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Current Events in April 2008

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    FDA Believes Heparin Was Deliberately Contaminated

    FDA allegedly bungled inspection of plant in China

    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.


    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.

    FDA Believes Heparin Was Deliberately Contaminated...
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      First-Quarter Foreclosures Up 112%

      Home prices plunge 12.7%, with no bottom in sight

      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.


      First-Quarter Foreclosures Up 112%...
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      EPA Orders Scotts to Stop Sales of Two More Pesticides

      Agency charges labels are false, misleading

      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."

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

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

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

      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.

      FCC Loosens Digital TV Rules for Retailers, Manufacturers...
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      Safety Agency Waits 16 Months to Recall Lead-Laden Key Chains

      Ohio university professor documents problem; agency drags its feet

      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.

      Safety Agency Waits 16 Months to Recall Lead-Laden Key Chains...
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      Wachovia Penalized $144 Million for Telemarketing Abuses

      Telemarketers preyed on thousands of senior citizens

      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.

      Wachovia Penalized $144 Million for Telemarketing Abuses...
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      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).

      LawnBott Lawn Mowers Recalled...
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      FDA Orders Illinois Pet Food Maker to Clean Up Its Act

      Risk of botulism in Evanger's dog, cat food

      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 ...

      FDA Orders Illinois Pet Food Maker to Clean Up Its Act...
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      Ford Hopes to Wind Down Recall of Fire-Prone Vehicles

      7 million unrepaired cars and trucks still on the road

      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).

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

      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...
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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 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.

      Consumers Having Problems with Digital TV Converter Coupons...
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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 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

      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...
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      Bank of America Tightens Lending Rules

      New rules coincide with acquisition of Countrywide Financial

      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.

      Bank of America Tightens Lending Rules...
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      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).

      Beco 'Butterfly' Infant Carriers...
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      Eating Disorders Widespread Among U.S. Women, Survey Finds

      Three-quarters of women display unhealthy thoughts or behaviors

      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.

      Eating Disorders Widespread Among U.S. Women, Survey Finds...
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      Children Abused in Unregulated 'Boot Camps,' Critic Charges

      Congress sets hearing on 'tough love' camps

      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.

      Children Abused in Unregulated 'Boot Camps,' Critic Charges...
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      Federal Mortgage Aid Needed Now, Consumer Group Warns

      Housing crisis dwarfs industry's attempt to respond

      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."

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