Browse by year
 | 

Pet Owners Not Thrilled with Poison Food Settlement

Despite compensation, many dog, cat owners still wary of commercial pet food

Pet Owners Not Thrilled with Poison Food Settlement...


Grieving pet owners -- whose dogs and cats became sick or died last year after eating melamine-tainted food -- are one step closer to recovering their economic losses, though not all consumers are applauding a proposed settlement.

One called it "a slap in the face."

A U.S. District Court Judge in Camden, New Jersey yesterday gave preliminary approval to a $24 million settlement in a class action lawsuit that stems from the largest pet food recall in U.S. history.

Last March, Menu Foods of Canada recalled 60 millions of containers of dog and cat food that were tainted with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics.

Thousands of dogs and cats across North America suffered kidney disease after eating the contaminated food. Many died.

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

The $24 million settlement is in addition to the $8 million in claims some companies involved in the pet food litigation have already paid bringing the total figure to $32 million.

A hearing is set for October 14, 2008, on final approval of the settlement, which would resolve more than 100 class action lawsuits filed in U.S. and Canadian courts in the wake of the massive pet food recall.

Lawyers, company react

"We think this (settlement) is a win for consumers," said Sherrie Savett, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the case. "With this settlement, consumers will get as much or more than if they litigated the cases individually. The claims process allows people to recover as much as 100 percent of all their economic damages.

She added: "What we did get out of this settlement for consumers is the possibility of complete recovery of all economic damages -- even for lost carpets and time -- in addition to their veterinary bills. Even in cases where people do not have documentation of their damages, the settlement allows in some cases up to $900 for each person."

Menu Foods, which manufactures dog and cat food under nearly 100 brand names, applauded the settlement.

"Menu Foods is pleased with this negotiated settlement," Paul Henderson, the company's chief economic officer, said in a written statement. "If finally approved, the agreement will provide restitution to the pet owners affected by the 2007 pet food recalls.

"We feel that the pet owners, along with Menu and other pet food producers, were victims of a terrible fraud committed by a company in China," Henderson said.

Pet owners divided

Some pet owners, however, told ConsumerAffairs.com the settlement is not a victory for consumers.

Don Earl, whose beloved cat Chuckles died after eating Menu Foods' Pet Pride food, called the settlement "a slap in the face."

"Extrapolating from the best information available, over a quarter million pets were killed by the poisoned pet food epidemic," he said. "Take a third off the top for the attorneys, and divide by the number of pet owners harmed, they each will get $64."

An Arizona pet owner -- whose 13-year-old Sheltie suddenly died after eating some of the tainted pet food -- agreed.

"I feel that the $24 million is less than a slap on the wrist," said Jerry L. of Goodyear, Arizona. "It's a sad state of affairs and just goes to prove that until pet owners who really care about their pets push their government for stronger laws, these companies will continue to hold our pets at little or no regard.

"The only thing I can say is that I'm saddened and disappointed that our pets are held at so little value," she added. "Sandy Boy's ashes remain in my home and his picture remains proudly displayed around our home."

Pet owner Carol V., of Rhode Island, whose two cats became gravely ill last year after eating Menu Foods' Special Kitty food, echoed those sentiments.

"Twenty-four million dollars does not seem a lot before legal expenses," she said. "And if there are tens of thousands of affected pets (which I believe may be a low estimate), it seems unlikely that pet owners will get back all of their expenses.

"This amount also seems insufficient to me as we are talking about multi-billion dollar companies participating in this settlement."

A monetary settlement, Carol said, can never erase the pain and suffering her cats -- and her family -- experienced because of the tainted food.

One of her cats, Jessica, had to be euthanized last December because of the health problems she suffered after eating the contaminated food.

"There is no amount of money that will ever make this right in my home," Carol said. "Whether it is one penny or the close to three thousand dollars for my vet -- nothing will erase the memory of my cats struggling with trying to stand on their own, hanging over the water bowl, and hanging onto life for months as Smudge (her cat) did and now she struggles with chronic kidney damage and all because I fed them Association Of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) approved cat food."

Canadian author Ann Martin, who has researched the pet food industry for years, is pleased dog and cat owners will receive some compensation.

"Money, no matter how much, will never replace the pets they have lost due to the contaminated food," she said.

Lesson learned?

Martin and others said pet food makers and the government must now -- in the wake of the massive recall and settlement -- ensure the food that consumers feed their pets is safe. But they are not convinced that's happened.

"I really don't think the food on the shelves now is any safer than what we saw prior to the massive recall," Martin said. "How many of these pet food companies are testing for contamination in the raw materials they are purchasing? It is my understanding that some are now testing for melamine in the grains, but this is just one toxin that might be in the raw material. Are they testing the vitamin/mineral premixes, many which are coming from China or other countries with questionable practices?"

The settlement requires pet food makers to continue testing ingredients imported from China. That, however, doesn't make Martin feel any safer about feeding her animals commercial pet food.

"I'll continue to feed my pets a homemade diet," she said. "At least I know what they are eating, which is more than you can say with many of the pet foods on the market."

Carol is also leery about feeding her pets commercial food.

The system to protect dogs and cats from experiencing another pet food nightmare, she said, is still broken.

"I am not sure what makes me more mad -- that it took a courtroom full of lawyers to come to this decision (settlement), or the fact that I see no changes to our current food supply system to prevent this from happening again. The illness and deaths of beloved four-legged family members should have been a huge wake-up call that the system is broken."

Pet owners like Don Earl said some good has come from the massive recall.

"Many pet owners (including myself) have switched from the recycled garbage promoted as pet food to homemade," he said. "Their pets will live much longer and healthier lives."

Other consumers said the recall has made pet owners more aware of what's in the food their feed their dogs and cats.

And thanks to this settlement, that food should be safer than before the recall, said attorney Sherrie Savett.

"Pet food manufacturers know they will get hit with lawsuits that are meaningful (if their food isn't safe), she said. "I think that would cause pet food manufacturers to be much more careful."

What to do

Meanwhile, pet owners affected by the tainted food can still file claims for their losses.

Those consumers should not contact Menu Foods, the company said. Instead, they should contact the claims administration for the settlement at the following:

In re Pet Food Products Liability Litigation, Claims Administrator
c/o Heffler, Radetich & Saitta LLP,
P.O. Box 890,
Philadelphia, PA 19105-0890

1-800-392-7785

www.petfoodsettlement.com

Blizzard of litigation

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 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 Foods' product liability insurance company -- will cover the costs of the settlement.

Menu Foods estimated the recall has cost the company $53.8 million.

Cause of death

Veterinarians now blame 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. "

More about pets ...



More

FDA Wants Recall of Xiadafil VIP Tabs

Product contains dangerous undeclared ingredient, agency warns

Another dietary supplement has become a recall target at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has requested that SEI Pharmaceuticals, of Miami, F...

Another dietary supplement has become a recall target at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has requested that SEI Pharmaceuticals, of Miami, Florida, recall all Xiadafil VIP Tabs.

The agency says the tablets contain a potentially harmful, undeclared ingredient that may dangerously affect a person's blood pressure and can cause other life-threatening side effects.

These lots have an expiration date of September 2009. Xiadafil VIP Tabs are marketed as a dietary supplement for sexual enhancement and able to treat erectile dysfunction, or ED. The product is sold in 8 tablet bottles, Lot # 6K029, or blister cards of two tablets, Lot # 6K029-SEI.

The formal request follows an action by the state of Florida to prevent the further distribution of this product into consumer channels. FDA is advising consumers not to buy or use this product. The agency may take further regulatory action to protect consumers from this illegal product.

Although labeled as a dietary supplement and touted as "all-natural," the FDA says Xiadafil VIP Tabs are an illegally marketed drug that contains a potentially harmful undeclared ingredient. FDA chemical analysis revealed that Xiadafil VIP Tabs contains hydroxyhomosildenafil, which is an analog of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, an FDA-approved prescription drug for ED.

The agency says this undeclared ingredient may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs, such as nitroglycerin, and can lower blood pressure to life-threatening 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 these products are labeled as 'all natural dietary supplements,' consumers may assume that they are harmless and pose no health risk," said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "But an unsuspecting consumer with underlying medical issues may take these products without knowing that they can cause serious side effects and interact in dangerous ways with drugs that a consumer is already taking."

The FDA has not approved Xiadafil VIP Tabs for ED or any other drug use, and the safety and effectiveness of this product is unknown. The product is promoted and sold over the Internet, was given away as free samples at trade shows, and is sold in health food stores nationwide. The product may be packaged in bottles of eight tablets or blister cards of two tablets.

On May 13, 2008, Florida officials issued a "stop sale" action at SEI's distribution facility in Miami. This action required the firm to hold, intact, violative Xiadafil VIP Tabs found on-hand at the facility. The state of Florida's action to control the supply of the product, coupled with the FDA's formal request o recall this product from the marketplace, will further reduce the likelihood that this potentially dangerous product is used by unsuspecting consumers.

Alternative products like Xiadafil VIP Tabs are often sought out because they are marketed as "all natural" or as not containing the active ingredients in approved, prescribed ED drugs.

Because the manufacturing source of the active ingredients in many of these alternative products is unknown, consumers should also be aware that the safety, efficacy, and purity of these ingredients have not been verified by the FDA, the agency warned.

The FDA advises consumers who have used this product to discontinue use immediately and consult their health care professional if they have experienced any adverse events.

 



More

First Vioxx Judgment Overturned On Appeal

Judges find no evidence Vioxx caused defendant's heart attack

First Vioxx Judgment Overturned On Appeal...

A Texas appeals court has overturned the August 2005 verdict of a state court jury in Brazoria County, which had found Merck & Co. liable for damages in the Vioxx product liability case Ernst v. Merck. It was the first Vioxx case to go to trial after the company voluntarily removed the medicine from the market.

Merck also said that a New Jersey appellate division has overturned the punitive damage and consumer fraud awards in the 2006 verdict in a two-plaintiff Vioxx trial involving Thomas Cona and John McDarby.

"We are gratified that the Texas appeals court correctly found that Vioxx did not cause Mr. Ernst's death and reversed the previous decision for the plaintiff in the first Vioxx case to go to trial. In addition, the New Jersey court correctly reversed the awards of punitive damage and consumer fraud. Today's decisions overturn almost $40 million of damages and attorneys fees previously awarded to plaintiffs at trial," said Bruce Kuhlik, executive vice president and general counsel of Merck & Co., Inc.

In the Texas appeal, Chief Justice Adele Hedges, writing for a unanimous panel, said the court found no evidence that Ernst suffered a thrombotic cardiovascular event -- a heart attack -- triggered by a blood clot. As a result, the court said the plaintiff failed to show that ingestion of Vioxx caused her husband's death.

The jury's original verdict on Aug. 19, 2005 included $24,450,000 in compensatory damages and $229,000,000 in punitive damages for a total of $253,425,000 against Merck. On June 23, 2006, based on relevant Texas law which limits the amount of punitive damages, the punitive damage verdict of $229,000,000 was reduced to $1,650,000.

In the Cona and McDarby cases, the New Jersey Appellate Division, an intermediate appellate court, overturned the punitive damage award as well as the consumer fraud award, and let stand the compensatory damages for personal injury to McDarby. In reversing the consumer fraud verdict, the court also rejected the attorneys fees granted to the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Merck said that as a result, the court overturned more than $13 million in damages and attorneys fees. In the trial, the company argued that both of the heart attacks were caused, not by Vioxx, but by the pre-existing medical conditions of the two men. While the jury found that Vioxx did not cause Cona's heart attack, it found in favor of Mr. McDarby, awarding him both compensatory and punitive damages.

In November 2007 Merck, after vowing to contest each of the thousands of product liability lawsuits against it, agreed to settle claims over the withdrawn painkiller for $4.85 billion.

Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market in September 2004 after tests indicated the highly popular arthritis drug increased the risk of heart attack and stroke in patients taking it. More than 27,000 consumers or their family members filed suit against Merck as a result.

More

Heart Bypass Patients Fear 'Pump Head' Effect

The Healthy Geezer

Heart Bypass Patients Fear 'Pump Head' Effect...


Q. I may have to undergo bypass surgery and I heard that it can really mess up your mind. Is that true?

A. If you have coronary bypass surgery, you could suffer from what some in the heathcare professions call pump head.

During traditional surgery, a patient is put on a heart-lung bypass pump to oxygenate and circulate blood. This machine may create clots that could harm the brain. In addition, a surgeon handling the aortathe main heart arterycan free bits of accumulated plaque and they can block blood vessels in the brain.

Some patients report a memory loss. Or, they say they are confused. Some feel that they just arent as mentally sharp as they had been. These side effects seem to be more common among people who are older, drink too much, or suffer from high blood pressure or lung disease.

But theres a lot of disagreement among experts over the entire subject of the mental effects of bypass surgery.

One study indicated that only half of those undergoing bypass surgery developed memory or thinking problems within days after the operation, and that these problems continued for five years. However, other researchers found that mental deficiencies are common after bypass surgery, but that most people recuperate in 3 to 12 weeks.

The pump-head phenomenon led to the development of beating-heart bypass. Its done without using a heart-lung machine. About one in five bypass operations is now done with a beating heart.

In a bypass, an incision is made down the center of the chest to expose the heart. The surgeon takes a section of healthy blood vessel, often from inside the chest wall or from the lower leg, and attaches the ends above and below the blocked artery so that blood flow is diverted around the narrowed portion of the diseased artery. This eases angina, the chest pain that comes when there is an insufficient supply of oxygenated blood.

Because the heart beats constantly, it needs a steady flow of fuel. If a fuel shortage is serious, you have a heart attack and muscle begins to die. Heart attack is known officially as myocardial infarction.

The surgery usually takes between three and six hours. On average, surgeons repair two to four coronary arteries. After surgery, patients spend a day or two in the intensive care unit. Recovery takes 6 to 12 weeks.

About half a million Americans a year have coronary bypass surgery. For every 100 Americans who undergo it, 1 to 2 die within a month and 2 to 3 have a stroke. The long- term results of the surgery are excellent.

Among the techniques in development is minimally invasive heart surgery which uses smaller incisions.

More

Texas Sues Travel Clubs

Clubs defrauded unsuspecting consumers, state charges

Texas Sues Travel Clubs...


Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today charged a North Texas travel club and its owner with defrauding its unsuspecting customers. Dallas County 101st District Judge Teresa G. Snelson froze the defendants assets, thereby ensuring funds are available to reimburse Texans who purchased vacation packages with little or no actual value.

The action names 16 companies and individuals, including the schemes principal architect, David G. Vavro, and his three firms: Horizon Travel, Travel Club International and VIP Travel Incentives Inc. All 16 defendants are charged with conspiring to hide assets from authorities and failing to deliver legitimate travel discounts or free trips to dues-paying travel club members.

According to the Attorney Generals investigators, Vavro created multiple travel clubs shortly after the collapse of a similar firm, Sun Country Travel, where he served as a director. Relying on direct mail and high-pressure sales calls, Vavros companies used false advertising to convince potential customers to attend sales presentations.

Although seminar attendees were promised free vacations from Horizon Travel, the defendants actually required a $100 deposit to secure purchasers travel plans. Customers who attempted to schedule their free trip were consistently told that the requested travel dates were unavailable. Because the free trips frequently never materialized before customers vouchers expired, many lost their $100 deposits.

According to investigators, Horizon Travel customers were pressured to join Travel Club International for between $2,000 and $6,000. Travel Club customers were told they and their families would receive steep, members-only travel discounts.

However, many members quickly realized that their travel rates were available to the general public.

The Attorney Generals investigation also found that travel club publications offering special offers and discount vacation plans often arrived in mailboxes after the deals had expired. The states enforcement action charged Vavro and the defendants with marketing memberships that were of little or no value.

When consumer complaints against Vavros companies began to increase in early 2006, investigators discovered that the defendants began transferring financial assets between various travel corporations, which were also named in the Attorney Generals enforcement action.

Entities that received financial transfers from Vavros companies were actually sham corporations designed to obscure financial transactions, hide assets from authorities, and shield Vavro from state enforcement efforts, according to court documents filed by the state.

The Attorney General charged the defendants with multiple Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act violations, which carry penalties of up to $20,000 per infraction.

Because the defendant businesses failed to obtain certificates of authority from the Texas Secretary of State, Vavro faces up to $5,000 in penalties every month that each business failed to comply with the Texas Business Corporation Act. The Attorney General also charged Vavro with violating the Contest and Gift Giveaway Act by unlawfully conducting travel voucher program. Finally, the state also charged the defendant with violating the Texas No-Call law.

More Scam Alerts ...

More

Fruits & Vegetables Offer Protection Against Sunburn

Lycopene, carotenoids may also prevent many cancers and skin diseases

Fruits & Vegetables Offer Protection Against Sunburn...


If you're planning to spend time in the sun this summer, it may be a good idea to add lots of salads to your diet.

Research finds that tomatoes, green peppers, carrots and spring onions can all offer protection against a wide variety of cancers as well as protecting against sunburn and prematurely aging skin.

Many fruits and vegetables are rich in lycopene or carotenoids, and both can provide some important health benefits.

Carotenoids are the dark yellow and red micronutrients that give many fruits and vegetables their color. They protect against inflammation, skin aging, photosensitivity and some skin cancers. The carotenoids in tomatoes, peppers and pomegranates are widely distributed in the epidermal and dermal layers of the skin after they're digested.

In the skin they help to absorb the light, act as antioxidants and have an anti-inflammatory response to sunburn. They act by increasing the circulation of the blood to the skin and thus its nutrition. The better skin nutrition the less its scaliness and roughness, and more improved its thickness and hydration.

The effect of nutrition on skin health was among the topics at last week's First International Congress on Nutrition and Cancer, held in Turkey.

The study of nutrition is expanding from strictly dietary concerns to a broader focus on food scientists, as researchers find evidence that diets common in the Far East and Mediterranean countries have important health benefits over those common in the West.

Beyond describing the effects, scientists are increasingly able to explain the biochemical mechanism and demonstrate how the micronutrients in the diet can interfere with the body's cellular pathways to help to prevent cancer.

Before discussing the complex cellular pathways that determine how diet is involved in between one and two thirds of cancers, Professor Walter Willett of Harvard outlined the changes to lifestyle that help to reduce their incidence. He advised that everyone should exercise more, lose weight and increase the intake of fruit and vegetables, The Times of London reported.

Willett suggested that this would be especially useful in reducing cancers of the head and neck, such as those of the mouth, throat and esophagus as well as those of the gastrointestinal tract and, above all, prostate, breast and ovaries.

Willett recommends eating apples, as fresh as possible, every day and tomatoes -- the star food of the conference -- as well as onions and garlic. Pomegranate juice also gets his highest rating.

To keep the lower gastrointestinal tract healthy, Willett recommended a selection of fruit and vegetables to maintain adequate levels of beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E, as well as folic acid.

Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, received universal approval from researchers speaking at the conference.

When lycopene is extracted from tomatoes, rather than from other substances, it contains two other naturally occurring carotenoids. These provide the necessary synergistic reaction that has an influence on a large number of other cancers, including, importantly, prostate and breast cancer.

By the way, lycopene is more available in cooked tomatoes than in raw ones, so nutritionists say we shouldn't be afraid to put an extra dab of red sauce on the pasta. Tomato juice is also beneficial.



More

Did Wall Street Wreck The Economy?

Congress, regulators start to connect the dots

While consumers face skyrocketing gasoline prices, the economy is struggling to overcome the wave of foreclosures caused by the subprime meltdown and colla...

More

Makit & Bakit Children's Jewelry Recalled

Makit & Bakit Children's Jewelry Recalled...

May 29, 2008    
QuinCrafts is recalling about 70,000 sets of Makit & Bakit children's jewelry. The clasps on some of the jewelry contains high levels of lead. Lead is toxic if ingested by young children and can cause adverse health effects.

The recall includes QuinCrafts products containing children's jewelry. Only items with the following item numbers printed on the back of the packaging are included in the recall:

ItemItem Number
Makit & Bakit 5-Piece Jewelry Set55256
Makit & Bakit Charm Bracelet Sets41671
Makit & Bakit Bracelet & Necklace Set55106
Makit & Bakit Charm Bracelet Set55100
Makit & Bakit Garden Delux Suncatcher Set43131
Disney Makit & Bakit Fairies Charm Bracelet50083
Disney Makit & Bakit Princess Charm Bracelet50694

The children's jewelry was sold in a variety of sets that contained necklace, bracelet and earring or ring combinations.

The items, made in China, were sold at AC Moore, CVS, LTD Commodities, Marshall's/TJ Maxx, Michaels Corp. and other toy and independent craft supply stores nationwide from August 2007 through March 2008 for about $2.

Consumers should immediately take the recalled jewelry away from young children and contact QuinCrafts for a replacement jewelry set.

For additional information, contact QuinCrafts at (800) 366-4660 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday or visit the firm's Web site at www.quincrafts.com/recall



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

More

States Sue EPA Over Ozone Standards

Feds ignore public health, disregard scientists' warning, suit charges

Federal standards for things like product safety and public welfare are supposed to make enforcement more manageable and consistent being fair to industry ...

May 28, 2008
Federal standards for things like product safety and public welfare are supposed to make enforcement more manageable and consistent being fair to industry while protecting consumers. But increasingly, states are complaining that federal standards just aren't strong enough.

Just last week, the California Air Resources Board said it research had demonstrated that long-term exposure to fine-particle pollution, another common form of air pollution, poses a greater health threat than previously estimated.

In the latest conflict, 14 states and the District of Columbia have filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, claiming the agency's revised, ground-level ozone are weak and inadequate to protect the public health and welfare.

In a lawsuit filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the states contend that EPA violated the federal Clean Air Act and disregarded advice from its own scientific advisory committee in setting its revised National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone.

"It is simply unacceptable for EPA to ignore its own science advisory committee and set the new ozone standard at a level that will make breathing more difficult for children, seniors, people who work outdoors and those who already suffer from chronic lung disease," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "It is absolutely vital that the EPA follow the science on this issue and adopt a standard that protects public health."

A main ingredient of "smog," ground-level ozone is an air pollutant that is harmful to breathe and damages trees, crops, animals, wildlife and visibility. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to establish primary and secondary standards for air pollutants such as ozone, and to review and update those standards every five years.

The "primary" standard defines the upper limit of ozone concentrations that can be in the atmosphere before causing public health problems such as asthma attacks and chronic lung disease. The "secondary" standard defines the upper limit of ozone concentrations that can be in the atmosphere before damaging public welfare by diminishing crop productivity and harming plants, animals, wildlife and climate.

Ozone-related adverse health effects include changes in lung function, increased respiratory symptoms and aggravation of existing lung and heart disease.

Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the effects of ozone, as are active individuals such as joggers. Ozone also has harmful effects on vegetation including increased susceptibility to disease, which can kill trees and diminish crops.

"The scientific evidence is clear and well-established: reducing ozone levels will not only help protect our environment and preserve our natural resources, it will help save lives. It is time for the federal government to comply with the Clean Air Act and work with the states to implement ground-level ozone standards that actually protect public health and welfare," said New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Lisa P. Jackson, who also chairs the Ozone Transport Commission, an organization of 12 northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, plus the District of Columbia.

The participating states or state agencies include California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Rhode Island.

The coalition is asking the Court to order EPA to adopt new standards that comply with the Clean Air Act by protecting public health and welfare.

California findings

According to the California report, 14,000 to 24,000 premature deaths a year are estimated to be associated with exposures to PM2.5, a mix of microscopic particles less than 2.5 microns in size. A majority of these deaths occur in highly populated areas around the state, including the South Coast, San Joaquin Valley and San Francisco Bay air basins.

"Particle pollution is a silent killer," said ARB Chairman Mary D. Nichols. "We must work even harder to cut these life-shortening emissions by further addressing pollution sources head-on."

Particulate matter (PM) is a complex blend of substances ranging from dry solid fragments, solid-core fragments with liquid coatings, and small droplets of liquid. These particles vary in shape, size and chemical composition, and may include metals, soot, soil and dust.

At the request of the board in 2006, ARB researchers carefully reviewed all scientific studies on the subject and consulted with health scientists. While exposures to particulate matter have long been known as a serious health threat, new information suggests that the pollutant is even more toxic than previously thought.

Hospitalizations, emergency room visits and doctor visits for respiratory illnesses or heart disease have been associated with exposure to particulate matter. Other studies suggest that exposure may influence asthma symptoms and acute and chronic bronchitis.

Children, the elderly and people with pre-existing chronic disease are most at risk of experiencing adverse health effects. Even small increases in exposures may increase health risks.

Major contributors include trucks, passenger cars, off-road equipment, electric power generation and industrial processes, residential wood burning, and forest and agricultural burning. All combustion processes generally produce fine particulate matter.



More

West Virginia AG Challenges Anti-Lawsuit Group

'Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse' may not be what it seems

West Virginia AG Challenges Anti-Lawsuit Group...

West Virginia residents recently found a mailing from a group called Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse in their mailboxes, prompting a brisk response from the state's attorney general, Darrell McGraw, who says the mailing "crossed the line."

McGraw takes issue with the mailing's assertion that he represented three plaintiffs in a lawsuit and is keeping the money for his own use. McGraw says the lawsuit was brought on behalf of all the citizens of West Virginia who have been affected by the addictive and abusive effects of OxyContin.

The settlement proceeds were distributed according to the Court order, and a majority of the money has been used to fund day report centers across the State. Every dollar spent on a day report center saves the county in which it is located $7 in regional jail costs, McGraw says.

And just who, or what, is Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse?

CALA, according to incorporation papers filed with the West Virginia Secretary of State's office, is a non-profit business group organized for a common business purpose. Registered as a 501(c)(6) corporation under the Internal Revenue Code, CALA is not required by law to reveal its funders.

"If consistent with the experience in other states, CALA's main source of funding is in fact business interests which the Attorney General's office is required to regulate," McGraw's office said in the Consumer Alert. "CALA's misrepresentation of what it is should call into question its true motives and purpose."

CALA has local chapters in a number of states. According to SourceWatch, an online project of the Center for Media and Democracy, the CALA chapters are "grassroots" groups created by industries and businesses to give the appearance of a groundswell of public desire to alter the legal system to make it harder to bring lawsuits for injuries and illnesses caused by hazardous products.

SourceWatch contends that Philip Morris has been a primary backer of the group.

More Scam Alerts ...

More

Express Scripts Settles Drug Switching Charges For $9.3 Million

States charged company's practices were unfair and deceptive

Express Scripts Settles Drug Switching Charges For $9.3 Million...

Express Scripts Inc., one of the nation's largest pharmacy benefits management companies, has settled charges brought by 29 states, resolving claims that its drug switching programs are unfair or deceptive.

"This settlement with Express Scripts is part of our office's continued efforts to introduce transparency and fairness to the PBM industry," said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. "Through the work of the State Attorneys General, first with Medco, then Caremark and now Express Scripts, we have changed how these companies treat patients and doctors when they ask to change their prescription medications those requests now include full information on cost savings and the reasons for the proposed switch."

As part of the assurance of voluntary compliance, Express Scripts has agreed to make clear and conspicuous disclosures about its business practices to its consumers, doctors and employers, including its policies on initiating any drug interchanges between one brand name drug to another brand name drug.

Express Scripts also will pay $9.3 million to the states and up to $200,000 in reimbursement to patients who incurred expenses related to certain switches between cholesterol-controlling drugs called statins.

The settlement asserts that Express Scripts engaged in deceptive business practices by not always acting in a manner consistent with its representations to consumers and employers about its PBM services. Specifically, Express Scripts may have overstated the cost benefits of switching to certain brand name medicines, which may have resulted in additional medical costs for consumers.

Additionally, Express Scripts did not clearly disclose to their clients plans that rebates accrued from the drug switching process would be earned by Express Scripts.

The settlement generally prohibits Express Scripts from soliciting drug switches when:

• The net drug cost of the proposed drug exceeds the net drug cost of the originally prescribed drug;

• The originally prescribed drug has a generic equivalent and the proposed drug does not;

• The originally prescribed drug's patent is expected to expire within six months; or

• The patient was switched from a similar drug within the last two years.

Additionally, the settlement requires Express Scripts to:

• Inform patients and prescribers what effect a drug switch will have on a patient's co-payment;

• Inform prescribers of Express Scripts' financial incentives for certain drug switches;

• Inform prescribers of material differences in side effects or efficacy between prescribed drugs and proposed drugs;

• Reimburse patients for out-of-pocket expenses for drug switch-related health care costs and notify patients and prescribers that such reimbursement is available;

• Obtain express, verifiable authorization from the prescriber for all drug switches;

• Inform patients that they may decline a drug switch and the conditions for receiving the originally prescribed drug;

• Monitor the effects of drug switches on the health of patients;

• Adopt a certain code of ethics and professional standards;

• Refrain from making any claims of savings for a drug switch to patients or prescribers unless Express Scripts can substantiate the claim; and

• Inform prescribers that visits by Express Scripts' clinical consultants and promotional materials sent to prescribers are funded by pharmaceutical manufacturers, if that is the case.

PBMs enter into contracts with employer and governmental health plans to process prescription drug claims for drugs provided to patients enrolled in those health plans; negotiate with drug companies to obtain discounts; negotiate discounts with participating retail pharmacies to provide dispensing services; and dispense drugs to patients through PBM-owned mail order pharmacies. In the thirty years since the first PBMs appeared, their services have evolved to include complex rebate programs, pharmacy networks, and drug utilization reviews.

The agreement marks the third settlement that the states have entered into with pharmaceutical benefits managers.

In 2004, a group of 20 states settled with Medco Health Solutions, Inc. , the world's largest pharmaceutical benefits manager. In February of this year, a group of 29 states settled with Caremark Rx, LLC, another of the world's largest pharmaceutical benefits managers.

States participating in the settlement are: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.

 



More

Secondhand Smoke Linked To Hospital Admissions

Very young infants at greatest risk

Secondhand Smoke Linked To Hospital Admissions...

May 28, 2008
Children exposed to secondhand smoke are admitted to the hospital more often than those who aren't, according to new research published in the online edition of Tobacco Control.

These children are at greater risk of a whole range of infectious illnesses, such as meningococcal disease, and not just respiratory illness, the results showed. Exposure to smoke in the first few months of life did the most harm, especially if they had a low birth weight or had been born prematurely.

The researchers assessed the relationship between second hand smoke exposure and first admission to hospital for any infectious illness for 7,402 children born in Hong Kong in April and May 1997. The children were followed until they were eight.

Children who lived in the household of someone who smoked within close proximity during their first few months of life were the most at risk of being admitted to hospital with one in three admitted by the age of 12 months.

The earlier the exposure to smoke the more profound the effect with exposure to second hand smoke during the first six months of life increasing the likelihood of being admitted to hospital for an infectious disease during the eight years by almost 45 per cent.

Infants not in good health to start with appear to be at the greatest risk of hospitalization, as a result of their secondhand smoke exposure. Those with a low birth weight were 75 percent more likely to be admitted to hospital with an infectious disease during the eight years and those who were premature being twice as likely. The authors suggest that second hand smoke might affect the immune as well as the respiratory system of young children.

"An excess risk of severe morbidity from both respiratory and other infections for all infants exposed to second hand smoke suggests that such exposure, as well as acting via direct contact with the respiratory tract, may also affect the immune system," the report said.

The study also said that premature infants and those with a low birth rate might be more at risk because their respiratory and immune systems were less well developed.



More

Class Action Challenges NCAA Ticket Sales

NCAA, Ticketmaster operating an illegal lottery?

Class Action Challenges NCAA Ticket Sales...

A nationwide class action lawsuit alleges the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) and Ticketmaster operate an illegal lottery in which thousands of consumers pay nonrefundable fees for the very slim opportunity to get tickets to the popular Men's and Women's basketball tournaments.

ConsumerAffairs.com was the first to report on the issue April 4 after a reader told us he paid $72 in nonrefundable service charges that were not returned to him even though his application was not drawn for the 2009 NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Aside from the service charge, the NCAA also makes consumers pay the full price for the tickets and holds onto the cash for up to nine months, presumably making profit off the interest.

The ticket applications for the early rounds for the 2009 men's basketball tournament were due March 1 and required the consumer to pay about $200 plus a $9 service charge for each ticket. Consumers could apply for as many as eight tickets.

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

The consumer wished to remain anonymous for fear of being blacklisted from future NCAA events.

Final Four and Championship tickets for both the women's and men's 2009 tournament were purchased directly from the NCAA's website where consumers completed 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.

Early-round applications were submitted to the arenas where the games will be played, rather than to the NCAA. The arenas received a small cut from the service charge, but most of it went to the NCAA, said 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.

The suit also seeks damages for a much smaller number of consumers who entered ticket lotteries for the NCAA's hockey tournament.

Tantamount to gambling

The suit alleges that these lotteries are illegal because they are tantamount to gambling, which only charities and the state can operate in California and Indiana, where Ticketmaster and the NCAA are headquartered, according to court documents.

In our last story, Gail Dent, NCAA spokeswoman failed on repeated promises to answer questions. Although she again promised and failed to call back for this story, NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson told ESPN.com the lottery is not illegal.

Our practice of dealing with excess demand for an event is standard in the industry, Christianson told the sports news Web site. We have a nonrefundable fee charged to both successful and unsuccessful applicants. Those who do not receive tickets are refunded the ticket price.

There is no credible suggestion that our public ticket sale can be considered gambling in any way, and we are comfortable with our approach. We believe this complaint is without merit.

Not standard

But consumer advocates and the plaintiff's lawyers said it is not an industry standard.

It's not the industry standard, said Leonard Aragon, one of the lawyers representing the class. It would be illegal even if it were, but it's not. They're just basically fleecing the people trying to get tickets to watch their favorite team.

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 not-for-profit consumer advocacy organization, New York Public Interest Research Group.

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

The suit hopes to return money to many thousands of college sports fans who have paid in both service charges and disgorgement from loaning the NCAA what amounts to many millions every year, according to court documents.

Aragon estimated only about three percent of all applicants for the Men's tournament, which is the majority of the class, get tickets.

You can figure out a way to distribute excess demand without doing an illegal lottery, Aragon said. There's no reason to hold the money. It's all electronic. They could conduct the lottery right away and they could send out the notices right away. I don't know of any other system that works that way.

Ticketmaster's role

Ticketmaster's involvement is not entirely clear at the moment.

It's our understanding that Ticketmaster runs the actual application process, Aragon said. They have a very tight connection, whatever they're doing. It's one of the reasons we have a conspiracy claim in (the complaint) that they got together to conspire to engage in this scheme to defraud people.

Ticketmaster did not return an e-mail sent Friday requesting comment.

For years consumers and consumer advocates have complained about the NCAA's practice of giving the majority of tickets and all the good seats to corporate sponsors rather than fans.

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

Only 4,600 tickets were distributed through the lottery system for the 2008 Men's Final Four while the NCAA and Ticketmaster received an estimated 100,000 entries, according to court documents.

Many consumers cannot apply for this because he or she may not have enough disposable income to lose $306 for just one application for six months or more, Aragon said.

A lot of the people might be ticket brokers who can afford to have their money tied up for a long time for the reward of getting these tickets, of which there aren't a lot, Aragon said.

Disputed charge

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.

Consumers nationwide who paid money to enter the lottery are already class members, but can request more information or become more involved in the suit by e-mailing the law firm, Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, at info@hbsslaw.com, Aragon said.

 

More Scam Alerts ...

More

Bankrupt Helicopter School Shoots Down Student Aspirations

Question: Are those student loans still due?

Bankrupt Helicopter School Shoots Down Student Aspirations...


Silver State Helicopters vocational school, the largest private helicopter flight academy in the country, has parked its last chopper in the hanger.

The school, which operated in 12 states and enrolled over 2,400 students, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection after closing its doors in February.

Aside from being earthbound with their education plans dashed, many students had bankrolled their training through loans from KeyBank USA N.A., based in Cleveland, Ohio. Since the school required full tuition for its 18-month program to be paid up front, many students borrowed over $50,000. Silver State helped students apply for private loans, providing access to sources such as KeyBank.

Heres the hitch: Ordinarily, students are protected by Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules from being stuck with a loan for an institution that no longer exists.

Although the money was owed to the school, Silver State and KeyBank worked closely enough that KeyBank could, according to the students class action lawsuit filed in California, be considered a holder in due course of the financing contract.

The FTC Holder Rule protects consumers when their financing contracts are sold to another creditor. In this case, the rule preserves any legal claims or defenses the student had against the school and allows him to use those claims and defenses against the bank.

Federal law requires that consumer credit contracts contain the following language, in bold, 10-point (or larger) type:

Notice

Any holder of this consumer credit contract is subject to all claims and defenses which the debtor could assert against the seller of goods or services obtained pursuant hereto or with the proceeds hereof. Recovery hereunder by the debtor shall not exceed amounts paid by the debtor.

Not only did the students' contracts with KeyBank fail to contain this notice, but students allege that KeyBank deliberately incorporated in Ohio because state laws exempt Ohio-domiciled banks from that states consumer protection laws.

Looks like Silver States students were skinned not just once, but perhaps twice. And if a student refuses to pay, the lender can report negative information about him to a credit bureau, ruining that students credit score.

If Key Bank is truly a holder, students should be protected by the FTC rule despite Key Banks end run around that protection.

Ripe for abuse

Author Cathy Lessor Mansfield, writing in the Wake Forest Law Review, highlights a situation ripe for abuse.

When a student needs a loan, his college or vocational school chooses one or two lenders and frequently processes the loan for the student. If (or when) the school bows out of the picture, the financial institution goes after the student, even though the student is the actual victim.

Mansfield argues that the FTC definitely has power over such situations, because student loans qualify as the type of loan (purchase money loans possessing a finance charge) covered by the FTCs Holder Rule.

Unfortunately, the Silver State situation isnt unique. Schools, especially unlicensed vocational schools, have a habit of closing suddenly, leaving students holding the financial bag.

Aggressive lending

Complaints abound against aggressive lenders including Sallie Mae, the formerly government-affiliated lender that is now privately owned.

In one case involving Sallie Mae, Mark Powell of Alexandria, Virginia enrolled in a computer-training school called Ameritrain, which ran seven computer-training facilities in five states. The school awarded certificates at the end of training, aimed at students getting commercial software jobs.

Shortly before Powell finished his course, the school closed and filed for bankruptcy. Students were stunned to learn that Sallie Mae did not consider itself a creditor within the meaning of the FTC rules and planned to collect on the loans.

Powell and other students hired counsel in hopes of pursuing a class action. They found out two disturbing things:

1) promissory notes they signed forbade litigation in favor of mandatory arbitration and

2) Ameritrain wasnt the first unlicensed school Sallie Mae had done business with.

Congressional action

Congress tried to offer students protection by amending the Higher Education Act, giving students with guaranteed loans the same protections as those contained in the FTC holder rule and make sure lenders checked out the legitimacy of schools whose students borrowed money.

To make things more dodgy, private loans (regulated by state and federal consumer protection and banking laws rather than the HEA) have skyrocketed since the late 90s, now representing approx. 20 percent of student loans.

This situation illustrates the crux of the problem: the explosion of private lending, together with partnering of schools and private lenders, most often banks.

Private loans frequently have more restrictive terms than federal student loans and tend to be more expensive. And, contrary to what youd think, a bank loaning money to students at a substandard school doesnt necessarily put itself at risk. Many private loans are sold to investors, who are usually clueless about the defects lurking in the loan.

Federally-sponsored loan programs contain eligibility requirements for schools its students attend, to lessen the chance that a school is understaffed or doesn't meet state licensing requirements. No such vetting takes place among private lenders, and students sometimes find out about their school's inadequacies when the doors close for good.

More protection

While the Silver State students battle it out in California Superior Court, the Project on Student Debt, a project of the Institute for College Access & Success, suggests measures to protect students borrowing through private lenders (approx. 20% of all student loans.) Among them:

• Extend borrower protections and remedies in the FTCs Holder Rule to cover students at all types of colleges and universities (not just private for-profit schools as under current law,) and all types of student loans and loan holders.

• Require colleges to clearly distinguish private from federal loans in financial aid awards and other materials. Require lenders and colleges to tell prospective borrowers about federal loans before they sign for a private loan, and emphasize that private loans are not backed by the federal government and can cost more.

• Require rate quotes for private loans to include full APR and other items required by the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and make sure borrowers have accurate quotes before they sign a promissory note.

• Require a minimum cooling-off period during which the borrower can cancel the loan with no prepayment penalty.

• Amend current federal bankruptcy law so that private student loans have to meet the same criteria as other forms of consumer debt to be exempted from discharge. Federal student loans come with some borrower protections for economic hardship, unemployment death or disability, whereas private loans do not. Shielding private loans from bankruptcy means that repayment demands can essentially extend forever.

For more information: projectonstudentdebt.org.

---

Joan E. Lisante is an attorney who writes frequently on consumer issues.

More

Yahoo! Sues Fake Lottery Scammers

But the actual defendants are still unknown

Internet portal Yahoo! has taken the unusual step of filing a lawsuit against a number of unnamed individuals and companies engaged in the fake lottery sca...

Internet portal Yahoo! has taken the unusual step of filing a lawsuit against a number of unnamed individuals and companies engaged in the fake lottery scam. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in New York City, under the Federal Trademark Act, the Federal CAN-SPAM Act, and related state laws.

The suit targets those who used "Yahoo! Lottery" as the name of their fake lottery. It says the defendants unlawfully sent e-mail messages to Internet users for the purpose of deceiving them into believing that they have won a lottery or prize offered by Yahoo!.

The complaint alleges that without permission or authorization, and with full knowledge and notice of Yahoo!'s trademark rights, the spammers willfully masqueraded as Yahoo!, and sent e-mails claiming that the recipient had won a lottery, prize or other award from Yahoo!.

"Yahoo! does not offer any such awards and has no affiliation or any connection with the spammers or their e-mail communications," the company said in a statement.

The fake lottery scam is a well-established hoax designed to trick unsuspecting e-mail users into revealing valuable personal data like passwords, credit card information, and social security numbers.

Commonly known as a "phishing" scam, in this confidence game, perpetrators typically use the stolen information to access recipients' bank accounts and credit cards, to apply for unauthorized credit cards or loans, or to fraudulently create documents bearing the victims' personal identification and then use or sell it in a wide variety of credit and identity scams. Some of the "winners" are also deceived into sending the defendants money for processing and mailing charges.

Though it has been around for years and has been widely reported, the fake lottery scam continues to rake in millions for scammers. The fake lottery scam topped ConsumerAffairs.com's Top 10 Scams of 2006.

"The unauthorized use of Yahoo!'s trademarks is misleading, fraudulent, and has actually confused, misled, and deceived the public. Yahoo! will vigorously enforce its intellectual property rights and will not tolerate lottery hoax emails," said Joe Siino, Senior Vice President, Yahoo! Global IP and Business Strategy.

"Yahoo! is 100 percent committed to protecting our users from fraudulent e-mail messages and this lawsuit sends a clear message to spammers," said John Kremer, Vice President, Yahoo! Mail. "We are going after individuals who have attempted to negatively impact the e-mail experience for consumers across the Internet. Through our continued litigation efforts, our top goal and priority is to further protect Yahoo! Mail users and the public from this type of fraudulent activity."

As any law school graduate will tell you, it is often difficult to successfully sue someone unless you know their identity. Yahoo said it is currently trying to learn the identity of the defendants, who often employ third-party email services or hijacked computers, to send out their spam.

More Scam Alerts ...

More

FTC Wraps Up Largest Fraud Crackdown in its History

More than 180 actions filed against alleged scam artists

FTC Wraps Up Largest Fraud Crackdown in its History...


In the largest telemarketing fraud crackdown in history, authorities in the United States and Canada filed more than 180 criminal and civil actions against companies that allegedly used deceptive tactics to sell everything from extended car warranties to magazine subscriptions.

The legal action -- spearheaded by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under the code name "Operation Tele-PHONEY" -- targeted 13 companies that allegedly duped more than 500,000 consumers nationwide through deceptive telemarketing schemes.

Consumers lost more than $100 million in these companies' various schemes, the FTC said.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received scores of complaints about one of the telemarketing companies named in last week's crackdown -- Publishers Business Services, which operates out of an office in Henderson, Nevada.

That company allegedly used deceptive and intimidating tactics to sell magazine subscriptions, according to the FTC.

"These defendants allegedly disguise their sales pitch as a survey, at the end of which they offer 'free' or low-cost magazine subscriptions,'" the FTC said in a written statement. "They send a bill weeks later, stating that consumers agreed to pay several hundred dollars for the subscriptions"

Intimidation

The FTC added: "When consumers complain or attempt to cancel, the defendants tell them that they are obligated to pay the bill and may not cancel because they entered into a 'verbal contract' during the survey call and the defendants have already paid the magazine publishers for the subscriptions. The defendants then attempt to extort payment by harassing the consumers at work, threatening to initiate collection actions, or threatening to submit derogatory information about them to the major credit bureaus."

Those actions mirror the complaints we've heard from consumers about Publishers Business Services.

"This company called my daughter who is not mentally stable and only 19 years old," Luanne H. of Durango, Colorado, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "They called her at work and harassed her and got information from her. She said she never chose to order magazines. Now they are trying to say she owes $700 plus dollars. I called and explained to them and said no one wants the magazines and to stop sending them."

The company refused, saying Luanne had pay to cancel an order her daughter never placed.

"They wanted $100 minimum to stop sending them," Luanne said. "I said we do not want your magazines and we will not pay you anything."

That's when the company resorted to scare tactics to force her daughter to pay, Luanne said.

"They stated they will turn her in to a collections agency and the judge will decide. This place is a huge scam and should be put out of business for preying on young people. I am sure they try to target elderly people, too. "

John S. of Chadwicks, New York, said the telemarketing company also tried to force him to pay for magazines he didn't order.

"I was called at workI work at a lumber department with many customers and power equipment. I was unable to hear the call. The next thing I know, I receive bill for $720 of magazines.

"I have called these people three times for cancellation," John said. "Today I was told this is not possible. When I asked for the contact information for someone who could take care of it, the customer service rep hung up the phone on me."

ConsumerAffairs.com contacted Publishers Business Services, but the company did not return our call.

Unordered goods

The other companies sued by the FTC included telemarketers that allegedly sent unordered household goods to consumers to those that offered phony tax rebates or prescription drug plans.

In some cases, the callers allegedly deceived consumers through the use of:

• Fraudulent sweepstakes pitches;
• Offers of free gifts;
• Promises that for an advance fee, consumers would be "guaranteed" to receive loans or credit cards. Those, however, never materialized or were useless.

The FTC said some companies named in the lawsuits allegedly used consumers' bank account information to bill them without their authorization, harassed them to pay for unordered goods, and violated the rules of the Do Not Call (DNC) Registry.

Besides Publishers Business Services, the FTC took legal action against:

Med Provisions This company, based in Montreal, Canada, allegedly called consumers in the United States and claimed it could help them save 30 to 50 percent on prescription drugs. The company claimed to operate an online pharmacy and offered a 30-day money-back "guarantee" on its "membership package," which costs $389. Some consumers were also told they would lose their Medicare benefits if they did not sign up for the package, according to the FTC. Many consumers who ordered the package either receive nothing from the company or a worthless card from an organization that supposedly could provide Canadian drugs to U.S. consumers. According to the FTC, all of the company's claims are false, and many consumers could not get a refund;

Union Consumer Benefits This Montreal-based telemarketing company allegedly sold worthless medical discount packages to elderly consumers throughout the United States, according to the FTC. The company allegedly used deceptive tactics to persuade consumers to reveal their bank account information -- often pretending they were calling from the Social Security Administration, Medicare, or the consumers' bank. In some cases, the company offered "free" benefits or claimed to offer a medical discount plan that would save the consumers' money on medical care and prescriptions -- for a one-time fee. The company then debited $399 from the consumers' bank accounts and sent them a package containing a prescription discount card that does not work. The FTC also alleged the company violated the law by calling consumers whose telephone numbers were listed on the DNC Registry;

Steven Breitling/ICS Financial Firm According to the FTC, this company first sent consumers a direct mailing from ICS Financial that "guaranteed" them a $2,000-$5,000 loan. The company's telemarketers then contacted consumers who returned the application forms and told them they had to first pay a $75 "consulting/collective" fee and sign a contract to get their loan. After paying the fee, many consumers never hear from the company again, the FTC alleged. Those who do hear from the company were referred to another lender. That lender's application stated they were not guaranteed for approval and also required them to pay an additional fee. Many consumers who completed the loan applications and paid the fee received a notice stating their loan was denied;

American Financial Card, Inc. According to the FTC, this company ran an advance-fee telemarketing scheme. The FTC alleged this company defrauded thousands of consumers in the United States by falsely promising to deliver a credit card for an up-front payment of $200. The company claimed the cards carried a $2,000 credit limit, cash advances up to $1,000, and a fixed interest rate. After paying the fee, consumers did not receive the promised card. Instead, most received a card that could only be used to buy items from the company's catalog;

Integrity Financial Enterprises This is another advance-fee scam, according to the FTC. The company allegedly offered consumers a general-purpose credit card with a credit limit between $2,500 and $7,500. Consumers, however, had to pay an up-front fee of $200 to $300. The company told consumers they would receive vouchers equal to the amount of the advance fee and those could be applied to future card balances. Some consumers received nothing from the company, according to the FTC. Others received a card they could only use to buy merchandise from the company's catalog or online store. The company told consumers who complained they would not receive a refund of the advance fee they paid;

Financial Advisors & Associates The FTC alleged this company and its principals -- doing business as Freedom Financial and MyUnsecuredCreditCard.com -- deceptively told consumers they could provide them with a major credit card, like a Visa or MasterCard. Instead, the company gave consumers only limited-use, advance-fee catalog cards. After paying 10 percent of the promised "credit line" up-front, consumers learned the cards could only be used to buy merchandise from the company's catalog or Web site. The company routinely turned down consumers' requests for refunds of the up-front fees they paid, according to the FTC;

Handicapped & Disabled Workshops, Inc. The FTC alleged this company targeted elderly consumers in telemarketing various household products at exorbitant prices. The company aggressively solicited these consumers, often calling several times a day, to convince them to buy, the FTC said. The telemarketers' calls seeking "support" or "donations," made many consumers believe their purchases would help the handicapped or disabled workers employed by the company. The FTC also alleged the company mailed consumers products they did not order and debited consumers' credit and debit cards -- without their authorization -- for products they did not order. The FTC also alleged the company violated the DNC Registry;

Helping Hands of Hope In a similar scam targeting elderly consumers, the FTC alleged this company sold various household products and promised that proceeds from the sales would either help employ the disabled or go to a charitable cause. The FTC said the company harassed consumers who said they did not want to buy these productsand tried to force them to make a purchase. In some instances, the company sent consumers products they did not order. The FTC also said the company ignored the DNC Registry and consumers' request to not be called again;

U.S. Magazine Services According to the FTC, this company allegedly misled consumers about the monthly charges for magazine subscriptions. While the actual price was sometimes disclosed in later calls--after billing information was provided--some consumers only learned what they were charged (or that they were charged at all) after checking their credit card bills or debit card account balances. Consumers who tried to cancel the subscriptions were told no cancellations were allowed;

NHS Systems, Inc. According to the FCT, this company used false and misleading sales tactics to deceive consumers' into providing bank account information. The FTC said the company claimed to be affiliated with U.S. government agencies like the Social Security Administration, IRS, or Medicare. The company often promised grants, tax refunds, tax rebates, or health benefits. Consumers were charged $29.95, $299.95, or both, and later discovered they were enrolled in a "discount health care program" they never authorized;

City West Advantage, Inc. d/b/a Unified Services According to the FTC, this company called consumers and told them they had won a $1,000 shopping spree or other free gifts. The FTC, however, said the company's real objective was to persuade consumers to provide their bank account information. The company's telemarketers told consumers they would be charged $1.95 for shipping and handling for their so-called free gifts. If the consumer was reluctant to provide their banking information, the telemarketers allegedly called back repeatedly and harassed the consumer -- even after they asked them to stop calling. Consumers who provided their banking information learned the company charged them approximately $149. In most instances, the "gift" consumers received was worthless--usually an "Internet shopping spree" certificate that could only be used on one Web site;

Direct Connection Consulting, Inc./Suretouch LLP This company allegedly contacted consumers with promises of free gift cards, gas cards, or free resort vacations. In many cases, the company told consumers they were being called by major retailers and would be rewarded if they took a short survey. They company told other consumers they would receive free products if they listened to a telemarketing pitch and answered "yes" when prompted. The telemarketers often read their pitches so fast that consumers could not understand them or did not realize they had agreed to pay for products or services. Consumers who understood the pitches were told they would not be billed because they had not given the company any billing information. The company, however, had access to consumers' billing information and charged their credit cards or debited their bank accounts. Consumers who were charged did not receive the free goods or the services promised. The Kentucky Attorney General's office joined the FTC as co-plaintiff in this case.

The FTC said this telemarketing crackdown -- which included assistance from law enforcement agencies across the country and in Canada -- will save consumers approximately $30 million over the next year. "The sheer breadth of 'Operation Tele-PHONEY' is a testament to the ability of law enforcement agencies at all levels to work together effectively to help protect consumers both in the United States and abroad," FTC Chairman William E. Kovacic said. "I'd like to personally thank all of our partners in this sweep for helping to eradicate the scourge of telemarketing fraud."

What to do

The FTC said consumers can protect themselves from unscrupulous telemarketing schemes by asking callers the following questions:

• Who is calling and why? Telemarketers must tell you this is a sales call, the name of the seller, and what they are selling before they make their pitch, according to the FTC. If the caller refuses to give you this information, hang up;

• What's their hurry? Fast talkers who use high pressure tactics could be hiding something, the FTC warns. Take your time. Most legitimate businesses will give you time and written information about an offer before asking you to make a purchase;

• If it's free, why are you asking me for money? The FTC says consumers should question any charges they must pay to receive a prize or gift. Free is free. If you have to pay, it's not a prize or a gift;

• Why am I "confirming" my account information or giving it out at all? Some callers have your billing information before they call you, according to the FTC. They're trying to get you to say "okay" so they can claim you approved the charge. Or, they're trying to learn your account number. Don't give out this information unless you know who you are talking to and what you are buying;

• What time is it? The law states telemarketers can only call between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m, according to the FTC. Anyone calling earlier or later that those times is violating the law.

Can't the national DNC Registry prevent these telemarketing calls?

The FTC says putting your number on the Registry will stop most telemarketing calls but not all of them.

Consumers will still receive calls from companies they do business with, unless they specifically tell those companies not to call.

The FTC warns that any calls from unfamiliar businesses could be a sign of a scam.

Consumers can report telemarketing scams and violations of the DNC Registry to the FTC or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP.

More

Pet Food Makers Agree to $24 Million Settlement

Dog, cat owners would be compensated for medical expenses, cremation costs

Pet Food Makers Agree to $24 Million Settlement...


Parties involved in the litigation surrounding the largest pet food recall in U.S. history -- blamed for the deaths and illnesses of thousands of dogs and cats in North America -- have agreed to settle the case for $24 million.

The proposed settlement -- triggered by last year's recall of 60 million containers of melamine-tainted dog and cat food -- was filed last Thursday in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey.

A hearing to approve the settlement is set for May 30.

The tainted pet food debacle started last March when Menu Foods of Canada recalled millions of containers of dog and cat food.

The company -- which manufacturers dog and cat food under nearly 100 brand names -- took that action after pets across the country that ate its food suffered kidney problems and became ill or died.

"The Settlement Agreement will create a Settlement Fund of $24 million that will allow a potential recovery of up to 100% of all economic damages related to the pet food recall that were incurred by pet owners and persons who purchased recalled pet food in the United States and in Canada, subject to several limitations," Menu Foods wrote in a press release.

Under the proposed settlement, pet owners can file claims for medical expenses and reimbursement of burial or cremation costs. Pet owners who do not have documentation for these expenses can receive up to $900 each.

According to The Kansas City Star, the settlement sets aside $250,000 for reimbursement of recalled products, $400,000 for pet owners who paid to have their dogs and cats screened for health problems, and the remainder will cover all other economic damages, including those related to the death or injury of a pet.

Jeniphr Breckenridge, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the case, told the newspaper she is pleased with the settlement. "But at the same time, we recognize that there is no legal settlement that can compensate pet owners for losing a pet," she said.

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 an ingredient used to make the pet food -- wheat gluten imported from China -- was tainted with the chemical melamine.

Melamine is used to make plastics.

Under the proposed settlement, pet food makers must continue testing ingredients imported from China.

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 estimated the recall cost the company $53.8 million.

The company said pet owners with potential claims should not contact Menu Foods regarding the proposed settlement. A third party claims administrator appointed by the court will oversee the Settlement Fund, the company said. Once the settlement is approved, Menu Foods said it will post contact information for the claims administrator on its Web site.

More about pets ...



More

What Women -- and Men -- Should Know about Breast Cancer

The Healthy Geezer

What Women -- and Men -- Should Know about Breast Cancer...

Breast cancer is second behind lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in women. The chance of developing invasive breast cancer at some time in a woman's life is about 1 in 8.

The female breast is composed primarily of milk-producing glands (lobules), ducts that connect the glands to the nipple, and soft tissue.

Breast cancer is a malignant tumor that has grown from breast cells. Nearly all breast cancers start in the ducts or lobules of the breast. The cancer can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body, but it will continue to be defined as breast cancer.

Types of breast cancer

There are many forms of breast cancer.

Infiltrating ductal carcinoma (IDC) is the most common form. It starts in a duct, then breaks through the duct wall and invades the tissue of the breast. At this point, it can metastasize through the lymphatic vessels and the bloodstream. About 80% of invasive breast cancers are infiltrating ductal carcinomas.

Lymph plays a major role in breast cancer. It is a fluid that carries immune-system cells through lymphatic vessels. Lymph nodes are small collections of these cells in the vessels. Almost all lymphatic vessels in the breast connect to lymph nodes under the arm. Cancer cells that enter lymphatic vessels can spread and begin to grow in lymph nodes. This is why doctors check the lymph nodes to see if breast cancer has spread.

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is the most common type of noninvasive breast cancer.

The term in situ means the cancer is confined to its original site. DCIS denotes that the cancer cells are inside the ducts but have not spread through the walls of the ducts into the surrounding breast tissue. About 20% of new breast cancer cases will be DCIS. Nearly all women diagnosed at this early stage of breast cancer can be cured.

Risk factors

There are many risk factors for breast cancer.

• The risk rises with age. About 77% of women with breast cancer are older than 50 when they are diagnosed.

• Breast cancer risk is higher among women whose close relatives have the disease.

• A woman with cancer in one breast is at high risk of developing a new cancer in either of her breasts.

• Women who started menstruating before age 12 or who went through menopause after age 55 have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.

• Having multiple pregnancies and becoming pregnant at an early age reduces breast cancer risk.

• Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause increases your risk of breast cancer.

• Drinking alcohol is linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

• Obesity is a breast cancer risk, especially for women after menopause.

Evidence is growing that exercise reduces breast cancer risk.

Diagnosis

The most common breast cancer symptom is a lump. Other symptoms include swelling, skin irritation, nipple pain or retraction, and an unusual discharge.

Early diagnosis saves lives. The combination of a mammogram, a clinical breast exam and self-exams is recommended by healthcare experts to reduce breast-cancer deaths.

A mammogram is a breast x-ray. If mammography finds an abnormality, confirmation by biopsy is required. In a biopsy, a tissue sample is taken for analysis.

About 2/10 percent of mammograms lead to a cancer diagnosis. About 10 percent of women examined will need another mammogram. Only about 10 percent of those women will need a biopsy. Out of those biopsies, 80 percent will come back negative for cancer.

Women 40 and older should have an annual mammogram and breast exam by a healthcare professional. As long as a woman is in good health and would be a candidate for treatment, she should continue to get mammograms and exams.

Research has shown that self exams help find breast cancer. Self examination teaches women how their breasts feel normally and to notice changes.

Ultrasound and MRI are other diagnostic tools.

Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to outline a part of the body. Breast ultrasound can focus upon something picked up by a mammogram.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. They can be used to examine cancers found by mammogram.

Treatment

Most women with breast cancer have some type of surgery. Surgeries include lumpectomy to remove only the breast lump and surrounding tissue, a mastectomy that removes part or all of the breast or can be more extensive to include lymph nodes and muscle tissue.

Radiation therapy is another form of treatment. It uses high-energy rays or particles that destroy cancer cells. This treatment may be used to destroy cancer cells that remain in the breast, chest wall, or underarm area after surgery.

Medicines are also used to treat breast cancer. Chemotherapy employs intravenous and oral drugs that can kill cancer cells in most parts of the body. The anti-estrogen drug tamoxifen has been used for more than 20 years to treat breast cancer.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat menopause symptoms and its relationship to breast cancer has become a controversial issue. Unfortunately, many women experience menopausal symptoms after treatment for breast cancer.

In the past, doctors had offered HRT after breast-cancer treatment to women suffering from severe symptoms. However, recently, a study found that breast cancer survivors taking HRT were much more likely to develop a new or recurrent breast cancer than women who were not taking the drugs. This study discouraged doctors from recommending HRT to breast-cancer patients.

Phytoestrogens, estrogen-like substances, may be safer than the estrogens used in HRT. However, there is insufficient data on phytoestrogens to evaluate their safety for breast cancer survivors.

Male breast cancer

Breast cancer strikes most often when men are in their sixties.

Male breast cancer? Men do have breast cells that can become cancerous. The disease is uncommon in men. It represents only 1% of all breast cancers. Because of its rarity, many men arent aware it exists. And thats a problem.

For unknown reasons, the incidence of male breast cancer has been increasing. About 2,000 men in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer annually.

Young boys and girls have a small amount of breast tissue made up of a few ducts. At puberty, female hormones in girls make breast ducts grow, milk glands form and fat increase. The male hormones in boys prevent further growth of breast tissue. Men's breast tissue contains ducts, but only a few if any lobules.

The most common symptom of male breast cancer is the same as it is for women a lump. Other signs include: skin dimpling, a new indentation of the nipple, redness or scaling of breast skin, a clear or bloody discharge from the nipple.

Risk factors

Some risk factors for male breast cancer are:

• Age. The average age for a man diagnosed with breast cancer is 67.

• Family. About 20 percent of men with breast cancer are related to someone with the disease.

• Genes. About 7 percent of breast cancers in men are inherited.

• Radiation. Theres a higher risk to men who underwent chest radiation treatments when they were younger.

• Klinefelter Syndrome. Men with this syndrome make lower levels of male hormones androgens and more female hormones. This can cause gynecomastia, benign breast enlargement. Men with this condition may be at greater risk of breast cancer. Many medicines used to treat ulcers, high blood pressure, and heart failure can cause gynecomastia, too.

• Estrogen. The risk is small for men who take estrogen the main female hormone. Estrogen drugs may be used to treat prostate cancer.

• Liver disease. This can increase your risk of gynecomastia and breast cancer.

• Obesity. Fat cells convert androgens into estrogen.

• Alcohol. Drinking alcohol raises the odds that a man will develop breast cancer. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed.

If a man has a family history of the disease, he should consult a doctor about regular testing. Diagnostic tests for men include a clinical breast exam, mammograms, ultrasound, biopsy and, if indicated, a nipple discharge exam.

Breast cancer treatment for men is similar to that given to women. Some men may need only surgery. Others will need surgery and radiation, chemotherapy or hormone therapy.

There isnt much tissue to a man's breast, so removing the cancer usually means excising most of the tissue. The procedures that are used on women to save breast tissue arent practicable for men.

Most men with breast cancer require a modified radical mastectomy. In this procedure, a surgeon removes the entire breast and some underarm lymph nodes, but leaves chest muscles intact.

All Rights Reserved © 2008 by Fred Cicetti

 



More

California Finds Air Pollution Claims Lives

Fine particles produced by combustion take their toll

California Finds Air Pollution Claims Lives...

May 23, 2008
California's smog and air pollution is legendary, and now a state agency warns it is also deadly. The California Air Resources Board has received research showing long-term exposure to fine-particle pollution pose a greater health threat than previously estimated.

According to the report, 14,000 to 24,000 premature deaths a year are estimated to be associated with exposures to PM2.5, a mix of microscopic particles less than 2.5 microns in size. A majority of these deaths occur in highly populated areas around the state, including the South Coast, San Joaquin Valley and San Francisco Bay air basins.

"Particle pollution is a silent killer," said ARB Chairman Mary D. Nichols. "We must work even harder to cut these life-shortening emissions by further addressing pollution sources head-on."

Particulate matter (PM) is a complex blend of substances ranging from dry solid fragments, solid-core fragments with liquid coatings, and small droplets of liquid. These particles vary in shape, size and chemical composition, and may include metals, soot, soil and dust.

At the request of the board in 2006, ARB researchers carefully reviewed all scientific studies on the subject and consulted with health scientists. While exposures to particulate matter have long been known as a serious health threat, new information suggests that the pollutant is even more toxic than previously thought.

Hospitalizations, emergency room visits and doctor visits for respiratory illnesses or heart disease have been associated with exposure to particulate matter. Other studies suggest that exposure may influence asthma symptoms and acute and chronic bronchitis.

Children, the elderly and people with pre-existing chronic disease are most at risk of experiencing adverse health effects. Even small increases in exposures may increase health risks.

Major contributors include trucks, passenger cars, off-road equipment, electric power generation and industrial processes, residential wood burning, and forest and agricultural burning. All combustion processes generally produce fine particulate matter.



More

Warning: 'Love Stone' Can Cause Poisoning, Death

NYC Health Department issues warning after hospital reports a death

Its active ingredients include several chemicals known as bufadienolides. They are derived from toad venom and some trees and can disrupt the normal rhythm...


The New York City Health Department warns that an illegal aphrodisiac known as stone can cause serious poisonings and death.

Last week, an area hospital alerted the New York City Poison Control Center that a man had died after ingesting the aphrodisiac. Similar products were linked to poisonings and deaths during the 1990s.

The product is also known as Piedra, Jamaican Stone, Love Stone, Black Stone or Chinese Rock.

Stone, a hard dark brown substance, is typically sold as a solid chunk less than a square inch in size. It may be packaged in a clear plastic bag with some labeling. The product is sold in some adult stores and can also be found in other neighborhood stores.

Its active ingredients include several chemicals known as bufadienolides. They are derived from toad venom and some trees and can disrupt the normal rhythm of the heart.

Stone can cause serious heart problems or death when ingested, but can also be harmful when applied to the skin its typical use. Symptoms of poisoning may include chest pain, abdominal pain and vomiting.

The Health Department advises people who may have obtained and used these products to:

• Immediately stop using them.

• Wrap and discard them as garbage (do not flush down the toilet).

• If you suspect poisoning, call the Poison Control Center at (212) POISONS. Spanish- speaking callers can call (212) VENENOS. Interpretation services are available.

These products are banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but are imported illegally. Selling them in New York City is also a violation of the New York City Health Code.

The Health Department has sent an alert to health care providers in New York City, asking them to watch for potential poisonings and to call Poison Control if they suspect a case. The agency is also working with federal authorities to require distributors and store owners to stop selling these products and remove them from shelves and inventory stockrooms.

 



More

Anti-Smoking Drug Chantix Linked to Seizures, Heart Problems, Diabetes

FAA bans its use by pilots and air-traffic controllers

Anti-Smoking Drug Chantix Linked to Seizures, Heart Problems, Diabetes...

Smoking's bad for you but a nonprofit drug safety group says a popular quit-smoking drug, Chantix, may be almost as bad, with new research linking it to problems such as heart trouble, seizures and diabetes.

The Institute for Safe Medication Practices released findings of its review of adverse-event reports filed with the FDA. The reports included 988 serious incidents linked to Chantix in the U.S. during last year's fourth quarter -- the most for any medication in that period.

Alarmed by the report, the Federal Aviation Administration banned the use of Chantix by pilots and air-traffic controllers.

Thomas Moore, the study's lead author, called on Pfizer and the FDA to "immediately" strengthen Chantix's label warnings and rigorously examine emerging safety issues.

"Based on the data available now, the existing warnings are completely inadequate," he said. "You'd expect a stop-smoking drug to have a relatively low number of reports," because it isn't used in high-risk patients.

Activists were quick to suggest the findings are the latest evidence that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not adequately examining the safety of new drugs or monitoring already-approved drugs closely enough.

No surprise

Sidney Wolfe, M.D., Director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen said the Chantix findings came as no surprise to him.

"In September 2007, we warned in our publication Worst Pills, Best Pills News that people should not use Chantix until 2014 because of the inadequate amount of information about its safety and concerns raised by the increased amount of psychiatric adverse events that occurred in the randomized trials preceding its approval," Wolfe said.

"The large number of adverse reactions in the careful study being published today by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) adds new urgency to our previous safety concerns about Chantix," he said. "It also highlights the dangerous inadequacy of the response of Pfizer and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the rapidly increasing number of serious, life-threatening adverse events seen with this drug."

In one of the studies, 6.8 percent of patients using Chantix had psychiatric adverse events as opposed to only 2.4 percent of those given a placebo.

Wolfe noted that in the just-released May 2008 issue of the British Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB), the authors stated that: We are concerned about reports of psychiatric problems with this drug. Given such concerns, marketing claims of a favourable safety and tolerability Profile are questionable.

Stronger warnings

The ISMP study of 173 serious reports of accidents and injuries, including 28 road traffic accidents, calls for a much stronger warning than in the recently revised new labeling and new patient medication guide for the drug, Wolfe said.

The new label states that [p]atients should be advised to use caution driving or operating machinery until they know how quitting smoking with Chantix may affect them.

Wolfe said the inadequacy of this use caution warning is further emphasized by the statement in the label that there were, in clinical trials with Chantix, Frequent: Disturbance in attention, Dizziness, Sensory disturbance.

"None of these are compatible with safely driving (cars, buses, trains or planes) or operating machinery," Wolfe said.

Staffing shortages

The reports reviewed by the institute in its report are available to Pfizer and the FDA and they are supposed to examine such reports closely to detect possible problems.

An FDA spokeswoman said in published reports that because of "staffing shortages," the agency was focusing on Chantix' possible psychiatric effects and claimed the warning label was accurate.

Chantix went on the market in the U.S. in 2006. Pfizer revised its labeling in November, January and last Friday to reflect concerens about its potential link to suicidal thinking.

Moore's study identified 173 injuries, including falls and traffic accidents, involving patients taking Chantix. The FDA data also contain 224 reports of potential heart-rhythm disturbances, 372 reports of possible movement disorders and 544 reports of likely glycemic problems, including diabetes.

 



More

Verizon, FCC Cook Up Termination-Fee Plan

Deal would jettison states & suits and possibly sink Sprint's boat

Verizon, FCC Cook Up Termination-Fee Plan...

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a new proposal submitted by Verizon Wireless that would let consumers cancel wireless contracts without incurring punitive "early termination fees,"and to further prorate fees over the course of a contract.

In exchange, Verizon wants the FCC to block lawsuits against the companies over the fees, and prevent state lawmakers from seeking greater regulation over wireless fees as well.

While Verizon has used the proposal to paint itself as pro-consumer, telecom insiders noted that Verizon and AT&T; would both be likely to sign new customers from struggling Sprint, which lost 1.2 million subscribers last year, if termination fees were eliminated or reduced.

"You have to watch both hands when you're dealing with the big telcos," said a longtime Washington hand. "While they're stroking you, they're stabbing someone else."

"As the clock runs out on the Bush Administration, business interests are grabbing all they can before a new crew takes over the cookie jar," this person said. "This is your basic get-it-while-we-can maneuver."

The Associated Press first reported yesterday that the FCC was considering the proposal, which if adopted would enable wireless customers to cancel their contracts for up to 30 days after they sign a cellphone contract or 10 days after they receive their first bill without penalty.

Termination fees would be lowered each month of a customer's contract, but some reports say the fees would not go below $60.

Nullify lawsuits

In exchange, Verizon wants the government to block numerous class-action lawsuits filed in various states over the termination fees. The proposal would also preempt state regulators' authority to regulate wireless fees, making federal authorities the primary source of redress for consumer complaints.

Other details of the Verizon plan remain scarce and the FCC itself has yet to publicly comment, but consumer advocates are already criticizing the proposal as too favorable to industry. Ed Mierzwinski, head of U.S. PIRG, called the proposal an "October Surprise in May."

"If Verizon wins, Martin would slip a bad excuse of a federal early termination fee regulation into FCC rules, so that Verizon can avoid existing lawsuits under state law arguing that early termination fees are unfair and deceptive efforts to prevent cell phone customers from shopping around," Mierzwinski said. "The companies would be required to slightly lower and pro-rate the fees, but not enough to matter."

Targeted for Termination--And Preemption

Termination fees have become a touchpoint for criticism of the wireless industry, with customers, consumer advocates, state regulators, and members of Congress criticizing them as a method to keep consumers locked into wireless contracts.

The wireless industry has claimed that the fees are a necessity in order to sell handsets at lower prices and recoup costs, and that consumers would not buy the phones at their higher, non-subsidized prices.

In addition to the multiple class-action lawsuits over the fees, Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MI) introduced the "Cell Phone Consumer Empowerment Act" in 2007, which would mandate that termination fees be prorated by 50 percent after the first year of a two-year contract, and would limit the circumstances where other fees could be imposed.

The combination of class-action lawsuits and the threat of new laws prompted the four major telecom companies in America -- Verizon, AT&T;, Sprint, & T-Mobile -- to voluntarily begin prorating their termination fees. Kevin Martin, the FCC chairman, also said his agency would investigate the fees, possibly leading to the discussions surrounding the new proposal.

The usage of federal regulation to block state laws, a tactic called "preemption," is often favored by large industries with strong presences in Washington, and has been added to proposed legislation dealing with everything from identity theft to federal gas mileage standards. Critics of preemption say the tactic enables powerful interest groups with easy access to Congress to get weaker federal laws passed that override stronger state laws.

"The big telecom companies have always preferred 'one-stop lobbying.' It's a lot cheaper and they don't have to deal with all those bothersome states and their pesky citizens," said a Washington strategist who formerly worked with major telecommunications carriers.

 

More

Ski-Doo Snowmobiles Recalled - Explosion

Ski-Doo Snowmobiles Recalled - Explosion...

May 21, 2008
BRP U.S. Inc. is recalling about 400 Ski-Doo Snowmobiles. Under extreme cold and dry weather conditions, an explosion could occur because of sparking in the fuel tank when it is partially filled with gasoline at a low vapor pressure and the engine is left idling. This could cause serious injuries or death.

The firm has received four reports of explosions, one involving burns to legs, fingers and face.

This recall involves Ski-Doo® model names listed below. Model names are located on the side panel.

More

Mortgage Fraud Up 176%, FBI Reports

Economic woes provide fertile field for scam artists

Mortgage fraud is on the rise and consumers need to be wary of the many scams that often surface in the wake of this crime. Those are the findings included...

Mortgage fraud is on the rise and consumers need to be wary of the many scams that often surface in the wake of this crime. Those are among the findings included in a new report issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI).

The FBI's "2007 Mortgage Fraud Report" revealed the agency investigated 1,200 cases in which individuals intentionally misrepresented information a lender used to fund a mortgage in the past year.


Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed during 2007 Source: FBI

That figure reflects a 47 percent increase of mortgage fraud investigations from 2006 -- and a 176 percent jump in the past five years.

The FBI's report also showed the numbers of Suspicious Activity Reports (SAS) regarding mortgage fraud have skyrocketed in the past year. Those reports increased 31 percent in 2007 -- to 46,717.

FBI officials don't know the total dollar loss associated with mortgage fraud.

But just seven percent of the mortgage fraud reports the agency received last year revealed a staggering loss of more than $813 million dollars.

"The $813 million loss denoted in this report is just the tip of the iceberg, reflecting only a small percentage of financial damage suffered by victims of mortgage fraud," said Assistant Director Kenneth W. Kaiser with the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division. "The FBI remains committed to working with our law enforcement, regulatory, and industry partners to unravel these complicated fraud schemes and bring their perpetrators to justice."

The FBI's report also warned the downward trend in the housing market has created an ideal climate for unscrupulous con arts to prey on desperate or unsuspecting homeowners.

And consumers need to protect themselves from a variety of mortgage-related schemes that are likely to surface nationwide.

Key findings

Other key findings outlined in FBI's report included:

• The subprime lending crisis is a contributing factor to mortgage fraud. These high-interest, high-risk loans are designed for people with poor or limited credit histories;

• The percentage of subprime loans nationwide has doubled in the past five years. They now represent more than 13 percent of all outstanding loans;

• Subprime loans contributed to the growing number of foreclosures filed in 2007. FBI officials say the trouble started a few years ago -- when home prices started to rise. That led to relaxed lending practices and the exaggeration of assets by borrowers hoping to qualify for loans. Both those factors, FBI officials say, contributed to fraud;

• In 2007, more than 2.2 million foreclosures were reported on approximately 1.29 million properties nationwide. That's an increase of up to 75 percent from 2006;

• The top 10 mortgage fraud states for 2007 were: Florida, Georgia, Michigan, California, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, New York, Colorado, and Minnesota. Other states affected by mortgage fraud included Arizona, Maryland, Utah, Nevada, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, New Jersey, and Connecticut;

• Mortgage fraud was most concentrated in the north-central region of the United States, according to public and private data analyzed;

• The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) forecasts a continued downward trend in the housing market. That decline, FBI officials warn, gives unscrupulous real estate insiders additional incentives to look for dishonest ways to turn a profit and more opportunities for scam artists to prey on vulnerable homeowners;

• Existing home sales in 2008 are expected to decline by 13 percent from last year, according to the MBA. New home sales are expected to drop 15 percent from 2007. Median home prices are also expected to fall in 2008. Unscrupulous con artists will exploit these weaknesses in the housing market with new and improved schemes, FBI officials warn;

• Those who work in finance-related occupations -- including accountants, mortgage brokers, and lenders -- are often associated with mortgage fraud, according to the FBI. These professionals are familiar with the mortgage loan process and know how to exploit the system;

• Mortgage fraud victims can include borrowers, mortgage industry entities, and those who live in neighborhoods affected by this crime.

Neighbors affected

How are neighborhoods impacted by mortgage fraud?

In several ways, according to the FBI.

• When these "mortgage fraud" properties sell at inflated prices, neighboring homes also become artificially inflated. Property taxes then rise.

• If these "mortgage fraud" properties deteriorate, nearby homeowners may have a difficult time selling their homes.

• And their property values can start to decline.

Myriad of scams

Homeowners also need to keep their guard up to protect themselves -- and their bank accounts -- from the myriad of scams that may surface nationwide in the wake of this mortgage fraud crisis.

These scams include:

Builder-bailout schemes In these scams, builders and developers use financial trickery to unload properties that aren't selling. A builder, for example, may offer a mortgage with no down payment. Let's say a builder wants to sell a home for $200,000. The builder inflates the property's value to $240,000 and finds a buyer. The lender funds a mortgage of $200,000 -- believing the $40,000 was paid to the builder and created equity in the home. The builder gets his money, pays off his building costs, forgives the buyer's $40,000 down payment, and keeps any profits. But if the home goes into foreclosure, the lender has no equity in the property and must pay the foreclosure expenses;

Foreclosure rescue frauds These scams trick homeowners into signing over the deeds to their homes. Con artists in these schemes convince homeowners they can save their homes from foreclosure through deed transfers and the payment of up-front fees. In many case, the deeds on consumers' homes are forged. In extreme cases, con artists may sell the homes or secure second loans without the homeowners' knowledge, stripping the property of its equity;

Identity theft This crime is often used in mortgage fraud schemes and is likely to increase as financial institutions begin to enforce higher lending standards. The identities of individuals with good credit become more valuable to con artists. Those with good credit may be at higher risk for identity theft and mortgage fraud schemes;

Identity theft used to drain home equity lines of credit Some con artists steal consumers' identities to drain Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOC). These HELOC loans differ from standard home equity loans because a homeowner can borrow against a line of credit. In many cases, con artists pose as customers to open HELOC Internet account services. They manipulate customers' account verification processes, including rerouting telephone calls, forging signatures, using passwords, and reciting recent account histories. A con artist, for example, may use a consumer's information to contact a financial institution and request an advance on a HELOC account. Once the advance is given, the con artist sends a fax to the financial institution and requests the funds be transferred to another account. When the financial institution receives that fax, it contacts the account holder to verify the transaction. The call, however, is unknowingly forwarded to the con artist, who verifies the account holder's information to complete the transfer;

Seller-assistance scams These schemes use false appraisals to sell homes at grossly inflated prices. In a typical seller assistance scam, a con artist solicits an anxious seller or his real estate agent and offers to find a buyer. The con artist negotiates the price the seller will accept for the home and then hires an appraiser to inflate the property's value. The property is sold at the inflated price and the con artist pockets a "servicing fee." That's the difference between the home's market value and the falsely inflated sale price. If the mortgage defaults, the lender forecloses on the house. But the lender cannot sell the property for the amount owed because of the inflated price.

These photos are from condos that were involved in a mortgage fraud. The appraisal described "recently renovated condominiums" to include Brazilian hardwood, granite countertops, and a value of $275,000. Source: The FBI

Wall Street affected

The ripple effects of mortgage fraud may also be felt on Wall Street, FBI officials have warned.

"The potential impact of mortgage fraud on financial institutions and the stock market is clear," Chris Swecker, former FBI assistant director, told a House Financial Services subcommittee in 2004. "If fraudulent practices become systemic within the mortgage industry and mortgage fraud is allowed to become unrestrained, it will ultimately place financial institutions at risk and have adverse effects on the stock market."

To address the growing problem of mortgage fraud, FBI officials have joined forces with the Department of Justice and other governmental agencies nationwide.

One of their goals is to identify large-scale industry insiders and criminal enterprises conducting mortgage fraud.

The FBI also held a Mortgage Fraud Summit to address the most severe mortgage fraud problems with agents nationwide.

The agency now has mortgage fraud task forces in 32 offices across the country and is trying to educate the public about mortgage fraud.

To learn more about mortgage fraud, visit the FBI's Web site.

 

More

Drowning Season Opens; Pools a Major Menace to Children

Homeowners must be constantly vigilant, lawyers & safety experts warn

Drowning Season Opens; Pools a Major Menace to Children...

While public and private pools around the country are opening for the summer, a government report released this morning reveals that the number of children age five and younger comprises the largest percentage of pool and spa-related deaths and that that number is increasing.

Besides endangering children, pools are a major threat to the homeowner's financial well-being. An experienced personal injury lawyer said most pool owners are "sitting ducks" for a catastrophic lawsuit.

"A swimming pool is an accident waiting to happen and the homeowner is absolutely responsible for whatever tragedy occurs in that pool, even if it is someone who sneaks in at night and drowns," the lawyer said.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) report revealed that the average number of children under five drowning in pools and spas increased from 267 for the years 2002-2004 to 283 for the years 2003-2005. The majority of those drownings involved one- and two-year-olds and took place in residential settings, according to the report.

Alan Korn, director of public policy at Safe Kids USA, concurred. "Pool drownings are the second leading cause of death for children four and younger behind vehicle crashes. The most dangerous things we do to our children is put them in a car unbuckled and pop them in a pool unsupervised," he said.

Adults need to actively supervise, Korn said. "That does not mean looking over the top of the newspaper every few minutes or supervising while working the barbecue."

"Child drownings don't happen like they do in the movies. They don't scream for help and they don't splash around. They go under and you need to react." He said many children drown while their parents are sitting by the pool but aren't watching closely.

Korn also gave some gruesome details about entrapment. He said it comes in many forms including bodily, when a child and sometimes an adult cannot peel themselves off the pool's drain or get a limb or their hair stuck. Sometimes, if an individual is sitting on a drain, it can result in evisceration, in which the bowels are sucked out of the rectum. Finally, there is mechanical entrapment which occurs when a bathing suit or earing gets stuck in the drain.

CPSC numbers

The average number of deaths in pools and spas for people of all ages from 2003-2005 was 270. Only about a dozen of those deaths each year took place in spas, the CPSC report indicated.

The average number of serious injuries from pools and spas decreased slightly from 2,800 in 2004 to 2006 to 2,700 for 2005 to 2007. The injury numbers are more recent because of a lag in reporting fatalities, according to the report.

Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death to children ages one through four, according to a CPSC press release.

The tragedy of hundreds of children dying each year from accidental drowning and four times as many who are near-drowning victims with devastating injuries, is made even more painful by the knowledge that these types of accidents are preventable, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said at a press conference at a public pool in Washington, D.C. this morning.

Parents should know that simple safety measures for their pool or spa could very well prevent their own child from being lost through such nightmare scenarios as accidental drowning or entrapment.

A new law effective December 19, 2008 requires all public pools and spas have safety drain covers, and in certain circumstances, an anti-entrapment system. Many children are sucked down, entrapped and seriously injured or drowned in drains whose covers break off or have been removed.

Between 1999 and 2007 there were 74 reported incidents involving entrapment, resulting in 9 deaths and 63 injuries, according to the report.

However, most child drownings are simply the result of no adult supervision, according to a CPSC press release.

Legal responsibility

Homeowners should be aware that having a pool subjects them to legal responsibility for deaths and injuries that occur in that pool.

Make no mistake, said one expert: the pool owner is responsible for what happens in his or her pool. The pool owner has an absolute responsibility to provide a safe environment for children and adults alike and to be pro-active in preventing accidents.

Experts recommend you not accept the responsibility of pool ownership unless you are aware of the risks and are willing to deal with them. At the most basic level, you and all able-bodied adults in your family should successfully complete a CPR course. Everyone in your household should learn to swim and be knowledgeable in pool safety.

Make sure your homeowner's insurance policy includes coverage that will protect you against liability lawsuits resulting from swimming pool injuries. You may want to add an additional liability policy specifically covering pool accidents. One million dollars is the absolute minimum you should have; more is desirable.

Don't rely on posting signs such as "swim at your own risk," "too shallow to dive", etc., to protect you against a lawsuit. Anyone who is injured in your pool, even if they are trespassing, may have the legal right to file a claim against you for any damages resulting from injuries received while in your pool.

These legal risks extend to small inflatable pools as well as in-ground units.

Layers of protection

The safety agency suggests pool owners adopt several layers of protection, including physical barriers, such as a fence completely surrounding the pool with self-closing, self-latching gates to prevent unsupervised access by young children. If the house forms a side of the barrier, use alarms on doors leading to the pool area and a power safety cover over the pool.

In addition, the agency provides these pool and spa safety tips:

• Since every second counts, always look for a missing child in the pool first. Precious time is often wasted looking for missing children anywhere but in the pool.

• Don't leave toys and floats in the pool that can attract young children and cause them to fall in the water when they reach for the items.

• Inspect pools and spas for missing or broken drain covers.

• Do not allow children in a pool or spa with missing or broken covers. Inserting an arm or leg into the opening can result in powerful suction and total body submersion and drowning.

• For above-ground and inflatable pools with ladders, remove or secure the ladder when the pool is not in use.

• It is important to always be prepared for an emergency by having rescue equipment and a phone near the pool. Parents should learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Inflatable pools

The danger of drowning is not confined to large, in-ground pools. Small inflatable pools are also hazardous.

CPSC has reports of 17 drowning deaths involving inflatable pools in 2005, up from nine in 2004 and 10 in 2003.

Small inflatable pools, about 2 feet deep, can cost as little as $50, and larger pools, up to 4 feet deep and 18 feet wide, can cost under $200. These pools often fall outside of local building codes that require barriers, and may often be purchased by consumers without considering the barriers necessary to help protect young children from the dangers of pools.

CPSC said last year that its staff was working with the voluntary standards group ASTM International, consumer safety groups, retailers and inflatable pool manufacturers to develop safety standards for these products. There's no word on when those standards might be finalized.

Some local jurisdictions already require barriers for larger inflatable pools. For example, the state of New York requires fencing around any pool that is at least 2 feet deep.

"Parents need to understand any pool poses a drowning risk," former CPSC Chairman Hal Stratton said last year. "Consider the danger of water before investing in an inflatable pool."



More

U.S. Continues To Lag In Broadband Penetration

New international rankings released; U.S. is 15th in the world

U.S. Continues To Lag In Broadband Adoption...

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has released its report on broadband availabilityamong its member nations -- and though the United States is the largest broadband market in the OECD with nearly 70 million subscribers, it is still ranked 15th among the member nations for overall nationwide broadband penetration.

The United States' mixed record of nationwide broadband availability was one highlight of a sweeping examination of trends in broadband penetration and recommendations for the future.

"Data on penetration, price, speed and usage of the Internet highlight how member countries have promoted competition, encouraged investment and worked together with the private sector to increase connectivity," the report authors said, "[but p]rices for Internet access in some markets remain high and users may have a very limited choice of broadband providers. OECD policy makers can do more to promote efficient competition in some markets."

Among the report's highlights:

• Overall broadband adoption among all OECD member nations rose to 235 million in December 2007, an increase from the previous total of 200 million.

• Average speeds for broadband connections (including cable, DSL, and satellite) in OECD nations increased from 2 megabits in 2004 to almost 9 megabits, while prices continued to fall. The average price for a DSL connection fell by 19 percent, while cable subscriptions fell by 16 percent.

• Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Finland, Korea and Sweden had the highest rates of national broadband penetration, with each surpassing the 30 subscribers per 100 inhabitants minimum.

• Governments of the OECD countries were lauded for implementing policies that promoted broadband usage for educational services, e-government initiatives, long-distance medical care, and consumer content creation.

The OECD researchers noted that though much progress had been made, "OECD policy makers can do more to promote efficient competition in some markets. Governments that have chosen to focus on infrastructure-based competition must create a competitive market environment that provides investment incentives for competitive operators and incumbents."

The report also discussed the variances in broadband availability between rural and urban enclaves among the member countries, with rural communities often facing limited access to carriers, lack of choices, and higher prices. In areas such as serving rural communities and promoting equal access, the report said, "[t]he private sector should take the lead in developing well-functioning broadband markets, but there are clearly some circumstances in which government intervention is justified."

Broadband bellwether

The U.S. lack of national broadband access has been an integral part of the debate over "net neutrality," the principle that all content on the Internet should be accessed equally. Supporters of net neutrality believe that securing the principle in law will be a stepping-stone to larger national broadband policies governing adoption and usage.

S. Derek Turner, research director for media watchdog group Free Press, said that "the reality is that because we lack meaningful broadband competition in this country, consumers pay too much for connections that are too slow. And many Americans -- especially in rural communities -- still don't even have high-speed Internet access. We need solutions -- not excuses."

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency most closely identified with broadband-related issues, has been roundly criticized for its flawed data gathering on broadband availability in the U.S., particularly for counting speeds as slow as 200 kilobits per second as "broadband." The FCC recently announced plans to reform its process and gather more localized data on broadband subscribers around the country.

The Senate also has legislation pending that would further refine the FCC's broadband data-gathering process, in order to more accurately pinpoint which areas of the country are underserved by broadband providers.

 

More

Trip to the Beach Could Make You Sick

More illness tied to swimming, boating

The CDC says there were more recreational water illnesses outbreaks in 2007 than ever before, and the numbers could increase in the coming years....

On the cusp of the unofficial start of summer, the Centers for Disease Control warns that recreational water illnesses are on the rise. The CDC says there were more recreational water illnesses outbreaks in 2007 than ever before, and the numbers could increase in the coming years.

Government agencies are hopelessly addicted to acronyms and therefore refer to recreational water illnesses as "RWIs" -- illnesses that are spread by swallowing, breathing, or having contact with germs in the water of swimming pools, spas, lakes, rivers, or oceans.

"The leading cause of RWI outbreaks is Cryptosporidium or Crypto, a chlorine-resistant parasite, primarily associated with treated swimming places, such as pools and water parks," according to Michele Hlavsa, an epidemiologist at the CDC.

"This RWI has been a public health issue in the past and will likely pose an even bigger challenge in the future."

During 2004-2007, the number of Crypto cases tripled. At the same time, the number of Crypto outbreaks linked to swimming pools more than doubled. Because Crypto is chlorine resistant, even a well-maintained pool can transmit this parasite.

"People need to practice healthy swimming habits, such as not swimming when they have diarrhea, not swallowing the water, taking a shower before swimming, washing their hands after using the toilet or changing diapers, and washing their children thoroughly -- especially their bottoms -- with soap and water before swimming. To prevent outbreaks, we encourage pool operators to add supplemental disinfection to conventional chlorination and filtration methods," said Hlavsa.

Symptoms generally begin two to 10 days after becoming infected with the parasite.

Crypto is characterized by watery diarrhea lasting one to three weeks. It can be spread by swallowing recreational water contaminated with Crypto or by putting something in your mouth or accidentally swallowing something that has come in contact with the stool of a person or infected animal.

Other symptoms include stomach cramps or pain, dehydration, nausea, vomiting, fever, and weight loss. Crypto is not spread by contact with blood.

Some people with Crypto will have no symptoms at all, and most people who have healthy immune systems will recover without treatment. People with weakened immune systems are at risk for severe or life-threatening illness.



More

Killer Cribs Study Finds Toxins in Common Baby Products

Friends of the Earth targets fire retardants in Graco products

Killer Cribs Study Finds Toxins in Common Baby Products...

Toxic fire retardant chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and neurological and other health problems are prevalent in common baby products, according to a study released today by the national environmental group Friends of the Earth.

The study finds that these toxic chemicals, called halogenated fire retardants, appear in a high percentage of baby products, including portable cribs, strollers, car seats and infant carriers.

Due to their prevalence in common household products, these chemicals have been found in breast milk and in children. Infants and children are especially vulnerable to the health effects of these chemicals as they impact development at critical stages of growth, the group said.

Were poisoning our children, one crib at a time, said Russell Long, Vice-President of Friends of the Earth. Given the clear links to learning disorders and reproductive problems, this is beyond foolish. Fortunately, there are fire-safe alternatives, but the chemical industry is fighting hard to keep its profits at the expense of our kids.

Friends of the Earths Sara Schedler, the reports lead author said, We sampled a wide variety of childrens products, and what we found was alarming. Toxic chemicals are being put into products that children and babies interact with on a regular basis, endangering their health. The government must act now to limit these chemicals use, and companies should immediately phase them of their products.


The largest state in the nation may soon enact safeguards. A bill sponsored by California Assemblyman Mark Leno (AB 706) would end the use of these dangerous chemicals in many products and has already passed the California Assembly. Action is pending on the California Senate floor.

Kids shouldnt have to sleep on or play with toxic products that could cause long-term damage to their health, Leno said. Our bill would help ensure they dont. It creates smarter and improved fire-safety standards while protecting kids, workers, and others from toxic chemical exposure. Todays study from Friends of the Earth underscores the urgent need for the Senate to pass this legislation.

Friends of the Earth also announced today that it is working with organizations including MOMS: Making Our Milk Safe and MomsRising.org to encourage baby and childrens product manufacturers to end the use of toxic fire retardant chemicals in their products.

The groups are approaching juvenile product company Graco first, encouraging hundreds of thousands of activists and consumers to contact Graco and request that it take the lead within its industry by dropping the use of these chemicals.

The findings in the "Killer Cribs report are based on a sample of 150 baby products and 350 pieces of household furniture from California stores and residences.

 


 

More

Spit Spark Plugs Still Hobble Ford Trucks

Used truck buyers beware; problem still not solved

Spit Spark Plugs Still Hobble Ford Trucks...

With the regularity of a piston engine, Ford trucks continue to spit out spark plugs, and some Ford truck owners are now reporting that 2005 Ford trucks are suffering from the expensive engine defect.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received more than 100 complaints from Ford truck owners since the first of the year reporting a spit spark plug.

Ford dealers and customer service reps still insist to some customers that the expensive engine flaw is a rare occurrence, reacting as though they had never heard of a Ford truck with a blown spark plug before.

The owner of a 2000 Ford F-350 equipped with the V-10 Titan engine and 79,413 miles on the odometer said he received that runaround from Ford.

Last week the number 4 spark plug on the driver's side blew out of the head, he wrote. Called Ford customer service and they act like I'm the first one to have this happen.

Faced with angry customers paying expensive repair bills many Ford dealers are conceding there is a problem with the truck engines.

One Ford owner in Panama City, Florida received both stories. Ford pretended the spit spark plug problem did not exist. His dealer was more forthcoming.

My local Ford dealer tells me they are averaging 3 or 4 vehicles per week with the blown or broken spark plug issue, the Florida man said.

Book value

The continuing problem with Ford engines blowing spark plugs strongly suggests a used Ford truck, especially a Ford truck from the 1999 to 2003 model years, is a risky purchase.

Here is one example.

Joe bought a used 1998 Lincoln Navigator with a big 5.4-liter V-8 engine in what he described as a "private party sale." Joe said that he wanted to provide a nice American-made ride for my family, but couldn't afford a new truck.

The Navigator looked like a great deal. The price was $2,000 less that the book value and the Navigator had only 136,000 miles on the odometer.

But the great deal blew up in Joe's face when the used Lincoln Navigator spit a spark plug.

While driving to a union meeting my 1998 Lincoln Navigator made a sound like the exhaust had blown apart, he said.

The check engine light came on as the truck began to lose power. Joe limped it another mile to the meeting, popped the hood and found that gasoline had leaked over the entire back side of the engine, he said.

Joe found air and fuel coming out of the hole where the number 4 spark plug should have been and fuel shooting out from where the plug had lodged in the engine.

The ignition pack for that plug was shredded, Joe said. He had owned the used Lincoln Navigator for just three weeks.

The threads in the number 4 spark plug hole in the Navigator were stripped.

Joe soon discovered it would cost too much money to repair the truck at a Lincoln dealership, more than $3,000 to replace the engine head after the spit plug incident.

Joe found a junkyard motor with 80,000 miles for $1,400, bought $350 in parts from Ford and paid a mechanic $900 to install everything. So much for under book, Joe said.

Feds sit it out

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has repeatedly refused to intervene in the spit spark plug scandal, insisting there are no safety issues involved.

Ford refuses to accept responsibility for the affair that has cost thousands of consumers thousands of dollars each. Admitting an engineering flaw could cost the struggling automaker hundreds of millions of dollars in repair costs.

Joe has another answer: Anybody willing to buy a 98 Navigator with a junk yard engine or can you say Honda?

A Grayson, Georgia Ford owner found his own spit spark plug in a 2003 model year truck. I own a 2003 Expedition Eddie Bauer 5.4L V-8. It had about 85000 miles on it when the plug blew out, the Georgia man truck owner wrote ConsumerAffairs.Com.

Repairing a spit spark plug does not insure the engine will not eject another plug.

In Watertown, Connecticut a 2003 Lincoln Navigator spit a plug. The owner bought the truck used with only 55,000 on the odometer. The problem started in June 2007 when it spit a spark plug out of the head shattering the coil pack. I took it to a Lincoln Dealer who wanted to charge me over $4,000 to repair it, he wrote.

In February 2008 it happened again, this time a different plug spit out at a cost of almost $2,700 the Navigator owner wrote.

Ford engines with low mileage spit plugs as well. My 2003 Ford Lighting with 46,000 miles blew out the number 3 spark plug while sitting at a stop light, an Arkansas Ford truck owner said.

NHTSA has received complaints of problems with spark plugs in the 2004 and 2005 Ford F-150. One ford truck owner told NHTSA he faced a $2,000 repair bill because a spark plug broke off in the engine head.

A second F-150 owner complained to NHTSA that two spark plugs split in half while still in the engine.

 

More

Merck Agrees to Pay $58 Million to Settle Vioxx Claims

States accused drugmaker of false marketing

Merck Agrees to Pay $58 Million to Settle Vioxx Claims...

Merck & Co. has agreed to pay $58 million to settle charges that it deceptively marketed the former prescription drug Vioxx, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. The settlement resolves a three-year investigation by Texas and 29 other states.

The multi-state investigation revealed that Merck improperly marketed and promoted Vioxx, a Cox 2-inhibitor drug. The states charged Merck with marketing Vioxx as a pain killer, despite its knowledge that Vioxx carried major health risks.

The company finally pulled the drug from the market in 2004 after Vioxx-related health risks were made public.

Mercks aggressive television advertising convinced hundreds of thousands of consumers to seek Vioxx prescriptions before the drugs risk were fully understood, said California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. Todays groundbreaking settlement prevents Merck from releasing new television drug advertisements without obtaining federal approval.

Merck must now submit all television advertising to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for review and pre-clearance. Any FDA comments about the proposed drug commercials must be considered by Merck before the commercials are aired publicly.

Under the agreement, the FDA can delay the launch of Mercks pain killer product commercials if the federal regulatory agency needs additional time to complete its review.

The settlement prohibits Merck from presenting misleading scientific data to physicians, and bars the manufacturer from using pro-Merck ghost writers to author articles and medical studies. Merck is also prohibited from using promotional speakers at continuing medical education events if the speakers relationship with the company presents a conflict of interest.

The state of Texas has an active Vioxx-related case in Travis County District Court.

In that 2005 case, the Attorney General charged Merck with suppressing critical information to physicians, patients and the Texas Medicaid program. According to court documents filed by the state, Merck failed to disclose the health risks associated with Vioxx. During the time period covered by the states enforcement action, Texas spent more than $72 million on Vioxx prescriptions for Medicaid recipients.

Other states which participated in todays settlement include: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

 

More

New Mexico Allergy Sufferers Want Public Wi-Fi Ban

Could wireless Internet signals have adverse health effects?

New Mexico Allergy Sufferers Want Public Wi-Fi Ban...

While some health researchers have raised numerous questions about the long-term health effects of exposure to wireless communication waves, a group in New Mexico has taken this concern to a new level.

Activists are asking the city of Santa Fe and the state of New Mexico to remove Wi-Fi Internet service from all public buildings because, they say, the radio waves can cause allergic reactions in some people. Wi-Fi is used primarily in public libraries, but is also present in many office buildings.

The activists are led by Arthur Firstenberg, author of the book "Microwaving Our Planet: The Environmental Impact of the Wireless Revolution."

Firstenberg says that he is allergic to the waves from the Wi-Fi electronic field. Symptoms, he says, include headaches and chest pains whenever he is within range of a wireless connection.

The group has filed a complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The complaint says that since they are sensitive to electronic waves, they are entitled to live without being exposed to them. As such, they contend, the presence of Wi-Fi in public spaces constitutes discrimination.

Firstenberg says this condition is nothing new, and has been caused through the years by exposure to radio waves and other electronic fields. He says the telecommunications industry has known of the problem for years, but has suppressed the information.

So far, government officials seem skeptical of the claims, but say they will look into it. Ron Trujillo, a Santa Fe city official, said "It's not 1692, it's 2008."



More

Study Cautions Pregnant Women On Cell Phone Use

Cell-phone-using moms more likely to have unruly children

Study Cautions Pregnant Women On Cell Phone Use...

A new study by UCLA and and Danish researchers has raised another cell phone health issue.

After surveying more than 13,000 children, the scientists have concluded that women who used a cell phone while pregnant are much more likely to have unruly children.

While previous health studies have linked radiation from cell phones with potential tumor formation, this is the first research to tie cell phone use to behavioral issues.

The researchers said children of mothers who used cell phones while pregnant, even infrequently, ran a higher risk of developing hyperactivity and difficulties with conduct, emotional control, and relationships by the time they started school. The risk increased if the children themselves used cell phones before age seven.

Since the researchers could not pinpoint a reason that cell phone use could affect behavior, critics may suggest that the link may not actually exist. Instead, the link might be explained by cultural factors.

The researchers themselves do not discount that notion. They admit the results could have other reasons, such as that mothers who tended to talk on the phone a lot might pay less attention to their children. They say the study "should be interpreted with caution" and checked by further studies.

Greater risks

The risk of behavioral problems may pale in comparison to the possible effects of radiation highlighted earlier this year by British health researcher Dr. Vini Khurana.

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

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

Read more ...

 



More

Comcast, Cox Caught Blocking BitTorrent

Researchers detect cable companies' Internet traffic jams

Comcast, Cox Caught Blocking BitTorrent...

Comcast Cable and Cox Communications have both been found to employ technologies that block or slow customers' access to the BitTorrent file-sharing engine, according to a new report.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany conducted their study through measuring the traffic of 8,175 Internet users across the world.

The researchers detected conclusive evidence of "traffic shaping" or blocking from only three Internet service providers -- Comcast and Cox in the United States, and StarHub in Singapore. The researchers said 599 users were blocked in the United States, 573 of them on Comcast or Cox networks.

Although Comcast originally defended its content blocking practices as "reasonable network management" that was concentrated on peak hours of Internet use, the Institute's report indicated that both Comcast and Cox blocked access to BitTorrent at all times of the day.

"The percentage of blocked connections remains high at all times of the day," the report authors said. "Our data suggests that the BitTorrent blocking is independent of the time of the day."

Supporters of "net neutrality," the principle that all Internet content should be accessed equally, pointed to the discovery as further evidence that cable and other Internet providers cannot be trusted to police their networks without infringing on users' rights. "Consumers have no reason left to trust their cable company," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press. "This independent study confirms that Comcast is still blocking its customers from using popular applications -- despite the FCC's investigation and widespread public outrage."

Comcast's content blocking, first confirmed in October 2007, also led to customer lawsuits, and several hearings into proper network management conducted by the FCC. Comcast's image was further tarnished by its paying people to fill seats at the first hearing in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Cox released a brief statement to the Associated Press claiming that "[t]o ensure the best possible online experience for our customers, Cox actively manages network traffic through a variety of methods including traffic prioritization and protocol filtering."

The renewed push for net neutrality protection against content blocking has led to the introduction of several pieces of legislation in Congress.

One bill, the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" co-sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to include the principles of open access to the Internet as codified law. The "Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act," introduced by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI), would use antitrust regulations to prevent price discrimination through forcing different customers to pay more for higher bandwith usage.

 

More

FDA Panel Wants Closer Scrutiny of Drug Ads

Many of the ads are misleading, doctors complain

FDA Panel Wants Closer Scrutiny of Drug Ads...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking a closer look at prescription drug ads, after an FDA advisory panel called for more extensive study of the effects the ads have on consumer behavior, particularly among the elderly and minorities.

The American Medical Association last week said many of the ads contain misleading information and need tighter controls.

Legislation that became effective this year authorizes the FDA to review ads before the public sees them and to impose fines if an ad is misleading. It also empowered the FDA to study the effect of such advertising on the public.

The panel's research found that drug ads do prompt consumers to see their doctors, but it is not clear if consumers understand the potential benefits and risks of the drugs being advertised.

The FDA is preparing a report for Congress about how ads impact consumers, especially older people and children, blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.

Drug companies spent nearly $29.9 billion in 2005 on advertising and promotion to hawk brand name products, according to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health published last year. More than $4 billion of that was spent on consumer ads compared to $429 million for ads directed at doctors.

Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat overseeing the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee investigation, wants drug companies to make commercials that are more clear or face tougher regulations and possible restrictions.

AMA's position

Doctors have long expressed alarm about the ads. Last week, AMA President-elect Dr. Nancy Nielsen expressed her organizations concerns in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

"Direct-to-consumer ads often portray drugs through rose-colored glasses by including more information about a drug's benefits than risks," said Nielsen. "Imbalances in these ads can diminish patient understanding of certain drug risks, and increase the need for an ongoing dialogue between patients and physicians about the benefits and risks of prescription drugs."

Critics have long pointed out that consumers are in no position to purchase prescription drugs without their doctor. The sole point of advertising to consumers, they claim, is to prompt consumers to specifically request a particular prescription drug.

At the hearing, the AMA discussed the need for FDA regulation over DTCA and shared guidelines for DTCA that address advertising content, disclosures, and audiences targeted.

"The AMA guidelines for DTCA can help ensure that patients receive information about prescription drugs that is accurate, educational, well-balanced and encourages patient-physician communication," Nielsen said.

"We look forward to working with Congress to achieve our shared goal - that direct-to-consumer advertisements focus on truly helping patients rather than maximizing pharmaceutical companies' bottom line," she added.

The ads work

A study last year bolsters the doctors' argument. A poll of Pennsylvania adults, taken 10 years after the first direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical television advertisement ran, suggests that nearly half of the participants have asked their doctor about a specific prescription drug or medical procedure they saw advertised.

According to The Patient Poll, conducted by the Pennsylvania Medical Societys Institute for Good Medicine, 45 percent of Pennsylvania adults participating in the summer 2007 poll indicated that they have talked to their doctor about a specific drug and/or procedure that they saw advertised on television or in a magazine.

Critics of the ads say they lead to more prescriptions being written, often when it's not in the best interest of the patient. But theres also a flip side: instead of getting upset about this situation, one physician says its better for his colleagues to be prepared for questions.

Most physicians are divided about whether or not pharmaceutical advertisements directed towards patients are good, said Dr. Peter Lund, founder of the Pennsylvania Medical Societys Institute for Good Medicine.

Some say its good to have patients informed, while others say its bad because of induced demand and incorrect self-diagnosing. Our advice to Pennsylvania physicians is to be alert to whats being advertised and be prepared to answer questions since theres a good chance theyll be asked.

A study published in the August 16, 2007, edition of The New England Journal of Medicine tracks a rise in total spending on pharmaceutical promotion from $11.4 billion in 1996 to $29.9 billion in 2005. Real spending on direct-to-consumer advertising increased by 330 percent during those years.

Theres clear evidence that the pharmaceutical industry is spending more to promote medications, Lund, an Erie, Pennsylvania urologist and incoming president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said. If it wasnt working for them, they wouldnt be pumping more money into that budget area.

While direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertisements can be traced back to 1981, the debate on advertising directly to patients accelerated within the medical community 10 years ago when the Food and Drug Administration changed policy to allow television advertisements directed towards patients.

I dont know a physician who hasnt been asked by at least one patient about a specific drug they saw advertised, Lund said.

Viagra ads

Some drug ads are more controversial than others. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) last year filed a lawsuit against Pfizer Inc., the world's largest pharmaceutical company and manufacturer of impotence drug Viagra, over its marketing tactics and advertising.

AHF claims that Pfizer's Viagra advertising "has caused an increase in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including but not limited to HIV/AIDS."

"Pfizer has engaged in and continues to engage in this conduct despite clear evidence of its illegality and harmful effects," the foundation charged. The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.

 



More

Gardeners' Choice Complaints Sprout Annually

Company insists it has a 'no questions asked' guarantee

"I ordered tomato plants in February 2008 from Gardeners' Choice," Mark of Corbin, Ky. wrote. "I never received them, but they charged my credit card 60 da...

Along with the warm weather, April showers and green leaves of Spring, so too each year come the complaints about Gardeners' Choice, a mail-order horticulture company that hundreds of consumers say delivers dead plants or fails to deliver any plant and is nearly impossible to contact to get a refund or any answer.

Although the company's lawyer provided few answers, he has set up a special e-mail address for ConsumerAffairs.com readers that he promises will yield results.

Since 2000, ConsumerAffairs.com has been hit hard every Spring with complaints from angry gardeners, about 250 total. Many say their Gardeners' Choice orders never arrived from the company that has advertised its Giant Tomatoes for years on infomercials.

"I ordered tomato plants in February 2008 from Gardeners' Choice," Mark of Corbin, Ky. wrote. "I never received them, but they charged my credit card 60 days later."

Those who do receive their orders often say the plants are dead or dying.

"I ordered $80.81 worth of plants," wrote Kori of Locust Grove, Ga. "Most of what came here looked dead, nothing was marked. I ordered three trees, I received two, one was only three inches, and I lost it when I went to plant it, it was so small. I ordered three rose bushes, got two, not sure if they are alive or not. I planted them, haven't seen any growth yet, they looked like gnarled sticks."

Frederic Ury, an attorney who represents Gardeners' Choice and its parent company, Lipenwald Direct Response Marketing, had no response as to why the company sometimes fails to deliver anything, but said that some plants die during the shipment.

"No questions asked"

Regardless, consumers can request a refund or a new plant if they're not happy in any way, he said.

"If something arrives that's either dead, late, can't use, whatever, they get a refund. No questions asked," Ury said. "If they want a new plant, they get a new plant, no questions asked."

While many consumers would love to get a refund or new plant, most of the annual complainants say they have trouble getting in touch with Gardeners' Choice either via the e-mail address or local phone number provided on the company's website.

"In February I sent a check for $13.98 for four tomato trees," Harold of Marriottsville, Md. wrote. "Here it is May 14 and no plants. Their phone is always busy and they don't reply to e-mail."

What to do

So what can consumers do to avoid these problems?

The simplest solution is to buy plants locally at a nursery, supermarket or discount superstore, said David Ellis, editor of The American Gardener, although mail order nurseries are a great way for consumers to buy rare plants, he said. But he encouraged consumers to peruse reviews at the Garden Watchdog before purchasing any plant from a catalog or website. Gardeners' Choice has four positive, seven neutral and 25 negative reviews over the past 12 months on the Garden Watchdog.

He also suggested purchasing from a mail order nursery that is within a relatively close proximity since plants can die during long shipments.

Equally important -- don't pay by check when ordering merchandise by mail, telephone or the Internet. You have no recourse if you're dissatisfied. Use a credit (not debit) card, which gives you 60 days to contest any charge.

As the Gardeners' Choice complaints attest, once you've sent someone your money, it can be difficult to re-open the transaction.

ConsumerAffairs.com put itself in the place of an unhappy customer. We tried calling the long distance number more than 20 times. While their automatic message picks up, incurring long distance charges, choosing either of the two options for sales or customer service usually resulted in our being disconnected. The three times we weren't disconnected we were greeted by a busy signal. Not once did we speak to anyone. Two emails were answered within a few hours.

Ury agreed that the company's customer service is lacking but did not say anything was going to be done about it.

He did set up a special e-mail address for ConsumerAffairs.com readers which he guaranteed would yield responses. That e-mail is: gardenerschoice@yahoo.com.

Consumers may also want to contact the Gardeners' Choice parent company, Lipenwald, based in Norwalk, Conn. ConsumerAffairs.com had no difficulty contacting the company through its direct line: (203) 852-0001.

Finally, consumers should continue to file complaints with ConsumerAffairs.com along with their state attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission.

 



More

CDC Links 2006 Salmonella Outbreak to Dog Food

First time human illness has been linked to dry dog food

CDC Links 2006 Salmonella Outbreak to Dog Food...


A salmonella outbreak that swept 19 U.S. states in late 2006 has been a mystery, until now. Nearly 200 consumers were sickened by what investigators believed to be tainted tomatoes, or other produce.

But now, the Centers for Disease Control says the apparent source of the 2006 salmonella outbreak was tainted dog food. The CDC in recent months investigated a number of dry dog food brands and recalled two of them.

"This is the first time human illness has been linked to dry dog food," CDC epidemiologist Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, told the Washington Post.

The 2006 outbreak hit Pennsylvania the hardest, with 29 reported cases. New York had nine cases while Ohio had seven. Nearly half those who got sick were very young children.

So, how could tainted dog food make people sick?

CDC investigators say the most likely scenario had pet owners feeding their dogs tainted, dry dog food before preparing a meal for humans. The CDC says animal owners should always wash their hands after touching pet food. The agency also advises keeping young children away from Fido's food bowl.

The Salmonella germ is actually a group of bacteria that can cause diarrhea illness in humans. They are microscopic living creatures that pass from the feces of people or animals, to other people or other animals.

The typical symptoms include diarrhea, fever and stomach pain, which start up to three days after people become infected.

The symptoms usually go away after one week. But some people have to see a doctor or be hospitalized because the diarrhea is severe or the infection has affected other organs.

The latest finding is likely to provide ammunition to pet owners whose dogs and cats have become ill after eating various brands of pet food. One of the latest such incidents is an outbreak of illness among pets who have eaten NUTRO products.

Scores of pets from California to South Carolina have experienced sudden and recurring bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, and other digestive problems after being fed with NUTRO feeds. The company denies there is any problem and says its products are safe.

More about pets ...



More

Maryland Shuts Down Investment Scam

Con artist scammed his own grandmother, prosecutor charges

Investment fraud continues to plague unwary consumers, particularly seniors who have accumulated a nest egg and are looking for the best possible rate of r...


Investment fraud continues to plague unwary consumers, particularly seniors who have accumulated a nest egg and are looking for the best possible rate of return. Scam artists can exploit this trust unless consumers carefully assess an investment.

Maryland authorities have completed their prosecution of an investment "advisor" they say took more than $2 million from 21 investors and spent it on himself. Kevin Thomas Forrester, former operator of Forrester Financial Group in Phoenix, pled guilty in Baltimore to felony theft and fraudulent securities practices.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler says the state's investigation revealed that from January 2003 to March 2007, while acting as a securities broker-dealer agent, Forrester took $2,219,975 from investors with the express representation that he would place their money in a high interest, short term investment opportunity that he referred to as the "Private Funding Group" (PFG).

In fact, says Gansler, the PFG investment fund was not a bona fide investment and it was discovered that Forrester used all the investors' money for his own business expenses and personal expenditures. These purchases included a new home valued at $1.2 million, additions to the new home, interior decoration and furniture for the new home, new vehicles, membership to a local country club, and numerous vacations.

Gansler said one of Forrester's victims was his own grandmother.

The charge of felony theft carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail, a $25,000 fine, or both. The charge of fraudulent securities practices, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum penalty of three years in jail, a $50,000 fine, or both. Sentencing is scheduled for August 18.

This particular case is all the more troubling because, at the time, Forrester was a licensed broker. His registration as a broker-dealer agent and investment adviser has since been revoked.

Fraud investigators say investors should never trust their finances to anyone promising high returns with little or no risk, and should always seek counsel from family or trusted friend before investing.

More

Study Questions Effect of Violent Video Games

Incidence of violence has declined since the games were introduced

Study Questions Effect of Violent Video Games...


Does playing violent video games make players aggressive? It is a question that has taxed researchers, sociologists, and regulators ever since the first console was plugged into a TV and the first shots fired in a shoot-em-up game.

Writing in the International Journal of Liability and Scientific Enquiry, Patrick Kierkegaard of the University of Essex, England, suggests there is scant scientific evidence that video games are anything but harmless and do not lead to real world aggression. Moreover, his research shows that previous work is biased towards the opposite conclusion.

Video games have come a long way since the simplistic ping-pong and cascade games of the early 1970s, the later space age Asteroids and Space Invaders, and the esoteric Pac-man. Today, severed limbs, drive-by shootings, and decapitated bodies captivate a new generation of gamers and gruesome scenes of violence and exploitation are the norm.

Award-winning video games, such as the Grand Theft Auto series, thrive on murder, theft, and destruction on every imaginable level, explains Kierkegaard, and gamers boost their chances of winning the game by a virtual visit to a prostitute with subsequent violent mugging and recovery of monies exchanged.

Games such as 25 To Life remain controversial with storylines involving violent gangs taking hostages and killing cops, while games such as World of Warcraft and Doom are obviously unrelated to the art of crochet or gentle country walks.

Any evidence?

Kierkegaard points out that these violent games are growing more realistic with each passing year and most relish their plots of violence, aggression and gender bias. But, he asks, "Is there any scientific evidence to support the claims that violent games contribute to aggressive and violent behavior?"

Media scare stories about gamers obsessed with violent games and many research reports that claim to back up the idea that virtual violence breeds real violence would seem to suggest so.

However, Kierkegaard has studied a range of such research papers several of which have concluded since the early 1980s that video games can lead to juvenile delinquency, fighting at school and during free play periods and violent criminal behavior such as assault and robbery.

Evidence from brain scans carried out while gamers play also seem to support a connection between playing video games and activation of regions of the brain associated with aggression.

However, Kierkegaard explains, there is no obvious link between real-world violence statistics and the advent of video games. If anything, the effect seems to be the exact opposite and one might argue that video game usage has reduced real violence.

Violence dips

Despite several high-profile incidents in U.S. academic institutions, "Violent crime, particularly among the young, has decreased dramatically since the early 1990s," said Kierkegaard, "while video games have steadily increased in popularity and use.

He notes that in 2005, there were 1,360,088 violent crimes reported in the U.S. compared with 1,423,677 the year before. "With millions of sales of violent games, the world should be seeing an epidemic of violence," he said. "Instead, violence has declined."

Research is inconclusive, emphasizes Kierkegaard. It is possible that certain types of video game could affect emotions, views, behavior, and attitudes. However, so can books, which can lead to violent behavior on those already predisposed to violence, he noted.

He concludes that the inherent biases in many of the research studies he examined point to a need for a more detailed study of video games and their psychological effects.



More

Connecticut Sues Alleged Discount Travel Scammers

'Free' and 'discounted' travel were anything but, state charges

Connecticut Sues Alleged Discount Travel Scammers...


The state of Connecticut has filed suit against three companies and one individual who allegedly offered "free" trips, airplane tickets or other services as part of a high-pressure sales pitch to con consumers into paying as much as $9,000 for memberships in a discount travel service.

In reality, neither the trips nor the airline tickets were free, and discounts promised by the travel service were usually nonexistent or effectively worthless.

The suit, filed by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, accuses Ultimate Travel Network, LLC, Ameri-World Group, LLC and Ted Wilkie -- who was involved in both companies -- of violating the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUPTA).

Also named was Millennium Travel and Promotions, Inc., of Orange, Fl., which allegedly supplied bogus or deceptive travel certificates for the scam.

"These companies exploited classic bait-and-switch," Blumenthal said. "They lured consumers to seminars with false promises of free trips, airline tickets and other services only to hit them with a hard sell so strong that it bullied them into buying. The supposed free offers were monetary mirages -- rendered worthless by concealed conditions and fees. Memberships in the so-called 'discount travel clubs' -- costing as much as $9,000 -- provided few if any markdowns."

"Ultimately, there was nothing free about a trip from Ultimate Travel Network. We allege in our complaint that there was significant material omission of the terms and conditions of the network's membership, and that the barrage of sales tactics used on consumers involved a misrepresentation of service and cost, said Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) Commissioner Jerry Farrell, Jr.

Since at least 2003, Ameri-World Group and, in later years, Ultimate Travel Network have contacted consumers by mail or phone claiming they were "selected" or "verified" to receive a "free" trip, plane tickets or other travel service. All consumers had to do to collect was attend a 90-minute sales presentation, the offers said.

After the presentation, consumers were subjected to a high-pressure sales pitch for a discount travel club from multiple salespeople escalating to the sales manager if they did not sign up. Consumers were initially quoted a price as high as $9,000 plus an annual maintenance fee for memberships that they told would provide them with discounts on travel services.

When consumers resisted, the price dropped precipitously, at least as low as $2,000. The companies provided consumers with the full purchase agreement and terms and conditions only after they signed up.

Consumers who tried to collect their "free" trip or service discovered it laden with hidden fees and numerous restrictions. Vacation properties shown to consumers were often not available and in some instances not affiliated with the companies. In reality, the club offered few if any benefits.

Farrell offered this advice related to travelers:

• Be wary of "great" deals. Walk away from high-pressured sales pitches. Ask detailed questions about promotions;

• Get all the details, total cost and any refund policy in writing before you pay;

• Never give your credit card number over the phone unless you know the person or company you are dealing with;

• Never be rushed into sending money by overnight express;

• Buy travel services only from a business you know.

The lawsuit seeks restitution to consumers, a fine of up $5,000 per CUTPA violation, disgorgement of all ill-gotten gains, payment of the state's legal fees and costs and a court order prohibiting the companies from further violating state consumer protection laws.



More

Ford to Recall F-150 and Lincoln Mark LT Pickups

The Ford Motor Company is recalling more than 650,000 F-150 and Lincoln Mark LT pickup trucks because of a faulty power brake assist hose.

The brake hose may swell over time causing the hose to become detached from the intake manifold. Applying the brakes could require increased pressure on th...

The Ford Motor Company is recalling more than 650,000 F-150 and Lincoln Mark LT pickup trucks because of a faulty power brake assist hose.

The Ford recall covers 2005 and 2006 F-150 and Mark LT trucks equipped with the 5.4-liter three-valve engine, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Web site.

The brake hose may swell over time causing the hose to become detached from the intake manifold, NHTSA reported. As a result the agency warned, applying the brakes could require increased pressure on the brake pedal.

Several brake applications with power assist will be available before the vacuum reserve is depleted, according to the NHTSA report.

A Ford spokesman said there are reports of 11 minor accidents caused by the brake hose issue with no injuries.

More than 600,000 of the recalled trucks are in the U.S. and roughly 50,000 are in Canada. Another 1,500 pickups are in other countries.

Parts are currently not available to complete the required repairs the automaker said in a letter to all Ford Lincoln and Mercury dealers. Ford plans to begin notifying F-150 and Mark LT owners of the recall in early July.

Dealers will replace the hose at no charge to customers 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).

 

More

Kroger Expands Its Generic Drug Discount Programs

Latest Wal-Mart upgrade sets off competitive responses

Kroger Expands Its Generic Drug Discount Programs...

Kroger Co. says it won't be left in Wal-Mart's dust. It's upgrading its $4 generic drug program to meet the latest changes in Wal-Mart's program.

Kroger unveiled its $4 program in February, modeled closely after Wal-Mart's plan which rolled out in 2007, offering many popular generics for $4.

On May 6, Wal-Mart expanded its program to include orders for 90-day supplies and additional drugs to treat osteoporosis and breast cancer as well as cutting the price of more than 1,000 popular over-the-counter drugs in half, setting off competitive responses by many grocery chains, including Sweetbay Supermarkets, Hannaford Bros., Food Lion and Harveys Supermarkets.

A Kroger spokesman said the new program is "very similar to Wal-Mart's."

"Certainly we want to be very competitive in the marketplace," Kroger spokesman Gary Huddleston said. He declined to disclose sales numbers for the program but said that besides increasing drug sales, it has "helped introduce new customers to Kroger."

Before the recent changes, Wal-Mart and Kroger included more than 300 generic drugs to treat common conditions such as diabetes, asthma, depression and heart disease on their lists of drugs costing $4 for a month's supply.

Competitive turmoil

While few grocery or pharmacy chains duplicate the Wal-Mart program, many have introduced similar programs and the number of outlets offering popular generics at reduced prices has increased substantially since Wal-Mart introduced its program, which started as a pilot project in Florida in late 2006.

 

Target offers a similar program and Walgreen Co. sells a 90-day supply of generics for $12.99.

Hannaford and Sweetbay launched their programs earlier this year Food Lion started last week. Harveys launched its program months ago, the trade paper said.

The Sweetbay program is called Healthy Saver and covers more than 400 drugs, priced at $4 for a 30-day supply, or $10.99 for a 90-day supply. The programs at the other Delhaize stores are similar, although Harveys does not offer a 30-day option.

Shop around

But consumers should be sure to shop around. The most publicized programs are not always the cheapest.

A survey released by Consumer Reports last week found that price fluctuations can be dramatic -- sometimes more than $100 for the same prescription even within the same chain, depending on whether consumers are filling their prescriptions in, say, Omaha, Nebraska, or Billings, Montana.

Costco was the cheapest for the four drugs CR sought quotes for, followed by AARP.com and Wal-Mart. Walgreens and Rite-Aid were among the priciest for the four drugs.

Consumer Reports said it placed more than 500 calls to 163 pharmacies nationwide to gauge price differences among four prescription drugs, three name brand medicines and one generic.

Read more about the CR study ...

 



More

Consumer Groups Urge the FCC to Reject XM-Sirius Merger

Justice Department rubber-stamped the deal in March

Consumer Groups Urge the FCC to Reject XM-Sirius Merger...

The Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and Free Press are urging the Federal Communications Commission to reject the proposed XM-Sirius merger.

The Department of Justice signed off on the deal without attaching any conditions.

In March, consumer groups criticized that decision as fundamentally flawed and called on the FCC to deny the transfer of the licenses to use the spectrum that XM and Sirius hold, which would effectively kill the merger.

"The Justice Department tossed all tenets of antitrust out the window in its rush to rubber stamp this merger-to-monopoly," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America.

"The FCC should not buy into the flawed reasoning that led to the DOJ's disastrous decision. Consumers are depending on the commission to stop this dangerous deal dead in its tracks," he said.

The Justice Department based its merger approval on the conclusion that satellite radio is part of a larger audio market.

However, consumer groups -- using the FCC's own data on radio stations -- have argued that satellite radio and terrestrial radio are not close substitutes. The groups argue that satellite radio represents a unique consumer product that does not compete with iTunes or Internet radio.

"Protecting consumers should be the FCC's first priority," said Chris Murray, senior counsel of Consumers Union. "Allowing one company to monopolize the satellite radio industry would leave consumers with higher prices and fewer choices but no real benefits. Rejecting this deal should be a no-brainer."

The consumer groups' filing contends that the DOJ analysis ignores many aspects of competition between XM and Sirius that promote the public interest. In its analysis, the DOJ concedes that XM and Sirius:

• Did compete to sign automakers to long-term contracts and continue to do so when those contracts expire;

• Do compete for a great deal of programming, music, niche news and talk;

• Do compete for marquee programming;

• Do compete in retail distribution; and

• Would have competed more if they had kept their promise to deliver an interoperable radio.

As a consequence, permitting the two satellite radio companies to join would have many negative side effects -- both for consumers and for the satellite radio industry, the groups charged.

For consumers, the merger would reduce the number of channels and formats available and result in fewer cost-saving incentives. The loss of competition in the industry would also cause a dramatic drop in spending on talent.

"By approving this monopoly deal, the Justice Department has failed as the public's corporate watchdog," said S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press. "Now it's up to the FCC to safeguard consumers and promote competition on our public airwaves."

States oppose merger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FCC weighing its options

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

More

House Joins Senate in Boosting Rail Travel

More Americans riding the rails as gas prices soar

House Joins Senate in Boosting Rail Travel...

While rail ridership increased by record numbers, House legislation introduced late last week would invest $14.4 billion to promote rail travel, relieve bottlenecks and begin investment in a new generation of high-speed rail.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (HR 6003) would invest $14.4 billion over five years.

This legislation wins the Triple Crown. In addition to providing Americans alternatives to paying high prices at the pump and the headaches of air travel, a revitalized rail system will save billions that would otherwise be spent on expanding existing airports and highways, said John Krieger, an advocate for transportation at U.S. PIRG.

Americas economic competitors in Europe and Asia are spending billions for networks of high-speed rail traveling over 200 mph. In an age of oil scarcity, we cant afford to fall further behind.

As with the Senate bill which passed 70-22 last fall, the House measure would establish a competitive state grant process for high-speed corridors with matching grants of up to 80 percent.

Presently, highway projects typically receive federal matching money equaling this 80 percent level of cost sharing, while public transportation projects typically receive a 50 percent match.

The proposed legislation also includes necessary funding for infrastructure repairs and investment in improved efficiency, unlike past passenger rail allocations which barely provided for operations along the system while long-term sustainability suffered.

Amtrak reported the fifth straight record year for ridership in 2007. Meanwhile total vehicle miles for cars and trucks fell for the first time since the oil crisis of the 1970s.

America needs to be investing in the trends of the future, and that means more and faster rail travel. Anyone who has been to a gas station or airport lately can see that, said Krieger.

 



More

FDA OKs Health Claims for Brown Rice

'Whole Grains' logo can now be displayed on brown rice, agency decrees

FDA OKs Health Claims for Brown Rice...


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has agreed to add brown rice list of whole grains that may make health claims including reducing the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

Brown rice had previously been excluded because its dietary fiber content was considered too low but will now be allowed to display a whole grains logo and information pointing out the benefits of consuming whole grains.

Whole grain foods can help reduce the risk of heart disease and many cancers, health officials say.

"Rice is the most popular grain around the world, which makes brown rice a great choice for increasing whole grain intake," says Joann Slavin, Ph.D., R.D., whole grains expert and Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota.

"In the United States, where chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancers are common, encouraging whole grain brown rice consumption could have a significant public health impact."

Brown rice contains beneficial phytonutrients including antioxidants, anthocyanins, phytosterols, tocopherols oryzanol and many other potentially protective substances that have been found to help reduce the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, type II diabetes and potentially aid in weight maintenance.

Brown rice also contains 15 vitamins and minerals, including B-vitamins, potassium, magnesium, selenium, iron, and 2 grams of fiber per one half cup of cooked rice.

U.S. dietary guidelines recommend "making half of all grain servings whole" or consuming three whole grain servings per day in the average 2000-calorie diet.

Yet data from a recent consumer survey conducted by EatingWell magazine and the USA Rice Federation show that the majority of Americans (65 percent) don't eat anywhere this amount.

Under the reform, all single ingredient whole grain foods are eligible to make the health claim as long as they meet broad health claim requirements.

The dietary fiber aspect of the health claim has been a bone of contention since 1999 when the claim was established because it favored high fiber content over total nutritional composition.

The fiber relaxation will please groups such as the flax industry that are yet to receive the approval brown rice has won, a cause of acrimony to an industry that feels unfairly persecuted by anachronistic laws.

According to the EatingWell/USA Rice survey:

• 87 percent of US consumers know that whole grains are good for them.

• 80 percent know whole grains can be protective against cardiovascular disease, but less than two-thirds are aware they also offer protection against certain cancers.

• While 80 percent of consumers know that brown rice is a whole grain, more than 80 percent also mistakenly think that bran cereal and breads marked simply as "wheat" are also whole grains.

• 80 percent of individuals said they would be likely to eat more whole grains if these foods were clearly labeled as whole grains

• 68 percent said they would increase consumption if the health benefits were stated on the package.

Research indicates rice eaters are more likely to meet dietary guidelines than non-rice eaters.



More

Class Action Alleges Deceptive Marketing by Lifelock

Lifelock's CEO is himself a multiple identity theft victim, suit charges

Class Action Alleges Deceptive Marketing by Lifelock...

A West Virginia law firm has filed its third class action lawsuit against Lifelock, whose ubiquitous ads promise ironclad protection against identity theft. Earlier suits were filed in New Jersey and Maryland.

The lawsuits, filed by Marks & Klein, LLP, allege that LifeLock and its multi-million-dollar advertising campaign provided false and misleading information about the limited level of identity protection the company provides, and failed to warn them about the potential adverse impact the company's services could have on their credit profiles.

The complaints also allege that the firm's CEO, Richard "Todd" Davis, has himself been a victim of identity theft by multiple offenders while a customer of LifeLock's services.

Davis publishes his Social Security number in the Lifelock ads as a demonstration of his supposed confidence in the company's practices.

Protection 'overstated'

Attorney David Paris maintains that LifeLock dramatically overstates the level of protection provided by its primary service -- the placement and constant renewal of fraud alerts on its subscribers' credit profiles.

"Customers of LifeLock rely on the company's misleading advertisements and pay for a perceived level of protection that is clearly not provided," said Paris.

LifeLock, which is headquartered in Tempe, Ariz., charges subscribers $10 per month. According to the complaints, potential LifeLock subscribers are enticed by the 'safety net' of what appears to be a $1 million insurance policy against any losses sustained as a result of identity theft.

"In actuality, once you get beyond the numerous legal limitations and disclaimers, the policy really only guarantees that LifeLock will investigate how to fix its failure if an incident occurs and will pay other third-party organizations to attempt to restore the subscriber's identity," noted David Grubb of the Grubb Law Group in Charleston, W. Va., who is representing West Virginia class plaintiffs.

"The subscriber receives no monetary recompense and no guarantee that their reputation and credit status will be restored," he said.

According to the complaints, LifeLock induces consumers into subscribing through a marketing campaign that showcases CEO Davis broadcasting his own Social Security number as testimony to his confidence in Lifelock's services.

CEO's identity stolen

As a result, the complaints allege, Davis's identity has been "stolen while he was a customer and is, upon information and belief, presently being misappropriated by at least twenty identity thieves."

The West Virginia action seeks to recover the money subscribers have paid to LifeLock and to prohibit the company from continuing to promote its services through a deceptive marketing campaign. Marks & Klein said it plans to file similar actions on behalf of consumers in other states.

Founded in 2005, LifeLock presently has approximately 1 million subscribers across the United States.

Debit card incident

Beyond the charges leveled in the complaints, lead counsel Paris related the story of a Wisconsin consumer who contacted the firm regarding her accidental experience with LifeLock.

"Her debit card was stolen and the thief had the audacity to use the card to buy a subscription to LifeLock," he noted. "Most disturbingly, LifeLock issued the subscription to the thief in the thief's name, clearly failing to verify the appropriate information."

DIY

Consumer advocates say that the service provided by Lifelock is little more than a "concierge" offering, something that consumers could do themselves for free.

LifeLock, based in Tempe, Arizona, works by renewing an individual's fraud alert with one of the nation's three large credit bureaus, a service which federal laws mandate any individual can do for free, usually within a few minutes over the phone or Internet.

What the fraud alert does is it basically puts a red flag on your credit report and it tells any potential creditor that if they receive an application for credit, they should take additional measures to determine that the person is the person that they're claiming to be. Typically that would be a phone call, said Paul Stephens, director of public policy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.

Fraud alerts last 90 days and then must be renewed. LifeLock charges $10 a month to make sure its customers' fraud alerts never expire a service most consumer advocates are baffled anyone would pay money for.

No one needs to pay a third party firm to assert their federal rights, Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, wrote in an e-mail. And for one hundred bucks plus each year, it is certainly not cheap to do so.

Concierge service?

I like to think of LifeLock as being a concierge service, Stephens said Are you the kind of person who would pay somebody, for example, to do your shopping for you?

I would point out that to do the sorts of things that LifeLock does for you, you don't even need to leave your house, Stephens continued. You can get on the phone or get on your computer and do it in a couple of minutes. So I don't really see that they bring a lot of value to the consumer.

Davis didn't argue the concierge analogy in a phone interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, but said the company offers much more than the renewal service.

There are certainly steps beyond just convenience that we're doing, but one of the things that people love are those convenient steps: us renewing the fraud alerts, us being there if you have a question in a retail store when you're applying for credit, us being available 24/7, us being there in case you lose your wallet; (we will) assist canceling and renewing credit cards and helping to get a new driver's license, Davis said.

We're also doing other things like scouring the (Internet) looking for your personal information being bought or sold on the black market, Davis said. We're authenticating when someone puts in a change of address to confirm it's you.

In advertisements, the company also promises to stop junk mail, including pre-approved credit offers and provide a credit report services that again, a consumer can do for free over the phone or Internet.

$1 million 'guarantee'

The most controversial aspect of LifeLock is its $1 million guarantee.

LifeLock's $1 million guarantee is our intent to go support any member of LifeLock who might become a victim of identity theft while subscribed to our service so we that can go out and (fill) our intent to do everything the law allows us to do to help that person recover their good name, Davis said. So whether that's hiring third person personnel, whether that's covering any losses or expenses, whether it's getting accounts closed and getting new ones issued, that's what we'll do.

But two pending class action lawsuits claim that the company's $1 million guarantee is not a guarantee at all, but just a promise that the company is not actually obligated to fulfill.

There is no $1 million guarantee, said Leonard Aragon, one of the attorneys who filed a class action lawsuit against the company. If you look at the terms of the contract it very clearly says 'we won't pay consequential damages. We won't pay you directly so there's really no way to get up into the million dollars.'

Our understanding is that it basically covers any defect in their product, said Aragon of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro in Seattle. What that means is the failure to place the fraud alert or maybe they accidentally spell your name wrong.

Davis said the reason LifeLock does not make any actual guarantees is because he doesn't want it to become an insurance company.

Insurance by design is not built to mitigate risk. Davis said. They spread actuarial risk over a group of people. LifeLock is so dramatically more than that. We want to be the most comprehensive solution out there to actually prevent this crime to mitigate the risk on the front end. We don't want to limit what we can do for consumers. We don't want to limit where they can acquire this protection by only going through licensed insurance agents. We want you to be able to go get this at Office Depot or CVS Pharmacy or through AAA.

85 claims

Of LifeLock's 940,000 customers 85 have filed claims against the company's $1 million guarantee and all have been pleased with the results, Davis said.

Those are some of our greatest advocates, he said.

But Aragon warned that although the company is fulfilling its promise now, if there is ever a serious data breach and many of its customers are defrauded, the company may not fulfill its promise. He compared it to the insurance companies who failed to honor their flood clause for consumers whose homes were destroyed in New Orleans from a breached levy rather than flood waters.

When everyone's all happy and it really isn't that big of a deal and there really aren't that many claims, well insurance companies say 'sure, we'll pay that. We don't want to cause trouble because we want people to come to our insurance company. But when it hits the fan and there are a lot of claims well that's when we start going into the contracts,' Aragon said.

You can't promise one thing and have your contract say one thing because eventually that's going to come around and it's going to be bad news for the consumers who thought they were buying protection when in actuality they weren't buying anything, Aragon said. They were buying some good customer service. Big deal.

Davis said no matter what, the company will honor its promise and that its terms are only written that way to avoid becoming an insurance company, and thus subject to regulation in each state where it does business.

If we didn't (honor our guarantee), it would be catastrophic for the company, Davis said. It wouldn't behoove us in the business we're in when our sole purpose is protecting consumers and taking care of consumers if we elected to say we choose not to keep our promises then it's going to be catastrophic to the company.

Despite the language of the $1 million guarantee, Aragon and consumer advocates say LifeLock is no guarantee to ward off fraud or identity theft.

They're telling everyone this is LifeLock so we're going lock your credit and we're going to protect you from identity theft when the reality is all they do is put a fraud alert and all that does is protect you from having instant credit taken out under your Social Security number, Aragon said.

Let's say you get your wallet stolen and your checkbook stolen and someone goes to a checks cashed store. It does nothing to protect against that. Aragon continued. It also does nothing to protect against your credit card (being) stolen.

Fraud alerts do not stop the issuance of credit, Mierzwinski wrote. They do condition the issuance of credit by making the creditor liable if the consumer can prove damages, but they dont stop it.

Davis said if a LifeLock customer is defrauded in any way, even outside the limited protection of a fraud alert, the customer can invoke the $1 million guarantee and the company will honor it.

What to do

Consumers who wish to sign up for the 90-day fraud alert or a credit report, can do so for free at any of the three major credit bureaus' websites or by calling them. Once one of the credit bureaus has been notified of the fraud alert, it will immediately notify the other three.

TransUnion: (800) 680-7289
Equifax: (800) 525-6285
Experian: (888) 397-3742

Consumers who wish to opt out of credit offers can do so by calling the Consumer Credit Reporting Industry at (888) 567-8688 or by visiting its website.

 

More

Organic Milk: Are You Getting What You Pay For?

Consumer group wants tougher enforcement, stricter rules

Organic milk is one of the biggest areas of growth in the dairy industry, making up three percent of all U.S. milk sales and growing at a double-digit rate...

Organic milk is one of the biggest areas of growth in the dairy industry, making up three percent of all U.S. milk sales and growing at a double-digit rate. It also commands a much higher price per gallon than regular milk.

With so much money at stake, a consumer watchdog group charges some dairies are bending the rules to get more of their product classified as organic.

Which dairy farm is "organic?" Maybe both?

The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture claiming that a California supplier to one of the nation's largest organic labels is skirting the law. Specifically, the group charges the diary confines most of its cows to a feedlot rather than allowing them fresh grass and access to pasture as the federal organic regulations require.

"We are asking the USDA, once again, to investigate serious alleged improprieties at dairies that produce Horizon organic milk," said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst with the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.

Horizon is owned by Dean Foods, one of the nation's largest dairies.

Cornucopia has fought this battle before. Last September the group was successful in lobbying USDA to threaten action against Aurora Organic Dairy, a supplier of organic milk to a number of national chain stores.

The company made changes to its practices after USDA disclosed it had threatened to revoke Aurora's organic certification because the company had committed 14 "willful violations" of federal standards.

What is it?

Federal regulations defining what exactly constitutes organic milk are somewhat vague.

The New York Times recently noted that "organic milk" essentially means "it comes from a cow whose milk production was not prompted by an artificial growth hormone, whose feed was not grown with pesticides and which had 'access to pasture,' a term so vague it could mean that a cow might spend most of its milk-producing life confined to a feed lot eating grain and not grass."

While consumer groups like Cornucopia complain that dairies bend the rules, the dairies complain the rules lack specificity.

The International Dairy Foods Association, a Washington lobbyist for the dairy industry, is pleased to see the growth in organic milk sales, but leery of establishing a mystique about it, lest it eclipse it's other non-organic products.

"The term organic refers to farm practices, not to the milk itself," the group says on its Web site. "Milk and dairy foods are among the most tested and regulated foods in this country. While organic dairy farmers use only organic fertilizers and organic pesticides and their cows aren't treated with synthetic hormones, the milk itself is the same as the milk produced conventionally."

Cornucopia's complaints have mainly to do with the number of cattle kept on organic dairy farms and the way they are housed.

Cornucopia's most recent complaint is the third filed with the USDA alleging Dean Foods has broken the federal law that governs organic production. Prior complaints also charged Dean was confining cattle on their two company-owned dairies, managing as many as 8,000 head of cattle each.

Pastureland

The group has also expressed concern that the cows spend most of their time confined to cramped feed lots, with just enough "access to pastureland" to meet the letter of the law. The group charges many dairies fail to meet the law's intent.

"In the eyes of consumers, factory farms with questions about humane animal husbandry and records of endemic pollution do not meet the ethical litmus test," Kastel said.

Pressure is growing on USDA to more clearly spell out exactly how much access dairy cows should have to pasture grazing before their milk can be legally labeled as "organic."

Even some farmers want the rules more clearly defined, to help them avoid running afoul of the law. And as demand for organic milk continues, more farmers are beginning to move into that space.

"The popularity of organic milk has already resulted in many conventional farmers choosing to raise cows without the use of artificial growth hormones," said Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, and Stanford University clinical assistant professor of pediatrics.

"This is a big accomplishment, brought about by consumer trends. If we keep choosing organic milk, we can expect similar changes in the whole system - as well as good nutrition -- and a cleaner environment -- for our families."

But only, say consumer groups, if milk labeled as organic is truly organic.

The Cornucopia Institute says that while more clearly defined parameters would be helpful, tougher enforcement of existing rules is needed to insure consumers are getting what they're paying for when they spend more to buy organic milk.

 



More

Allergy-Free Grocery May Make Mothers' Lives Easier

Virginia women learned about food allergies the hard way

Allergy-Free Grocery May Make Mothers' Lives Easier...

A Virginia Beach, Va., woman has opened what she is billing as an "allergy-free" grocery store to help parents whose children suffer from food allergies.

Jennifer Elizondo left a lucrative job with a defense contractor to open the new grocery store. She became interested in the food allergy problem when her son Vaughn, 3, went into anaphylactic shock the first time he ate peanut butter.

Grocery shopping became so complex that Elizonda decided to open Navan Foods, a grocery store to help her family and others who suffer with food allergies.

There are several online stores offering allergy-free food products and most major supermarkets carry at least some allergy-free products but local allergy-free retail outlets are relatively rare.

About six percent of children under the age of three have food allergies, and shopping for them can be exhausting, Elizonda noted.

The most common food allergies among children include milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts such as walnuts and cashews, fish, and shellfish, like shrimp.

Most children will eventually outgrow food allergies, though peanut and tree nut allergies usually last a lifetime, meaning a lifetime of never leaving home without an EpiPen to administer an emergency, life-saving injection of epinephren.

The opening coincides with National Food Allergy Awareness Week.

 



More

Chicken Labels Can Be Misleading

'Free range,' 'grain-fed,' 'natural' don't necessarily mean much

Buying chicken these days is not like it used to be. With labels like "100% natural," "organic," "grain-fed," and "free range," many consumer don't really ...

Buying chicken these days is not like it used to be. With labels like "100 percent natural," "organic," "grain-fed," and "free range," many consumers don't really know what they're buying.

Federal regulators recently demanded that Tyson Foods remove "raised without antibiotics" from its chicken label. The U.S. Department of Agriculture originally approved the slogan, but later said it erred.

USDA is also taking a closer look at labels that proclaim "100 percent natural." According to USDA, those words mean the poultry doesn't contain artificial ingredients like preservatives. But, experts warn, there are no guarantees.

"100 percent natural remember, no inspections are done. So we don't know if those claims are really true," says Shannon Wallace, R.D., registered dietitian with Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.

Chicken labeled as "organic" must meet much stricter standards. Inspections are conducted and organic chicken cannot contain artificial ingredients, hormones or antibiotics. But are those really harmful to consumers?

"The USDA does not make any claims that organically produced food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food," Wallace said.

Another popular chicken label is "grain fed." This is supposed to mean the chicken was not fed animal byproducts, but just like "100 percent natural" and "free range," there is no outside monitoring for this claim.

And probably the most confusing label of them all is "free range." Chicken labeled as "free range" is supposed to be leaner, but again, experts warn the claim can be deceiving.

"Free range does not always mean that the animal has been in an open area its whole life. It may only mean they were in a restricted area and let out into that open area one time during their life," said Wallace.

So what should you shop for in chicken?

"If you would like to have a healthy diet, trimming the fat or buying leaner cuts of meat is always important. And the research is still out regarding these other issues of hormones and antibiotics," Wallace said.

 



More

FDA Approves Generic Drug for Restless Legs Syndrome

Requip also approved for treatment of Parkinson's disease

FDA Approves Generic Drug for Restless Legs Syndrome...

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first generic versions of a drug for the treatment of moderate to severe Restless Legs Syndrome.

Requip (ropinirole hydrochloride) tablets have been approved in dosages of 0.25 milligram, 0.5 milligram, 1 milligram, 2 milligrams, 3 milligrams, and 4 milligram4.

Roxane Laboratories Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Par Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Mylan Pharmaceuticals Inc., have been given the go ahead to market ropinirole hydrochloride tablets.

The labeling of the generic versions of ropinirole hydrochloride may differ from that of Requip because some uses of the drug are protected by patents. In addition to treating Restless Legs Syndrome, Requip is also FDA-approved to treat symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

The generic products are not approved for treatment of Parkinson's disease because this indication is protected by patent. Manufacturers of the generic drugs may seek approval for that use once the patent for the Parkinson's disease indication expires later this month.

The generic ropinirole hydrochloride tablets will have the same safety warnings as Requip, cautioning about patient reports of falling asleep while engaged in activities of daily living, including while driving.

Although many of these patients reported sleepiness while on the drug, some patients perceived that they had no warning signs and believed that they were alert immediately prior to falling asleep. Some of these events have been reported as late as one year after the start of treatment.

 



More

Supermarkets Launch Generic Drug Discount Programs

Competition heats up but consumers still need to shop around

Supermarkets Launch Generic Drug Discount Programs...

Several major supermarket chains are launching discount generic drug programs, intensifying competition with Wal-Mart, which last week launched "Phase 3" of its highly-successful generic discount plan, adding more generics and over-the-counter drugs as well as a 90-day supply of some generics ofr $10.

Sweetbay Supermarkets, Hannaford Bros., Food Lion and Harveys Supermarkets have all launched discount generic programs or will soon do so, Supermarket News reported. The chains are all owned by Delhaize Group of Brussels.

Hannaford and Sweetbay launched their programs earlier this year Food Lion started last week. Harveys launched its program months ago, the trade paper said.

The Sweetbay program is called Healthy Saver and covers more than 400 drugs, priced at $4 for a 30-day supply, or $10.99 for a 90-day supply. The programs at the other Delhaize stores are similar, although Harveys does not offer a 30-day option.

Walgreen Co. sells a 90-day supply of generics for $12.99.

Wal-Mart last week announced it was adding more generic drugs to its discount sales promotion, in which the commonly prescribed medication is sold from $4 for a 30-day supply to $10 for a 90-day supply. The retailer says "Phase 3" of its plan, which began in 2006, will also include some over-the-counter medication.

Shop around

But consumers should be sure to shop around. The most publicized programs are not always the cheapest.

A survey released by Consumer Reports last week found that price fluctuations can be dramatic -- sometimes more than $100 for the same prescription even within the same chain, depending on whether consumers are filling their prescriptions in, say, Omaha, Nebraska, or Billings, Montana.

Costco was the cheapest for the four drugs CR sought quotes for, followed by AARP.com and Wal-Mart. Walgreens and Rite-Aid were among the priciest for the four drugs.

Consumer Reports said it placed more than 500 calls to 163 pharmacies nationwide to gauge price differences among four prescription drugs, three name brand medicines and one generic.

Read more about the CR study ...

 



More

How to Fight Rising Food Costs

Meal planning can help you stay ahead of rising prices

A family of five now spends an average of $135 a week on groceries, according to the Food Marketing Institute's U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report for 2008...

More

AMA Calls For Tighter Drug Ad Oversight

Many of the ads are misleading, doctors complain

"Direct-to-consumer ads often portray drugs through rose-colored glasses by including more information about a drug's benefits than risks," said Nielsen....

It's hard to turn on TV without being bombarded with ads for prescription drugs, offering cures for everything from EDS to acid reflux. The American Medical Association says many of the ads contain misleading information and need tighter controls.

AMA President-elect Dr. Nancy Nielsen expressed her organizations concerns in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

"Direct-to-consumer ads often portray drugs through rose-colored glasses by including more information about a drug's benefits than risks," said Nielsen. "Imbalances in these ads can diminish patient understanding of certain drug risks, and increase the need for an ongoing dialogue between patients and physicians about the benefits and risks of prescription drugs."

Critics have long pointed out that consumers are in no position to purchase prescription drugs without their doctor. The sole point of advertising to consumers, they claim, is to prompt consumers to specifically request a particular prescription drug.

At the hearing, the AMA discussed the need for FDA regulation over DTCA and shared guidelines for DTCA that address advertising content, disclosures, and audiences targeted.

"The AMA guidelines for DTCA can help ensure that patients receive information about prescription drugs that is accurate, educational, well-balanced and encourages patient-physician communication," Nielsen said.

"We look forward to working with Congress to achieve our shared goal - that direct-to-consumer advertisements focus on truly helping patients rather than maximizing pharmaceutical companies' bottom line," she added.

The ads work

A study last year bolsters the doctors' argument. A poll of Pennsylvania adults, taken 10 years after the first direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical television advertisement ran, suggests that nearly half of the participants have asked their doctor about a specific prescription drug or medical procedure they saw advertised.

According to The Patient Poll, conducted by the Pennsylvania Medical Societys Institute for Good Medicine, 45 percent of Pennsylvania adults participating in the summer 2007 poll indicated that they have talked to their doctor about a specific drug and/or procedure that they saw advertised on television or in a magazine.

Critics of the ads say they lead to more prescriptions being written, often when it's not in the best interest of the patient. But theres also a flip side: instead of getting upset about this situation, one physician says its better for his colleagues to be prepared for questions.

Most physicians are divided about whether or not pharmaceutical advertisements directed towards patients are good, said Dr. Peter Lund, founder of the Pennsylvania Medical Societys Institute for Good Medicine.

Some say its good to have patients informed, while others say its bad because of induced demand and incorrect self-diagnosing. Our advice to Pennsylvania physicians is to be alert to whats being advertised and be prepared to answer questions since theres a good chance theyll be asked.

A study published in the August 16, 2007, edition of The New England Journal of Medicine tracks a rise in total spending on pharmaceutical promotion from $11.4 billion in 1996 to $29.9 billion in 2005. Real spending on direct-to-consumer advertising increased by 330 percent during those years.

Theres clear evidence that the pharmaceutical industry is spending more to promote medications, Lund, an Erie, Pennsylvania urologist and incoming president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, said. If it wasnt working for them, they wouldnt be pumping more money into that budget area.

While direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertisements can be traced back to 1981, the debate on advertising directly to patients accelerated within the medical community 10 years ago when the Food and Drug Administration changed policy to allow television advertisements directed towards patients.

I dont know a physician who hasnt been asked by at least one patient about a specific drug they saw advertised, Lund said.

Viagra ads

Some drug ads are more controversial than others. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) last year filed a lawsuit against Pfizer Inc., the world's largest pharmaceutical company and manufacturer of impotence drug Viagra, over its marketing tactics and advertising.

AHF claims that Pfizer's Viagra advertising "has caused an increase in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including but not limited to HIV/AIDS."

"Pfizer has engaged in and continues to engage in this conduct despite clear evidence of its illegality and harmful effects," the foundation charged. The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.

 



More

Californians Fight Back Against 'Rescinded' Health Coverage

Class actions against Blue Cross of California heat up

Californians Fight Back Against 'Rescinded' Health Coverage...


Want to keep your health insurance in California? Be sure you dont get sick.

Customers across the state accuse Blue Cross of California and its subsidiary, Blue Cross Life and Health, of canceling their policies as soon as hefty bills start to roll in.

When Jessica Bath of Morro Bays son Jack was born with a hole in his heart, Blue Cross took a closer look at her medical records and rescinded her coverage.

Heres how it works: After a consumer applies for health insurance coverage, a company has two years within which it can cancel (rescind) coverage if it believes the applicant has made a false statement on the application or perhaps failed to disclose a medical fact.

This situation applies to the individual, private insurance market. Policies issued through an employer are not subject to underwriting (background investigation).

Among Blues shady practices recently uncovered: letters to physicians asking them to double-check health insurance applications for accuracy and report any errors to the company (usual result: pre-existing condition = fast-track to being uninsured.)

Powerful allies

Consumers have picked up powerful allies in battling Blue during the past year. Both Blue Cross and Kaiser Permanente were fined by Californias Department of Managed Care for improperly cancelling policies, and the states Department of Insurance is seeking to fine Blue Shield Health and Life Company for $12.6 million.

More recently, the 35,000-member California Medical Association and the California Hospital Association (representing 450 hospitals) joined pending consumer class actions against Blue, charging unlawful rescission of over 6, 000 policies.

What does this mean to someone whos suddenly found themselves among the nations 47 million uninsured?

It's hard to say but the game may be up soon. In a case similar to Jessica Baths, Blue Cross cancelled Raudel and Maria Rodriguezs policy after Raudels medical bills topped $100,000. The Rodriguez family filed a class action, alleging that the company engaged in post claims underwriting, or illegally canceling after the bills got too high.

In another coup for consumers, both the trial court and the Court of Appeals ruled that consumers cant be forced to waive a jury trial and shoehorned into binding arbitration without a clear and specific warning. Unknown to many consumers, arbitration rulings have several drawbacks: theyre expensive (and consumers must pay half), they dont create legal precedent and they cant be appealed to a higher court.

LA takes action

Officials across the state have gotten involved, including Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who has sued Blue Cross for fraud and created a Web site, www.protectingtheinsured.org, where doctors and patients can post their own experiences with health insurance problems.

The Department of Managed Care has ordered 26 of the most outrageous cancellations to be reversed, and promised to investigate all rescissions between 2004 and 2008 by the five largest insurers in the state.

The five largest companies selling individual policies in California are Anthem Blue Cross, Kaiser Permanente, HealthNet, Inc., Blue Shield of California and PacifiCare of California.

While there may not yet be an across-the-board solution to the problem, individual consumers are winning some pretty impressive victories.

Patsy Bates, diagnosed with breast cancer, recently won a $9.4 million judgment against HealthNet, which cancelled her insurance while she underwent chemotherapy; $8 million of that amount was for punitive damages, awarded to punish a defendant for intentionally unlawful conduct.



More

Nader Protests Feds' Roof Crush Plan

Bush 'doesn't give a darn about it'

Nader Protests Feds' Roof Crush Plan...


Consumer advocates and members of Ralph Nader's presidential campaign rallied outside the Department of Transportation building in Washington, D.C. today to protest a roof crush safety proposal which they say will do little to save lives in automobiles that roll over.

Although rollovers comprise less than five percent of all crashes, 25 percent of all vehicle fatalities are from rollovers approximately 10,000 every year, according to the campaign website for Ralph Nader, a longtime consumer advocate who is running for president as an independent in 2008.


Byron Bloch, independent auto safety expert, shows Ralph Nader the two designs Ford uses in some vehicles. One cost $1 more than the other, but is significantly stronger. In the background is Paula Lawlor, director of People Safe in Rollovers and Kevin Moody, whose son died in 2003 when a Ford Explorer rolled over and crushed him.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is part of the Department of Transportation, is expected to update its 36-year-old roof crush standard in July.

The current standard requires that a vehicle sold in the U.S. have a roof that can withstand 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle without collapsing more than five inches into occupancy space. The test is administered by a static crusher that slowly applies pressure to the corner of a vehicle's roof.

The new standard is expected to be the same test but requires vehicles' roofs hold 2.5 times the weight of the vehicle. Nader, who was instrumental in creating NHTSA in 1966, said the new standard is still not adequate.

We are demanding that they issue a standard of at least four times the vehicle weight in a rollover, Nader told ConsumerAffairs.Com during the protest.

Dynamic tests

Nader said NHTSA should also perform dynamic rollover tests that more closely replicate the dramatic effects of an actual rollover such as dropping the car on its roof from a certain distance or physically rolling it over.

NHTSA representatives believe the new proposal, which has been in the making for years, will be adequate.

We're pretty confident that when the final regulation comes out, it will be certainly a significant improvement over what's on the books now and it will add significant added protection in the event of a rollover, said Rae Tyson, NHTSA spokesman.

Tyson refused to say why the agency will not use static tests.

Some foreign manufacturers such as Saab, Volvo and Suburu require that at least some of their models pass a four-times-the-weight static test and numerous dynamic tests.

American auto companies want a weak standard that will kill more Americans and produce more quadriplegics and paraplegics, Nader said.

Independent safety experts have speculated for years that it would be very easy and cheap, around $1 to $50, to make American vehicles pass far stricter rollover tests.

"Easiest fix"

This is the easiest fix you can imagine, Nader said.

In one example, Byron Bloch, an independent auto safety expert and consultant, demonstrated today that for about $1, Ford could make a large portion of its fleet much more resistant to rollover crush by using a boxed, closed section above the windshield rather the single sheet of metal the company frequently uses. He brought with him examples of both. The single sheet wobbled when he shook it while the box frame, which he said Ford uses in some Mustangs, held firm.

As it's written now, the new proposal would also create a Federal preemption that would prevent roof crush victims from seeking justice in state courts. Twenty eight state attorneys general have spoken out against that provision.

Many employees at NHTSA and within the White House often seek jobs with the auto industry after regulating it. Nader blamed these weak roof crush provisions and others on the close ties regulators have come to enjoy with American automakers.

It was created to be a tough enforcement agency that saves American lives and prevent injuries and it has become a weak consulting firm to the auto companies, coddling the auto companies instead of caring for the safety of the American people, Nader said.

Nader ultimately blamed the perceived failures of the agency on President Bush.

He's always said his main job is the safety of the American people but I guess he can't prove terrorists are behind this roof crush standard so he doesn't give a darn about it, Nader said.

Also at the protest were representatives of People Safe in Rollovers, a nonprofit that aims to strengthen roof crush standards far beyond what NHTSA is proposing.

The nonprofit's director, Paula Lawlor, has written legislation that would require vehicles pass a 3.5-times-the-weight static test and make those test results readily available to consumers at the time of sale. It also could mean retrofitting older vehicles to pass her new standard.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark), chairman of the Subcommittee of Consumer Affairs, Insurance and Automotive Safety has scheduled a tentative hearing June 4 to discuss Lawlor's bill and the dangers of vehicle rollovers.

The Committee plans to hear from all stakeholders, including representatives from NHTSA, the automobile industry, auto safety advocates and representation from (a) victims family, Crystal Waitekus, spokeswoman from Pryor's office, wrote in an e-mail.

---

Photo by Joe Enoch

More

Facebook Agrees to Upgrade Safety Measures

States pressure social site to increase protections for minors

Facebook Agrees to Upgrade Safety Measures...

Under pressure from the attorneys general of 50 states and the District of Columbia, Facebook has agreed to make key changes to its social networking site that will better protect children from predators and inappropriate content.

Since 2006, the state attorneys general have sought to make social networking Web sites safer.

As part of the agreement announced today, Facebook will:

• Provide automatic safety messages when a child is in danger of giving personal information to an unknown adult,

• Restrict the ability of users to change their listed ages,

• Act more aggressively to remove inappropriate content and groups from the site, and

• Require third party vendors to adhere to Facebooks safety and privacy guidelines.

Facebook also has agreed to maintain a list of pornographic Web sites and regularly cut any links to such sites. The company will remove groups for incest, pedophilia, cyberbullying and other violations of the sites terms of services, as well as expel from the site individual violators of those terms.

The social network site also has agreed to more prominently display safety tips to its users, require users under age 18 to affirm they have read Facebooks safety tips when they register and regularly review models for abuse reporting.

Following the discovery of more than 1,800 Illinois sex offenders on MySpace, a Madigan subpoena to Facebook discovered 123 of those MySpace Illinois sex offenders had created profiles on Facebook, as well. Facebook has since removed those profiles.

Key principles

Todays agreement with Facebook includes a Joint Statement on Key Principles of Social Networking Sites Safety developed by the attorneys general similar to those agreed to by MySpace. The principles fall into four categories:

• Creating an Online Safety Task Force

• Developing Design and Functionality Changes to Protect

• Children on Facebook

• Developing Education Materials and Tools for Parents,

• Educators and Children

• Cooperating with Law Enforcement

As with MySpace, I am concerned that young people communicating through Facebook run into risks of having contact with sexual predators roaming the Internet looking to meet children, teens and others, said Madigan. Many Facebook users are children who are simply too trusting and sometimes too free with the information they make available on their Facebook pages.

Today's agreement is similar to one that MySpace reached in January with 49 states and the District of Columbia. MySpace agreed to head a task force, which Facebook has joined, focused on developing technology to verify the age and identity of social networking site users. The task force will report back to the attorneys general every three months and issue a formal report with findings and recommendations at the end of 2008.

 

More

Phishing Scammers Get More Creative

Coulee Dam scammers try to leave no trace of their activities

Who hasn't received a spam email saying their credit or debit card has been deactivated and the consumer needs to call the bank to straighten things out?...

Who hasn't received a spam email saying their credit or debit card has been deactivated and the consumer needs to call the bank to straighten things out? Usually, that entails providing account numbers, user names and passwords, and other sensitive information.

And of course, it's not the bank that's requesting the information, but a criminal.

In the Pacific Northwest, Coulee Dam Federal Credit Union is the target of a phishing scam that attempts to disarm savvy consumers with a little honesty. The spam email informs the recipient their debit card has been deactivated and that they need to take action.

If the consumer doesn't have a CDFCU account, they are likely to see the email for what it is. But if you're one of the credit union's 11,980 members, you might be fooled. The scammer even includes a link in the email not to some bogus, look-alike site but to CDFCU's actual Web site.

To straighten everything out, the consumer is told to call a toll-free number. When you call the toll free number, you hear a generic message saying to leave a message at the tone. There is no request for you to provide sensitive information.

That may be because law enforcement can use such recordings in court as evidence of a fraud if the scammer is ever apprehended. The scammer, instead, needs a way to speak directly with the victim without the danger of being traced.

They do that by simply asking the caller to leave a message. Someone sincerely concerned about their debit card might leave their phone number. If they do, the scammer can call them back, using an untraceable phone, and obtain the sensitive information that could then be used to steal the victim's identity and clean our their bank account.

A spokeswoman for CDFCU told ConsumerAffairs.com that the credit union is aware of the scam and is currently working with investigators.

In the meantime, consumers should take the advice of security experts who say never to respond directly to any email that appears to request any sensitive information. If you're not sure, they say, call the bank by looking up the number in the telephone book, not by calling a number in an email.

More Scam Alerts ...

More

Honda Recalls ATVs

Honda Recalls ATVs...

May 8, 2008
American Honda Motor Co. is recalling about 1,400 model year 2008 Honda TRX500 ATVs. The electric power steering shaft of the recalled ATVs could break unexpectedly, resulting in the riders losing steering control.

This recall involves Model Year 2008 Honda TRX500 ATVs equipped with electric power steering, also known as the Honda FourTrax Foreman 4X4 with electric power steering. The adult-size ATVs are designed for use by riders age 16 and older. The ATVs are available in red, black, olive, white, and camouflage. Honda and wing logo are printed on the fuel tank and TRX500 is printed on the side panel just below the seat.

The ATVs were sold by Honda ATV dealers nationwide from October 2007 through March 2008 for between $6,850 and $7,400. They were made in the United States.

Consumers should stop using these recalled ATVs immediately and contact any Honda ATV dealer to make an appointment for a free repair. Registered owners of the recalled ATVs have been sent direct notices.

For additional information, consumers can contact Honda toll-free at (866) 784-1870 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the companys website at www.powersports.honda.com.

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

More

Protections Increased for Air Travelers with Disabilities

But travelers complain existing rules are often ignored

Protections Increased for Air Travelers with Disabilities...

Travelers with disabilities will be getting new protections against discrimination when they fly on a foreign airline flight that begins or ends in the United States, as well as on any flight operated by a U.S. carrier anywhere in the world.

That's because the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has strengthened its existing regulation implementing the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and extended it to foreign airlines.

Some consumers, however, say that existing rules are poorly enforced and often of little benefit to disabled travelers.

"I wrote Northwest Airlines customer services about its failure to address my needs as a disabled customer and the fact that the assigned seats for my flight from PDX to BKK, Airbus 330, in no way addressed my need to be able to partly extend my leg," Guy of Lincoln City, OR, complained to ConsumerAffairs.com.

"When I got on the flight the assigned disability seat had less legroom then the standard seat," he said. "I spent the whole flight in extreme pain, hip and both knees unable to even stand up during the flight to relieve the pressure."

DOT's existing rules provide that airlines must provide assistance with boarding, deplaning and making connections. Assistance within the cabin is also required.

But Kenneth of Los Banos, CA, complained that he was restricted to his seat when he flew Southwest Airlines from San Jose to Buffalo, NY.

"The passengers were not able to leave the aircraft at each stop unless they were arriving at their destinations, since the layover time averaged 15 minutes at each stop. In flight, we were not allowed to stand in line to use the restrooms, and since I am disabled, this made it impossible for me to use them," he said.

"I travel with a wheelchair and crutches, and for me to try to use the restroom or even move around the cabin is pure torture!" he said.

Pam of Cincinnati, who has limited mobility, had trouble boarding her US Airways flight to Philadelphia. She, like many passengers who have complained to ConsumerAffairs.com, said she alerted the airline in advance that she needed wheelchair assistance but found no help when she got to the airport.

"Other passengers get very mad at me because I am slow and unsteady" when boarding, she said. "When we got to Philly, there was no jetway. Stairs are extremely difficult for me. No one offered to assist me down the stairs or with my bags. ... There was NO wheelchair for me in Philly at the gate, and no gate agent."

Oxygen

The new rule also will make it easier for passengers to use medical oxygen during flights by requiring airlines to allow the use in the passenger cabin of portable oxygen concentrators that meet applicable safety, security and hazardous materials requirements for safe use aboard aircraft, DOT said.

DOT said it will seek further comment on whether airlines should be required to provide medical oxygen to passengers upon request. In addition, the department is studying subjects such as accessibility of airline web sites, automated ticketing kiosks, and in-flight entertainment systems.

The new rule also will provide greater accommodations for passengers with hearing impairments by requiring airlines to include easy-to-read captions for the hearing-impaired in its safety and informational videos.

Airlines must promptly provide the same information to hearing- and vision-impaired passengers that it provides to other passengers in airport terminals or on the aircraft -- such as information on boarding, flight delays, schedule changes, weather conditions at the flights destination, connecting gate assignments, checking and claiming of baggage, and emergencies.

The rule does not specify how carriers should make this information available to passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The new rule will be effective in one year to give carriers enough time to begin implementing its provisions, DOT said.

 



More

Treacherous Treads Still Taking Lives

Firestone tires on a Ford Explorer can still be a lethal combination

Treacherous Treads Still Taking Lives...

 


See CBS4's full report

---
More about the Firestone recall
More about rollovers

It's been eight years since more than eight million Firestone AT, ATX and Wilderness tires were recalled but the tires are still claiming victims, an investigation by Miami's CBS4 News has found.

Among the latest are two Miami-area men, Jason Crespin and Steven Tarafa. They died on Feb. 18 when Jason's 1999 Ford Explorer swerved out of control and hit a tree, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

Tarafa's mother, Denise Sosa, talked with CBS4 Consumer Investigator Al Sunshine about the last time she saw her son alive, minutes before he left on a short business trip to North Florida.

"He hugged me and he kissed me and he said I'll see you next week and that was it. I never got to see him again," she said.

The cause, according to the state's accident report? The Firestone Wilderness-AT tire on Jason's 1999 Ford Explorer came apart while they were driving from Tallhassee to Jacksonville.

The accident report includes the notation "Vehicle Defect: The left rear tire of vehicle 1's tread (cap) separated from the main body of the tire."

Both families are now suing Ford, Firestone and the Miami used car dealer that sold Jason the old Explorer just three weeks before the accident.

According to the lawsuits, the nine-year-old tire is believed to be the original spare that came on the the old Explorer.

Post-recall

The accident awakens the long-smoldering debate between Ford and Firestone. Each blamed the other for the rash of accidents involving the tire, most of them on Ford Explorers.

Firestone finally agreed to recall millions of the tires but continued to insist that the accidents were at least partly caused by faulty design on the Explorers. It also blamed consumers for not maintaining proper pressure in the tires.

But the argument is moot in the case of Jason and Steven. That's because the tire on their Explorer was made after the cutoff date of the Firestone recall.

Perhaps so, but Miami attorney Mike Eidson says the tire failed exactly the same way the earlier Firestones did. The entire top tread came off in one big piece.

"They all look like this," Eidson said. "They all end up with this little shoulder piece and then the treads gone" showing how all that was left of the tire was the so-called steel-belted casing and the two sidewalls.

Both families say they don't understand why state and federal auto safety agencies are not doing more to warn consumers that old, recalled tires could still be on pre-owned Ford Explorers, Sunshine reported.

Under Florida law there's no formal requirement that used-car dealers have to make sure the vehicles they sell don't have recalled tires on them.

"You're going to see more and more people die every year as these tires get older as they remain on these cars That's what's going to happen. Each one has the potential to be a ticking time bomb, like this one. They're dangerous," Eidson said.

The feds told CBS4 they believe more than 90% of Firestones' recalled tires are now off the market. But critics say that means hundreds of thousands more could still be in old Ford Explorers as spare tires their new owners may not know about.

Companies respond

Ford says it recommends replacing tires after six years, including spares. A spokesman said the company offers its sympathy to the Florida families.

Firestone says its campaign pulled 95 percent of the recalled tires off the market and was one of the most effectively administered product safety campaigns in history.

If customers have questions about the safety of their tires, they should check with their nearest Ford or Firestone dealer for a free safety check, both companies said.

CBS4's Sunshine added this safety note: "As I've been reporting for 8 years now, SUV owners especially need to check your tire pressure at least once a month, don't overload your vehicle beyond its posted weight limits and maintain the proper speed limit."

"As we approach the summer driving season with our crowded, hot highways, tire safety should be an even more important concern for all of us and our families."

 

More

Chrysler Expands Jeep Stalling Recall

Transmission software will be reprogrammed

NHTSA reported that the automaker has now recalled 24,461 2006 Jeep Commanders to reprogram automatic transmission software in Jeeps equipped with the 4.7 ...

More

Fed Chief Seeks Greater Effort To Stem Foreclosures

Eroding housing market affects overall economy, he warns

Fed Chief Seeks Greater Effort To Stem Foreclosures...

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says more needs to be done to reduce the rising rate of home foreclosures, and breaking with the Bush Administration, he says the government needs to take a more active role.

In a speech to the Columbia Business School, Bernanke signaled approval of a proposal for the Federal Housing Administration to begin refinancing mortgages in danger of default. Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation that would include that step.

He also reiterated his call for lenders to write down a portion of troubled loans, to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

"In some cases, when the source of the problem is a decline of the value of the home well below the mortgage's principal balance, the best solution may be a write-down of principal or other permanent modification of the loan by the servicer, perhaps combined with a refinancing by the Federal Housing Administration or another lender," Bernanke said.

"To be effective, such programs must be tightly targeted to borrowers at the highest risk of foreclosure, as measured, for example, by debt-to-income ratio or by the extent to which the mortgage is underwater," he said. "Finding the right balance -- particularly the need to avoid programs that give borrowers who can make their payments an incentive to default -- is difficult. But realistic public- and private-sector policies must take into account the fact that traditional foreclosure avoidance strategies may not always work well in the current environment."

Bernanke said many foreclosures are not preventable. He said investors, for example, are unlikely to want to hold onto a property whose value has depreciated significantly, and some borrowers -- perhaps because they were put into an inappropriate loan or because personal circumstances have changed--cannot realistically sustain homeownership.

"However, if a foreclosure is preventable, and the borrower wants to stay in the home, the economic case for trying to avoid foreclosure is strong," Bernanke said.

Because foreclosures impose high costs, including legal and administrative costs as well as the costs of leaving the property vacant for a possibly extended period, he said both the borrower and the lender usually are better off avoiding foreclosure.

Clusters of foreclosures can destabilize communities, reducing the property values of nearby homes, and lower municipal tax revenues. At both the local and national levels, foreclosures add to the stock of homes for sale, increasing downward pressure on home prices in general.

Bernanke's concern is that an escalation in downward pressure on home prices could have an adverse impact on the broader economy and, through their effects on the valuation of mortgage-related assets, on the stability of the entire U.S. financial system.

"Thus, finding ways to avoid preventable foreclosures is a legitimate and important concern of public policy," Bernanke said.

More

Rising Gas Prices Drive Search for Savings

Scams abound, but so do some simple gas-saving measures

Rising Gas Prices Drive Search for Savings...

 

As gasoline prices continue to rise across the country, consumers are scrambling for ways to save money at the pumps.

Figures released today by The American Automobile Association (AAA) reveal the average price of regular unleaded gasoline jumped 30 cents a gallon in the past month.

AAA estimates the average national price for unleaded gasoline is now $3.61 a gallon. That's up 30 cents a gallon in the past 30 days -- and 60 cents in the past year.


National average prices as of May 5,
as calculated by AAA.

The average national prices for premium and diesel gasoline have also skyrocketed.

Premium gas now averages $3.97 a gallon that's a 33-cent-a-gallon jump in the past month, up 64 cents a gallon in the past year.

Diesel fuel has also risen sharply. It now averages a staggering $4.23 a gallon up 21 cents in the past month. The price of diesel has soared $1.31 a gallon in the past year.

How to save

But there are simple ways consumers can increase their cars' mileage and ultimately save money at the pumps.

The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) recommends the following ten steps consumers can take to save an average of 35 cents a gallon:

Slow down: CFA says consumers can cut their cars' fuel consumption by 7 percent simply by driving 5 mph slower on the highway. Consumers, for example, who drive 70 mph on the highway could save 25 cents a gallon by reducing their speed to 65 mph;

Check the oil filter: CFA says a clean oil filter can improve gas mileage by 10 percent. The group says changing a dirty oil filter can save 34 cents a gallon or keep you on the road for 23 more miles on a tank of gas;

Fix the alignment: CFA says poor alignment forces a car's engine to work harder. That can reduce its mileage by as much as 10 percent. The group says fixing a car's alignment could save 35 cents a gallon;

Get a tune up: CFA says a properly tuned engine can improve gas mileage by 4 percent or 14 cents a gallon;

Pump up your tires: CFA says more than one-fourth of vehicles don't have properly inflated tires. Tires that are properly inflated can cut your fuel costs by 10 cents a gallon;

Check the gas cap: CFA estimates that nearly 17 percent of cars on the road today have broken or missing gas caps. This reduces gas mileage and could harm the environment. Fixing or replacing a faulty gas cap can save consumers 3 cents a gallon;

Reduce the weight in your car: CFA says that every extra 100 pounds in a vehicle cuts its fuel efficiency by 1 to 2 percent. Every 100 pounds you unload will save 4 cents a gallon;

Drive more smoothly: CFA says consumers who accelerate and decelerate more smoothly can potentially save 33 percent on their fuel costs on the highway -- and 5 percent around town. Erratic drivers can save as much as 62 cents per gallon if they drive more smoothly;

Don't ride the brakes: CFA says driving with your foot on the brake can decrease your car's fuel efficiency by 35 percent. It also wears out your brakes. Consumers who stop driving with their feet on the brakes can save as much as $1.19 per gallon;

Stop idling:For every two minutes that you don't let your car idle, you will save nearly 1 cent a gallon, according to CFA. The organization recommends consumers turn off their cars' engines if they're stopped off the road for more than 30 seconds;

13% solution

Jack Gillis, CFA's director of public affairs, says consumers will see real savings in their pocketbooks if they follow these recommendations.

"We estimate that if Americans practiced these tips, gas mileage could be improved in total by about 13 percent," he says.

Automotive experts also recommend that consumers buy gasoline during the coolest parts of the day early morning or late evening -- because fuel expands when it is hot. Consumers should also avoid over-filling their gas tanks, experts say. That can waste fuel because it may slosh out of the tank.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also warns consumers to steer clear of "gas-saving" gadgets.

Some of these products claim they can improve a car's fuel efficiency by 20 percent.

But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tested more than 100 gas-saving products and "has not found any product that significantly improves gas mileage," according to the FTC.

Some of the gadgets may even damage a car's engine or increase exhaust emissions, the EPA found.

FTC officials also warn that some companies may claim their gas-saving devices are approved by the Federal government.

"No government agency endorses gas-saving products for cars," the FTC says.

Consumers can track the fluctuating gasoline prices in their state on the AAA Web site.

Such a deal

And here's some good news to keep in mind the next time you fill up your tank.

Gasoline prices in the United States are still a deal compared to those overseas.

Consider these recent figures compiled by the McClatchy Newspaper group:

• Gasoline in Germany is $8.52 a gallon;

• Gasoline in Italy is $7.94 a gallon;

• Gasoline in France is $7.82 a gallon

More

Wal-Mart Adds More Generic Drugs To Discount Plan

$10 for a 90-day supply of popular generic, OTC drugs

Wal-Mart Adds More Generic Drugs To Discount Plan...

Wal-Mart says it is adding more generic drugs to its discount sales promotion, in which the commonly prescribed medication is sold from $4 for a 30-day supply to $10 for a 90-day supply.

The retailer says "Phase 3" of its plan, which began in 2006, will also include some over the counter medication.

"More and more people find health care, and particularly prescribed medicines, difficult to afford. This is one of the reasons we continually work to take our $4 Prescription Program to the next level," said Dr. John Agwunobi, Wal-Mart senior vice president and president, health and wellness.

The company says its 90-day option gives more choices to customers and physicians who may have been limited to mail order prescriptions in the past. Included in the latest offering:

Enhanced $4 Prescription Program Beginning today, Wal-Mart, Neighborhood Market and Sam's Club pharmacies will fill prescriptions for up to 350 generic medications at $10 for a 90-day supply. Wal-Mart says this option will give customers an additional choice and save them time and money without the hassle of purchasing or signing-up for a pharmacy discount card.

Additional women's health medicines Expanding on the women's medicines added to Wal-Mart's prescription program in September 2007, Alendronate, the recently introduced generic version of Fosamax used to treat osteoporosis, is now available at Wal-Mart, Neighborhood Market and Sam's Club pharmacies for $9 for up to a 30-day supply or $24 for a 90-day supply. Wal-Mart says it previously sold the drug for $54 for the same generic supply or $102 for the same branded supply.

New $4 OTC offering Wal-Mart Stores and Neighborhood Markets today began a new $4 OTC program, offering customers more than 1,000 OTC items priced at $4 or less without a prescription. Wal-Mart has rolled back prices on key OTC items to ensure that almost one-third of its OTC medicines are now $4 or lower. OTC drugs in the program include the Equate-brand versions of popular drugs like Zantac, Pepcid and Claritin are priced, which are now priced at $4.

Wal-Mart said up to 95 percent of the prescriptions written in the majority of therapeutic categories are included in the $4 Prescription Program available at Wal-Mart, Neighborhood Market and Sam's Club pharmacies nationwide. The new prices for these prescriptions are available for commonly prescribed dosages for up to 30-days or 90-days.

Launched in Tampa, Florida in September 2006, Wal-Mart's $4 Prescription Program has expanded to 49 states. Wal-Mart does not operate in-store pharmacies in its North Dakota stores. Here is a complete list of the drugs in Wal-Mart's plan (pdf file).

 



More

Illinois Wants 'Blow' Energy Drink Pulled

High-caffeine drink glorifies drug culture, AG charges

This is blatant promotion of drug culture and addiction, Madigan said. I am deeply concerned that the design and marketing of Blow will have a detrimental ...


Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is demanding that a Las Vegas company discontinue its cocaine-themed marketing and sale of an energy drink mix that she says glorifies drug culture and has raised serious health concerns due to its high caffeine content.

In a letter to the president of Kingpin Concepts, Inc., Madigan demanded that the company immediately cease all marketing and sales of the energy drink called Blow in Illinois.

This is blatant promotion of drug culture and addiction, Madigan said. I am deeply concerned that the design and marketing of Blow will have a detrimental effect on children in Illinois.

The product, which is currently sold online, is packaged in bricks and vials that can be purchased in combination with a fake VIP Blow credit card. The Web site fails to enforce age restrictions or take other precautions to prevent children from purchasing this product, and the company promotes the mix on MySpace, a social networking site popular with children and teens.

The attorney general also expressed serious concern about the harmful health effects of the energy drink mix, which contains extremely high levels of caffeine. Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its view that Blow is an unapproved new drug and does not meet the requirements of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

As an advocate for the health and safety of consumers, I share the FDA's concern that this product may have a harmful impact on the health of its users, Madigan stated. A vial of Blow contains more than three times the caffeine in other non-alcoholic energy drinks on the market. As a result, this product should be subject to proper testing, review and approval by the FDA.

Madigan said the product also violates the Illinois Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. She warned that if Kingpin Concepts, Inc. does not comply with her demand, her office will promptly seek injunctive relief and civil penalties available under Illinois law.



More

Bursitis Common But Treatable

The Healthy Geezer

Bursitis is inflammation of a bursa, which is a small sac filled with fluid. We each have about 160 of these bursae, which act as shock absorbers and greas...

More

Toyota is Recalling Highlander and Highlander Hybrids

Infant seats could not be properly secured

Toyota is recalling 90,189 Highlander and Highlander hybrids equipped with a third row passenger seat...


Toyota is recalling 90,189 Highlander and Highlander hybrids equipped with a third row passenger seat because the seat belts in the third row do not properly secure a child restraint system.

The seat belt webbing in the third row is not adequately secured by the automatic locking retractor allowing the seat belt webbing to spool out during normal driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The loose belt could affect the stability of a child restraint, NHTSA reported. In the event of a crash, the child many not be adequately protected possibly resulting in an injury, the agency warned.

Toyota dealers will install a newly-designed seat belt free of charge when the recall gets underway.

2008 Highlander and Highlander hybrid owners can contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331 or NHTSA at 1-800-327-4236.

More

Whirlpool Settles Water Heater Class Action

Multiple failures annoy homeowners

Consumers with Whirlpool water heaters sold at Lowe's have about 2 months to file claims in the settlement of a class action lawsuit that alleged the water...

More

Feds Back Tighter Credit, Debit Card Rules

Phantom fees, retroactive interest increases would be banned

Consumers have long complained about credit card policies that usually result in extra fees. Now, federal regulators are beginning to listen....


Consumers have long complained about credit card policies that usually result in extra fees. Now, federal regulators are beginning to listen.

The U.S. Office of Thrift supervision has endorsed a plan that would limit many of these "unfair and deceptive" billing practices that consumers are complaining about. The changes are significant.

They would make it much harder for a credit card company to increase a card holder's percentage rate on an outstanding balance. It would also ban "double-cycle billing," the practice of calculating interest charges from the start of the previous billing cycle.

For debit card holders, there's relief from overdraft fees. Under the proposed rule, consumers could opt out of a thrift's "overdraft protection" program. Under current rules, banks allow debit card transactions to go through when a customer has overdrawn their account, but tacks on a hefty fee. Many consumers have said it would be better if the sale were denied than to have to pay an overdraft fee.

While the rules would apply only to thrift institutions, it's widely believed that the federal agencies that regulate banks and credit unions will adopt the same rules. The Federal Reserve, which regulates banks, and the National Credit Union Administration, which oversees federal credit unions, are expected to join the OTS in finalizing the rule changes by the end of this year.

Specifically, the proposal makes the following changes:

For Credit Cards:

1. Reasonable Time to Make Payments Institutions would be prohibited from treating a payment as late unless consumers have been provided with a reasonable amount of time to make payment. The proposed rule would create a safe harbor for institutions that adopt reasonable procedures to ensure that periodic statements are mailed or delivered at least 21 days before the payment due date.

2. Payment Allocation When different annual percentage rates apply to different balances, institutions would be prohibited from allocating any amounts paid in excess of the minimum payment in a manner that is less beneficial to consumers than one of three methods. For example, institutions could apply the entire amount first to the balance with the highest annual percentage rate or split the amount equally among the balances. When an account has a discounted promotional rate balance or a balance on which interest is deferred, institutions would be required to use payment allocation practices that give consumers the full benefit of the discounted rate or deferred interest plan.

3. Interest Rate Increases on Outstanding Balances Institutions would be prohibited from increasing the annual percentage rate on an outstanding balance unless certain exceptions apply. For example, an institution could increase the variable rate if a promotional rate has expired or if the cardholder's payment is delinquent (e.g., the minimum payment has not been received within 30 days of the due date).

4. Fees from Credit Holds Institutions would be prohibited from assessing a fee if a consumer exceeds the credit limit on an account solely due to a hold placed on the available credit unless the amount of the transaction would also have exceeded the credit limit.

5. Balance Computation Methods ("Double Cycle Billing") Institutions would be prohibited from computing finance charges on outstanding balances based on balances in billing cycles preceding the most recent billing cycle. The proposed rule would prohibit institutions from reaching back to prior billing cycles when calculating the amount of interest charged in the current cycle, a practice that is sometimes referred to as two- or double-cycle billing.

6. Fees/Deposits Charged to the Account for the Issuance of Credit Institutions would be prohibited from charging to the credit card account fees or security deposits for the issuance or availability of credit (such as account-opening fees or membership fees) if those fees or deposits utilize the majority of the available credit on the account.

In addition, the proposal would require that fees or deposits that exceed 25% of the credit limit be spread over the first year, rather than charged as a lump sum at account opening. Institutions would not be prohibited from issuing credit cards that require a consumer to pay a security deposit if that deposit is not charged to the account. Such an approach can be a means of repairing or building credit.

7. Firm Offers of Credit Institutions making firm offers of credit that advertise multiple annual percentage rates or credit limit ranges would be required to disclose in the solicitation the factors that determine whether a consumer will qualify for the lowest annual percentage rate and highest credit limit advertised.

For Overdraft Programs:

1. Opt Out Institutions would be prohibited from assessing a fee for paying an overdraft unless they provide a consumer with: the right to opt out of payment of overdrafts; a reasonable opportunity to exercise the opt-out; and the consumer does not opt out. The proposed opt-out right would apply to all transactions that overdraw an account regardless of the whether the transaction is, for example, a check, an automated clearinghouse (ACH) transaction, an ATM withdrawal, a recurring payment, or a debit card purchase at a point of sale.

2. Fees from Debit Holds Institutions would be prohibited from assessing an overdraft fee if the overdraft is caused solely by a hold on funds that exceeds the actual purchase amount of the transaction, unless this purchase amount would have also caused the overdraft.

Legislation considered

Many of the proposed rules are similar to measures contained in the "Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights," being sponsored in Congress by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).

"The playing field between card companies and cardholders has become very one-sided in recent years. Yet, more and more Americans are turning to their credit cards to help pay bills, buy groceries, and make ends meet in this troubled economy," said Maloney, who serves as chairwoman of the Subcommitee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit.

"Instead of looking the other way while Americans fall deeper into debt, Congress can and should take swift action to reform major credit card industry abuses and improve consumer protections for cardholders," she said.

The committee last month heard testimony from both representatives of the financial services industry and citizens sharing their stories of credit card problems, as well as Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), who has held several hearings on credit card lending and billing practices and pushed similar legislation in the Senate.

"Credit card issuers like to say that they are engaged in a risky business, lending unsecured debt to millions of consumers, but it is clear that they have learned to price credit card products in ways that produce enormous profit," Levin said.

"Credit card issuers make such a hefty profit that they sent out 5 billion pieces of mail last year soliciting people to sign up. With profits like those, credit card issuers can afford to give up abusive practices that treat consumers unfairly."

Moving the goalposts

Among the provisions in Maloney's bill would be the prohibition of interest rate hikes for credit card holders in good standing -- those who pay their bills on time and do not incur late fees.

Such was the case for Steven Autrey of Fredericksburg, VA, who testified that in 2007, his Capital One Visa card's interest rate skyrocketed from 9.9 percent to 15.9 percent, with no explanation and despite only one late charge in his payment history -- a complaint shared by many other Capital One cardholders.

Autrey contacted Capitol One, who told him that changes in the financial environment would necessitate the rate hike, even for accounts in good standing like his. He testified that the lender would let him keep his current interest rate, but only if he closed his account, a move which could harm his FICO credit score and make new purchases more difficult.

"The NFL does not allow one team, in the midst of the fourth quarter, to unilaterally move their end zone 20 yards just because they don't like the point spread. The rules are laid out before the kickoff, and the umpires enforce the same rules for both home and visiting teams for the whole contest," Autrey said. "It's time for legislation at the federal level that tells the credit card industry, 'Game Over' to unilateral, one-sided, contract changes."

Regulatory baby steps

John Carey, chief operating officer for Citigroup's CitiCards division, agreed that the industry had not done enough to minimize penalties as a result of lending unsecured credit. Carey referenced Citigroup's decisions to abandon "universal default" rate hikes, where the lender raised interest rates if the borrower was late paying other bills, and "any time any reason" rate hikes.

"We hoped and expected that these points of differentiation would lead customers to vote with their feet...[but] we have been disappointed with the results we have seen so far," Carey said. "The problem is that customers cannot recognize the difference between us and our competitors."

Carey advocated adoption of the Federal Reserve's proposed changes to credit card disclosure agreements, which simplify the language and terms and extend the time between an announced rate hike and its implementation from 15 days to 45.

But consumer advocates at the hearing testified that even better disclosure agreements did not go far enough in remedying the role credit cards play in America's multibillion-dollar consumer debt.

Consumer Federation of America's Travis Plunkett said that delinquencies in credit card payments were steadily increasing due to high gas prices, the erosion of home equity as a payment method, and other increased utility costs, and that credit card companies continued to reap strong profits even in the face of general economic loss.

"Borrowers who pay off their balances in full and on time each month do not earn as much profit for the industry," Plunkett said. "With revolving debt nearly quadrupling since 1990, credit card companies' profitability should remain strong."

More

QVC Recalls SoleusAir Space Heaters

QVC Recalls SoleusAir Space Heaters...

May 1, 2008    
QVC is recalling about 28,000 SoleusAir space heaters. The unit can overheat, posing a fire hazard to consumers.

The firm has received nine reports of flames inside or coming out of the heaters, and 70 additional reports of smoking, overheating, sparking, melting, and/or emitting burning odors. No injuries have been reported.

The recalled heater is a 1,500 watt, black or charcoal-colored, canister-shaped space heater with three heat settings. The unit is about 25" high x 10" in diameter (not including the wheels). The words "SoleusAir 360 Micathermic Heater" are printed on a label located on the front of the unit.

The heaters, made in China, were sold through QVC's televised shopping programs, its Web site, and in QVC's Studio, employee and retail stores from December 2007 through March 2008 for between $65 and $80.

Consumers should immediately stop using the heater and unplug it. Consumers who purchased the heater through a QVC television program or QVC.com were mailed instructions on how to receive a refund. Consumers who have not received an information packet should contact QVC. Consumers who purchased the heater at a QVC store should return the heater to any QVC store to receive a full refund.

For further information, contact QVC at (800) 367-9444 between 7 a.m. and 1 a.m. ET any day, or visit the firm's Web site at www.qvc.com.

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

More

Lifelock Sales Surge Despite Critics

'Concierge' system charges top dollar for service consumers could get for free

Lifelock Rolls Over Critics...

 


Almost 1 million consumers have signed up for LifeLock, which promises to protect their credit and identity. But in the midst of three lawsuits against the company, consumer advocates say LifeLock customers are wasting their money while the company's founder insists it is the best way for consumers to protect themselves.

LifeLock's co-founder and chief executive officer, Todd Davis, is so confident in the product that he shares his own Social Security number in the company's many TV, radio and print ads.

But consumer advocates and two class action lawsuits claim that LifeLock actually provides very little protection. LifeLock, based in Tempe, Arizona, works by renewing an individual's fraud alert with one of the nation's three large credit bureaus, a service which federal laws mandate any individual can do for free, usually within a few minutes over the phone or Internet.

What the fraud alert does is it basically puts a red flag on your credit report and it tells any potential creditor that if they receive an application for credit, they should take additional measures to determine that the person is the person that they're claiming to be. Typically that would be a phone call, said Paul Stephens, director of public policy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.

Fraud alerts last 90 days and then must be renewed. LifeLock charges $10 a month to make sure its customers' fraud alerts never expire a service most consumer advocates are baffled anyone would pay money for.

No one needs to pay a third party firm to assert their federal rights, Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, wrote in an e-mail. And for one hundred bucks plus each year, it is certainly not cheap to do so.

Concierge service?

I like to think of LifeLock as being a concierge service, Stephens said Are you the kind of person who would pay somebody, for example, to do your shopping for you?

I would point out that to do the sorts of things that LifeLock does for you, you don't even need to leave your house, Stephens continued. You can get on the phone or get on your computer and do it in a couple of minutes. So I don't really see that they bring a lot of value to the consumer.

Davis didn't argue the concierge analogy in a phone interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, but said the company offers much more than the renewal service.

There are certainly steps beyond just convenience that we're doing, but one of the things that people love are those convenient steps: us renewing the fraud alerts, us being there if you have a question in a retail store when you're applying for credit, us being available 24/7, us being there in case you lose your wallet; (we will) assist canceling and renewing credit cards and helping to get a new driver's license, Davis said.

We're also doing other things like scouring the (Internet) looking for your personal information being bought or sold on the black market, Davis said. We're authenticating when someone puts in a change of address to confirm it's you.

In advertisements, the company also promises to stop junk mail, including pre-approved credit offers and provide a credit report services that again, a consumer can do for free over the phone or Internet.

$1 million 'guarantee'

The most controversial aspect of LifeLock is its $1 million guarantee.

LifeLock's $1 million guarantee is our intent to go support any member of LifeLock who might become a victim of identity theft while subscribed to our service so we that can go out and (fill) our intent to do everything the law allows us to do to help that person recover their good name, Davis said. So whether that's hiring third person personnel, whether that's covering any losses or expenses, whether it's getting accounts closed and getting new ones issued, that's what we'll do.

But two pending class action lawsuits claim that the company's $1 million guarantee is not a guarantee at all, but just a promise that the company is not actually obligated to fulfill.

There is no $1 million guarantee, said Leonard Aragon, one of the attorneys who filed a class action lawsuit against the company. If you look at the terms of the contract it very clearly says 'we won't pay consequential damages. We won't pay you directly' so there's really no way to get up into the million dollars.

Our understanding is that it basically covers any defect in their product, said Aragon of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro in Seattle. What that means is the failure to place the fraud alert or maybe they accidentally spell your name wrong.

Davis said the reason LifeLock does not make any actual guarantees is because he doesn't want it to become an insurance company.

Insurance by design is not built to mitigate risk. Davis said. They spread actuarial risk over a group of people. LifeLock is so dramatically more than that. We want to be the most comprehensive solution out there to actually prevent this crime to mitigate the risk on the front end. We don't want to limit what we can do for consumers. We don't want to limit where they can acquire this protection by only going through licensed insurance agents. We want you to be able to go get this at Office Depot or CVS Pharmacy or through AAA.

85 claims

Of LifeLock's 940,000 customers 85 have filed claims against the company's $1 million guarantee and all have been pleased with the results, Davis said.

Those are some of our greatest advocates, he said.

But Aragon warned that although the company is fulfilling its promise now, if there is ever a serious data breach and many of its customers are defrauded, the company may not fulfill its promise. He compared it to the insurance companies who failed to honor their flood clause for consumers whose homes were destroyed in New Orleans from a breached levy rather than flood waters.

When everyone's all happy and it really isn't that big of a deal and there really aren't that many claims, well insurance companies say 'sure, we'll pay that. We don't want to cause trouble because we want people to come to our insurance company. But when it hits the fan and there are a lot of claims well that's when we start going into the contracts,' Aragon said.

You can't promise one thing and have your contract say one thing because eventually that's going to come around and it's going to be bad news for the consumers who thought they were buying protection when in actuality they weren't buying anything, Aragon said. They were buying some good customer service. Big deal.

Davis said no matter what, the company will honor its promise and that its terms are only written that way to avoid becoming an insurance company, and thus subject to regulation in each state where it does business.

If we didn't (honor our guarantee), it would be catastrophic for the company, Davis said. It wouldn't behoove us in the business we're in when our sole purpose is protecting consumers and taking care of consumers if we elected to say we choose not to keep our promises then it's going to be catastrophic to the company.

Despite the language of the $1 million guarantee, Aragon and consumer advocates say LifeLock is no guarantee to ward off fraud or identity theft.

They're telling everyone this is LifeLock so we're going lock your credit and we're going to protect you from identity theft when the reality is all they do is put a fraud alert and all that does is protect you from having instant credit taken out under your Social Security number, Aragon said.

Let's say you get your wallet stolen and your checkbook stolen and someone goes to a checks cashed store. It does nothing to protect against that. Aragon continued. It also does nothing to protect against your credit card (being) stolen.

Fraud alerts do not stop the issuance of credit, Mierzwinski wrote. They do condition the issuance of credit by making the creditor liable if the consumer can prove damages, but they dont stop it.

Davis said if a LifeLock customer is defrauded in any way, even outside the limited protection of a fraud alert, the customer can invoke the $1 million guarantee and the company will honor it.

Experian suit

The third case against the company was filed by Experian, one of the credit bureaus LifeLock uses to issue its customers' fraud alerts.

Experian contends that under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, only an individual consumer or an individual acting on behalf of the consumer can place fraud alerts.

Davis disagreed.

The spirit of the laws are very clear to us to be there to protect consumers and we feel very strongly that we're doing exactly in the spirit of the laws' intent which is helping consumers take advantage of those protections offered by those laws, Davis said.

If Experian wins its case it could be the end of LifeLock and its many clones. But Davis said he believes the company will continue to protect consumers if that happens.

If all of a sudden they took away those protections from those consumers, we're still going to have the most comprehensive (service), He said. We're still going to do things to mitigate the risk.

Mierzwinski agreed that a precedent could be bad for consumers.

I dont recommend Lifelock, but I dont want Experian winning case law that makes it harder for consumers to use third parties to help assert their rights, which I guess could be a result if Experian prevails, Mierzwinski wrote.

Glowing 'reviews'

Despite the company's recent legal troubles, LifeLock has continued to expand its customer base and part of that could be the result of a questionable affiliate reseller program.

A search for LifeLock on any search engine yields thousands of results, many of which are supposed independent review, blog or news Web sites that unanimously give glowing reviews of LifeLock in juxtaposition with its competitors. Almost every page of these websites are followed by enthusiastic user comments from consumers who can't wait to buy LifeLock and links to purchase it.

One website, CredibleReviews.Com, retells the identity theft story of one of LifeLock's paid endorsers followed by links on where to purchase LifeLock.

While none of the sites ConsumerAffairs.com queried returned our phone calls or e-mails, Davis said he doesn't believe they are owned by LifeLock and assumed they are the result of an affiliate program in which anyone can resell LifeLock and make a 30 percent commission.

Although his picture is on the LifeLock affiliate website, Davis said he knows little about the program and said he thinks there may be some disclaimer to try and prevent that sort of misleading sales behavior.

Despite its critics, consumers seem to be pleased with Lifelock's product. ConsumerAffairs.com has received only one complaint and the Better Business Bureau has processed 25 in the past 36 months.

What to do

Consumers who wish to sign up for the 90-day fraud alert or a credit report, can do so for free at any of the three major credit bureaus' websites or by calling them. Once one of the credit bureaus has been notified of the fraud alert, it will immediately notify the other two.

TransUnion: (800) 680-7289
Equifax: (800) 525-6285
Experian: (888) 397-3742

Consumers who wish to opt out of credit offers can do so by calling the Consumer Credit Reporting Industry at (888) 567-8688 or by visiting its website.

 

More

Despite Warnings, More Consumers Fall Victim to Cyber Scams

Law enforcement barely makes a dent in crooks' efforts

Despite Warnings, More Consumers Fall Victim to Cyber Scams...


Law enforcement has hardly made a dent in criminals' efforts to use the Internet to rip off consumers and steal their identities.

According to the latest Internet Crime Complaint Center data, nearly $240 million of individual losses from Internet fraud were reported to the FBI in 2007, an all-time high and a 20 percent increase since 2006.

Management Information Systems Professor Randal Vaughn of the Hankamer School of Business has focused his attention on trying to eradicate so-called botnets, a collection of compromised machines that do the bidding of their robot masters.

Vaughn says botnets are used to distribute the SPAM that frequently fills inboxes worldwide, as well as phishing, a scam that involves an Internet perpetrator posing as a legitimate company to defraud an online account holder of financial information. He says the battle has become global in scope, with criminal elements around the world taking part.

These guys are pretty slick," Vaughn said. "They make a lot of money."

Many of the profits are swindled from citizens who have the least to lose. Vaughn acknowledged that educated Internet users are less likely to fall prey to scams than say, their grandmothers, or other users unaware of potential online risks.

"It's important to protect people who can't protect themselves," Vaughn said.

Vaughn is a member of the APWG, a coalition of industry, law enforcement and government associates committed to wiping out Internet scams and fraud. The APWG focuses on eliminating the identity theft and fraud caused by the growing problems of phishing, email spoofing, and crimeware. The organization is comprised of over 3,000 members and 1,700 companies and organizations worldwide.

"The global criminal plexus that has emerged on the Internet requires technical and policy coordination across national frontiers and technological domains," said APWG Secretary General Peter Cassidy.

While Vaughn now works with organizations and professionals across the globe, his initial interest in content filtering was sparked at home eight years ago, when his then 9-year-old daughter began using the Internet.

"I've always had an interest in security, because you have to if you ever do anything in computing," Vaughn said. "You're always worried about people misusing the resources."

More Scam Alerts ...

More

Report Finds Flaws In Food Inspection System

Food safety system has broken down, report warns

Report Finds Flaws In Food Inspection System...

With recall after recall in the food industry, it might seem that government's system for ensuring the safety of the food supply has broken down somewhere. A new report says that perception is actually reality.

The report, by Trust for America's Health, a health advocacy organization, identifies major gaps in the nation's food safety system, including obsolete laws, mis-allocation of resources, and inconsistencies among major food safety agencies.

The findings echo a report last month by the Centers For Disease Control, which found that recent efforts to curtail incidents of foodborne illnesses have yet to produce much in the way of results.

"Our goal should be reducing the number of Americans who get sick from foodborne illness. But we can't adequately protect people from contaminated foods if we continue to use 100 year-old practices," said Jeff Levi, Executive Director of TFAH. "We need to bring food safety into the 21st century. We have the technology. We're way past due for a smart and strategic upgrade."

Some problems outlined in the report, Fixing Food Safety: Protecting America's Food from Farm-to-Fork, include the way the government allocates its resources. TFAH says the bulk of federal food safety funds are spent on outdated practices of inspecting every poultry, beef and pork carcass, even though changing threats and modern agriculture practices and technology make this an unproductive use of government resources.

The report says inadequate resources are spent on fighting modern bacteria threats, such as trying to reduce Salmonella or dangerous strains of E. coli.

"An estimated 85 percent of known foodborne illness outbreaks are associated with foods regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but the agency receives less than half of the federal funding for food safety," the report says.

The group also takes issue with bureaucratic quirks in the inspection code. For instance, the FDA regulates frozen pizza, but if the pizza is topped with 2 percent or more of cooked meat or poultry, then the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture becomes the regulatory agency.

Other issues highlighted in the report include:

• In the past 3 years, the main food safety function at FDA has lost 20 percent of its science staff and 600 inspectors;

• Gaps in current inspection practices mean acts of agroterrorism -- such as contamination of wheat gluten or botulism -- could go undetected until they are widespread;

• While 15 federal agencies are involved in food safety, the efforts are fragmented and no one agency has ultimate authority or responsibility for food safety;

• Only one percent of imported foods are inspected. Approximately 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 75 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported; and

• States and localities are not required to meet uniform national standards for food safety.

Approximately 76 million Americans -- 1 in 4 -- are sickened by foodborne diseases each year, the group says. Of these, an estimated 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die. Medical costs and lost productivity due to foodborne illnesses in the U.S. are estimated to cost $44 billion annually.

A 2007 public opinion poll conducted by TFAH found that 67 percent of Americans are worried about food safety, and that public concerns about food safety rank higher than Americans' concerns about a biological or chemical attack and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

The TFAH report follows a series of studies by experts raising concerns about America's food safety, including a 2007 review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Science Board that concluded that the U.S. food supply "grows riskier each year" and a Government Accountability Office report that found federal oversight of food safety to be one of the government's "high risk" programs.

CDC's findings

Last month, the Centers For Disease Control reported that recent efforts to curtail incidents of foodborne illnesses have yet to produce much in the way of results.

The findings are from 2007 data reported to the CDC as part of the agency's Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, FoodNet. FoodNet monitors foodborne disease and conducts studies to help health officials better understand the nature of the problem.

FoodNet monitors foodborne disease and conducts studies to help health officials better understand the nature of the problem.

Campylobacter, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, E.coli O157, Vibrio, and Yersinia did not decline significantly, and the estimated incidence of Cryptosporidium increased when compared with the previous three years, 2004-2006.

Although there have been significant declines in the incidence of some foodborne infections since surveillance began in 1996, these declines all occurred before 2004.

"The results show that prevention efforts have been partly successful, but there has been little further progress in the most recent years," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of CDCs Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases. "More needs to be done to make our food safer."

Consumers can reduce their risk for foodborne illness by following safe food-handling recommendations and by avoiding the consumption of unpasteurized milk, raw or undercooked oysters, raw or undercooked eggs, raw or undercooked ground beef, and undercooked poultry," the CDC said.

The risk for foodborne illness can also be decreased by choosing in-shell pasteurized eggs, irradiated ground meat, and high-pressure-treated oysters.

 



More