoid identity theft, but there's not much information about the companies most likely to be involved in identity theft, which can make it hard to take effective preventive action.
A new report from the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology may be a first step in changing that.
It finds that it's the world's biggest banks and telecommunications companies that are most frequently the companies that fall for identity theft crimes and then make life miserable for consumers victimized by the incidents, according to data collected from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The report, compiled from 88,000 complaints filed with the FTC over three months in 2006, shows that major banks and telecommunications companies accounted for a much larger portion of the filed complaints than other industries, and that telecommunications companies lacked a standard of measuring the complaints.
According to author Chris Hoofnagle, the report was designed to provide consumers and regulators "objective tools" to compare banks and utilities based on how they handle security and incidents of fraud and theft.
"Without such tools, consumers cannot 'vote with their feet' and choose safer institutions, regulators cannot allocate oversight and enforcement resources to high-risk institutions and practices, and businesses themselves cannot assess how well they perform relative to competitors in fighting this crime," said Hoofnagle, a senior fellow at the Berkeley Center.
"While competition is a powerful force for consumer protection, the lack of information about identity theft makes the market less effective in creating a race to the top among institutions to shield consumers from fraud."
Among the report's findings:
Bank of America ranked highest of all the companies studied, with an average of 1,117 incidents over the three-month period. Next was AT&T with 763 incidents, followed by Sprint Nextel with 698. Rounding out the top five were JP Morgan Chase (including Chase and Bank One) with 613 cases, and Capital One with 442.
The institutions with the lowest number of complaints over the period studied were Macy's (2.9 incidents per month), BellSouth (3.9 incidents per month), and Dell (1.8 incidents per month).
In studying the banks, when Hoofnagle divided the incidents by total deposits, HSBC had a higher rate of fraud than Bank of America, at 21 incidents per billions of deposits compared to Bank of America's 17 incidents. ING Bank had the lowest rate of fraud, with one incident reported over the three-month time period.
Hoofnagle cautioned that the report was a first attempt at analyzing the data, and many factors contributed to complicate studying the findings in clear fashion.
Among them were incidents of "synthetic identity theft," where the thief takes pieces of genuine identities and forges a new false identity to commit crimes with, would not be accurately reflected in the complaints. Other factors Hoofnagle noted included the lengthy FTC complaint form which could discourage consumers from providing accurate data, and the difficulty in linking incidents to the right financial institutions.
"The most obvious improvement upon this effort would be institution of voluntary, public reporting by institutions themselves on identity theft," Hoofnagle said.
The FTC annually publishes reports on the number and types of consumer fraud complaints it receives, and identity theft has topped the list for the past seven years.
According to the 2007 FTC report, of 813,899 total complaints received in 2007, 258,427, or 32 percent, were related to identity theft. Total consumer fraud losses totaled $1.2 billion, with the average monetary loss for an individual at $349.
The 2006 complaint list, from which Hoofnagle drew data for his report via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), identity theft and fraud complaints accounted for 36 percent of the 674,354 complaints received between January 1 and December 31.
According to the FTC, total consumer fraud losses totaled $1.2 billion in 2007, with the average monetary loss for an individual at $349. Credit card fraud was the most common form of reported identity theft at 23 percent, followed by utilities fraud at 18 percent, employment fraud at 14 percent, and bank fraud at 13 percent.
The top form of credit card fraud was opening a fraudulent new account at 14.2 percent, followed by fraud on an existing account at 9.4 percent.
The FTC compiled fraud data from consumer complaints in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and identified the 50 metropolitan areas with the highest incidence of fraud and identity theft. The metropolitan areas with the highest per capita rates of reported consumer fraud complaints were Albany-Lebanon, Oregon; Greeley, Colorado; and Napa, California.
The FTC received 140,000 more consumer fraud complaints in 2007 than in 2006, when the agency received 674,354 complaints. The agency received 686,000 complaints in 2005, 255,000 of which were related to identity theft.