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

    FAA bans its use by pilots and air-traffic controllers

    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.

    Anti-Smoking Drug Chantix Linked to Seizures, Heart Problems, Diabetes...
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    Verizon, FCC Cook Up Termination-Fee Plan

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

    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.

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

    Ski-Doo Snowmobiles Recalled - Explosion...
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      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 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.

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

      Homeowners must be constantly vigilant, lawyers & safety experts warn

      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."

      Drowning Season Opens; Pools a Major Menace to Children...
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      Spit Spark Plugs Still Hobble Ford Trucks

      Used truck buyers beware; problem still not solved

      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.

      Spit Spark Plugs Still Hobble Ford Trucks...
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      Killer Cribs Study Finds Toxins in Common Baby Products

      Friends of the Earth targets fire retardants in Graco 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.

      Killer Cribs Study Finds Toxins in Common Baby Products...
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      Merck Agrees to Pay $58 Million to Settle Vioxx Claims

      States accused drugmaker of false marketing

      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.

      Merck Agrees to Pay $58 Million to Settle Vioxx Claims...
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      Trip to the Beach Could Make You Sick

      More illness tied to swimming, boating

      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.

      The CDC says there were more recreational water illnesses outbreaks in 2007 than ever before, and the numbers could increase in the coming years....
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      Study Cautions Pregnant Women On Cell Phone Use

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

      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 ...

      Study Cautions Pregnant Women On Cell Phone Use...
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      New Mexico Allergy Sufferers Want Public Wi-Fi Ban

      Could wireless Internet signals have adverse health effects?

      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."

      New Mexico Allergy Sufferers Want Public Wi-Fi Ban...
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      Gardeners' Choice Complaints Sprout Annually

      Company insists it has a 'no questions asked' guarantee

      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.

      "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...
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      FDA Panel Wants Closer Scrutiny of Drug Ads

      Many of the ads are misleading, doctors complain

      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.

      FDA Panel Wants Closer Scrutiny of Drug Ads...
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      Study Questions Effect of Violent Video Games

      Incidence of violence has declined since the games were introduced

      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.

      Study Questions Effect of Violent Video Games...
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      Connecticut Sues Alleged Discount Travel Scammers

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

      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.

      Connecticut Sues Alleged Discount Travel Scammers...
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      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 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.

      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...
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