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FDA Believes Heparin Was Deliberately Contaminated

FDA allegedly bungled inspection of plant in China

FDA Believes Heparin Was Deliberately Contaminated...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it believes the blood thinning drug heparin, which may have caused more than 80 deaths, was deliberately contaminated. The drug's manufacturer, Baxter International, had previously made the same claim.

Baxter issued a recall for heparin earlier this year after reports of harmful side effects began to appear. Tainted heparin, produced by other manufacturers, has also turned up in other countries, according to regulators.

Executives at Baxter and at Scientific Protein Laboratories, a Baxter supplier, testified before a Congressional committee, maintaining the main ingredient in the drug was already contaminated before it reached the factory in China where the drug was produced.

Baxter CEO Robert Parkinson told lawmakers that the companies now believe that there was a deliberate scheme to alter the ingredients of the drug. The FDA said it concurs, although the agency admits it has no proof.

Some samples of heparin submitted to lab analysis were found to contain a cheaper substance known as over-sulfated chondroitin sulfate. Both the company and the FDA said over-sulfated chondroitin sulfate is not an approved ingredient in the drug, designed to reduce blood clotting.

The FDA came in for more criticism in the wake of the heparin contamination.

A Congressional investigator told Congress that the FDA bungled a scheduled inspection of the Scientific Protein plant in China because regulators went to the wrong plant. Had they gone to the correct plant, said David Nelson, they might have been able to head off the contaminated drug from reaching the U.S. market.

Nelson also told lawmakers that he questioned whether inspections of the plant, conducted by Baxter International, were adequate. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) chalked it up to another example of an FDA "woefully lacking" in personnel, policy and will to do its job.

Chondroitin

Scientists at MIT earlier said heir tests have identified the contaminate in the blood thinning drug heparin, which has caused a fatal allergic reaction in some people who took it. They identify the chemical as oversulfated chondroitin.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration came to the same conclusion, but their finding was disputed by China, which produces the drug.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Ram Sasisekharan and his colleagues at MIT said the chemical in heparin appears to cause severe allergic reactions and abnormally low blood pressure.

"These results provide a potential link between the presence of chemical contaminant in heparin and the clinical symptoms observed in affected patients," Sasisekharan said.

U.S. health officials says as many as 81 patients in the U.S. died soon after taking the tainted heparin. Their symptoms included swelling of the larynx and low blood pressure.

Last week an official of the Chinese National Institute for the Control of Pharmaceutical and Biological Products said the substance identified as a contaminate could not be the cause of the adverse reactions reported among heparin users. The official said the same batch of the drug had been distributed in ten other countries, but there had been no reports of similar allergic reactions.

But the company making the drug appears to believe otherwise. In February, Baxter International stopped manufacturing multiple-dose vials of heparin.

Heparin is derived from pig intestines and other animal tissues, much of it produced in small Chinese workshops. Serious reactions to the drug have included difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, excessive sweating, and rapidly falling blood pressure that can lead to life-threatening shock.



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EPA Orders Scotts to Stop Sales of Two More Pesticides

Agency charges labels are false, misleading

EPA Orders Scotts to Stop Sales of Two More Pesticides...

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued "stop sale, use or removal" orders to Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. and two affiliates, barring the distribution and sale of two more misbranded pesticides.

Labels on both products make false or misleading claims and one product lacks safety instructions, EPA said.

Products affected by these orders are "Scotts Bonus S Max Southern Weed & Feed And Fire Ant Killer," "Scotts Turf Builder Max Plus 2 Weed & Feed And Crabgrass Preventer" and related pesticide products which can be identified by EPA registration numbers 538-301 and 538-299 listed on their packages. Both products are currently registered with EPA.

EPA has requested and Scotts has agreed to carry out a recall of these additional products.

A pesticide is misbranded if its label makes false or misleading claims, or does not provide required warning or caution statements that protect public health and the environment. For example, first aid instructions such as "Call a poison control center or doctor for treatment advice" may be necessary.

"Scotts' actions indicate a pattern of disregard for the country's pesticide laws," said Region 5 EPA Administrator Mary A. Gade. "Proper registration, branding and labeling along with accurate product claims and mandatory safety instructions are crucial so that consumers can have confidence in the pesticide products they use at home."

Due to the false and misleading labels, consumers are advised not to use these two products and to store them in a safe, cool and dry place such as a garage or utility shed. Do not dispose of them down the drain, in the garbage or at a community disposal site.

EPA had previously issued stop sale, use or removal orders against Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., Scotts Lawn Service, three more Scotts Miracle-Gro affiliates and the nine major retailers Home Depot, Lowe's, Wal-Mart, Ace, Do-It-Best, True Value, Sam's Club, Meijer and K-Mart, related to two other Scotts Miracle-Gro pesticides with invalid EPA registration numbers.

Those other two products have the invalid EPA registration numbers 62355-4 and 538-304. Invalid registration number 62355-4 is marketed under names including "Garden Weed Preventer Plus Plant Food" and "Miracle-Gro Shake 'n Feed All Purpose Plant Food Plus Weed Preventer."

Invalid registration number 538-304 is used primarily by Scotts Lawn Service, a lawn care company. It is marketed under names including "Scotts Lawn Service Fertilizer with .28% Halts," "Scotts Lawn Service Fertilizer 0-0-7 Plus .28% Halts Pro," "Scotts Lawn Service Fertilizer 14-2-5 Plus .28% Halts Pro" and "Scotts Lawn Service Fertilizer 22-0-8 Plus .28% Halts Pro."

 



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First-Quarter Foreclosures Up 112%

Home prices plunge 12.7%, with no bottom in sight

First-Quarter Foreclosures Up 112%...

The foreclosure tsunami gained strength at the start of 2008, with foreclosures surging 112 percent over the same period a year ago. The real estate marketing firm RealtyTrac says first-quarter foreclosures were up 23 percent over the last quarter of 2007.

The foreclosure report comes on the same day as the latest S&P Case/Shiller Home Price Index showed home prices falling 12.7 percent in the last 12 months, ending in February. The Index tracks home prices in the 20 largest U.S. housing markets.

Of the 20 markets surveyed, 17 had record declines. Half of the markets reported double-digit price declines.

"There is no sign of a bottom in the numbers," said S&P spokesman David M. Blitzer.

The firm's quarterly report shows foreclosure filings default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions were reported on 649,917 properties during the first quarter, with one in every 194 U.S. households receiving a foreclosure filing during the period.

"Foreclosure activity in the first quarter increased on a year-over-year basis in 46 out of the 50 states and in 90 of the nation's 100 largest metro areas, demonstrating that most regions of the country are seeing more foreclosures," said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. "In some areas there are also some unusual, non-market factors impacting the foreclosure numbers."

As an example, Saccacio points to the city of Philadelphia, which in late March issued a temporary moratorium on all foreclosure auctions for April.

The city has since adopted a program that will delay foreclosure proceedings on owner-occupied properties until the owners have met face-to-face with lenders to attempt a loan workout plan that would prevent foreclosure.

"While we're hopeful that programs like those in Philadelphia will have a positive long-term impact, they could be simply deferring another flood of foreclosures," Saccacio said. "And that could extend the length of time it takes the market to recover from this downward cycle, in which we've already seen seven consecutive quarters of increasing foreclosure activity."

West is worst

Nevada, California and Arizona posted the top state foreclosure rates in the latest report.

One in every 54 Nevada households received a foreclosure filing during the first quarter, the highest foreclosure rate among the states and 3.6 times the national average. Foreclosure filings were reported on 19,595 Nevada properties during the quarter, up 3 percent from the previous quarter and up 137 percent from the first quarter of 2007.

Foreclosure filings were reported on 169,831 California properties during the first quarter, the highest total among the states and a rate of one in every 78 households the nation's second highest foreclosure rate. Foreclosure activity in California increased 32 percent from the previous quarter and was up nearly 213 percent from the first quarter of 2007.

Arizona documented the nation's third highest state foreclosure rate, with one in every 95 households receiving a foreclosure filing during the quarter. Foreclosure filings were reported on 27,404 Arizona properties during the quarter, up 45 percent from the previous quarter and up nearly 245 percent from the first quarter of 2007.

Foreclosure filings were reported on 87,893 Florida properties during the first quarter, the second highest state total and giving Florida the nation's fourth highest foreclosure rate one in every 97 households received a foreclosure filing during the quarter. Foreclosure activity in the state was up 17 percent from the previous quarter and up 178 percent from the first quarter of 2007.

Colorado foreclosure activity increased 33 percent from the previous quarter and 78 percent from the first quarter of 2007, and the state's foreclosure rate ranked No. 5 among the states. Foreclosure filings were reported on 18,996 Colorado properties during the quarter, a rate of one in every 110 households.

Other states with foreclosure rates among the top 10 were Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Top metro areas

The Q1 2008 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report also ranks the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas by foreclosure rate. California and Florida metro areas accounted for 13 of the top 20 metro foreclosure rates, with the California cities of Stockton and Riverside-San Bernardino taking the No. 1 and No. 2 spots.

One in every 30 Stockton households received a foreclosure filing during the quarter 6.6 times the national average and one in every 38 Riverside-San Bernardino households received a foreclosure filing during the quarter more than five times the national average.

Other California metro areas in the top 20 included Bakersfield at No. 4, Sacramento at No. 5, San Diego at No. 9, Oakland at No. 10, Fresno at No. 12, Los Angeles at No. 17 and Orange County at No. 19.

Las Vegas documented the third highest metro foreclosure rate, with one in every 44 households receiving a foreclosure filing during the quarter. The metro area's foreclosure activity increased 1 percent from the previous quarter and 134 percent from the first quarter of 2007.

Detroit foreclosure activity in the first quarter decreased 22 percent from the previous quarter and was down almost 4 percent from the first quarter of 2007, but the metro area's foreclosure rate still ranked No. 6, with one in every 68 households receiving a foreclosure filing during the quarter. Phoenix foreclosure activity increased 46 percent from the previous quarter and 294 percent from the first quarter of 2007, and the metro area's foreclosure rate ranked No. 7, with one in every 70 households receiving a foreclosure filing during the quarter.

The highest ranked Florida metro area was Fort Lauderdale, which ranked No. 8 with one in every 73 households receiving a foreclosure filing during the quarter. Other Florida metro areas in the top 20 included Orlando at No. 13, Miami at No. 14 and Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice at No. 15. The foreclosure rate in Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater ranked No. 21.

Other metro areas with foreclosure rates among the top 20 included Denver at No. 11, Atlanta at No. 16, Cleveland at No. 18 and Memphis, Tenn., at No. 20.

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Hanna Montana Photo Flap Part of a Trend

Sexualizing of 'tweens' a disturbing development

Miley Cyrus, who plays the Hanna Montana character on Disney's wildly successful kids' program, set off a firestorm of parental protest over the weekend....

Miley Cyrus, who plays the Hanna Montana character on Disney's wildly successful kids' program, set off a firestorm of parental protest over the weekend when suggestive poses of the 15-year old actress appeared in a magazine and quickly made their way to the Internet.

Gigi Durham, author of the new book "The Lolita Effect," says it's all part of a long-running trend to sexualize 'tween girls - those between the ages of 8 and 12 in order to create cradle-to-grave consumers.

The Cyrus photos, shot by celebrity photographer Annie Liebowitz, might seem tame by today's celebrity photo standards, but parents point out that Cyrus is a role model to impressionable young girls. Then, there's also the fact that Cyrus herself is only 15. Durham says it fits into a troubling trend.

At Abercrombie & Fitch, little girls were sold thong underwear tagged with the phrases "eye candy" and "wink wink." In Britain, preschoolers could learn to strip with their very own Peekaboo Pole-Dancing Kits -- complete with kiddie garter belts and play money. And 'tween readers of the magazine Seventeen discovered "405 ways to look hot" like Paris Hilton.

"A lot of very sexual products are being marketed to very young kids," said Durham. "I'm criticizing the unhealthy and damaging representations of girls' sexuality, and how the media present girls' sexuality in a way that's tied to their profit motives. The body ideals presented in the media are virtually impossible to attain, but girls don't always realize that, and they'll buy an awful lot of products to try to achieve those bodies. There's endless consumerism built around that."

Durham advocates healthy and progressive concepts of girls' sexuality, but criticizes the media for its sexual representations. She says studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation and other research organizations show that sexual content aimed at children has increased steadily since the 1990s. You just have to follow the money.

Times were prosperous, Britney Spears emerged as the sexy schoolgirl on MTV, and 'tweens had plenty of disposable income -- a perfect alignment for marketers trying to expand into a new demographic. By 2007, 8- to 12 year-olds' consumer spending was $170 billion worldwide, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.

The book, published this month by Overlook Press, is the culmination of 13 years of research by Durham, an associate professor in the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication, part of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In the book, Durham identifies five myths of sexuality and provides advice and resources for caring adults who want to discuss the issue with young girls.

The myths are:

• If you've got it, flaunt it. Bare a "Barbie body" as often as you can. But don't celebrate or enjoy any other body type. "It's really excluding a lot of girls from enjoying and recognizing pleasure in their own bodies," Durham said.

• Anatomy of a sex goddess. "Media reinforce a ridiculous ideal of being both extremely thin and voluptuous -- a body not found in nature," Durham said. "You have to go through borderline starvation and plastic surgery to get it."

• Pretty babies. Representations of sexual girls are getting younger and younger. Many of the images presented as the most sexually desirable are images of girls as young as 11 or 12. "It's problematic in many ways: It encourages sexualization of girls too young to make good decisions about sex. It legitimizes the idea that young girls should be looked at as sexual partners. And, presenting pre-pubescent bodies as the sexual ideal pressures grown women to achieve the body of a child who hasn't even matured yet," Durham said.

• Sexual violence is hot. Media aimed at children -- like PG-13 "slasher" movies -- convey the message that violence is sexy or that sex should be violent.

• Girls don't choose boys; boys choose girls -- and only hot girls. Women and girls are supposed to focus on pleasing men. But little emphasis is placed on women taking pleasure in their own sexuality or bodies, or on guys striving to please gals, Durham said. "It's a very one-way construction of sex."

"The book definitely isn't anti-sex," Durham said. "It starts with the recognition that girls are sexual -- everybody's sexual -- but that girls deserve good information that will help them make good decisions.

"We have the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, and a study by the Centers for Disease Control just reported that 1 in 4 teen girls in the U.S. has an STD. Clearly we're not giving them the kind of information they need to take care of themselves sexually and transition to adulthood in safe ways."

Durham encourages parents, teachers and counselors to jump-start conversations about sexualization of young girls in the media. She says girls should be asked to look through a teen magazine and discuss the messages. How seriously do they take them?

"There's this hesitance to talk about these issues, especially before kids reach adolescence," Durham said. "But often, when parents finally do bring it up, it's too late. Kids have already had their sexual understanding shaped by media. We need to be having a lot of open discussions about the sexualization of childhood and what constitutes healthy sexuality. I don't think we should neglect our responsibility as adults and leave them to navigate this terrain on their own."

 



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FCC Loosens Digital TV Rules for Retailers, Manufacturers

'Not enough time' to meet previous rules, industry lobbyists claimed

FCC Loosens Digital TV Rules for Retailers, Manufacturers...

A little-noticed order published by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week could have long-range effects for the upcoming transition to digital television (DTV).

After heavy lobbying by the electronics and retail industries, the FCC agreed to limit the number of devices that would require stickers notifying customers that they would need converter set-top boxes to ensure that they could continue to receive television signals over the air, and that the devices would not work properly without them.

The FCC's new order also exempted manufacturers from setting up toll-free numbers to address customer questions about their equipment, preferring instead to direct all public inquiries to the FCC's own number, and delays the deadline for adding stickers and sending out warnings to customers informing them of the upcoming transition.

"The devices related to televisions and television use are many and varied, and, upon reconsideration, we are convinced that requiring that notices be included with every such device will create a greater burden on consumer electronics manufacturers and importers than is justified by the incremental gains in consumer awareness," the commission wrote.

In considering which devices should bear a warning notification about their continued usability after the DTV transition without a converter box, the FCC agreed to limit the specific "related devices "to television broadcast receivers...TV interface devices... devices that record and/or display signals received from television broadcast receivers...and set-top boxes available for sale at retail that receive video programming provided by multi-channel video programming distributors."

The FCC also advised that cable and satellite manufacturers send out notifications informing customers that their set-top boxes would not need to be replaced after the DTV transition, and they would continue to receive programming normally.

Consumer 'confusion'

Another part of the FCC's initial DTV transition order called for manufacturers to employ multiple points of contact for answering questions about the transition, including phone numbers.

But the FCC amended its order to exempt manufacturers from adding phone numbers, instead directing them to the FCC's 1-888-CALL-FCC toll-free number, as well as the government's various DTV-related Web sites.

Why? To ease confusion, of course.

"In many cases a manufacturer does not maintain an appropriate telephone number, so this requirement could result in consumer confusion," the FCC said.

More time

The FCC had originally set a deadline of March 31, 2008 for manufacturers to start notifying customers of the DTV transition and the possible need for equipment upgrades, but -- although the industry has known about the upcoming transition for years -- the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and electronics manufacturers argued for a longer "lead time" to change their product packaging and print up notices.

"We are persuaded that they need additional time to come into compliance, and the approval and publication process associated with implementation of the amended rules will give manufacturers sufficient time to fully comply," the Commission wrote. "To further assist the manufacturers in ensuring their readiness for compliance, we are establishing a date certain, May 30, 2008, as the effective date for these rules."

Moving The goalposts

The FCC's revised rules for manufacturers are the latest example of problems encountered as the country prepares for the shift to digital TV broadcasts. Consumer groups, telecommunications experts, and members of Congress have criticized the FCC and the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) for not providing enough information on the transition to Americans, and for not requesting enough funds to manage related problems.

The NTIA was responsible for the $40 vouchers that could be used towards purchase of a new set-top converter box. But the coupons expire 90 days from issue, with no option for reissue or replacement, and many electronics companies have not begun selling converter boxes yet. The coupons also cannot be used online, forcing users to visit retailers in person to buy converter boxes.

The NTIA announced on April 24 that it would consider enabling nursing home residents and owners of P.O. boxes to receive the coupons, but has not addressed the expiration date problem yet.

Reports vary as to how many households could be in danger of limited or lost television service without converter boxes. Consumers' Union reported in February that 11 percent of American households, or 23 million households, would "go dark" after the transition, with Midwestern and Western states being the hardest-hit.

Another report from market research firm Centris found that even major urban areas such as New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. would have areas of "challenged reception," where over-the-air television viewers would not be able to pick up digital signals even with converter boxes, unless they bought better antennae as well.

Many consumer activists have charged that retailers were failing to inform consumers about what to do to prepare for the transition, or were themselves uninformed as to what equipment they could sell.

The FCC recently levied fines totaling $6 million on numerous big-box retailers, including Circuit City, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart, for selling televisions that did not have warning labels informing buyers that they would require a converter box to receive digital signals after the transition.

What to do

The following sites have more information about the analog-to-digital transition:

• Our Dawn Carlson provides a thorough overview of what you need to know.

• Visit the FCC's official DTV site to get more information.

• Apply for a converter box coupon at the NTIA's converter program Web site.

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Safety Agency Waits 16 Months to Recall Lead-Laden Key Chains

Ohio university professor documents problem; agency drags its feet

Safety Agency Waits 16 Months to Recall Lead-Laden Key Chains...


An Ohio professor says it took the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), 16 months to recall "Hip Charm" key chains with an alarming level of lead, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported.

An untold number of children may have ingested lead, which can harm brain development and even cause death, during that lag time.

It's the latest black eye for the beleagured agency. In February, consumer groups cited the settlement of a class-action suit against Sears to support their argument that the CPSC moves too slowly to effectively protect consumers from injury.

Sears agreed to fix as many as 3.9 million ranges by bolting them to a floor or wall, to prevent them from tipping over. The settlement covers every range Sears has sold since 2000 and could cost the retailer as much as $526 million.

The hazard was hardly a shock to the CPSC, which had known of the danger for more than 20 years, according to documents produced during the litigation.

In the key chain case, the commission and Wal-Mart last week recalled Chinese-made Hip Charm key chains after Illinois officials reported that an infant with high blood levels of lead had been found mouthing one.

But Jeffrey Weidenhamer, an Ashland University chemistry professor, says he told the CPSC in December 2006 that the Hip Charm key chains had dangerously high lead levels. Widenheimer has previously detected high lead levels that helped trigger recalls of Halloween and Eastern trinkets.

80% lead by weight

Weidenhamer said he purchased two of the key chains from a Wal-Mart store in Ontario, Ohio, in 2006. He tested them and prepared a study that was published in Chemosphere, an environmental chemistry journal. In December 2006, he notified the CPSC that he had found more than 70 items with excessive lead content.

Weidenhamer said that about 20 of the items were recalled, but not the Hip Charm key chains -- even though his tests found more than 80 percent lead by weight in several of the charms, much higher than the usual standard of .06 percent, the Plain-Dealer reported.

Despite Weidenhamer's warnings, his credentials and his previous safety alerts, the CPSC took no action on his warnings until a public-health nurse in Illinois reported that she found a 9-month-old girl mouthing her mother's key chains. She had gone to the girl's home to try to determine why she exhibited high levels of lead in her blood.

Subsequent tests found some of the charms on the key chains had more than 69 percent lead by weight.

Weidenhamer is critical of the agency's plodding pace. "You shouldn't have to wait a year or 16 months to recall a product" when you know it is dangerous, he told the Plain-Dealer.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is also critical of the commission. Last week she wrote to Nancy Nord, acting chairwoman of the safety commission, to say she was concerned after learning that Weidenhamer discovered the "extraordinarily high lead levels in these key chains as early as December 2006."

The Plain-Dealer quoted CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese as saying the agency welcomes "credible outside information about possible product safety hazards, but we have to verify that information and take action based on CPSC investigations and not those done independently."

Congress may act

Congress has been considering measures that would strengthen the CPSC. A bill pending in the Senate would gradually increase the agency's funding to $155.9 million by 2015. It includes many clauses that would make it harder for companies to get away with making dangerous products. The agency was slated to have a $63 million budget this year, but Congress bumped that up to $80 million.

A similar bill unanimously passed the House of Representatives in December, but is considered by many consumer advocates to be inadequate compared to the Senate version, written by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Acting CPSC chair Nord complained earlier this year that the press treats recalls as a safety problem, when in fact they are, she argued, evidence that the agency is doing its job.

In a speech to the National Press Club in January, Nord repeatedly hailed her agency's success in removing the coma-inducing Aqua Dots from the market and chastised the media for not congratulating the agency on its success.

Not only did the media coverage not mention the lightning speed at which we acted in this case, but it also failed to mention that there was absolutely no way the CPSC could have anticipated or tested for this product defect at the ports, or anywhere else for that matter, until an incident had manifested itself, Nord said.

That argument does not carry much weight with Sen. Sherrod Brown, (D-OH).

"It's bad enough that it takes a professor at Ashland University to alert what was once the greatest consumer protection agency in the world that there are toxic toys that American children are exposed to," Brown said. "And then you've got an agency that even when that's done, they don't respond," Brown said, according to the Plain-Dealer.



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Wachovia Penalized $144 Million for Telemarketing Abuses

Telemarketers preyed on thousands of senior citizens

Wachovia Penalized $144 Million for Telemarketing Abuses...

Wachovia has agreed to pay as much as $144 million to settle a federal probe into its relationship with telemarketers who preyed on senior citizens.

It's the second-biggest settlement ever for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the agency that regulates national bank. Wachovia is also facing at least two class-action lawsuits over its relationship with the telemarketers who allegedly harmed between 350,000 and 500,000 consumers.

In 2000, Providian National Bank paid about $300 million to settle OCC charges that it used deceptive marketing practices to ensnare customers.

In an unrelated investigation, federal prosecutors are probing Wachovia as part of an investigation into money-laundering by Mexican and Colombian drug dealers, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In the telemarketing case, OCC investigations said that from June 2003 to December 2006, the bank worked with several telemarketers and payment processors that obtained bank-account information over the phone from thousands of elderly and poor consumers by offering to sell them identify-theft certificates, discount travel vouchers and other questionable products or services.

The payment processors and telemarketers involved were Payment Processing Center, LLC, FTN Promotions, Inc. dba Suntasia, Inc., Netchex Corp., and Your Money Access LLC, and related companies.

The practices cited by the OCC in the settlement involved the use of remotely created checks, or RCCs, by telemarketers and payment processors that maintained account relationships with the bank.

An RCC is a check that is not created by the accountholder and does not bear the accountholders signature. Instead, the signature block of the check includes text such as authorized by your depositor, no signature required.

The OCC believes that thousands of consumers, many of whom were elderly, were harmed in connection with the payment processors and telemarketers activities at the bank, and that the bank profited from these activities in the form of fees collected from and balances maintained at the bank by the payment processors and telemarketers.

Under the agreement, the bank will forfeit an amount equal to the fees it earned and donate the funds, plus an additional $5 million, to consumer education programs directed at the elderly.

The telemarketers obtained bank account information over the phone by offering consumers a range of questionable products and services such as grant-writing kits, identity theft certificates, medical discount plans and vouchers for discount travel and groceries.

With the account information obtained during the call, the telemarketer or payment processor would create an RCC and deposit the instrument into an account at Wachovia, causing funds to be withdrawn from consumers accounts.

The OCC said that as many as half of the transactions were disputed and Wachovia's risk management department was aware of the problem but did not take action to resolve the issue.

Besides the financial penalties levied against Wachovia, the OCC has issued updated guidance to national banks regarding the need for effective due diligence, underwriting, and monitoring of entities that process payments for telemarketers and other merchants.

Certain merchants, such as telemarketers, pose a higher risk than other merchants and require additional due diligence and close monitoring by national banks. The guidance notes that when a processor is interposed between the bank and the merchant, risks are heightened and appropriate controls must be implemented.

 

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LawnBott Lawn Mowers Recalled

LawnBott Lawn Mowers Recalled...

April 25, 2008    
Kyodo America is recalling about 500 LawnBott lawn mowers. The cutting blades continue to rotate when the mower is lifted from the ground and the spacing on the side of the lawn mower could allow room for a consumer's foot to go beyond the shield and be struck by the blade. Both instances pose a serious laceration hazard to consumers.

Kyodo America has received one report of a consumer lifting the mower from the ground and suffering minor lacerations from the moving blade.

This recall involves LawnBott lawn mowers with model numbers LB2000, LB2100, LB3000, and LB3200. The robotic lawn mowers freely and automatically cut grass by detecting the signal of a perimeter cable. The mowers have a docking station for recharging and a shiny plastic cover sold in red, green or blue. 'Evolution' or 'deluxe' is printed on the side of the mower.

The mowers were sold by Kyodo America dealers nationwide from January 2006 through December 2007 for between $1,750 and $2,750. They were made in Italy.

Consumers should stop using the recalled LawnBott lawn mowers immediately and contact Kyodo America to register their lawn mowers for repairs that will be ready by the end of June. Consumers who have registered their mower with Kyodo America have been sent direct notification by mail.

For more information, contact Kyodo America at (877) 465-9636 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site at www.lawnbott.com.

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

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FDA Orders Illinois Pet Food Maker to Clean Up Its Act

Risk of botulism in Evanger's dog, cat food

FDA Orders Illinois Pet Food Maker to Clean Up Its Act...


The Food and Drug Administration has issued an order requiring that Evanger's Dog & Cat Food Co., Inc., in Wheeling, Ill., obtain an emergency permit from the agency before its canned pet food products enter interstate commerce.

A recent inspection revealed significant deviations from prescribed documentation of processes, equipment, and recordkeeping in the production of the company's thermally processed low-acid canned food (LACF) products, the agency said.

The FDA said the problems could result in under-processed pet foods, which can allow the survival and growth of Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum), a bacterium that causes botulism in some animals as well as in humans.

"As outlined in the Food Protection Plan, the FDA uses a risk-based approach to locate the areas of greatest risk for foods, and targets preventive controls and inspections to those areas, " said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "The FDA's authority to issue an order requiring an emergency permit is an enforcement tool designed to prevent unsafe foods from reaching consumers.

The FDA issues an "Order of Need for Emergency Permit if it determines that a company fails to meet the regulatory requirements to process a product that does not present a health risk.

For Evanger's to resume business, the company must document that corrective actions and processing procedures have been implemented to ensure that the finished product will not present a health hazard.

Botulism is a powerful toxin that affects the nervous system and can be fatal. The disease has been documented in dogs and cats.

Signs of botulism in animals are progressive muscle paralysis, disturbed vision, difficulty in chewing and swallowing, and progressive weakness to the body. Death is usually due to paralysis of the heart or the muscles used in breathing.

In light of human botulism illnesses and recalls that occurred due to under-processed hot dog chili sauce, and potentially under-processed canned green beans, FDA has urged all LACF processors to review their operations and the apply scientific principals and regulations that have been established to provide a safe product.

More about pets ...



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Ford Hopes to Wind Down Recall of Fire-Prone Vehicles

7 million unrepaired cars and trucks still on the road

Ford Hopes to Wind Down Recall of Fire-Prone Vehicles...

The Ford Motor Company is attempting to declare an end to the almost decade-long effort involving six recalls of cars and trucks flawed with a fire-prone cruise control system, even though only about 34 percent of the flawed vehicles have been repaired.

The Ford vehicles covered by the recalls have a faulty cruise-control deactivation switch that can develop a short circuit and spark a raging fire, usually when the truck is parked and unattended.

After almost nine years of recalls and hundreds of fires in Ford cars and trucks, the automaker will send "final repair notices" to 3.5 million Ford truck owners next month. The final repair notice is theoretically the last time the automaker will attempt to warn owners of the affected models.

However, Ford said the "final" notice isn't really final. "We will mail final repair notices multiple times if customers do not respond to the initial mailing," a company spokesman said.

After being delayed by a shortage of parts, the recall effort is now picking up speed, Ford said.

We are ramping up suppliers and final repair parts quicker than planned, said Wes Sherwood, Safety Communications Manager for Ford.

We sent 1.5 million owners of cars involved in the recall final repair notices in March. We will send about 3.5 million truck owners final repair notices by May, ahead of our original target of June, Sherwood said.

Sherwood said that Ford has already mailed most customers involved in the earlier recalls four to five letters, to notify them of the recall.

We also go through considerable expense purchasing independent auto registry data that tracks vehicles by VINs as opposed to the owner information in our records that customers may not necessarily update when they move or purchase a vehicle, Sherwood said. The independent registries allow us to get the most current customer contact information that we are aware of because they track service records and state-level ownership changes.

The recalls of Ford cars and trucks containing the faulty cruise control switch began in 1999 and covered Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles from 1992-2004.

Almost 12 million Ford vehicles were involved in the six recalls, according to documents Ford submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Ford reported to NHTSA earlier this year that just more than 4 million of the recalled vehicles have been repaired to date. Ford also reported 834,000 of the recalled vehicles were not delivered, exported, stolen or scrapped.

7 million

That leaves more than 7 million Ford cars and trucks in the U.S. that could potentially catch fire with devastating results. The reports suggest a gap between Fords final repair notices and vehicles still on the roads containing the flawed cruise control system.

According to reports filed with NHTSA, Ford repaired 67.68 percent of 262,695 vehicles recalled for the faulty cruise control switch in 1999 or 175,158 cars and trucks.

The automaker repaired 70.91 percent of the 740,451 vehicles in the first 2005 cruise control switch recall or 507,408 cars and trucks.

The second 2005 recall of 4,297461 Ford cars and trucks resulted in a 51.16 percent completion rate or 2,086,172 vehicles.

In 2006 Ford recalled 1,522,395 vehicles because of the faulty cruise control switch but the repair rate dropped to 43.10 percent or 616,810 vehicles.

There were two Ford recalls for the fire prone cruise control switch in 2007. The first involved 156,657 vehicles. Ford reported repairing 76,072 for a 50.59 percent completion rate.

The second 2007 Ford recall involved 4,987,281 vehicles. Ford reported on February 28 that 547,100 of the cars and trucks were repaired for an 11.90 percent completion rate.

That leaves more than 7.1 million cars and trucks Ford has been unable to find or repair.

Feds warn Ford owners

In a strongly worded and highly unusual statement, NHTSA in February warned owners of the recalled vehicles to go to a Ford or Lincoln Mercury dealer as soon as possible and have the potentially dangerous cruise control system disconnected.

A NHTSA spokesman told ConsumerAffairs.com that the agency is "monitoring the recall closely."

Regulators warned the switch could cause a vehicle to catch fire even while it is parked and the ignition is off. The switchs function is to cut off the cruise control when the driver taps the brakes.

NHTSA advised consumers in the February warning that many Ford dealers would disconnect the switch as a drive-through service and interim repair until parts are available.

Ford safety communication spokesman Sherwood would not confirm or provide company numbers of how many vehicles Ford has repaired.

We don't release completion rates but the NHTSA consumer advisory has good info that we support. Recalls technically never end as there are never 100 percent completion rates, which is why we keep them open well after most customers respond, the Ford safety spokesman said.

The Ford spokesman conceded that the automaker underestimated public response to the safety recall and failed to obtain sufficient parts to repair the fire-prone Ford cars and trucks.

Sherwood said the automaker is now ramping up suppliers for the parts needed to repair the cruise control switch. Sherwood said Ford had not stockpiled enough parts for the unprecedented demand for repairs last September, after the August recall.

Angry Ford owners

That demand, along with the parts shortage has led to repair delays, frustrating and angering many Ford owners.

I feel that Ford is not being honest about the completion of the repairs for this recall. I was told in August of 2007 that the repair parts were delayed and they would be in October. That soon became February of 2008. Now I am told the dealers do not know when the parts will be available. I can not get a straight answer from anyone, wrote a Ford owner in Everett, Washington.

Since the recall began, NHTSA has linked 65 fires to switch failures. The agency also received 1,472 complaints or allegations of engine compartment fires related to the switches before the investigation was closed in August 2006.

The agency received 60 more fire complaints since the inquiry ended.

Fires continue

ConsumersAffairs.com has received a constant stream of complaints about Ford vehicles erupting into flames since NHTSA issued the urgent consumer advisory that Ford owners have the cruise control switch repaired or disconnected immediately.

A Ford truck owner in Hitchcock, Texas saw his 2000 F-150 pick up erupt into flames April 1. I was coming back from the grocery store and I stopped to grab my trash cans when I smelled something burning under the hood, wrote the Texan.

All of the sudden flames started coming out from underneath the hood against the windshield before I could even shut the door, he said.

The Texan's truck was totaled.

I've had all recalls fixed by a Ford certified dealer. I had the truck for almost two and a half years and it always ran fine and had no problems. I am guessing it had something to do with the recalled part, since my story is similar to other people who had the problem, he said.

A 1991 Ford Explorer burned in Coplay, Pennsylvania April 4. At about 12 p.m. I was awoken by a passerby yelling that my truck was on fire, the owner wrote. I ran outside to discover my Explorer engulfed in flames.

A Troy, New York woman watched her Ford Explorer destroyed by fire April 4. Here we are in 2008 with I don't know how many recalls on the Explorer and mine just burned up, she said.

April 6 in Olive Branch, Mississippi a 1998 Ford F-150 burned. The truck had been sitting in the driveway for about 5 hours.

We heard the alarm going off. When we looked outside the engine compartment was completely engulfed. Before the firefighters got the fire out it had burned everything but the bed of the truck, the owner wrote.

Two Ford fires reported to ConsumerAffairs.com involved vehicles not covered by the lengthy cruise control switch recall.

On April 13, a Black River Falls, Wisconsin woman watched as her 2005 Ford Explorer Sport Trac went up in flames in a shopping center parking lot. The recall for the Explorer Sport Track covers 2001 and 2002 model years.

On April 15, a Ford Escape, not covered by the recall burned in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Approximately 1 a.m. last we awoke to the sound of the car alarm going off in our Ford Escape which was parked on the street in front of our house. When I looked out the window to investigate I saw smoke billowing out from the front wheel wells. Within seconds the smoke turned to flame.

The owner said the truck was last driven the afternoon before the fire and added, We had never been informed by Ford of any problems with the vehicle.

The faulty cruise control switch is suspected as the cause of several dwelling fires.

A 2002 Ford Expedition parked in a homeowners carport is suspected as the cause of a fire in Madison County, Ohio that killed a woman and her two children. The origin of the fire was narrowed to a 10-foot space in the carport although investigators have not yet determined the cause.

At least three wrongful death suits have been filed against Ford in fire-related incidents.

Recalled models

The recalled vehicles are:

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).

 

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MIT Researchers Confirm Contamination in Heparin

China denied similar findings by FDA

Scientists at MIT say their tests have identified the contaminate in the blood thinning drug heparin, which has caused a fatal allergic reaction in some pe...

Scientists at MIT say their tests have identified the contaminate in the blood thinning drug heparin, which has caused a fatal allergic reaction in some people who took it. They identify the chemical as oversulfated chondroitin.

Earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration came to the same conclusion, but their finding was disputed by China, which produces the drug.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Ram Sasisekharan and his colleagues at MIT said the chemical in heparin appears to cause severe allergic reactions and abnormally low blood pressure.

"These results provide a potential link between the presence of chemical contaminant in heparin and the clinical symptoms observed in affected patients," Sasisekharan said.

U.S. health officials says as many as 81 patients in the U.S. died soon after taking the tainted heparin. Their symptoms included swelling of the larynx and low blood pressure.

Last week an official of the Chinese National Institute for the Control of Pharmaceutical and Biological Products said the substance identified as a contaminate could not be the cause of the adverse reactions reported among heparin users. The official said the same batch of the drug had been distributed in ten other countries, but there had been no reports of similar allergic reactions.

But the company making the drug appears to believe otherwise. In February, Baxter International stopped manufacturing multiple-dose vials of heparin.

Heparin is derived from pig intestines and other animal tissues, much of it produced in small Chinese workshops. Serious reactions to the drug have included difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, excessive sweating, and rapidly falling blood pressure that can lead to life-threatening shock.



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California Tops in Car Theft

Modesto has highest per capita rate in the nation

California is the car theft capital of the country with four of its metropolitan areas on the top ten list of cities where a car is most likely to be stole...


California is the car theft capital of the country with four of its metropolitan areas on the top ten list of cities where a car is most likely to be stolen.

Modesto leads the top ten list with the highest rate of auto theft per capita of any metropolitan area in the country, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

California also had more car thefts than any other state. In 2006 Californians lost 242,693 cars to theft. Texans lost 95,429 cars. NICB is still tabulating the final numbers for 2007.

Cities in western states claimed all ten spots measuring auto theft rates, according to the NICB.

Many of the cities facing high theft rates are near the border with Mexico and that can make it difficult for police to recover the stolen vehicles.

"Once it's in Mexico or Canada, then you are dealing with another country and you can't go in there and root around," said Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for NICB, said.

Some older cars like the 1989 and 1990 Toyota Camry are stolen to use the parts in fraudulent automotive repairs, Scafidi said. Cut rate body shops often look for car parts that they can sell on the black market to people who want to have their cars fixed for less money than a legitimate body shop would charge.

The NICB metro area rankings are based on figures from the National Crime Information Center.

There is some good news. Preliminary FBI crime data suggests that vehicle thefts dropped 7.4 percent in 2007. If the numbers hold up, 2007 would be the fourth consecutive year of declining vehicle thefts. Since 2000, thefts across the country have dropped 11 percent.

Here are the top ten metropolitan areas for car theft according to NICB.

1. Modesto, California
2. Las Vegas/Paradise, Nevada
3. San Diego/Carlsbad/San Marcos, California
4. Stockton, California
5. San Francisco/Oakland/Fremont, California
6. Laredo, Texas
7. Albuquerque, New Mexico
8. Phoenix/Mesa/Scottsdale, Arizona
9. Yakima, Washington
10. Tucson, Arizona

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Bank of America Tightens Lending Rules

New rules coincide with acquisition of Countrywide Financial

Bank of America Tightens Lending Rules...

It may be harder to get a mortgage after Bank of America combines operations with Countrywide Financial Corporation. The bank says one of its first orders of business will be to tighten lending rules.

The merger is expected to close in the third quarter of 2008.

"Putting and keeping Americans in their homes ensures the continued prosperity in the communities we serve," said Bank of America Global Consumer Credit Executive Bruce Hammonds.

In testimony before the Federal Reserve in Chicago, Bank of America unveiled its new mortgage lending guidelines. Following the purchase, the combined mortgage business plans tooffer retail customers the following types of first-lien mortgages:

• Conforming loans underwritten to standard guidelines of government-sponsored enterprises and the government, including FHA and VA loans and other loans designed for low-and moderate-income borrowers.

• Interest-only fixed-rate and adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) that are subject to a 10-year minimum interest-only period, which lessens the possibility of short-term payment shock.

• Fixed-period ARMs that provide borrowers low initial rates with the security of fixed payments, subject to protections against steep increases in payment amounts.

One thing Countrywide will not be doing is originating subprime mortgages. Following the purchase, Bank of America said it will make other changes to the loan products offered by the combined mortgage business:

• Discontinue non-traditional mortgages where monthly payments may not cover all interest, or so-called option-ARMs.

• Significantly curtail other non-traditional mortgages, such as certain low documentation loans.

• Implement enhanced borrower protections soon after completion of the Countrywide purchase, including limits on prepayment penalties and protections on non-traditional loans such as interest-only and hybrid ARMs, which limit the risk of future payment shock and provide long-term affordability.

"We think it's important to clearly explain the changes in mortgage lending practices once we operate as a combined company," Hammonds said. "We recognize this tightening, by definition, restricts the availability of credit to some borrowers. However, this will help ensure that those who get loans can afford to repay them.

 

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Consumers Having Problems with Digital TV Converter Coupons

Latest snag in government's attempt to move TV broadcasters to new frequency band

Consumers Having Problems with Digital TV Converter Coupons...

Consumers Union is calling on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Congress to address the problem of the 90-day expiration date on the government-issued coupons that help consumers buy digital converter boxes.

Currently, the $40 government coupons expire 90 days after issue, with no option of replacement or reissue.

It's just the latest of a string of problems and missteps in the decade-long attempt to move television broadcasters to a different frequency band.

A report earlier this month warned that television viewers in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and other major metro areas may find reliable television reception to be a thing of the past when the transition occurs.

NTIA has the authority to allow consumers to reapply if their coupons have expired but not been used, or Congress could extend the 90-day deadline. Both options would allow consumers to have greater access to a wider variety of converter boxes, which have been slow to come on the market.

"There are a limited number of coupons and they expire," said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union. "Consumers that were proactive and requested coupons early will have fewer choices when they go to buy the boxes," added Kelsey. "We are expecting more converter boxes on the market in a few months, which might be too late for consumers who requested their coupons early," added Kelsey.

Echostar has said it would be releasing a converter this summer that will be about $40, the cost of the coupon.

On February 17, 2009, television broadcasters will end "analog" broadcasts and only send television signals in a "digital" format. The DTV transition will affect millions of consumers who use analog television sets to view free over-the-air programming.

The analog televisions will either need to be connected to a digital converter box, attached to cable or satellite service, or replaced with a digital television in order to function. The government has created a coupon program to offset the cost of purchasing digital converters, $40 a coupon, two per household.

While the conversion is less is than a year away, a quick survey found many retailers have only one or two models of the converter boxes in stock, forcing consumers to choose from pricier converter options to prevent the coupons from expiring.

A brief sample of online retailers Best Buy, Circuit City, Radio Shack, and Wal-Mart found that each had just one or two boxes. Of the boxes listed, all but two cost $60; only Wal-mart had lower-priced models, for $50 and $53.

With these four retailers, the coupons cannot be used if making the purchase online. The government coupons must be redeemed in person at the retail store, or by phone from Radio Shack and Best Buy.

"We are asking Congress to extend the deadline on the coupons so consumers that took the initiative to request coupons early this year wont be penalized for acting quickly," added Kelsey.

Reliable reception?

Meanwhile, a report earlier this month warned that milliosn of television viewers may find reliable television reception to be a thing of the past when the transition occurs.

The report warns that when analog television channels are shut down on February 17, 2009, more than 9 million of the 17 million homes that still rely on over-the-air broadcast signals will encounter spotty service and few channels to select from.

The report, conducted by market research firm Centris, surveyed homes that receive only over-the-air signals and are not subscribed to any cable or satellite service. Of those homes, 54 percent were located in "challenging reception areas," defined as having small rooftop or indoor "rabbit ear" television antennae. Distance transmission towers and local terrain were also factored in.

Centris claimed that 24 percent of consumers in those areas who have insufficient antennae will receive few or no channels, even if they purchase a digital signal set-top converter box, thus requiring them to buy more advanced antennae as well.

"We have completed an analysis of the entire country to identify where in each market the receptivity gaps exist and now have exact figures for the number of at-risk households down to individual census block groups," said Centris' executive vice-president David Klein.

"The statistics suggest that digital TV signal coverage will be significantly more limited than currently anticipated and further reinforce the need for industry and consumer education on this issue."

Centris also identified what it called the most "at-risk markets" for problems with the digital television transition, with New York and Boston topping the list.

Rounding out the top ten were Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Seattle-Tacoma, the San Francisco Bay Area, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Atlanta, and Cleveland-Akron, Ohio.

The Centris study comes two months after a study conducted by Consumers' Union that found that as many as 23 million households, or 11 percent of the country's population, may have limited service or lose service together after the switchover.

That study found that Western and Midwest states would be the hardest hit by the transition, and that elderly, low-income, and Latino households would be the largest population segments affected.

Covering the bases

The two government agencies most directly in charge of the transition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), have been scrambling to educate the public in the wake of findings that Americans are still underinformed about the transition and what they have to do in order to receive television service.

The FCC has also begun levying punishments on electronics retailers that have been taking advantage of the confusion to sell consumers televisions and equipment that do not actually provide digital service.

On April 10, the FCC published enforcement orders against numerous big-box retailers such as Best Buy, Circuit City, Sears, and Wal-Mart, for selling televisions that were not clearly labeled as requiring a set-top converter box to receive digital signals, with orders to forfeit profits of up to $6 million.

"Based on the evidence before us, we find that Circuit City apparently willfully and repeatedly violated [government regulations by] failing to display conspicuously and in close proximity to equipment with an analog-only tuner, in clear and conspicuous print, the required Consumer Alert label," said the Circuit City citation. The forfeiture notice will cost the retailer $712,000.

Both agencies have also been heavily publicizing the government's voucher program that enables consumers to download or order free $40 coupons to go towards the cost of purchasing a new set-top converter box. Commerce Secretary Carlos Guiterrez, whose agency oversees the NTIA, recently announced that 10 million coupons had been requested by consumers to purchase converter boxes.

Missed information

But members of Congress and many consumer rights groups continue to express concern that the FCC and NTIA are not adequately educating consumers about critical aspects of the digital television transition, such as the fact that the converter box coupons will expire three months after they are issued, with no option to replace them or issue more.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing held on April 8 to discuss the transition, FCC chair Kevin Martin and acting NTIA head Meredith Baker were grilled on their plans to educate consumers and push for more dissemination of information relating to the transfer.

Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) said that "too many Americans remain in the dark about what the digital television transition (DTV) means."

"I have deep reservations about the FCC spending its limited time and resources in media areas unrelated to the transition," Inouye said. "Meanwhile, the NTIA is challenged by the Administration's push for a third leadership change at the agency within the past year. I urge both agencies to keep an eye on what is most pressing, and to proceed cautiously when you choose to spend time on what is not."

Vice-chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) echoed Inouye's concerns, saying that the FCC was wasting too much time on preferred issues of Martin's such as "a la carte" cable packages.

"The digital transition must be the FCC's number one priority this year. No other issue before the FCC has the same critical countdown as this transition," Stevens said. "It is crucial that government officials, industry, and consumer advocacy groups increase their outreach efforts to senior citizens and rural Americans."

Inouye requested that both agencies begin making monthly reports to the Commerce Committee in order to assess the status of the transition and ongoing related issues.

What to do

The following sites have more information about the analog-to-digital transition:

• Our Dawn Carlson provides a thorough overview of what you need to know.

• Visit the FCC's official DTV site to get more information.

• Apply for a converter box coupon at the NTIA's converter program Web site.

 

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Children Abused in Unregulated 'Boot Camps,' Critic Charges

Congress sets hearing on 'tough love' camps

Children Abused in Unregulated 'Boot Camps,' Critic Charges...

April 22, 2008
Your dog has more protection than your children, says Maia Szalavitz, a journalist who has investigated so-called "tough love" camps and residential programs supposedly aimed at helping troubled teens.

Congress will hold a second round of hearings Thursday on problems highlighted by Szalavitz and others. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, is chairing the probe of widespread abuse in the programs.

There have been at least 10 deaths of children held in teen wilderness programs, boot camps, emotional growth boarding schools, and other residential facilities. The first round of hearings last October prompted bipartisan outrage at industry abuses that committee members compared to human right abuses in third world countries.

Several victims portrayed in Szalavitz' book, "Help at Any Cost," are scheduled to testify at the hearing. She has called the "tough love" programs "an industry out of control and answerable to no one."

Most parents are unaware that in many states, dog kennels and nail salons are more highly regulated than the health and safety of children in so called 'tough love teen boot camp' institutions. Anyone, including ex-convicts, can open a program. No qualification or certification is required, Szalavitz said.

Szalavitz is a fellow of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a not-for-profit Washington, DC, group that highlights the use and abuse of science and statistics in the media.



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Beco 'Butterfly' Infant Carriers

Beco 'Butterfly' Infant Carriers...

April 22, 2008    
Beco Baby Carrier Inc. is recalling about 2,000 of its "Butterly" carriers. The buckles on the carrier shoulder straps can unexpectedly release tension, causing the strap to slip through, posing a fall hazard to the baby.

Beco has received eight reports of the carrier straps slipping through the shoulder buckles. No injuries have been reported.

The recalled infant carriers were sold under brand name Beco Baby Carrier Butterfly. The carriers have a black label with a green b logo on the left side and a butterfly on the right side. The label is sewn on the outside of the carrier. The following carrier styles are included in the recall: Mia, Pony Express, Carnival, Addison, Ethan, Sophia, Cameron, Ava and Joshua.

The carriers were sold at specialty retail stores nationwide and internet sites from January 2008 through February 2008 for about $140.

They were made in the USA and Dominican Republic.

Consumers should immediately stop using the carriers and contact Beco Baby Carrier to receive instructions for returning the carriers for repair.

Consumers should contact Beco Baby Carrier Inc. toll-free at (888) 943-8232/9-GET-BECO between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firms Web site at www.becobabycarrier.com.

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

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Federal Mortgage Aid Needed Now, Consumer Group Warns

Housing crisis dwarfs industry's attempt to respond

Federal Mortgage Aid Needed Now, Consumer Group Warns...

While mortgage industry efforts to stem the tide of foreclosures are producing some results, a consumer group says those efforts are not nearly enough. The Center for Responsible Lending warns the current crisis in the housing market dwarfs the mortgage industry's response to it.

Meanwhile, existing-home sales fell during March after making a surprise climb in February. Home resales fell to a 4.93 million annual rate, a 2.0% decrease from February's unrevised 5.03 million annual pace, the National Association of Realtors said.

Hope Now, an alliance between counselors, servicers, investors, and other mortgage market participants, recently reported that from July 2007 through February 2008, the industry had provided loan workouts that enabled about 1.2 million homeowners to stay in their homes.

"The industry is dedicated to minimizing foreclosures," said Faith Schwartz, Executive Director of Hope Now. "While Hope Now is not the only answer to this issue, the alliance's outreach efforts have had a significant impact on encouraging consumers to connect with their servicers. We are seeing real results."

But the CRL worries that it may not be enough. The group reports the number of seriously delinquent loans and new foreclosures in Jan/Feb 2008 was over 2.1 million, an increase of 8 percent over the previous quarter and 55 percent from a year earlier.

Almost 18 percent of subprime loans were seriously delinquent or started foreclosure in Jan/Feb 2008, the group says.

In the first two months of 2008, 17.5 percent of subprime loans were 60 days or more delinquent or had started foreclosure, up from 15.9 percent in the last quarter of 2007 and 10.7 percent in the first quarter of 2007.

Soaring foreclosures

At the same time, the number of foreclosures continues to soar. Hope Now has projected that more than two million loans are estimated to enter foreclosure in 2008, an increase of 38 percent over 2007. It estimates that completed foreclosures will climb 57 percent from 2007 to 2008.

In a March 2008 analysis, the real estate marketing firm RealtyTrac noted that foreclosures had dipped slightly from January to February, but concluded that is it unlikely the U.S. market has hit a ceiling in terms of foreclosures.

"The February monthly decrease is more likely a seasonal decrease helped along by a shorter-than-average month and the fact that January's numbers are often padded with some pent-up foreclosure activity from the holiday season," the authors wrote.

The report also focused on the year-over-year increase, which has been between 50 percent and 60 percent for both January and February. If you look back at the RealtyTrac monthly reports, activity has increased on a year-over-year basis every month since January 2006, the first month that YOY stats were available.

CRL's solution? The group said it would like to see federal action.

"What is abundantly clear is that Congressional action is needed to enable bankruptcy courts to require loan modifications," the group said in a release. "This legislation would be in the interest of borrowers and investors alike."

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Eating Disorders Widespread Among U.S. Women, Survey Finds

Three-quarters of women display unhealthy thoughts or behaviors

Eating Disorders Widespread Among U.S. Women, Survey Finds...


Sixty-five percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 report having disordered eating behaviors, according to the results of a new survey. The survey was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, in partnership with Self Magazine.

An additional 10 percent of women report symptoms consistent with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, meaning that a total of 75 percent of all American women endorse some unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to food or their bodies.

"Our survey found that these behaviors cut across racial and ethnic lines and are not limited to any one group," said Cynthia R. Bulik, Ph.D., William and Jeanne Jordan Distinguished Professor of Eating Disorders in the UNC School of Medicine's department of psychiatry and director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program.

"Women who identified their ethnic backgrounds as Hispanic or Latina, white, black or African American and Asian were all represented among the women who reported unhealthy eating behaviors."

"What we found most surprising was the unexpectedly high number of women who engage in unhealthy purging activities," said Bulik, who is also a nutrition professor in the School of Public Health.

"More than 31 percent of women in the survey reported that in an attempt to lose weight they had induced vomiting or had taken laxatives, diuretics or diet pills at some point in their life. Among these women, more than 50 percent engaged in purging activities at least a few times a week and many did so every day."

Although the type of disordered eating behaviors the survey uncovered don't necessarily have potentially lethal consequences like anorexia or bulimia nervosa, women report they are associated with emotional and physical distress. And despite the stereotype that eating issues affect mostly young women, the survey found that those in their 30s and 40s report disordered eating at virtually the same rates.

Findings show that:

• 75 percent of women report disordered eating behaviors or symptoms consistent with eating disorders; so three out of four have an unhealthy relationship with food or their bodies

• 67 percent of women (excluding those with actual eating disorders) are trying to lose weight

• 53 percent of dieters are already at a healthy weight and are still trying to lose weight

• 39 percent of women say concerns about what they eat or weigh interfere with their happiness

• 37 percent regularly skip meals to try to lose weight

• 27 percent would be "extremely upset" if they gained just five pounds

• 26 percent cut out entire food groups

• 16 percent have dieted on 1,000 calories a day or fewer

• 13 percent smoke to lose weight

• 12 percent often eat when they're not hungry; 49 percent sometimes do.

Eating habits that women think are normal such as banishing carbohydrates, skipping meals and in some cases extreme dieting may actually be symptoms of disordered eating, researchers say.

The online survey garnered responses from 4,023 women who answered detailed questions about their eating habits.



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North Carolina Stops Advance Fee Credit Card Scheme

Premier Nationwide Corp. hit with restraining order

North Carolina Stops Advance Fee Credit Card Scheme...


Some consumers fall prey to credit card offers that sound too good to be true. Even though the consumer may have little or no credit, they are offered a low-interest, high-limit credit card.

There's only one catch. They have to pay a big upfront fee.

"With tough economic times, the last thing consumers need is to pay for help they don't receive," said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Cooper's office has just won a court order to stop an Arizona company from offering advance fee cards in the Tar Heel State. Premier Nationwide Corporation, Inc. and its president Eric C. Synstad of Scottsdale, Arizona, have been ordered to stop contacting or taking money from North Carolina consumers while the suit against them goes forward.

The company does business as Premier Savings and Premier Savings Consultant. Cooper is also asking the court to order Premier Savings to pay refunds to consumers and fines to the state for deceptive practices and illegal telemarketing calls.

In asking for the temporary restraining order, Cooper contended that Premier Savings deceived consumers across North Carolina with its marketing of credit cards and debt consolidation services. He said the company also violated state law by making unsolicited telemarketing calls to North Carolinians who had placed their telephone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry.

As alleged in the complaint, Premier Savings contacted consumers through mailings and telemarketing calls to offer pre-approved credit cards with credit lines as high as $50,000 and debt consolidation services for an upfront fee. In reality, very few consumers were able to get credit cards through Premier Savings.

Consumers who got unsolicited telephone calls from the company were asked to provide a debit or credit card number to pay a processing fee of approximately $379.

Once people paid the fee they were told to contact a bank to get their credit card. But the bank told consumers to fill out a credit card application and in most cases the consumers' applications were denied.

According to consumers who complained to Cooper's office, Premier Savings would not provide refunds for the processing fee. People who asked for a refund because they couldn't get a credit card were usually told to obtain a denial letter from the bank and then referred to another bank where they were also denied credit.

More Scam Alerts ...

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Cable, Telco Interests Sit Out Net Neutrality Hearing

Comcast leaves field to neutrality supporters

Cable, Telco Interests Sit Out Net Neutrality Hearing...

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held its second hearing on managing Internet networks and "net neutrality" at Stanford University last week -- and this time, the ball was squarely in the court of supporters of equal access to the Internet.

While the previous hearing, held in Cambridge, Massachusetts in February, was marred by Comcast's controversial tactic of paying people off the street to fill seats and block opponents from getting in, the second hearing was marked by an absence of representatives from cable and telecom companies alike, giving freer reign to speakers like Ben Scott of media watchdog group Free Press.

"There are two competing visions for the future of the Internet -- open versus closed. Will we embrace the openness that has shaped the Internet to the present day?" Scott asked. "Or will we permit network owners to move to the closed systems of content control we have had with cable television and broadcasting? It is not hyperbole to say that few choices in the history of the FCC carry as much weight as this one does."

Several of the FCC commissioners attending were sympathetic to Scott's view.

Democratic member Michael Copps, in his testimony,, said "that wonderful, open and dynamic Internet perhaps the most liberating technology since the printing press, if not even greater than that is, in fact, under threat. Its future is not on autopilot and, indeed, powerful interests would bring it under their control for their own purposes which may not be your purposes."

Other members of the Commssion were more wary.

Republican Deborah Tate used her testimony to warn that unfettered file-sharing networks could lead to greater spreading of child pornography over the Internet.

"I want to make sure that we weigh the unintended consequences of any regulatory action we may take regarding more openness with these successful voluntary steps to use not just reasonable but extraordinary network management and technologies to fight crime rather than harbor and encourage it," she said.

Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, a longtime net neutrality advocate, testified that the economic gains reaped from the Internet were due in no small part to its openness. He encouraged the commissioners to adopt rules to ensure beneficial participation for carriers.

You have to make it so playing the games is not a good business model for them, Lessig said. If we really didnt have a reason to worry that they were playing games [with network management], then what they did inside their networks would be of less concern.

Comcast's long shadow

Although Comcast declined to appear at the hearing, its actions loomed large over the course of the discussion. It was the discovery that Comcast was blocking access to BitTorrent that reignited the net neutrality debate, leading to lawsuits against the cable giant and a promised investigation by the FCC.

In an attempt to deflect the investigation before it got underway, Comcast and BitTorrent struck an agreement that the file-sharing company would work with Comcast to develop processes to manage Internet networks without blocking access.

More recently, Comcast and Pando, another company that markets peer-to-peer (P2P) software, announced that they had collaborated to create a "P2P Bill Of Rights and Responsibilities" that would "clarify what choices and controls consumers should have when using P2P applications as well as what processes and practices ISPs should use to manage P2P applications running on their networks."

Consumer activist groups and technology experts were skeptical of Comcast's friendlier stance.

Public Knowledge's Gigi Sohn called the Comcast-Pando agreement "ludicrous," adding, "This so-called agreement is simply another way for Comcast to try to evade punishment for its blocking and degrading of peer-to-peer services for its customers. As with the agreement with BitTorrent, todays announcement is long on rhetoric and short on detail."

Even with the conciliatory gestures of Comcast and other big players in the network space, the BitTorrent scandal led to renewed Congressional hearings discussing right of equal access to Internet content, and the introduction of new legislation to add net neutrality to the Communications Act of 1934 as a guiding principle, while mandating the FCC to investigate any claims of blocked access.

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Wal-Mart Bans BPA, Other Retailers Likely to Follow

Studies link the chemical to possible hormonal changes

Wal-Mart Bans BPA, Other Retailers Likely to Follow...


Wal-Mart says it will stop selling baby bottles made with the controversial chemical bisphenol A -- commonly known as BPA -- in its U.S. stores early next year.

The announcement followed the release of a draft report from the U.S. National Toxicology Program that expressed concern that BPA, used to make plastic, could cause behavioral changes in infants and children and trigger the early onset of puberty in females.

Meanwhile, a new study found that BPA can alter the activity of genes in normal breast cells in ways that resemble what is found in extremely dangerous breast cancers.

The study, conducted by researchers in California and published this month in the journal Cancer Research, found that many genes in non-cancerous breast cells exposed to trace amounts of BPA began acting in a way that closely resembled the gene activity in highly aggressive breast tumors that led to an increased likelihood that women would die of the disease.

BPA is one of the most widely used synthetic chemicals in modern industry. It is the basic building block for polycarbonate, the see-through, shatterproof plastic that resembles glass. It's also used to make the epoxy resins lining most tin cans, along with some dental sealants, sports helmets and compact discs.

Canada first

Wal-Mart announced on Wednesday that it would halt sales of baby bottles, sippy cups, pacifiers, food containers and water bottles made with BPA in its Canadian stores, following reports that Canadian health authorities would soon declare the chemical a health hazard. On Thursday, Wal-Mart expanded the ban to its U.S. stores.

Earlier this week, it was reported that Health Canada had concluded that BPA is a dangerous substance, the first national government to make that determination. Health Minister Tony Clement is expected to impose restrictions on its use soon.

Other retailers are likely to follow Wal-Mart's action. Target said it is testing glass baby bottles. Babies R Us said it began selling glass bottles and BPA-free bottles late last year.

The latest findings are "highly supportive of the concept that overexposure to BPA and/or similar compounds could be an underlying factor in the aggressiveness, if not in the causality" of breast cancers, said Shanaz Dairkee, lead author of the study and senior scientist at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute in San Francisco, Canada's Globe and Mail reported.

The study results were designated a "priority report" by the journal, published by the American Association for Cancer Research, one of the world's largest scientific organizations devoted to cancer studies.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, said news reports about BPA are "unnecessarily confusing and frightening the public."



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String of Illnesses Afflicts NUTRO-Fed Pets

Company insists its food is '100% safe'

Scores of pets from California to South Carolina have experienced sudden and recurring bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, and other digestive problems....

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Antioxidant Users Don't Live Longer, Study Finds

Even worse, some antioxidants may increase risk of death

Antioxidant Users Don't Live Longer, Study Finds...

The vitamin industry has spent millions promoting antioxidants as a way to improve health but a new review of studies found no evidence that the nutrition supplements extend life. Worse, the review authors said that some antioxidants could increase risk for death.

The reviewers call for more regulation of the nutraceuticals industry, but an antioxidant researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that call for stricter monitoring overreaches the conclusions of the review.

The researchers looked at 67 randomized studies and found that supplemental antioxidants do not reduce mortality and that some including vitamin A, beta-carotene and vitamin E could increase mortality. The review combined evidence from more than 200,000 people.

"The harmful effects of antioxidant supplements are not confined to vitamin A," said review co-author Christian Gluud, M.D. "Our analyses also demonstrate rather convincingly that beta-carotene and vitamin E lead to increased mortality compared to placebo."

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

Antioxidants are nutrients such as vitamin E, vitamin C, or beta carotene. They've been successfully marketed over the years as a way to make up for the fact that most people do eat not enough fruits and vegetables to ensure an adequate intake of vital nutrients.

Supporters see antioxidants as a way to counter the damaging effects of oxygen in the tissues. However, the researchers say it is unclear if supplementation can provide benefits akin to a healthy diet and if some antioxidants are, in fact, harmful.

The review included studies of healthy adults and adults diagnosed with specific, stable medical conditions. The authors excluded studies with children or pregnant women, or studies that evaluated supplements as treatment for acute diseases, such as malignant cancer. It also excluded studies that used supplements for replacement of nutrient deficits.

The review authors recommend greater regulation of antioxidant supplements and make a "plea for urgent political action," said Gluud, director of medical science, associate professor and department head of the Copenhagen Trial Unit at the Center for Clinical Intervention Research and Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark.

"We should request that the regulatory authorities dare to regulate the industry without being financially dependent on the very same industry," Gluud said.

Going too far

However, nutrition science expert Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., said the reviewers go too far in their recommendations for more stringent regulation of antioxidant supplements.

"I could find nowhere in this report any review of regulatory practices and effectiveness or the evaluation of public health policies, procedures or perspectives," Blumberg said.

Blumberg is director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and a professor with the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. He was not involved in the review.

A supplement-industry trade group questions both the review conclusions and the study selection process for the analysis.

"Four hundred five studies which showed no deaths were excluded from the meta-analysis, which if included, clearly would have altered the outcome of the meta-analysis," said Andrew Shao, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a supplement industry trade association in Washington, D.C.

Shao maintained that antioxidant supplements are safe additions to a healthy diet.

The review only includes studies in which someone died.

Gluud defended his methodology, saying it is important to include only large, randomized controlled trials to assess mortality. Most of the trials that showed no deaths were not "proper preventative trials," he said.

Blumberg raised concerns about the use of "all-cause mortality" as a yardstick for antioxidants' influence on health and life. "All-cause mortality" includes deaths resulting from everything from cancer to a train wreck.

But this isn't the first study in recent months to question the health benefits, and possible harm, from vitamin supplements. In February, a study by researchers at the University of Washington found that supplements not only did not protect against cancer, but might even increase cancer risks.

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.

 



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Debt Collectors Go After Expired Verizon Bills

Consumers told refusing to pay will hurt their credit rating

Consumers around the country are complaining that Afni, Inc., a debt collection agency, has been calling and mailing, demanding that consumers pay old Veri...

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Ford Recalls 2008 E-350s

Drive shaft assembly may be faulty

Ford Recalls 2008 E-350s...

Ford Motor Co. is recalling 3,331 2008 E-350 trucks with a 138-inch wheelbase because of a faulty drive shaft assembly.

The National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) reported that the drive shaft may have been manufactured with a slip yoke that has cracks. The drive shaft flaw can reduce performance below design specifications, according to NHTSA.

The safety agency warned that over time the slip yoke could fracture without warning, allowing the drive shaft to separate from the vehicle, increasing the risk of a crash.

Ford dealers will inspect the E-350 drive shaft and replace it free of charge when the recall begins. Owners may contact Ford at 1-800-392-3673 or NHTSA at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153).

 

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March Foreclosures Up 57% in March

More families walking away from their homes

One in every 538 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing during March, a five percent rise over the previous month and a whopping 57 percent increase...

One in every 538 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing during March, a five percent rise over the previous month and a whopping 57 percent increase over March 2007.

The real estate marketing firm RealtyTrac reports 234,685 properties nationwide were subject to foreclosure filings default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions.

"The March numbers show that overall foreclosure activity so far this year continues to run nearly 60 percent above the levels we saw last year," said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac.

Saccacio notes that while repossessions were up nearly 129 percent in March, auction notices were up only 32 percent. He says that means more defaulting homeowners are simply walking away and deeding their properties back to the foreclosing lender.

This deed-in-lieu-of-foreclosure process allows the lender to take possession of a property without putting it up for public foreclosure auction.

Sunbelt Leads

Nevada, California and Florida have the highest foreclosure rates.

The report shows that one in every 139 Nevada households received a foreclosure filing during March, 3.9 times the national average and the highest state foreclosure rate for the 15th consecutive month. Foreclosure filings were reported on a total of 7,659 properties during the month, up 24 percent from the previous month and up nearly 62 percent from March 2007.

Foreclosure rates in California and Florida ranked second and third highest respectively among the states for the fourth straight month. One in every 204 California households received a foreclosure filing in March 2.6 times the national average and one in every 282 Florida households received a foreclosure filing during the month 1.9 times the national average.

Despite a nearly five percent monthly dip in foreclosure activity, Arizona posted the nation's fourth highest state foreclosure rate for the third straight month, with one in every 283 households receiving a foreclosure filing in March. Foreclosure filings were reported on 9,199 properties during the month, up nearly 106 percent from March 2007.

Colorado foreclosure activity decreased 8 percent from the previous month and 1 percent from March 2007, but the state's foreclosure rate continued to rank fifth highest among the states. Foreclosure filings were reported on 6,180 Colorado properties during the month one in every 339 total households.

Other states with foreclosure rates ranking among the top 10 were Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts and Maryland.

Highest totals

California, Florida, Ohio reported the highest foreclosure totals.

Foreclosure filings were reported on 64,711 California properties in March, the most of any state for the 15th consecutive month. California foreclosure activity increased nearly 21 percent from the previous month and almost 106 percent from March 2007.

Florida posted the nation's second highest total, with foreclosure filings reported on 30,254 properties in March. The state's foreclosure activity decreased nearly 7 percent from the previous month but was still up almost 112 percent from March 2007.

Ohio and Georgia both registered month-to-month and year-over-year increases in foreclosure activity, and foreclosure filings were reported on more than 11,000 properties in both states. Ohio's total of 11,273 was the nation's third highest, and one in every 448 Ohio households received a foreclosure filing during the month ranking its foreclosure rate No. 7 among the states.

Georgia's total of 11,047 was the nation's fourth highest, and one in every 351 Georgia households received a foreclosure filing during the month ranking its foreclosure rate No. 6 among the states.

Foreclosure filings were reported on a total of 10,700 Texas properties in March, a nearly 13 percent decrease from the previous month and a 16 percent decrease from March 2007, and the state's total dropped to fifth highest among the states.

Other states in the top 10 for total properties with filings were Michigan, Arizona, Illinois, Nevada and Colorado.

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Lawmakers Push For 'Transparency' On Food Recalls

Consumers not always able to get reliable information

Lawmakers Push For 'Transparency' On Food Recalls...

Some members of the U.S. House of Representatives want consumers to have more information about tainted food when the government issues a recall. For example where were the questionable food items sold?

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT) has introduced legislation called The Food Safety Recall Information Act, which would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to list all the retail stores and school districts that have received food products that were subjected to a USDA recall. The measure has at least 10 co-sponsors.

"During the historic Westland/Hallmark recall of 143 million pounds of beef, consumers were denied important information about which stores or schools received the recalled products," DeLauro said. "Instead, consumers were forced to rely on sporadic media reports, which were not comprehensive and resulted in additional confusion.

"When a food safety recall occurs, consumers should be able to know which stores or schools received the potentially contaminated products so that they can better protect their families, and this bill would accomplish just that," DeLauro said.

DeLauro says the Bush Administration has opposed her bill, and has backed a USDA proposal that she says would make this information available only for the recalls that pose the highest risk.

"That means it would not have applied to the Westland/Hallmark recall," she said. That is inexcusable. Transparency is absolutely critical during any food safety recall."

Since March of 2006 USDA has had a proposed rule pending that would permit the agency to list retail consignees on its recall press releases. Following the historic Hallmark/Westland recall of 143 million pounds of beef, DeLauro said she repeatedly pressed USDA and the Office of Management and Budget to release the information, as well as allow the rule to move forward.

DeLauro says her bill would also eliminate the loophole that allows downer cattle to be slaughtered for the food supply.



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TSA's Air Cargo Plans Questioned

Cargo companies would do their own security checks

TSA's Air Cargo Plans Questioned...


In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed a law to require that 100 percent of air cargo carried on passenger jets be inspected. Now, the author of that legislation has concerns about how that law will be implemented.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) says he's heard reports the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) may try to meet the mandate by requiring companies that pack cargo shipments to perform the screening themselves, before the cargo ever gets to the airport. That, he says, raises real security issues.

"If cargo is screened before it reaches the airport, which appears to be a central element of TSA's plans to comply with the law, how will it be sealed to prevent tampering?" Markey asked. "It remains unclear whether a secure chain of custody can be established to make certain that bombs or other dangerous items are not inserted into cargo after screening occurs."

Markey said TSA is in the preliminary stages of testing its approach, but says if the agency's plans ultimately fall short, Congress will need to take steps to ensure that the air cargo security mandates in the 9/11 Commission law are met.

"I worked for four years to pass the law closing the air cargo loophole and requiring 100 percent screening of cargo carried in the belly of passenger planes," Markey said. "Now TSA must meet this mandate."

Markey said TSA appears to be working seriously to implement a screening program to meet the new higher security standard, but he will continue to monitor their progress to make sure the plan meets the security standards set by the law.

The law was signed in August 2007, implementing recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. It requires all cargo carried on passenger planes be screened at a level of security commensurate to the security applied to airline passengers' checked bags.



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Feds Probe Unintended Acceleration in Toyota Sienna Minivan

Missing retainer pin can cause problems

Feds Probe Unintended Acceleration in Toyota Sienna Minivan...

Federal safety regulators are investigating one complaint of unintended acceleration in the Toyota Sienna.

The Office of Defect Investigation (ODI) at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported receiving the complaint.

The Complainant reported that he applied the accelerator pedal to accelerate the vehicle and experienced unwanted acceleration upon release, ODI reported on its Web site.

Safety regulators said that field data indicates that when a retainer pin is missing from the driver's side center stack/console trim panel, the panel can detach from the console and the accelerator pedal can become entrapped under the trim panel causing unwanted acceleration.

The trim panel was used on Toyota Sienna minvans produced from January through June of 2003, according to ODI. The new component used after June 2003 apparently does not "entrap the throttle, according to the safety agency.

ODI has launched a preliminary investigation to assess the scope, frequency and potential safety related consequences of unintended acceleration in the Sienna.

 

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Little Satisfaction for Kids Quarters Customers

Bankrupt furniture retailer leaves gaping holes in consumers' budgets

Kids Quarters took money from at least one customer even after it notified other consumers it could not deliver their promised and paid for furniture....

The bed has arrived.

After battling with a Florida-based furniture store for more than seven months -- and worrying that the company took our money and would never deliver the merchandise -- our son finally has his loft bed.

But we're lucky. ConsumerAffairs.com has heard from scores of consumers nationwide who never received their furniture from the company -- Kids Quarters, Inc.

Most consumers paid in advance for their furniture. Some made those purchases with cash or debit cards. They're now out thousands of dollars. And it appears unlikely that they'll get their money back -- or their furniture.

The long-delayed bed

As we reported, Kids Quarters closed its three Florida stores and its online division in early March. The company is now filing for bankruptcy.

That news outraged many Kids Quarters customers, who say the company's owners shouldn't be allowed to hide behind bankruptcy protection. Or open a new business -- under a different name.

Consumers we've talked to want the Florida Attorney General's Office -- or some other consumer protection agency -- to investigate Kids Quarters for possible civil or criminal violations.

We've learned Kids Quarters took money from at least one customer even after it notified other consumers it could not deliver their promised and paid for furniture.

We also learned the company's president, Antonio Sola, opened an online furniture business weeks before he closed the Kids Quarters company.

The Florida Attorney General's office, however, said it is not investigating Kids Quarters "at this time." A spokeswoman said her office has received 59 complaints about the company most of those involve delivery problems and failure to issue refunds.

She also said her office is referring consumers to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Orange County, Florida, Consumer Fraud Unit and the Better Business Bureau of Central Florida, which has received more than 140 complaints about Kids Quarters.

The Florida Attorney General's office is also referring consumers who bought their furniture online to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

No recourse for some customers

Florida officials said Kids Quarters' consumers should contact their credit card companies and dispute the bills.

That's what my husband and I did and we received a full refund from our credit card company. But that advice doesn't help consumers like Valerie P., of Eustis, Florida.

She wrote Kids Quarters a check for $1,500 as a down payment on bedroom furniture for her seven-year-old daughter. Kids Quarters electronically withdrew the money from Valerie's account.

She wasn't expecting delivery until April 19 and never suspected anything was wrong until last Thursday.

"My husband and daughter drove by the (Altamonte Springs) store yesterday and found it closed down," Valerie told us. "I immediately called all the locations to find all numbers disconnected. Then I got on the Internet and found your stories and complaints."

Suspicious timing

What's suspicious about Valerie's case is the timing.

Kids Quarter took her money on February 23, 2008. That's two days after I received a letter from the company stating it couldn't deliver our son's bed because of financial problems.

In a letter dated February 21, 2008, Kids Quarters' General Manager Monique Sola wrote: "We are aware that you and your family have been waiting for quite some time to receive your furniture ordered from us for Berg Furniture products. Unfortunately, we are unable to fulfill your order through our normal distribution process due to our present financial situation."

We later ordered our bed directly from Berg Furniture. That company agreed to honor the terms and price quoted in Kids Quarters' contract.

Our son's bed arrived on April 3 -- three weeks after we placed the order with Berg.

But Berg isn't the manufacturer of Valerie's furniture. The bedroom set she ordered is made by a company called Maxtrix Kids Furniture. Valerie plans to call that company directly and hopes it will honor Kids Quarters' contract.

She's also contacted the Orlando-based law firm of Schlegel Caplan, which told ConsumerAffairs.com it represents Kids Quarters in the bankruptcy action.

Valerie and other consumers are furious that Kids Quarters continued to take customers' money when it knew it couldn't fulfill the orders.

"There was no indication anything was wrong," Valerie said. "There are probably a lot of people who don't know what's happened. They aren't expecting their deliveries until Mid-April, and won't know there's a problem until they don't receive their orders.

"I'm sure we're not only the only people they took orders from right up to the end," she added. "When we went back to the store (the day they placed their order) three salespeople said they had had a busy day."

We've learned that Kids Quarters' also promised another customer she'd receive her order just one day before the company closed its doors.

"We also purchased our furniture in February," said consumer Stephanie B. "I called and spoke with Mrs. Sola the day before they closed the doors to confirm my furniture was coming that week -- and she assured me it was. This is as criminal as it gets."

Other customers agree.

Lisa of Seneca, South Carolina, paid the company several hundred dollars for her daughters' bunk beds. Kids Quarters' never delivered the furniture or returned any of her calls or e-mails.

"I want these crooks to pay," she said. "I am heartbroken for my kids -- and steaming mad at being taken for a ride. Is there anyone who can help me or at least stop these crooks?"

Lisa used her credit card to pay for the furniture and thought she had added protection. But that company refused to credit her account.

"I find myself out $677.85," she told us. "My credit card company is of no assistance as the purchase was beyond its two-month deadline. My credit card company doesn't even want to look into it to protect others."

Numerous complaints

And there are many other consumers across the county who say Kids Quarters ripped them off.

Consider some of these complaints we've received about the company:

• Leisy of Windermere, Florida told us: "I ordered a bed and accessories that total $375 last July 2007. I never received my furniture. Just up to last week I was in contact with the store manager, Luis. Luis promised me that I would get credit back and it would take 21 days. Today, March 26, I called and the phone was busy. I looked it up online and realize that they (Kids Quarters) filed for bankruptcy. I am a single mother and this is just not right."

• Joann of Darnestown, Maryland, wrote us: "I ordered furniture for my daughters' room in August 2007. After numerous phone calls and promises of delivery, I hear they are in bankruptcy. I am out $1821.30. My dogs have a bed. My children have been sleeping on the floor waiting for their new bunk beds It is a huge disappointment, which is very difficult to explain to a three and five-year-old who just wanted their princess room."

• Elsie of Liverpool New York, told us: "On January 18, 2008, I ordered a complete teen bedroom set for $5689.22. I have not received it, the company has disconnected its telephone, and I learned from your Web site that they are now bankrupt, but their site is up and they are still taking ordersI have lost $5,689.22 and have no furniture to show for it."

We also heard from consumers who were worried that Kids Quarters opened a new business under a different name. Those concerns surfaced when consumers found a Web site called Kids Furnishings.com. That Web site is similar to Kids Quarters'. It sells the same furniture. And the company is based in Florida.

New business

ConsumerAffairs.com discovered Kids Quarters' president, Antonia Sola, incorporated a new business on December 4, 2007. That's just weeks before closed his Florida stores and online division.

Records with the Florida Secretary of State's office reveal Sola's new business is called Kids Furnishings.com, Inc. He filed the paperwork for that company on December 6, 2007, and he is listed as its president and secretary.

Records with the WHOIS database also revealed Sola registered the kidsfurnishings.com domain name and updated it on December 14, 2008. At the time, he was listed as the administrative contact for the Web site.

When customers called Kids Firnishings.com, though, they were told Sola had nothing to do with the company.

ConsumerAffairs.com heard that same story when we called the company as a customer. During that conversation, a man who identified himself as Robert Dalbey told us he was the owner. He also told us that he didn't know anything about Kid Quarters.

When we called Kids Furnishings.com back as a reporter, Dalbey changed his story. This time, he said he knew a great deal about Kids Quarters he managed the company's store in Tampa.

Dalbey also said he bought the Kids Furnishings.com Web site and its "intellectual property" from Sola in early March.

Records filed on March 4, 2008, with the Florida Secretary of State's office reveal a change in officers for Kids Furnishings.com. The name of the company's president switched from Antonio Sola to Robert Dalbey.

"Mr. Sola has no connection to me now," Dalbey told us. "I rent some warehouse space from him, but that ends in April."

Kids Furnishings.com, he said, will also operate much differently than Kids Quarters.

"We are only an online business. We're going to keep things on a much smaller scale. We also won't charge customers' credit cards until their furniture leaves the factory. And we'll make sure everything in stock before we place an order."

Dalbey added: "I learned a lot of how 'not-to-do things' working for Kids Quarters."

What went wrong?

What went wrong with Kids Quarters? Why couldn't the company fill customers' order? And why did it continue to take consumers' money when it couldn't fulfill their orders.

We've tried to get Antonio or Monique Sola to answer those and other questions. But they have never returned our calls or e-mail messages.

We posed the same questions to Dalbey.

He blamed the ailing economy for Kids Quarters' financial problems and its ultimate closing. "We weren't getting in the sales like we did one to three years ago. But we still had to pay vendors, make payroll, and cover rent. The rent at our Tampa store was $50,000 a month.

"This was just like any other business," Dalbey said. "Once you start spending more than you collect, you get into trouble. And he (Sola) didn't have the sales to cover his expenses."

If that's the case, why did Kids Quarters continue to take orders and customers money?

"I would think it's because they kept thinking that things were going to come aroundto turn around. That didn't happen."

Dalbey said his company will try to help Kids Quarters' customers by honoring their contracts. But he can't help customers like Lisa who paid cash or those who bought their furniture with a debit card. Dalbey said he doesn't have their money and can't afford to take the loss.

When asked why consumers should trust him -- and his new business -- Dalbey said: "We're doing thing a lot differently than Kids Quarters ever did. It's a different company - it's my company and I'm not Antonio Sola."

If there's no connection between the companies, why did the bill of lading for our son's bed indicate the order was billed to KidsFurnishings.com?

We placed our order directly with Berg furniture.

"How is that possible?" asked Almog Lieber, vice-president of marketing for Berg. We called him on Monday about the bill of lading. "Your order has nothing to do with Kids Furnishings.com. Your order is under Berg Furniture.

"We paid for your shipping," he added. "In all my conversations with the trucking company, I told them I am paying for everything I didn't want them (Kids Quarters or Kids Furnishings.com) to touch your money at all. I am paying for everything. That way I can guarantee you get your furniture."

Lieber said there might be a mix-up in the paperwork and promised to investigate.

"This is almost personally annoying to me that this has happened," he said. "I see where we may be partially responsible for this. We didn't see these problems and catch them ahead of time. If we had, we would have saved some people a lot of aggravation."

In the meantime, consumers who still haven't received their furniture -- or their money -- aren't giving up. They've talked about hiring an attorney. They've filed complaints with the Florida Attorney General's office and other consumer protection agencies.

They've also promised to continue warning others about Kids Quarters.

"I don't know if any of us will get any money back," Valerie said, "but be assured we're ready to fight. There's power in numbers!"

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No Need to Overpay for Property Deeds

Companies charge big bucks for public documents

Need a copy of the deed to your property? You could go to the courthouse and get one for $10 or less, or you could pay some company as much as $89 to get o...


Need a copy of the deed to your property? You could go to the courthouse and get one for $10 or less, or you could pay some company as much as $89 to get one for you.

In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper says he's concerned not enough people understand their options when they get a solicitation from a company called National Deeds Service, Inc., in Washington, DC.

Cooper says the company sent thousands of letters to North Carolina homeowners offering to provide them with a certified copy of their property deed for $59 to $89.

Consumers can usually get that document themselves from their local Register of Deeds.

"Watch out for companies that want you to pay them for something you can get for little or no money elsewhere," Cooper warned. "If you get one of these notices, remember that you don't need to pay this company for a copy of your deed."

Most homeowners receive a copy of their deed at closing, so you may already have a copy. Some counties also allow you to view deeds for free via their web site.

In many cases, consumers may not need a certified copy of their deed and can instead print a scanned copy from their county's web site for free.

More Scam Alerts ...

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Tax Scams Proliferate In April

Taxpayer advocate wants improvement; Agency promises more action

The Treasury Department's Inspector General (TIGTA) found that, "the IRS has not placed sufficient emphasis on employment-related and tax fraud identity th...

By Martin H. Bosworth
ConsumerAffairs.com

April 11, 2008
With just a few days left to go in the tax season and filers frantically filling out forms and returns, the likelihood that their personal information could be stolen or misused increases dramatically -- and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has admitted that its efforts to protect personal data from identity theft and fraud could use some improvement.

In a new report, the Treasury Department's Inspector General (TIGTA) found that, "the IRS has not placed sufficient emphasis on employment-related and tax fraud identity theft strategies."

"Specifically, its prevention strategy does not include pursuing individuals using another person's identity, unless their cases directly relate to a substantive tax or conspiracy violation...the actual crime of identity theft will only be investigated...if it is committed in conjunction with other criminal offenses having a large tax effect," the auditors said.

According to the auditors' findings, although the IRS received over 92,000 complaints related to identity theft during 2005 and 2006, only 100 cases of criminal investigation recommended for prosecution over the two-year period contained a charge or count of identity theft.

The IRS told TIGTA that it lacked the resources to pursue enforcement of cases involving identity theft, and that "employment-related identity theft cases are not the responsibility of the IRS and that it would not be worthwhile to pursue [these] cases for unreported tax liabilities because the taxes owed on most of these cases are not significant."

Among the auditors' findings:

• The automatic system used to contact taxpayers for instances of underreporting of taxes contacted them multiple times for the same compliance issues, even though the taxpayers' cases were previously marked as closed for identity theft.

• Employers are notified of mismatches between names and Social Security numbers. But if a taxpayer's name and Social Security number are proven to be used by another person, the employer is not notified and the IRS takes no action.

• Although the IRS gathers the bulk of its identity theft-related data from the clearinghouse established by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency considers the data "unreliable" and does not use it to address cases of tax-related identity theft.

"The IRS has mainly focused on combating identity theft through public outreach...Nonetheless, its current processes and procedures have been inadequate in reducing burden for taxpayers victimized by identity theft," the Inspector General concluded.

'Taxpayer-Centric Approach'

That conclusion was bolstered by the findings of National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, who testified before the Senate Finance Committee on the IRS' procedures for handling matters related to mismatched Social Security numbers and other potential causes of identity theft.

In outlining the procedure that both the IRS and the Social Security Administration (SSA) follow to determine the true owner of an SSN used by multiple parties, Olson said that the letters and identifying numbers provided to the taxpayer are very confusing, and may deter them from claiming credits they have earned.

"[B]ecause the IRS has not clearly alerted the taxpayer of potential identity theft and its related consequences, it is also possible that the taxpayer might not take these necessary steps to protect himself," Olson said.

"Meanwhile, the IRS has not called the taxpayer to discuss any of these developments. All communication is done by correspondence, which might be sent to someone who has low literacy. Such an approach to likely victims of identity theft is hardly reflective of world class customer service."

"For example, in several Taxpayer Advocate Service cases, including one I worked on, the owner of the Social Security number was a very young child," Olson said. "If the Social Security number of a very young child shows up on a Form W-2 reporting wages from a full-time job, it should be fairly clear that that child did not earn those wages and should be treated as the victim rather than the perpetrator."

Olson recommended a more "taxpayer-centric approach" to handing cases of tax-related identity theft, including developed centralized procedures for identifying indicators that a taxpayer's information may have been used for fraud, and a "casework" system to handle complaints from beginning to end across the agency's many divisions.

Both TIGTA and Olson praised the agency for the efforts it has undertaken to address the deficiencies in its handling of identity theft issues, including the creation of an Office of Privacy, Information Protection and Data Security that would automate and streamline the process for reporting and investigating identity theft complaints. But both said that the systems in place would require much more development and safeguards to be effective.

Numbers Game

Mismatched Social Security numbers and names are a leading symptom of identity theft, as they indicate a person's information has been stolen and combined with other people's information in the black market "underground economy" to create new identities, which are sold and resold -- often to undocumented immigrants looking for quick employment in the United States.

The earnings from the identities created from the stolen information are taxed as normal, but the Social Security earnings are not provided to the earners, and are shunted to the SSA's "earnings suspense file," a massive fund of unclaimed earnings that gathers as much as $6 billion a year.

The file represents a hotbed of political argument on everything from illegal immigration to privacy rights even as it continues to accrue untouched money.

The IRS' own practices often contribute to increased risk of identity theft for taxpayers as well. The agency has been the subject of multiple Congressional reports documenting its lack of implemented privacy practices agency-wide, and has been criticized for losing many computers and storage devices that contain sensitive personal data.

The IRS has also come under scrutiny for changes in its rules to enable outsourcing of tax collection operations to private agencies, and to let third-party tax preparers sell customer data to affiliates or partners, often without the customer's explicit consent.

A recent investigation of commercial tax preparers using undercover mystery shoppers found rampant abuse and deceit of low-income customers, many of whom were tricked into taking out costly "refund anticipation loans" offered by the preparers.

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Chewing Gum Can Contribute to Gas Pains

The Healthy Geezer

When you chew gum, you swallow more often and some of what you're swallowing is air. In addition, artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol that is found in s...

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Feds Seize Unapproved Erectile Dysfunction Drugs

'Natural supplements' are illegal drugs and pose serious health risks

Feds Seize Unapproved Erectile Dysfunction Drugs...

U.S. Marshals, acting at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, have seized more than 14,000 dosage units of Shangai Regular, Shangai Ultra, Super Shangai, Natural Super Plus, and Lady Shangai.

Although labeled as natural supplements, the seized products were all marketed to treat impotence, and/or to provide sexual enhancement, which caused them to be drugs under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

The seized products, valued at more than $100,000, contain undeclared active ingredients found in FDA-approved prescription drugs for erectile dysfunction (ED), or similar substances. Use of these products may result in serious side effects and may interact in dangerous ways with medications that a consumer may already be taking.

The seized products, which originated in China, are packaged and distributed by Shangai Distributors, Inc. of Coamo, Puerto Rico. Although the products' labels state they are natural supplements, these products are drugs and their sale is illegal without FDA approval. Before a new drug product may be legally marketed, it must be shown to be safe and effective.

In response to a consumer complaint, the FDA conducted an inspection of Shangai Distributors Inc., in November 2007. The investigation and testing revealed that the seized products contained active drug ingredients found in FDA-approved ED prescription drugs and/or a substance with a structure similar to such drugs that may cause similar side effects and drug interactions. None of the drug ingredients are listed on the labels of any of the seized products.

The undeclared ingredients in these products may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs (such as nitroglycerin) and can lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. Consumers with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease often take nitrates.

ED is a common problem in men with these medical conditions. Because they may have been advised against taking ED drugs, they may seek out products like these because they are marketed as all natural" or as not containing the active ingredients in approved, prescribed ED drugs.

Additionally, because the manufacturing source of the active ingredients in these products is unknown, consumers should be aware that the safety, efficacy, and purity of these ingredients cannot be validated.

No action

Despite being advised of the findings and the potential adverse health risk posed by the seized products and that regulatory action was possible, the company did not take any action to correct the violations. The FDA issued a press release on December 28, 2007 advising consumers not to buy or use the products.

Prior to the seizure, the Puerto Rico Department of Health embargoed the seized products to protect the citizens of Puerto Rico and to support the FDA's enforcement actions.

The FDA advises consumers who have used any of these products to discontinue use and consult their health care providers if they have experienced any adverse events that they believe are related to the use of these products. Consumers and health care professionals can report adverse events to FDA's MedWatch program at 800-FDA-1088 or online at www.fda.gov/medwatch/report.htm.

FDA recommends that consumers talk to their health care provider about FDA-approved treatments for erectile dysfunction. FDA may take further regulatory actions to protect consumers from these illegal products.

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Mystery Shoppers Find Deceit, Incompetence Among Tax Preparers

IRS urged to bar sale of refund anticipation loans

Mystery Shoppers Find Deceit, Incompetence Among Tax Preparers...


The 70 million taxpayers who pay commercial firms to prepare tax returns are at risk of confusion, abuse, and errors by tax preparers selling costly refund anticipation loans (RALs), according to a new report and comments filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Advocacy groups have released a report on mystery shopper testing. The report was also sent to the Internal Revenue Service as part of consumer comments filed in the IRS rulemaking on use of tax returns to market RALs.

The mystery shopper tests portray an industry that imposes high costs on vulnerable low-income filers and fails to provide high-quality tax preparation.

The report shows preparers in Philadelphia and Durham, NC, failed to tell taxpayers about free filing options, and some failed to disclose that RALs are loans.

They also made serious errors on some testers returns, which would have resulted in inflated refunds, and failed to handle education credits or investment income correctly. Many preparers did not give clear price information about RALs, other products, and tax preparation fees, leaving testers confused and unable to comparison shop.

Taxpayers put their trust, their financial health, and their liability for taxes in the hands of commercial preparers, noted Chi Chi Wu, Staff Attorney at National Consumer Law Center. Unfortunately, that trust may not always be well placed.

Mystery shoppers

Seventeen mystery shopper tests were conducted at H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, Liberty Tax service and independent preparers by the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina (CRA-NC) in Durham and by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) and the Philadelphia Campaign for Working Families. The National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) analyzed test results for the report.

All of the testers had their taxes prepared by commercial preparers. Fifteen of these testers received RALs or a refund anticipation check (RAC). (One of these testers had to withdraw because of incompetent tax preparation, and another tester was not given a RAL or RAC).

The results showed that some preparers still do not inform taxpayers that a RAL is a loan, despite years of complaints and lawsuits on that issue. Even when testers were told that an RAL is a loan, many preparers did not give clear price information about RALs, RACs, and tax preparation fees. Only one preparer in either city informed the tester how to receive a fast, free refund by e-file and direct deposit.

A few testers were given RALs or RACs by default, while others were automatically required to pay charges for RACs for state refunds. Several preparers made serious errors that significantly affected tax liability, causing two testers to file amended returns to fix errors.

One tester withdrew after a preparer advised him to essentially engage in tax fraud, even telling test coordinators, My experience with [the independent preparer] has been a scary one. I say that mainly because the lack of confidence in the preparers ability to competently complete our return .

Results varied for independent preparers. Several, including a gift shop and a small loan company, charged multiple ancillary fees, including one preparer who charged $324 in such fees. However, another independent preparer steered both testers who went to her office away from RALs.

"We engaged in testing because we had concerns about the cost of RALs to working families," said Peter Skillern of the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina. "The surprise to us was seeing firsthand just how unreliable the preparers were in handling the tax filing needs of consumers. Preparers made a lot of mistakes."

Community Legal Services (CLS) of Philadelphia has conducted its own mystery shopper tests of commercial tax preparers for the past three years, and joined with other groups this year to expand the test.

"Year after year, our mystery shoppers' experiences reveal that some commercial tax prep companies confuse and abuse their customers with poor disclosures, high fees and costly miscalculations," said Kerry Smith, an attorney with CLS. "It's time for the IRS to take action to ban the marketing of expensive, risky refund anticipation loans."

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Midsize Side Impact Tests Show Safety Improvements

Seven models get highest rating for occupant protection

Midsize Side Impact Tests Show Safety Improvements...

Midsize cars are providing more protection for occupants in side impact crashes as automakers introduce safer designs and add side airbags as standard equipment, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

IIHS recently completed front, side, and rear tests of seven 2008 model midsize cars. They are the Chevrolet Malibu, Dodge Avenger, Infiniti G35, Kia Optima, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Altima, and Saturn Aura.

All the cars tested earned the highest rating of good for occupant protection in frontal crashes.

All but the Kia Optima earned the top rating of good for side crash protection. The good rating for the Malibu applies to cars built after February 2008.

"The side impact results represent a huge change from just four years ago," said Institute senior vice president David Zuby. "In 2004 we tested 10 mid-size moderately priced cars, and all 10 were rated poor in their standard configurations without side airbags."

"Side airbags were mostly optional in our first round of side impact tests of midsize cars," Zuby said. "A major change is that side airbags are standard in every one of the seven midsize cars we tested this time around. Auto manufacturers have been moving quickly to make side airbags standard, even on lower priced models."

When the Institute tested the Avenger's predecessor, the Dodge Stratus, without optional side airbags the car earned a poor rating for protecting people in side crashes.

The safety cage didn't hold up well, resulting in intrusion into the occupant compartment. The driver dummy's head was struck by the intruding barrier, and injury measures recorded on the dummy indicate that broken ribs and a fractured pelvis would be likely to occur in a real-world crash of similar severity.

Chrysler redesigned this car as an early 2008 model, renaming it the Avenger, which also is sold as the Chrysler Sebring. Front and rear head curtain air-bags and front seat-mounted torso airbags now are standard equipment.

The Avenger's performance in the side test is "dramatically improved compared with the Stratus," Zuby said.

The new model kept intrusion into the occupant compartment to a minimum. The side curtain airbag protected the driver dummy's head from being struck by the barrier.

The 2004 Optima was rated poor for occupant protection in side impacts, even with the standard combination side airbags designed to protect front-seat occupants' heads and chests.

Measures recorded on the driver dummy indicate that rib fractures and internal organ injuries would be likely to occur in a real-world crash of similar severity. The rear passenger dummy's head was struck by the windowsill and the pillar behind the rear door.

Rear crash protection results varied more widely and the ratings for the midsize cars were not as impressive. The seat and head restraints in the Optima were the only ones IIHS tested that earned the top rating of good for occupant protection in rear crashes.

When a vehicle is struck in the rear and driven forward, its seats accelerate occupants' torsos forward. Unsupported, an occupant's head will lag behind the forward torso movement, and the differential motion causes the neck to bend and stretch. IIHS warned. The higher the torso acceleration, the more sudden the motion, the higher the forces on the neck, and the more likely a neck injury is to occur.

The key to reducing whiplash injury risk, according to the IIHS, is to keep the head and torso moving together.

"In stop and go commuter traffic, you're more likely to get in a rear-end collision than any other kind of crash," Zuby said. "It's not a major feat of engineering to design seats and head restraints that afford good protection in these common crashes."

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Is Texting Replacing Talking?

Survey finds rapid growth in cell phone text-messaging

Is Texting Replacing Talking?...

More and more of us are letting are fingers do the talking. A new survey finds that 36 percent of cell phone users are sending text messages daily.

Compiled through a survey of thousands of U.S.-based cell phone users, the Wirefly.com research confirmed the rapid growth in text messaging usage, with 36% of respondents classifying themselves as heavy users sending anywhere from one a day to hundreds per month.

An additional 29% send fewer than 25 text messages a month, and the other 35% saying they never take advantage of text messaging capabilities.

Within the top-third heavy user category, the majority of respondents said that they send more than 100 text messages a month.

Personal use

The Wirefly.com survey shows that the growth of text messaging continues to be fueled by personal and non-professional uses.

Of the 65% of customers who do send text messages, a huge majority use them only to contact friends, spouses or significant others. Just 8% of text message users report sending a text to a co-worker or for professional reasons.

According to the survey, Wirefly.com discovered that texting takes place only within a small social circle:

• 48% send messages to just 2-5 people;

• 21% expand that pool to 6-10; and,

• 20% spread their messages around to more than 10 recipients.

"It certainly appears as though our customers overwhelmingly use text messages to convey personal messages to a relatively intimate group of close friends," said Scott Ableman, Wirefly's Senior Vice President of Marketing.

"While we did find a small subset who send a tremendous number of texts to large groups of people, the typical user clearly restricts texting to a manageable group of close friends or family members."

In addition and perhaps most interesting, the Wirefly.com data seems to refute the wide-spread notion that text messaging is generally a medium for brief, choppy communication. A full 35% of those who do send text messages reported a typical message length of "several sentences." This option beat out "one word" (4%), "several words" (33%), and "one sentence" (28%).

Motives for text messaging range from simply "responding to a received message" (59%), to "as a substitute for a phone call" (49%) or "a quick hello" (48%). And nearly a fifth of all text messagers (17%) claimed to have flirted via text or for romantic purposes.

Finally, the primary reason for choosing to send a text message rather than placing a call highlights the flexibility and convenience of texting:

• 52% text instead of calling when "the situation makes talking on the phone difficult";

• 23% involved "lack of time" for a call;

• 15% simply "prefer text messaging to talking"; and,

• 10% attempting to avoid speaking with a specific person.

"The one result that did raise eyebrows involved 'breaking up with a boyfriend, girlfriend or romantic involvement via text message,'" said Ableman. "We're glad that 96% of our survey respondents report not having done so, but we were all intrigued, amused and concerned that 1 in every 25 respondents say they have."

The recently completed U.S.-based online survey was conducted from an opt-in pool of customers who had purchased new wireless phones and new service plans from Wirefly.com. The sample of 2,377 respondents was 55% female and 45% male. 36% of respondents were between the ages of 31-44, 34% were 45 and above, 17% were between the ages of 25-30, and 13% were 18-24.

The margin of error was 2 percentage points at a 95% confidence level.

 

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Ethanol-Blended Fuel Blamed for Boaters' Problems

Blended fuel damages marine tanks, engines, class action action charges

A class action lawsuit charges that major oil companies are manufacturing and selling ethanol blended gasoline that damages marine fuel tanks, engines and ...

A class action lawsuit charges that major oil companies are manufacturing and selling ethanol blended gasoline that damages marine fuel tanks, engines and other components.

"The price of gas is bad enough, but selling gasoline that dissolves gas tanks is a new low even for the oil companies," said Brian Kabateck, the lead attorney on the case. "The oil companies know this fuel is corrosive, but they're keeping consumers in the dark to pump up their profits. The cost to the consumer is thousands of dollars in repairs."

Companies named in the suit include ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, Valero, and ConocoPhillips, as well as PetroDiamond, Tower Energy and Big West.

ExxonMobil last year recorded the largest profits recorded in U.S. history with $40.6 billion. Chevron posted profits of $18.7 billion in 2007.

Oil companies have long mixed additives into their gasoline as a way to boost octane. Methyl tert-butyl ether, commonly known as MTBE, was widely used as an octane booster until 2004, when it was banned in many states because of environmental concerns. In response, ExxonMobil, Chevron and other oil companies selected ethanol as a replacement.

Consumers were never informed about the differences between MTBE and ethanol-mixed gasoline, nor were they informed about the disastrous effects ethanol has on fiberglass marine fuel tanks.

Fiberglass is widely used in the construction of boat fuel tanks. Fiberglass is a combination of individual glass "threads" bound together by a resin. Ethanol dissolves this resin, destroying the tank. Moreover, the dissolved resin enters the fuel system, causing damage to the engine and other components.

Ethanol blended gasoline is particularly harmful in the marine environment because of "phase separation," Kabateck said. Ethanol attracts water. When enough water is absorbed by the ethanol blended gasoline, the ethanol and water solution separates from the gasoline (phase separation), with the gasoline floating to the top.

This results in a layer of water with a high-concentration of ethanol at the bottom of the fuel tank.

"The environment pays the price for Exxon and Chevron's deception each time a damaged fuel tank leaks gasoline into the water," Kabateck added.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court, Central District of California in Los Angeles.

The suit seeks to represent a class comprising all owners of boats with fiberglass fuel tanks who filled their tanks with ethanol blended gasoline from a California retailer. The suit also seeks to represent all persons in California who own boats with a fiberglass fuel tank that had to be replaced because of damage caused by ethanol blended gasoline bought from a California retailer.

 

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New Mint May Reduce Cavities In Kids

In test, all-natural substance cut cavities 62%

From the beginning of time, it seems, it's been hard to train children to brush their teeth. But a new mint may take at least some of the pressure off....


From the beginning of time, it seems, it's been hard to train children to brush their teeth. But a new mint may take at least some of the pressure off.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Dentistry suggests chewing a special mint can also dramatically reduce cavities in children. The study shows children who were administered the mint, called BasicMints, had 62 percent fewer cavities in their molars after one year compared to children in the placebo group.

The mint contains CaviStat, which is designed to mimic the cavity fighting benefits of saliva by neutralizing harmful plaque acids and simultaneously promoting the remineralization of the tooth structure.

CaviStat was developed and clinically tested by researchers in the Department of Oral Biology and Pathology at Stony Brook University School of Dental Medicine.

The technology was patented and exclusively licensed to Ortek Therapeutics, Inc., by the Research Foundation of State University of New York through its campus arm, the Office of Technology Licensing & Industry Relations. The company said it is planning to submit an Investigational New Drug application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration later this year.

BasicMints are not currently approved for use in the U.S. However, researchers say all of the components of CaviStat are naturally present in the human body.

"Cavities affect the quality of life for millions of children every year by causing them pain, to miss school days and cost billions of dollars to repair annually," said Israel Kleinberg, D.D.S., Ph.D., lead researcher and inventor of the CaviStat technology and Distinguished Professor and Founding Chairman of the Department of Oral Biology and Pathology at SBU School of Dental Medicine.

"This study shows for the first time that this new fluoride-free, cavity-fighting tool has the potential to significantly improve the oral health of children."

The study showed that after six months, children who took BasicMints with CaviStat twice a day had 68.3 percent fewer cavities than the placebo group. After 12 months those children had 61.7 percent fewer cavities as compared to the placebo group in all of the molars studied.

In the first permanent molars, some early erupting premolars and second molars, the children who were in the BasicMints study group had 75.6 percent fewer cavities after six months and 50.7 percent less cavities after 12 months, as compared to the placebo group.

Additionally, children in the BasicMints group had 76.2 percent less cavities in the deciduous molars after six months and 74.8 percent less cavities after 12 months, as compared to the placebo controls.



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Homeowners Raiding Retirement Accounts to Avoid Foreclosure

Fees and penalties for early withdrawals can be severe

Homeowners Raiding Retirement Accounts to Avoid Foreclosure...

Struggling to save their homes from foreclosure, more Americans are raiding their 401(k) retirement accounts to pay their bills -- and getting slammed with taxes and penalties in the process.

Rather than borrow money from their 401(k) accounts, which would have to be paid back, a growing number of beleaguered families have been cashing out, according to retirement plan administrators.

A USA Today reported cited new figures from plan administrators showing the number of 401(k) "hardship withdrawals" is up in early 2008 compared with the same period last year.

During the first month of the year, as the economic slowdown tightened pressure on mortgage holders, hardship withdrawals rose 23% at plans that Merrill Lynch administers, compared with the same period in 2007, the report said.

Merrill Lynch found that the primary reason for the rise in hardship withdrawals was to prevent foreclosure or eviction.

Likewise, in the first month of the year, compared with January 2007, Great-West Retirement Services saw a 20% increase in hardship withdrawals to save a home.

Severe consequences

For workers, the consequences of raiding a 401(k) plan can be severe.

About 85% of employers bar employees from making contributions for six months after taking a hardship withdrawal.

Worse, employees who pull money out of tax-deferred 401(k) plans before age 59 1/2 generally must pay a 10% penalty on top of the taxes owed.

"The repercussions of the housing crisis are all around us, including in depleted 401(k) plans," said Ruben Burks, secretary-treasurer of the Alliance for Retired Americans.

Economists and homeowners scanning the data for some encouraging signs about the housing market have so far found little to cheer about.

In its latest report of pending home sales, the National Association of Realtors concedes that measure has hit its lowest level on record.

The Pending Home Sales Index, a forward-looking indicator based on contracts signed in February, fell 1.9 percent to 84.6 from an upwardly revised reading of 86.2 in January, but was 21.4 percent lower than the February 2007 index of 107.6.

NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun called it "a slip in sales" and admits it shows the housing market isn't out of the woods yet. However, he said he thinks the worst of the deep sales declines is over.

"Existing home sales could start to show a sustained increase within a few months, unless there are some additional economic problems or excessive inflationary pressure," he said. "We're looking for essentially stable sales in the near term, before higher mortgage loan limits translate into more sales in high-cost markets. The wider access to affordable credit should increase sales activity notably this summer as pent-up demand begins to be met."

The pending sale index for homes in the Northeast rose 3.2 percent in February to 71.8 but remains 25.4 percent below a year ago. In the Midwest, the index declined 3.7 percent to 82.7 and is 17.4 percent lower than February 2007. The index in the South fell 5.5 percent in February to 85.0 and is 30.3 percent below a year ago. In the West, the index dropped 9.8 percent in February to 84.6 and is 17.1 percent below February 2007.

The Realtors' group predicts existing-home sales are likely to rise from an annual pace of 4.9 million in the first quarter to 5.9 million in the fourth quarter.

With relatively weak activity in the first part of the year, existing-home sales for all of 2008 are forecast at 5.39 million, increasing 6.6 percent to 5.74 million in 2009.

"Exceptionally weak home sales related to jumbo loans problems will depress home prices in the first half of the year, but steady liquidity improvements in the conforming jumbo-loan market will help prices recover in the second half of the year," Yun said.

He said the aggregate existing-home price will probably ease by 1.4 percent to a median of $215,800 for all of 2008 before rising 3.7 percent to $223,800 next year. He also that there will continue to be wide variations in regional housing market conditions.

"Some parts of the country that can expect improvement include the Northeastern region and the oil-patch states of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas," he said. With lower interest rates and flat home prices in many areas, he predicts NAR's housing affordability index will rise 14 percentage points to 127.0 in 2008.

 

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Ford Expedition Suspected in Fatal Ohio Home Fire

Latest in a long series of cruise control fires

Ford Expedition Suspected in Fatal Ohio Home Fire...

A 2002 Ford Expedition parked in a homeowners carport is suspected as the cause of a fire in Madison County, Ohio that killed a woman and her two children.

The Columbus Dispatch reported that the origin of the fire has been narrowed to a 10-foot space in the carport although investigators have not yet determined the cause.

Peter Romans, who survived the fire that killed his wife and children, told investigators that the fire started in his parked Ford SUV, according to the news paper.

The fire killed Billi Romans, 51; Ami Romans, 16; and Caleb Romans, 12. Their bodies were found near the back door of their house,

Peter Romans, 47, escaped with minor burns and smoke inhalation.

The 2001 Ford Expedition suspected of igniting the fatal blaze was included in the Ford Motor Company recall of 9.6 million vehicles equipped with a faulty cruise-control switch. the switch can lead to a vehicle fire at any time, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The Ford recall began in 2005. It has dragged on because of the sheer size of the recall effort, a shortage of parts and a lack of urgency by regulators.

Several dwelling fires have been attributed to the faulty cruise-control switch which can overheat and erupt into flames.

After years of fires involving Ford vehicles, NHTSA on February 28 warned Ford, Lincoln and Mercury owners of fire hazards involving the faulty cruise control switches in recalled Ford vehicles that have not been repaired.

ConsumerAffairs.com has been reporting on the problem for years, chronicling fires in vehicles parked outside homes, in garages and even at fire stations.

In a strongly worded and highly unusual statement, NHTSA urged owners of the recalled vehicles to go to a Ford or Lincoln Mercury dealer as soon as possible and have the potentially dangerous cruise control system disconnected.

The recalled vehicles are:

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

"Failure to have the switch disconnected could lead to a vehicle fire at any time, whether or not the key is in the ignition, and whether or not owners use the cruise control system," NHTSA warned in the consumer advisory.

Ford is once again preparing to notify the owners of the affected vehicles to have the switch disconnected until it can be repaired, according to NHTSA.

Fatal fires allegedly caused by the defective switch have led to wrongful death lawsuits against Ford by several vehicle owners.

5 million time bombs

NHTSA reported that approximately five million vehicles have been repaired so far, leaving almost five million passenger cars and light trucks with the faulty switches intact, and in danger of catching fire at any time without warning.

The firestorm of Ford trucks erupting into flames has devastated Ford truck owners across the country.

The Ford inferno hit a homeowner in Chisago City, Minnesota in January when her 2000 Ford Expedition started on fire parked in our attached garage. We have now lost everything we owned, wrote the Ford Expedition owner. The home we built not even 2 years ago burned to the ground, she said.

Another Ford truck went up in flames in Westminster, California on January 22. This homeowner is fortunate. He lost only his Ford truck and not his house as well.

A Ford spokesman told ConsumerAffairs.com in February that the automaker was doing all it can to complete the fire hazard recall.

This was a large recall, and we're working with the supplier to meet the volume challenge as soon as possible, the Ford executive told ConsumerAffair.Com.

Ford concedes a parts shortage is delaying repairs of the fire prone cruise control system in the recalled vehicles until later in 2008.

As a short-term solution, Ford offers to disconnect the cruise control system in recalled vehicles until parts are available to complete the repair.

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

With just more than half of the fire-prone Fords repaired, the automaker insisted the company is responding adequately in an effort to notify Ford customers to return their vehicles to a Ford dealership for repair of the fire hazard.

We have sent multiple mailings to customers, based on current vehicle registrations, asking them to bring in vehicles. We have one of the highest return rates in the industry, based on update registration info, and sending multiple mailings, a Ford spokesman told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Too late

But the warnings and recall notices have come 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.

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).

 

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Consumer Reports Picks VW Eos as Best Convertibles

BMW 328i a close second

Consumer Reports Picks VW Eos as Best Convertibles...


With summer on the way, many drivers' thoughts turn to convertibles. Consumer Reportshas published its annual survey of ragtops, giving the Volkswagen Eos the best overall score of the seven cars it ranked, narrowly out-pointing the BMW 328i. Both vehicles earned "Very Good" overall scores.

Two vehicles in the group, the Saab 9-3 and Volvo C70, earned somewhat lower overall road-test scores, but were still within the "Very Good" range.

The three remaining vehicles, the Pontiac G6, Mitsubishi Eclipse, and Chrysler Sebring, posted only "Good" scores and so were at the bottom of CR's rankings for convertibles.

Five of the seven cars tested have retracting hard tops, while two have traditional fabric tops. All of the tops are power-operated. The vehicles range in price from $32,660 to $49,525.

The latest trend in convertibles, folding hard tops improve visibility and security, the report found. But they have some downsides, too -- they take up considerable trunk space when open, and can't be operated on the move.

"The VW Eos is a well-rounded car that works well in all seasons," said David Champion, senior director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports. "Volkswagen has engineered a glass sunroof into the Eos' hard-top so that you can enjoy just a little sun, or get the full wind-in-your-hair convertible experience."

Consumer Reports is recommending three of the vehicles in this test group, the Eos, 328i, and C70. The 9-3 and G6 are not recommended because of below average reliability. The Eclipse and Sebring did not score high enough in CR's testing to be recommended, the magazine said.

Consumer Reports said it only recommends vehicles that have performed well in its tests, have at least average predicted reliability based on CR's Annual Car Reliability Survey of its own subscribers, and performed at least adequately if crash-tested or included in a government rollover test.

Eos

The VW Eos, which is equipped with the same eager turbocharged four-cylinder engine and responsive transmission found in the GTI and Audi A3, provides a good blend of power and fuel economy.

CR's engineers also liked the Eos's controls and impressive interior fit and finish. But the back seat is cramped and, despite the hard top, there is notable wind and road noise.

The Eos Lux ($35,829 Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price as tested) is powered by a turbocharged 200-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed sequential, or automated manual, transmission that is one of the quickest and smoothest around. The Eos delivered 25 mpg overall in CR's own fuel economy tests, the best of the convertibles in this group. Braking is very good overall.

BMW

The convertible version of the BMW 3 Series gives up very little in terms of the driving experience. The body is free of the flex typical of convertibles, and the 328i is agile and fun to drive, with a strong and smooth powertrain.

Like the 3 Series sedan, the convertible has a supple, well-controlled ride and sporty handling. The cabin is well finished and quiet, but the back seat and trunk space are very tight. The 328i ($49,525 MSRP as tested) is equipped with a 230-hp, 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic that deliver strong and smooth performance. But it weighs 400 pounds more than the sedan, which hurts both fuel economy and acceleration. Braking is very good overall.

Saab

The Saab 9-3 doesn't stand out among sports sedans, CR said, but the pleasant convertible version is more competitive. The ride is on the stiff side, but the body has little flex and wind buffeting is not excessive with the top down.

Like the others in this group, rear-seat room is tight. The 9-3 2.0T is powered by a 210-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission that provides a nice combination of performance and economy.

Volvo

Volvo's C70 convertible offers a well-finished hard top, a sleek interior with impressive fit and finish, and many safety features including side curtain air bags. But it's sluggish from a stop, the ride is stiff, and it's not very agile. Interior space is tight, with a tiny rear seat.

The C70 T5 ($43,880 MSRP as tested) is propelled by a 227-hp, turbocharged, 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine and five-speed transmission that provide decent performance. Braking is very good overall.

Others

Pontiac's four-seat convertible is the least expensive in this group with a retractable hard top and a rear seat that can accommodate two adults in a pinch. The driving position is roomy and acceleration is brisk. But the G6 has an unsettled ride, lacks agility, and creaks and groans constantly, CR reported. Interior fit and finish is subpar, rear access is extremely difficult, and the trunk lid is heavy.

The G6 GT that CR bought ($32,660 MSRP as tested) came with the Sport package, which includes a 222-hp, 3.9-liter V6 that delivers lively acceleration. The four-speed automatic shifts smoothly. Braking in the G6 is also very good overall.

The Eclipse Spyder's sporty impression is only skin deep, the magazine found. While acceleration is quick and handling seems agile at first, CR's tests exposed diminished handling capabilities at its limits.

Its awful visibility, intrusive noise, hard ride, vestigial back seat, and wide turning circle are constant annoyances. The Eclipse Spyder GT is powered by a 260-hp, 3.8-liter V6 engine that delivers strong acceleration. Its five-speed automatic transmission is smooth and responsive. The Eclipse's braking is also very good overall.

Much like the sedan on which it is based, Consumer Reports said the Sebring is a mediocre convertible.

On the plus side, it has a relatively roomy rear seat and trunk, easy-to-use controls and -- in Limited trim -- a strong powertrain. But the Sebring's handling is clumsy, the ride is unsettled, the front seats are uncomfortable, and the body groans and squeaks. The Sebring Limited ($37,030 MSRP as tested) is equipped with a 235-hp, 3.5-liter V6 engine that delivers ample performance. The six-speed automatic transmission is neither as quick nor as smooth as most six-speeds. Braking is good overall.

 

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Sales of Ethanol-Burning Cars Up 10%

Downside: Price of corn rising quickly

Sales of Ethanol-Burning Cars Up 10%...


U.S. consumers purchased close to 1.8 million Alternative Fuel Automobiles in 2007, according to the automotive research firm R.L. Polk. That's nearly a quarter of a million more than were sold in 2006.

Sales of E-85 capable/flexible fuel vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles were up significantly while clean diesel vehicle sales fell slightly.

"Gas prices, consumer incentives, and the increasing number of alternative-fuel models available to consumers continue to play a role in the rising popularity of these vehicles," said Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

But McCurdy said the news is not entirely good.

"And while we're pleased these vehicles continue to grow in popularity, refueling infrastructure challenges may prevent the promise of these vehicles from being fully realized. For example, out of more than 170,000 refueling stations in the U.S. less than 1,500 offer ethanol."

There may be another problem for cars using ethanol.

As commodity prices have soared, food processors are mounting a growing backlash against the government's ethanol mandate, accusing it of making good grains harder to come by, and therefore, more expensive. The criticism escalated last week when corn prices rose to a record $6 a bushel.

"The federal government's food to fuel mandates are diverting one quarter of America's corn supply from kitchen tables to fuel tanks, and the result is corn selling for $6 a bushel," said Scott Faber, a Washington lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association Faber.

"In tough times like these, Congress and the Administration need to take a hard look at the unintended consequences of these mandates that raise food prices without offering a significant environmental benefit."

The ethanol industry rejects claims that its biofuels that are driving food prices higher. Industry spokesmen says food prices are going up, long with everything else, because of skyrocketing fuel costs.

The U.S. Government subsidizes the conversion of corn into ethanol, which is then added to gasoline at a concentration of up to 10 percent for use in most vehicles and up to 85 percent for some vehicles. Food industry economists point out that until the last few years, corn was used mainly to make feed for livestock and poultry, but has increasingly been diverted into ethanol because of hefty federal subsidies.

"The biofuels policy that is driving higher prices of corn, other grains, and soybeans will cost the U.S. economy more than $100 billion from 2006 to 2009," said Thomas Elam, president of FarmEcon LLC, a food industry consulting firm. "It is inevitable that these costs will be passed along to consumers."

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Class Actions Challenge LifeLock

Identity protection guarantee "meaningless," suits argue

Class Actions Challenge LifeLock...

Ads touting Lifelock's identity protection program are ubiquitous on the Internet and elsewhere. They're the ones in which the company's CEO, Todd Davis, brandishes his Social Security number in an open dare to identity thieves.

The company provides a $1 million guarantee to its subscribers, covering out of pocket costs resulting from fraud or identity theft. It even takes over the process of dealing with banks and creditors to help consumers restore their credit in the event of fraud, the ads say.

Sound too good to be true?

According to two consumer class action suits, it's just that. The suits charge that the guarantee is riddled with fine print and loopholes.

In one of the cases, Phoenix-area resident Byrl Lane and his attorneys argue that LifeLock, also based in Arizona, misleads its customers because the $1 million service guarantee it advertises "is riddled with restrictions, waivers and limitations."

The Arizona Department of Insurance has reviewed LifeLock's service and does not believe it is an insurance product, department spokeswoman Erin Klug told the Arizona Republic.

Experian suit

Oddly enough, the company also faces a legal challenge from Experian, one of the three big credit reporting agencies. Experian's suit claims that LifeLock is misusing the fraud alert system laid out in the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

LifeLock, which claims to be the leading identity theft prevention firm, places fraud alerts on its subscriber's credit files at Experian, Equifax and Trans Union. It also attempts to remove subscribers from junk mailing lists and provides a variety of other services.

Although they differ in the details, all three of the lawsuits basically allege the LifeLock makes false claims and does not protect the degree of protection it promises.

LifeLock works, company insists

But LifeLock insists its system works and says it can prove it.

The company says it has more than 870,000 subscribers. Using federal statistics, this should mean that more than 29,000 of its subscribers have been victims of identity theft.

But Davis, says that, so far, only 71 of its customers have had to invoke the guarantee, and that none of them have complained about the services offered.

Coming to the defense of LifeLock is ACCESS, American Consumer Credit Education Support Services, a not-for-profit organization that deals with privacy and identity theft prevention.

"It is ACCESS position that any attempt to put a company out of business which has proven itself to be effective against fraud and identity theft would be a disservice to the public. LifeLock is certainly such a company," the organization said in a news release.

ConsumerAffairs.com has not received any complaints from LifeLock customers and a Web search of other consumer sites also failed to turn up any substantive complaints.

Federally mandated

The safeguards that LifeLock promises are largely the result of a 2003 law that requires the three big credit reporting companies to provide consumers with certain protections. Consumers don't really need LifeLock to take advantage of the law's protections, but Davis thinks that at $10 a month, it's more cost-efficient to let his company do it.

Among other things, the law provides that the credit reporting agencies must send an annual credit report to any consumer who asks for one. They must also offer fraud alerts and other protections that LifeLock promises.

 

 

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TJX To Pay Mastercard $24 Million For Data Breach

Will set aside money to provide restitution for victims

TJX To Pay Mastercard $24 Million For Data Breach...

The TJX retail chain has agreed to pay $24 million in restitution to Mastercard-issuing lenders who were affected by the massive months-long data breach that exposed the credit and debit information of millions of cardholders to identity thieves.

The restitution does not go to cardholders, but to banks and other lenders that provided the cards. The funds will be set aside in an "Alternative Recovery Program" to help issuers recover costs and losses caused by the breach. The agreement must be approved by card issuers representing at least 90 percent of the affected Mastercard accounts.

"This agreement reflects MasterCard's continuing commitment to working with merchants and our customers to reach appropriate and fair resolutions of data breach events," said Joshua Peirez, chief payment system integrity officer for MasterCard Worldwide. "We believe that by working closely and cooperatively with issuers and merchants we can reduce the overall impact and costs of security breaches, while protecting consumers and accelerating fair and equitable resolutions of claims."

Issuers who take up the agreement must agree to not pursue any other means of loss recovery, and they must release Mastercard and TJX from all liability incurred as a result of the breach.

The announced agreement comes two days after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced it had settled with TJX over fallout from the breach by mandating that the retail chain submits to independent third-party security audits every other year for the next twenty years.

TJX had already paid $41 million to Visa to settle costs and losses incurred by that card issuer as a result of the breach, which Visa executives estimated cost between $65 and $83 million. The Framingham, Massachusetts-based company also brokered a separate settlement with a coalition of Massachusetts-based banks that had sued TJX, the terms of which remain undisclosed.

The TJX breach occurred when unidentified hackers used laptop computers enabled with wireless access to intercept unencrypted payment data transmissions between scanners at TJX-owned store chains such as TJ Maxx and Marshalls.

About 455,000 Visa and Mastercard debit and credit card holders had personal information stolen during the breach, and as many as 94 million users were exposed. The breach went on for nearly two years, and was discovered in December 2006, but not made public until January 2007.

To date, the only settlement offered to actual cardholders by TJX consisted of an offer of free credit monitoring for cardholders who had information stolen in the breach, a $30 store voucher, and an announced three-day "Customer Appreciation Sale" to be held in 2008.

The Attorney Generals of ten states wrote the judge presiding over the offered settlement asking him to reconsider, saying the offers benefited the TJX chain more than they did the affected consumers.

 

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NCAA Ticket Lottery Ties Up Fans' Money for Months

Does NCAA mean "No Chance At Admission?"

NCAA Ticket Lottery Ties Up Fans' Money for Months...

The National Collegiate Athletics Association has implemented a ticketing practice that requires consumers to pay money just for the opportunity enter a lottery for the much-coveted men's and women's basketball tournament tickets.

The NCAA is now charging consumers a nonrefundable service charge that goes as high as $9 per ticket just to enter a competitive lottery, according to application forms for the 2009 men's and women's tournaments.

The ticket applications for the early rounds for next year's men's basketball tournaments are due March 1 and require the consumer to pay about $200 plus a $9 service charge for each ticket. Consumers can apply for as many as eight tickets.

For the next three months the NCAA will sit on all that money before finally drawing applications in June. If a consumer's application is drawn, he or she will receive the tickets they paid for back in March. If not, they will receive a refund for the tickets while the NCAA keeps the service charge as much as $72 total and presumably all the interest earned in the meantime.

Early-round applications are submitted to the arenas where the games will be played, rather than to the NCAA. The arenas get a small cut from the service charge, but most of it goes to the NCAA, according to an official at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C., host to six games of the first two rounds of the 2009 men's tournament. The official asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to talk about the matter.

Final Four and Championship tickets for both the women's and men's 2009 tournament are purchased directly from the NCAA's website where consumers can complete an online application that again enters a competitive lottery.

Consumers can submit up to 10 applications, two tickets each, for those games but are charged a nonrefundable $6 service charge for each entry. The tickets cost as much as $170 each. For these last two rounds, the NCAA sits on the cash for five months before informing consumers whether they are one of the lucky few with a ticket. The application does not specify when a refund, minus the service charge, will be made.

One consumer who brought this to the attention of ConsumerAffairs.com said he applies for NCAA tournament tickets every year and that last year was the first year the NCAA implemented this service charge. The consumer wished to remain anonymous for fear of being blacklisted from further NCAA events, he wrote in an e-mail.

The NCAA did not draw his application for the 2008 tournament and took nine months to issue a refund, he wrote.

The bastards kept our money for nine months and then had the gall to keep our $72! He wrote. Given the sheer number of applicants for tickets versus the number of available seats, they have to be making a killing on this.

Unheard of

One consumer advocate who specializes in ticketing scams said he had never heard of any ticketing lottery that charges consumers ahead of time for the tickets and, worse yet, doesn't refund all the money.

Typically you throw your name in the hat and if it's drawn, then they charge you for the tickets, said Russ Haven, legislative counsel for the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

You don't have to loan them money, he said.

Haven said the ticketing industry as a whole in the U.S. is extremely corrupt but that he's not surprised by the NCAA's latest apparent scam.

The NCAA allows corporations to buy up many of the good seats at sporting events before they are opened to the public, Haven said.

The NCAA's online ticketing screen for the men's and women's 2009 Final Four and Championship games are only for select sections in the uppermost regions of the arenas, according to the NCAA Web site.

I like to believe the NCAA stands for No Chance At Admission, Haven said.

The anonymous consumer wrote that he was able to get his $72 in service charges back from the NCAA by fighting through his credit card company. He said he will do the same thing this next year if his application is not selected.

It's always good to have your credit card company between you and your vendor, Haven said.

After two days of failed attempts to get any comment, NCAA representative Gail Dent finally returned numerous phone calls and promised three times to answer ConsumerAffairs.com's questions by this morning. She did not return two subsequent e-mails and the NCAA's PR office did not answer its phone this afternoon.

 

More Scam Alerts ...

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Should You Buy a Second-Hand Prius?

Maintenance costs may outstrip fuel savings

With sales of new hybrids increasing by almost 30 percent a year and gasoline prices following at a faster pace, a second-hand hybrid can appear to be a sm...

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Loan Payment Delinquencies Rise

Credit problems spread to auto loans, cedit cards

Loan Payment Delinquencies Rise...

Consumers continue to fall behind on their credit payments, due largely to overdue payments on auto loans.

Delinquencies in the fourth quarter of 2007 reached their highest levels since 1992, according to the American Bankers Associations Consumer Credit Delinquency Bulletin. The composite ratio, which tracks eight closed-end installment loan categories, rose 21 basis points to 2.65 percent of all accounts in the fourth quarter (seasonally adjusted).

All eight loan categories experienced increased delinquencies during the fourth quarter, a rare occurrence. The ABA report defines delinquency as late payments that are 30 days or more overdue.

James Chessen, ABA chief economist, attributed the rise largely to auto loan delinquencies. The auto loan category comprises about two-thirds of all closed-end consumer installment loans. In addition, the number of delinquent bankcard accounts rose to 4.38 percent, but remains close to the five-year average of 4.40 percent.

The rise in consumer credit delinquencies is consistent with a rapidly slowing economy, Chessen said. Stress in the housing market still dominates the story but its a broader tale of an overall weak economy.

The weak housing market continues to be reflected in rising delinquency rates for home equity loans and lines of credit. Delinquencies for home equity lines of credit -- the lowest delinquency rate category -- rose to 0.96 percent.

The fourth quarter composite ratio is made up of the following closed-end loans. All figures are seasonally adjusted based upon the number of accounts.
• Home equity loan delinquencies increased to 2.39 percent from 2.28 percent.
• Property improvement loan delinquencies increased to 1.81 percent from 1.60 percent.
• Indirect auto loan delinquencies increased to 3.13 percent from 2.86 percent.
• Direct auto loan delinquencies increased to 1.90 percent from 1.81 percent.
• Personal loan delinquencies increased to 2.48 percent from 2.29 percent.
• Mobile home loan delinquencies increased to 2.92 percent from 2.87 percent.
• Marine loan delinquencies increased to 1.57 percent from 1.30 percent.
• Recreational vehicle loan delinquencies increased to 1.08 percent from 0.89 percent.

No relief

Chessen predicted that delinquencies will continue to rise during the first half of 2008.

No relief for consumers is in sight as food and gas prices remain stubbornly high and income growth is anemic, Chessen said.

Chessen recommends that borrowers experiencing financial stress seek out their lenders promptly as more options are likely to be available when the problem is addressed early.

ABA advises consumers to review their finances often and watch for the warning signs of overextended credit:
• Paying only the minimum payment month after month;
• Being out of cash constantly;
• Being late on important payments such as rent or mortgage;
• Taking longer and longer to pay off balances; and
• Borrowing from one lender to pay another.

For others having trouble paying down debts, ABA advises taking action -- sooner rather than later -- by following these tips:
• Talk with creditors -- hiding only makes the problem worse;
• Dont charge more purchases until your problems are solved;
• Contact Consumer Credit Counseling Services at 1-800-388-2777.

 

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Pet Owners Not Thrilled with Poisoning Settlement

Pet food companies should have done more, consumers complain

Pet Owners Not Thrilled with Poisoning Settlement...

By Lisa Wade McCormick
ConsumerAffairs.com

April 4, 2008
Grieving pet owners say it's too early to applaud a tentative settlement the company behind the largest pet food recall in United States history -- one blamed for the deaths and illnesses of thousands of dogs and cats nationwide -- announced earlier this week.

The Canadian-based company said it could not disclose terms of the agreement, which is subject to the approval of U.S. and Canadian courts.

"It's a comprehensive settlement," Amy W. Schulman, a lawyer for Menu Foods, told MSNBC. "It would resolve all the claims."

The lead attorney for pet owners agreed and said she's confident a final agreement will be reached.

The settlement comes a little more than a year after Menu Foods recalled 60 million containers of tainted dog and cat food.

Thousands of pet nationwide suffered kidney problems or died after eating the food contaminated with the chemicals melamine and cyanuric acid.

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

Veterinarians blamed the pets' deaths on the combination of those two chemicals. They said those chemicals can combine and form crystals in the animals' bodies and impair their kidney function.

"Either one of those chemicals alone wouldn't cause these (deaths)," Dr. Barbara Powers, immediate past president of the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD) and director of Colorado State University's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It has to be the combination of the two.

"So it's not melamine alone."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) traced the source of the contamination to the wheat gluten imported from China.

Medical costs

Pet owners told ConsumerAffairs.com that Menu's settlement should cover the hundreds -- or thousands -- of dollars they and others spent trying to save their sick dogs and cats.

"As far as the 'settlement,' I certainly hope it is, at a minimum, going to reimburse pet owners for the vet bills for the treatment of the sick and deceased pets," said Carol. V. of Rhode Island.

Her two cats -- Jessica and Smudge -- became gravely ill last year after eating Menu's Special Kitty food.

Jessica made a remarkable recovery, but the 15-year-old cat went back into renal failure last December. The family made the difficult decision to euthanize Jessica.

Carol isn't sure Menu's settlement will cover any of her vet bills. She didn't join any of the class action lawsuits filed against the company in the wake of its massive March 16, 2007, recall.

Instead, Carol filed a claim on her own with the company and hasn't received any compensation for the thousands of dollars she spent on her sick cats.

"I don't have the legal knowledge to completely understand if they are referring to 'all claims' to include my claim form I mailed to them on May 20th of last year," she said. "I don't have the finances to hire my own lawyer to figure this out so I am going to have to wait and see."

Menu Foods, she said, should have immediately offered to reimburse grieving pet owners instead of making them wait until the lengthy legal maneuvering and lawsuits were settled.

"I am angry that it has been over one year since Menu Foods' CEO had said publicly that all pet owners who had vet expenses would be reimbursed by them," Carol said. "I truly did believe them -- that they realized what harm they caused emotionally and physically to our pets as well as financially -- and that they would take care of us."

She added: "I know have a different outlook on the concern big business has for us---and that is what saddens me the most. It is hard to trust now. That is new since March 2007."

Carol hopes the settlement will force Menu Foods to improve its internal quality control procedures -- and its communication with other pet food makers and consumers.

"I still truly believe that if pet food companies had some way to communicate with each other -- (regarding) consumer complaints -- that the actual number of pets lost or sickened would have been greatly reduced," she said. "If changes are not made by the pet food industry, all these pets' deaths and illnesses will be in vain. And this could happen again."

Canadian author Ann N. Martin, who researched the pet food industry for five years, agreed.

"It was determined that the cause (of pets' illnesses and deaths) was melamine and cyanuric acid which was added to the food, not approved for use in pet food by the FDA," said Martin, author of "Food Pets Die ForShocking Facts About Pet Food," and "Protect Your PetsMore Shocking Facts." "I question how many other ingredients added to the pet foods are not approved for use by the FDA."

Pentobarbital

A drug called pentobarbital, she said, is a perfect example.

FDA officials discovered this drug -- used to euthanize dogs and cats -- in pet food.

"They admit it should not be there but have taken no steps to eliminate this in pet foods," Martin said. "No one knows the long term affect of this drug and to my knowledge no tests are being taken."

The pet food industry -- and the government -- are also failing to test many of the imported ingredients used in pet food, Martin said.

"What about the vitamins, minerals, (and) amino acids in pet food? The vast percentages of these are coming from China, including taurine (an amino acid). Again, and to the best of my knowledge, no testing is done on the raw material when it enters the country."

Martin encouraged pet owners -- and the media -- to keep a vigilant eye on this industry.

"Please don't become complacent and feel that the industry has cleaned up its act. I think if you dig deep enough you will find the same inferior ingredients are still being used."

Heightened awareness

Something good, however, has come in the wake of the pet food recall and the proposed settlement, Martin said.

"If nothing else this massive recall made consumers more aware of what is in the food they are feeding their pets. (And) hopefully the pet owners that incurred veterinary bills or lost pets will feel vindicated to some extent."

But consumer Don Earl wonders if pet owners will receive fair compensation from the settlement and if it's a coincidence that Menu made its announcement on April 1.

"As the terms of the clandestinely negotiated settlement have yet to be disclose, as a result of further stalling tactics, I guess we'll just have to wait for the punch line to the April Fool's day announcement," said Earl, whose cat died in January 2007 after eating Menu Food's Pet Pride food.

Earl hired a private lab to test the same lots and brands of Menu Food that he fed his cat. Those tests revealed the food contained the pain killer acetaminophen and cyanuric acid.

The cat food did not contain melamine.

Earl is not part of any class action lawsuit; he sued the company and is representing himself in a case.

"Personally, I do not believe pet owners have been well represented by plaintiff's attorneys in the federal case," said Earl, who has a Web site, called petfoodrecallfacts.com that details his legal battle, his cat's story, and the lab results on the food he and other pet owners have tested.

Pet owners in 19 states -- and Ontario -- filed dozens of lawsuits against Menu Foods in the weeks that followed the company's nationwide recall. Those cases were consolidated in a federal court in Camden, New Jersey.

The lawsuits alleged unfair and deceptive trade practices, negligence in failing to provide adequate quality control and breach of implied and express warranties. Some consumers also claimed they suffered emotional trauma after their pets became sick or died. Pet owners also sought compensation for their veterinary bills.

Companies named in the lawsuits -- besides Menu Foods -- included Del Monte Foods Inc. of San Francisco; Nestle of Stamford, Conn.; Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati; Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd. in Pixian, China; and Suzhou Textile Import and Export Co. in Jiangsu, China.

Those defendants -- and Menu's product liability insurance company -- will cover the costs of the settlement.

Menu estimates the nationwide recall cost the company $53.8 million.

The company said pet owners with potential claims should not contact Menu Foods regarding the tentative settlement. When a final agreement is reached -- and claims are processed and approved -- the administrator of the settlement fund will notify pet owners.

U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman set a May 14 hearing in New Jersey to consider the settlement. A final hearing date in Canada is not yet scheduled.

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Apple Sued Over 'Millions of Colors' Claim

MacBook actually displays only 262,144 colors

Apple Sued Over 'Millions of Colors' Claim...


Even after decades of regulatory sanctions and consumer lawsuits, companies tend to get carried away with their advertising. The latest case involves Apple's bold advertising claims that its MacBooks support "millions of colors."

Nice ad, but the problem is that MacBook LCDs only display 262,144 colors. Geeks say that's because they use 6-bit TFT models instead of a true 8-bit display, which would indeed support 16,777,216.

But someone at Apple was counting pennies and decided to downgrade the display to 6 bits, even though Mac users pay a considerable premium for what they think will be a superior machine. So says a class action lawsuit against the computer maker.

Apple has already settled one lawsuit filed by aggrieved customers. Details are confidential, but what's not confidential is a new suit filed by a powerful Los Angeles legal firm, Kabateck Brown Kellner, a frequent litigant in high-tech circles.

"Apple is duping its customers into thinking theyre buying 'new and improved' when in fact theyre getting stuck with new and inferior," said managing partner Brian Kabatech.

Kabatech says his firm wants "to help those customers who were deceived and make sure Apple tells the truth in the future."

Track record

In the previous "millions of colors" case, MacBook owners Fred Greaves and Dave Gately filed a class action suit against Apple last May.

The case was initially viewed as frivolous but as hundreds of disgruntled MAcbook purchasers began posting their embittered complaints on apple.com and other online forums, both the legal community and Apple began to take the case more seriously.

Apple settled out of court with the two, reaching a confidential settlement. But by then, the damage had been done and others consumers -- and, more significantly, other lawyers -- began following the scent and Apple now faces a much more daunting opponent.

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Mitsubishi Recalls 120,000 Endeavors

Ignition key interlock cable may allow the interlocking cam to fall forward

The National Highway Traffic Administration reports that Mitsubishi is recalling 120,00 Endeavors from the 2004 to 2006 model years because the ignition in...

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Hybrid Parking Perk Under Fire in Los Angeles

Growing budget problems prompt closer look at hybrid perks

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation estimates the free hybrid parking costs the city about $116,560, less than one percent of all yearly parking m...

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Missouri Sues Kennel Operator

Sick dogs shipped to consumers nationwide

That action comes on the heels of a Missouri Department of Agriculture inspection that revealed Craft sold three dogs with a highly contagious viral diseas...

The owner of a Missouri kennel -- who sold sick dogs to consumers across the country -- is now barred from such action.

The Missouri Attorney General's Office obtained a temporary restraining order that prohibits Jodi Craft -- owner of Rise-N-Shine Kennels and Safe Haven Puppy Rescue in Bland, Missouri -- from selling or giving away dogs.

That action comes on the heels of a Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) inspection that revealed Craft sold three dogs with a highly contagious viral disease called parvovirus.

An inspection on February 22, 2008, revealed that Craft's animal facilities did not meet the state's minimum health and operating standards. State officials ordered Craft to fix those problems.

In mid-March, Craft reported parvovirus-like symptoms with dogs at her facility to one of the kennel's veterinarians.

During that same month, three people who bought dogs from Craft discovered their pets had parvovirus.

Craft also said she sold seven other dogs in March, but had not yet shipped them.

On March 21, 2008, MDA inspectors went to Craft's facility and asked for medical records. During the visit, inspectors saw Craft remove labels from several vials and put them on records.

That action made it impossible for inspectors to determine the true health records of any of the dogs in her possession or control.

"This owner has not properly quarantined sick dogs at her kennel, and continues to put more animals at risk," said Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon. "This temporary restraining order is necessary for the health and welfare of not only the dogs in her possession, but also other dogs across the country that might come in contact with the sick dogs if they are sold and shipped."

Previous complaints

Complaints about Craft selling sick dogs are not new.

The Better Business Bureau that covers eastern Missouri has received nine complaints since 2006 about Craft's kennels. The complaints are from consumers across the country.

Some say Craft sent them sick dogs. Others say they never received their dogs even after paying for the animals and the shipping fees.

Several consumers also failed to receive refunds for up to $1,750 for undelivered animals or veterinary bills associated with taking care of the sick dogs Craft sent them, according to the BBB.

A consumer in South Wellfleet, Mass., told the BBB she paid Craft $400 for a lab/boxer mix. She said the puppy was extremely sick with parvo and three kinds of worms when it arrived.

The woman's vet bills totaled more than $1,700 and the dog must be "de-wormed again and be re-vaccinated because the vet has no confidence in the shots record," she told the BBB.

Another consumer in Trumbull, Conn., told the BBB he ordered a dog from Craft through a Web site called nextdaypets.com.

He sent $400 -- but cancelled the shipment after encountering "an unspeakable amount of roadblocks." The man never received a refund or the dog despite numerous attempts to contact Craft.

A consumer in West Lawn, Pennsylvania said she bought a nine-week-old Blue Heeler/English Setter mix from Craft. She paid $375 for the puppy, which arrived underweight and coughing. The woman said the puppy soon started vomiting, had diarrhea, and a fever.

The puppy died three days later. The woman contacted Craft, who promised to refund the money.

In an e-mail message, however, Craft told the woman: "HURT HANDCAN'T SIGN CHECKS RIGHT NOWCAN ONLY TYPE WITH ONE FINGER. YOU WILL GET REFUND SHORTLY." The woman never received her money, according to the BBB.

Poor conditions

Some consumers also complained about the conditions at Craft's kennel.

"I was shocked by the conditions in which the puppies were living," said an Arnold, Missouri, consumer who drove two hours to pick up her Jack Russell/Chihuahua-mix puppy. "Many were caged or locked in a barn which was disgustingly dirty with feces lying on the floor."

A BBB shopper who visited the kennel in late February discovered as many as 10 dogs sharing one caged area, a small dog house, and a bowl of water and food.

The BBB also said that none of Craft's facilities appeared to have enough protection to shield the dogs from the elements, which were below freezing the day their shopper went to the kennel.

ConsumersAffairs.com left a message for Craft on Tuesday. She did not return our call.

The Missouri Attorney General's action --filed last week in Gasconade County Circuit Court -- seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions against Craft to prevent future violations of the law.

What to do

How can consumers protect themselves from buying a sick puppy?

Officials recommend the following:

• Check with the state's Department of Agriculture to ensure a kennel operator is licensed;

• Check for complaints about the kennel or its operator with the Humane Society, attorney general's office, the BBB, and ConsumerAffairs.com;

• Make sure the kennel gives you a written contract and health guarantee. Read it carefully. A breeder should not require you to use a specific veterinarian;

• Ask the kennel's owner to show you where the dogs spend most of their time. That area should be clean and well-maintained;

• Get references from consumers who have bought puppies from the kennel;

• Make multiple visits, if possible, with the entire family to meet the puppy before you take it home;

• Verify the puppy has received all it vaccinations;

• Request a copy of the animal's medical record;

• Look for dogs that appear happy and healthy, and are excited to meet new people.

Animal advocates also encourage consumers to check their local shelters for dogs and cats that are up for adoption and looking for good homes.

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Menu Foods Settles Pet Food Class Action

Thousands of dogs and cats sickened by contaminated pet food

Menu Foods Settles Pet Food Class Action...


The company behind the largest pet food recall in United States history -- one blamed for the deaths and illnesses of thousands of dogs and cats in North America -- has agreed to settle lawsuits with pet owners.

Menu Foods Income Fund announced the tentative settlement on Tuesday.

The Canadian-based company said it could not disclose terms of the agreement, which is subject to the approval of U.S. and Canadian courts.

"It's a comprehensive settlement," Amy W. Schulman, a lawyer for Menu Foods, told MSNBC. "It would resolve all the claims." The lead attorney for pet owners agreed and said she's confident a final agreement will be reached.

Tuesday's settlement comes just a little more than a year after Menu Foods recalled 60 million containers of tainted pet food.

The company took that action after dogs and cats across the country suffered kidney problems or died after eating the company's food.

Menu Foods initially blamed the contamination on a chemical called Aminopterin, which is used as a rat poison and to treat cancer.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) later discovered the chemical melamine in the imported wheat gluten used in the pet food. Melamine is used to make plastics.

Unapproved chemicals

In December, veterinarians blamed the dogs' and cats' deaths on the combination of two chemicals FDA officials found in the tainted pet food: melamine and cyanuric acid, which is used to chlorinate pools.

Neither chemical is approved in pet food.

Veterinarians said those two chemicals can combine and form crystals in the dogs' and cats' bodies. And those crystals can impair the animals' kidney function.

"Either one of those chemicals alone wouldn't cause these (deaths)," Dr. Barbara Powers, immediate past president of the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD) and director of Colorado State University's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It has to be the combination of the two.

"So it's not melamine alone."

Pet owners in 19 states -- and Ontario -- filed dozens of lawsuits against Menu Foods in the weeks that followed the March 16, 2007, nationwide recall of dog and cat food. Those cases were consolidated in a federal court in Camden, New Jersey.

The lawsuits alleged unfair and deceptive trade practices, negligence in failing to provide adequate quality control and breach of implied and express warranties. Some consumers also claimed they suffered emotional trauma after their pets became sick or died.

Pet owners sought compensation for their veterinary bills.

Companies named in the lawsuits -- besides Menu Foods -- included Del Monte Foods Inc. of San Francisco; Nestle of Stamford, Conn.; Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati; Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd. in Pixian, China; and Suzhou Textile Import and Export Co. in Jiangsu, China.

Those defendants -- and Menu Foods product liability insurance company -- will cover the costs of the settlement.

Menu Foods' estimates the nationwide recall cost the company $53.8 million.

The company said pet owners with potential claims should not contact Menu Foods regarding the tentative settlement. When a final agreement is reached -- and claims are processed and approved -- the administrator of the settlement fund will notify pet owners.

U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman set a May 14 hearing in New Jersey to consider the settlement. A final hearing date in Canada is not yet scheduled

Indictments

Last month, two Chinese companies -- and an American importer and its owners -- were indicted for their alleged roles in intentionally manufacturing and distributing melamine-tainted wheat gluten that was used to make dog and cat food.

"When I first read about these (indictments), I was crying because I was so happy," said pet owner Carol V. of Rhode Island, whose two cats became gravely ill last February after eating melamine-tainted pet food.

"It made me feel really good that something was being done. I was shocked because I had not idea that these criminal investigations were going on. I thought they had fizzled," she said.

But Carol and other pet owners are adamant that the investigation into last year's pet food recall -- the largest in U.S. history -- must continue.

They say more companies should be held accountable for their roles in the deaths and illnesses of pets nationwide.

"I don't think the American company that imported the wheat gluten should be alone in this investigation," Carol said.

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FCC's Martin: No Opening Of Wireless Networks

Dismisses Skype's challenge to enable all devices

FCC's Martin: No Opening Of Wireless Networks...

Supporters of wireless networks that can work with any phone or device who thought Federal Communications Commission chair Kevin Martin was an ally were wrong.

Martin told an audience at a trade show that he was issuing an order dismissing a challenge from computer phone service Skype to open all wireless networks to all devices.

"In light of the industry's embrace of a more open wireless platform, it would be premature to adopt any other requirements across the industry," Martin said. "Thus, today I will circulate to my fellow commissioners an order dismissing a petition for declaratory ruling filed by Skype that would apply Carterfone requirements to existing wireless networks."

The 1968 Carterfone legal decision mandated that land-line phone networks could be opened to all devices, such as answering machines, faxes, cordless phones, and eventually dial-up Internet modems. PC-to-PC phone service Skype, a subsidiary of eBay, had filed a petition in February 2007 for the FCC to apply the Carterfone standard to wireless networks.

In dismissing the petition, Martin cited recent developments in the wireless industry such as the recently-concluded auction of wireless spectrum, won by Verizon at $19.6 billion.

The auction's conditions included opening any networks built on the new spectrum to all phones or devices, a condition that Martin said could "help foster innovation on the edges of the network...As important, it will give consumers greater freedom to use the wireless devices and applications of their choice when they purchase service."

S. Derek Turner, research director of media watchdog group Free Press, criticized Martin's decision as "a missed opportunity."

"If open devices and applications are good for consumers in the networks to be built on the newly auctioned spectrum, why not for all mobile networks?," asked Turner. "The small handful of companies that dominate the wireless world have a track record of stifling competition and an aversion to innovation. Trusting these same companies with the promise of the mobile Web is short-sighted."

With friends like these...

Martin used the speech to discuss the failure of the auction to net funding for a first-responder public safety network, which he has promised to investigate. Martin also cited his record of promoting market-friendly policies such as an opposition to "net neutrality," the principle that Internet users can access all content on the Web equally.

"[S]ince I have been Chairman, I have opposed applying network neutrality obligations with mandatory unbundling or wholesale requirements to networks that would undermine investment incentives," Martin said. "This careful balancing of spurring innovation and consumer choice while encouraging infrastructure investment is critical to the wireless industry's continued impressive growth."

Phone-friendly

Martin's policies have been especially friendly to the telecom industry, which largely opposes net neutrality and originally opposed opening networks to all devices.

Verizon, which even sued the FCC over the "open access" requirements to the wireless auction, has since claimed it would open its network to all devices, for which Martin gave them credit. But industry analysts and observers who have studied Verizon's plans claim their network would be two-tiered, with one for Verizon customers and one for people bringing their own phones--at a much higher cost.

Martin's FCC failed to stop AT&T, Sprint, and Qwest from blocking access to long-distance conference service FreeConference.Com in April 2006, until consumer complaints and media pressure forced the agency to intervene and broker an agreement between the sparring companies.

Martin also pulled out all the stops to ensure that AT&T and BellSouth could merge into the world's largest telecommunications company, even going so far as to say that the merged company was free to ignore conditions placed on it by other FCC commissioners as part of the merger, such as supporting net neutrality principles on its services.

Martin has supported new video franchising legislation that would enable telecom companies to enter new markets and deploy new services much faster than their cable counterparts, often completely bypassing local and municipal governments to deal directly with states.

Meanwhile, Martin has pursued a much more aggressive legislative agenda against the cable industry, demanding that Comcast immediately stop blocking users from accessing BitTorrent under threat of FCC investigation.

Martin has campaigned for sweeping changes to the cable industry, from ending exclusive service deals to apartments and condominiums to campaigning for "cable a la carte," where viewers can buy only the channels they want to watch, rather than package deals.

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419 Scams Never Go Away

Like cicadas, they come and go with the seasons

419 Scams Never Go Away...


Like a letter from an old friend, an email from a 419 scammer hit my inbox this morning.

"Get Back To Me Urgently," the subject line read.

419 scams, named for section 419 of the Nigerian Penal Code, have been around as long as the Internet. Begun by young scammers working from Lagos, Nigeria, the spam emails claim to be from a relative of a deposed prince, or the brother of a prime minister assassinated in a coup, who needs the help of a total stranger in moving vast amounts of wealth to the U.S.

These scam emails have achieved an almost folklore status, the subject of jokes and dozens of videos on YouTube. But it had been a while since I had actually gotten one.

"I am barrister Chris Martins, a solicitor at law," the message began. "I am the personal attorney to a national of your country, who used to work with Shell-Development company in Nigeria."

Notice he said "a national of your country," and didn't identify the country. That allows Chris to send his email all over the world.

According to Chris' story, written in all caps as most 419 emails are, his client and his family were killed in a 1999 plane crash, leaving millions of dollars in a Nigerian bank. Chris said he has been unable to locate any next of kin, and if he doesn't do so in the next 14 days, the Nigerian Government will confiscate the fortune, which has now grown to more than $25 million.

Chris said he needs my help. Since I have the same last name as his client and note he never says what his client's last name is he wants me to stand in as an heir of the recently departed family.

"So that the proceeds of this account can be paid to you, and then you and I can share the money 60% to me and 40% to you I have all the necessary legal documents that can be used to back up our claims," he wrote. "All I require is your honest cooperation to enable us seeing this deal through."

I'm touched. A scam artist trusts my honesty. And it seems a shame to let the government get all that money.

So Chris would like me to send him my telephone number so we can talk. It would also be helpful for me to send my name, and what country I live in, since he's already supposed to know that.

If I were to do that, Chris would likely reveal that he will need some cash to make all this happen.

Maybe $5,000 maybe more if he gets the feeling I have it. He will explain that it's a small price to pay to receive several million dollars. After sending the money, he might even tell me he needs a little more, if he thinks I am gullible enough to send it.

Now, I've had some fun at Chris' expense, but the sad fact is, he doesn't care. No, I'm not going to rise to his bait, but he has sent this same email out to millions of email addresses worldwide.

Odds are, someone will fall for it. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission last year estimated that as many as two million people a year are defrauded by 419 scams.

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Big Box Retailers, Not FEMA, May Be First Line Of Defense

Remote, top-down federal management falls short of meeting urgent needs

Big Box Retailers, Not FEMA, May Be First Line Of Defense...


Hurricane season is just around the corner, so consumers should know where to turn to if disaster strikes.

No, not the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A new study suggests Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's would be a lot more helpful.

The study, from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, stresses that successful disaster relief depends upon responders having detailed knowledge of a local area and the right incentives to act on that knowledge.

Examining federal and private responses to Hurricane Katrina, the study by St. Lawrence University Professor of Economics Steven Horwitz shows why FEMA was destined to fail, and why for-profit firms succeeded at disaster recovery.

It also looks at the Coast Guard -- the only federal agency lauded for its Katrina performance -- which rescued more than 24,000 people in the two weeks following the storm.

Local knowledge

The study by Horwitz shows Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's made use of their local knowledge about supply chains, infrastructure, decision-makers and other resources to provide emergency supplies and reopen stores well before FEMA began its response. He says their local knowledge enabled the big-box stores to make plans ahead of the storm and put them into effect immediately after.

Also, leadership gave tremendous discretion to store managers and employees to make decisions rather than waiting for instructions from upper-level management, allowing for more agile disaster response.

Horwitz says the Coast Guard also places a strong emphasis on local knowledge. A flat organizational structure and unique agency culture allow for subordinate officers to alter the plans for a specific operation so long as they follow the commander's intent.

The Coast Guard's day-to-day activities (search and rescue operations, and work in the marine environment) as well as its division into specific geographic areas provide greater expertise for disaster response.

Horwitz also examined the conventional wisdom that businesses take advantage of disasters through price-gouging and other unsavory business practices.

While some price gouging obviously occurs during disasters, Horwitz's paper details how Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's actually sent truckloads of free supplies to the hardest-hit areas in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. No, it wasn't all altruistic, Horwitz notes. The businesses were just practicing good public relations, hoping to build long-term customer loyalty.

"Disaster response happens at the local level," Horwitz said. "FEMA is not local to anyone except people who live in Washington, D.C."

Insurance plans

With hurricane season approaching, now is the time for homeowners in the Southeast to review their insurance coverage. Read more ...



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Home Sales Pick Up, Prices Dip Deeper

Too much revolving debt makes recovery more difficult

Home Sales Pick Up, Prices Dip Deeper...

The U.S. economy is in the midst of a credit crunch and more and more economists are tracing its origins not to the housing meltdown, but to the credit card.

Steven Fazzari, economics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, says rising consumer indebtedness is finally slamming the brakes on the economy.

"For more than two decades we had consumer-led growth, which actually mitigated the recessions of the early 1990s and 2001," Fazzari said. "Part of the reason we had mild recessions was due to consumer strength. But we kept building up debt.

"It was also a period of falling nominal interest rates. This meant that every cycle of low interest rates was another opportunity for people to refinance on better terms and extend their spending further," he said.

In simple terms, consumers are now just tapped out.

According to the latest Federal Reserve Consumer Credit report, total revolving debt by consumers, which consists primarily of credit cards, is at an all-time high of $947.4 billion.

"Americans are in more debt than ever before," said Brad Stroh, co-CEO and co-founder of Bills.com, an online personal finance Web site. "The credit card industry could be the next domino to fall if consumers don't get a handle on their personal finances soon."

Fundamental changes

Fazzari sees fundamental changes in the economy that are reducing the effectiveness of consumer spending as an economic driver.

Part of the problem is the current debt burden. Part of the problem, he says, lies in the fact that its harder and harder to get credit. Even the Federal Reserve Bank's move to lower interest rates doesn't give Fazzari much hope for a turnaround.

"Bernanke deserves credit for creative approaches to containing instability in financial markets," Fazzari says. "But the source of the recession comes from structural problems that need to be changed. Bail-outs may help prevent everything from cascading further, but the Fed does not have the tools to solve these problems.

With property values plummeting nationwide, homeowners no longer have the luxury of tapping into home equity lines of credit. Instead, many have to use high-interest credit cards and other revolving credit for short-term cash.

Time to cut back

This trend also concerns Stroh, who warns that individuals facing economic hardship should be managing and eliminating debt, not adding to it.

"Now is the time for consumers to eliminate unnecessary expenses and then use those funds to pay off their credit card balances," he said. "This will require some sacrifice, but will be worth it in the end."

A credit card industry meltdown would have serious effects on the broader economy and create hardship for banks and consumers alike, according to Stroh. He points out, however, that the worst-case scenarios can be avoided.

"Prudent steps should be taken by consumers to avoid a credit crunch," he said. "Simple things like budgeting and spending plans can make a big difference in averting major economic problems."

Fazzari agrees. There's no magic bullet, he says. The root cause of the current economic slowdown in the U.S. goes back several decades. None of the choices, he says, are pleasant.

"Unfortunately, the cost of letting institutions fail is worse than the cost of bailing them out, but ultimately, the Fed will not be able to stop the downturn in consumer spending. The household sector just has to retrench and repair its balance sheet. In the meantime, the result is a weak economy," he says.

Fazzari notes that the stimulus packages proposed by Congress and the presidential candidates could be useful as well, but even those policies aren't nearly large enough to prevent a deep recession.

"With those proposals, we're talking about something that is a quarter of the size of what's necessary to turn things around."

 

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Cruise Lines Agree To Refund $21 Million In Fuel Surcharges

Florida goes after cruise lines for retroactive charges

Cruise Lines Agree To Refund $21 Million In Fuel Surcharges...

Florida's attorney general has reached a resolution with six cruise lines over the imposition of a retroactively-imposed fuel surcharge on cruise passengers.

Bill McCollum said Carnival and its five subsidiary cruise lines have agreed to refund approximately $40 million to consumers nationwide who were charged the fuel surcharge after they had booked their cruises.

Other affected cruise lines are Holland America, Princess, Costa, Cunard and Seabourne.

The agreements were reached after the Attorney Generals Economic Crimes Division received several hundred complaints from around the country about the entire cruise line industry because cruise lines were retroactively charging a fuel supplement charge after cruises had been booked and deposits had been made by consumers.

Under the agreements signed today, all consumers who were retroactively charged a fuel supplement will be refunded the full cost of the surcharge. In the future, the cruise lines must also ensure clear and conspicuous disclosure of any fuel supplement charges at the time the reservations are made, as well as in their advertisements.

The agreement with Carnival and its cruise lines will affect more than 1.1 million bookings.

Carnival will contact consumers eligible for refunds and must report to the Attorney Generals Office on the status of refunds within 30 days.

Consumers who believe they have been improperly charged surcharges may file complaints with the Attorney Generals Office by calling the fraud hotline at 1-866-966-7226 or by visiting the Attorney Generals website at myfloridalegal.com.

A similar settlement was reached last month with Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises, resulting in another $21 million in consumer reimbursement.

 



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Electronic Payment Industry Touts Its Green Benefits

Bill-paying doesn't have to be environmentally expensive

Electronic Payment Industry Touts Its Green Benefits...


In a new study, the Federal Reserve reports nearly 50 percent of the total number of checks in the U.S. are written by consumers to businesses. Companies in the electronic payment industry say that if consumers would make most of those payments electronically, it would produce huge environmental savings.

The PayItGreen Alliance, a nonprofit group formed to promote the environmental benefits of electronic payments, has produced a study of its own, hoping to demonstrate the impact one household can have by switching from paper checks to electronic payments.

"We've determined that, on average, an American household receives 19 bills and statements each month," said Stuart Williams, Director of Payment Services at CheckFree/Fiserv and a member of the PayItGreen Alliance.

"This same average household makes seven payments in the form of checks each month. If we were able to get them to switch to electronic bills and statements, the environmental savings would be significant."

By switching to electronic bills, statements, and payments. Williams says the average American household would, every year:

• Save 6.6 pounds of paper
• Save 0.08 trees
• Not release 63 gallons of wastewater into the environment
• Save 4.5 gallons of gasoline to mail bills, statements, and payments
• Not produce 171 pounds of greenhouse gases.

Saving this amount of greenhouse gas is the equivalent of:

• The emissions avoided by not driving 169 miles
• The emissions avoided by not consuming 8.8 gallons of gasoline
• Planting 2 tree seedlings and allowing them to grow for 10 years
• Preserving 24 square feet of forest from deforestation

That might not sound like much, but Williams says Americans each year mail 26 billion bills and statements and nine billion payments in paper form. The production and transportation of those paper bills, statements, and payments consumes 755 million pounds of paper, nine million trees and 512 million gallons of gasoline, according to the study.

"If just two percent of households switched to electronic bills, statements, and payments, it would save more than 15 million pounds of paper and take 32,572 cars off the road," Williams told ConsumerAffairs.com.

If that total rose to 20 percent of U.S. households, it would save 150 million pounds of paper and avoid producing 3.9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas. And though the study doesn't measure it, even using a debit card instead of writing a check produces some environmental savings.

"Pure and simply, that's one less check being written," Williams said. Obviously checks are paper and paper comes from the environment. Beyond that it may depend on how that particular retailer may choose to process the check. If they're using a courier or sending an employee to deposit the check, you've got gas emissions."

For several years banks and financial institutions have promoted online transactions and rarely, if ever, charge consumers for the service. While helping the environment is nice, Williams says banks' policies are usually grounded in hard, cold business realities.

"One of the resounding facts that we discovered is the level of satisfaction, and the profitability to banks of consumers who use online banking and bill pay, is higher," Williams said. "They tend to be more loyal customers and are more likely to recommend their bank to others."

Why aren't more consumers using electronic payments? Williams thinks a lot of it has to do with inertia, and consumers' longstanding habits. He and others in the PayItGreen Alliance are hoping consumers will soon give it a try, if not for convenience, then to help out Mother Earth.

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TJX Settles with FTC Over Data Breach

Nearly 100 million consumers may have been affected

TJX Settles with FTC Over Data Breach...

The TJX company, parent to the TJ Maxx and Marshalls department store chains and the retailer responsible for one of the biggest data breaches in U.S. history, has agreed to a settlement of charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it failed to use "reasonable and appropriate security for sensitive consumer information."

"By now, the message should be clear: companies that collect sensitive consumer information have a responsibility to keep it secure," said FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. "Information security is a priority for the FTC, as it should be for every business in America."

Under the terms of the settlement, Framingham, Massachusetts-based TJX must immediately upgrade and implement comprehensive security procedures, and must submit to audits by third-party security experts every other year for twenty years.

No fines or penalties were levied due to the agency's inability to do so under the FTC Act, according to agency spokespersons.

Trail of theft

The FTC complaint stemmed from the discovery that hackers using laptops enabled with wireless Internet connections were able to intercept data transmitted between hand-held payment scanners at TJX stores as the hackers drove by.

The hackers were able to obtain the credit and debit card numbers of millions of customers, with the final total estimated as high as 94 million according to Visa. Visa estimated it had suffered $65 to $83 million in financial losses stemming from fraud caused by the theft.

More than 455,000 customers who returned merchandise to TJX stores had their personal information stolen during the breach, which had been ongoing for at least ten months prior to its discovery in December 2006.

Data taken during the breach later turned up in a case of fraud in Florida, where a ring of thieves used the data to create "clone" credit cards, then purchased gift cards from Wal-Mart which they then loaded and used to purchase expensive consumer goods.

Among the charges levied against TJX by FTC, the agency claimed that the retailer "did not use readily available security measures to limit wireless access to its networks, thereby allowing an intruder to connect wirelessly to in-store networks without authorization," and that it "failed to employ sufficient measures to detect and prevent unauthorized access to computer networks or to conduct security investigations, such as by patching or updating anti-virus software or following up on security warnings and intrusion alerts."

Unscathed

Although the TJX data breach was thought to be a watershed moment for the issues of identity theft and data security in the U.S., the retailer itself has emerged from the scandal largely unscathed.

The company offered a settlement to customers affected by the data breach in September 2007, which largely consisted of a special three-day "customer appreciation sale" and extended offers of credit monitoring for affected individuals, as well as store vouchers for customers who could document they were harmed by the breach. Attorneys General of ten states voiced their opposition to the proposed settlement, saying it benefitted the retail chain more than the customers.

TJX later settled Visa's charges against it for $41 million in November 2007, and paid an undisclosed amount to settle a group of lawsuits brought against it by Massachusetts-based banks in December 2007.

Consumers also have continued to shop at TJX stores in high numbers, as the weakening economy and high gas prices have made the retailer's discounted brand sales popular. The retailer recently reported February sales, which totaled $1.3 billion, up 6% from the year-prior $1.2 billion.

 

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