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    Giant Food Intros $9.99 Generic Drug Plan

    Washington-area chain responds to Safeway, Wal-Mart

    Giant Food is the latest supermarket chain to announce a $9.99 discount program for generic drugs.

    The Washington, D.C.-area chain says it has lowered the price of 350 commonly prescribed generic drugs to $9.99 for up to a 90-day supply. Safeway made similar price cuts at its Washington-area stores earlier this month.

    Giant is the largest grocer in the Washington region with 184 stores throughout the District, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. The company said 165 of its stores have full-service pharmacies.

    Andrea Astrachan, Giant's consumer adviser, said the new prices were designed to attract customers who want to shop for groceries and fill their prescriptions at the same time. Giant's sales have been declining recently, as more chains have opened stores in the Washington area.

    Food Lion said it has changed the prices of many prescription drugs to $4 for 30-day supplies and $10.99 for 90-day supplies.

    Wal-Mart shook up the pharmacy business when it introduced its program two years ago. Target quickly followed but other stores have been slow to do so.

    Kroger unveiled its $4 program in February, modeled closely after Wal-Mart's. Walgreen Co. sells a 90-day supply of generics for $12.99, and some regional supermarket chains have discounted some generic prices.

    Wal-Mart has been keeping the pressure on.

    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.

    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 ...

    Giant Food is the latest supermarket chain to announce a $9.99 discount program for generic drugs....

    Avoiding Foreclosure Takes More Than Hope

    Lender-supported workout groups don't always present all the options

    Month after month, the foreclosures mount. One in every 483 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing last month, the highest monthly rate since the real estate tracking firm RealtyTrac began issuing reports.

    "If you look at a map, the highest rates of foreclosure are in areas where subprime lending has been the heaviest," said David Petrovich, Executive Director of the Society for the Preservation Of Continued Homeownership , a New Jersey-based non-profit group that tries to help consumers avoid foreclosure.

    May 2008 foreclosures, with red and pink highest in number of foreclosures. Source: RealtyTrac, Inc.

    Petrovich formed SPOCH 10 years ago after a long career in real estate finance, where he worked in everything from appraisals to the servicing of loans.

    "During that time I personally saw the devastating effect foreclosure has on a family," he said.

    Petrovich says his group works with distressed homeowners to help them avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes. Since his group receives no support from banks or lenders, he says he's free to present all the options available to the homeowner.

    "We bring truth to the table," he told ConsumerAffairs.com.

    All the options

    Homeowners, he says, don't always hear about all their options when they turn to lender-supported workout groups like HOPE NOW, which was established last year to assist homeowners in danger of foreclosure. He says HOPE NOW is not really about helping homeowners so much as it is about protecting lenders' interests.

    HOPE NOW has been criticized by a number of consumer groups who say lenders should be doing more to help homeowners. Earlier this month HOPE NOW issued new guidelines that it said would make its services more helpful.

    Petrovich says distressed homeowners should talk with HOPE NOW, but should understand that any help they receive will come at a cost: they'll have to waive their right to sue their lender.

    "Not all loans that are in default are predatory or illegal, but many are, and in those cases homeowners need to preserve all their options, and that includes the right to take their lender to court," Petrovich said.

    Petrovich has written a book, Fight Foreclosure!, which offers homeowners practical advice for keeping their homes out of foreclosure, while avoiding the many foreclosure rescue scams that prey on homeowners in trouble.

    A cornerstone of that advice is to communicate directly with the lender to see what can be worked out. Another key piece of advice is to act quickly.

    "Foreclosure is a time-sensitive problem. There is very little time between the first missed payment and a foreclosure filing," he said.

    Perfect storm

    Petrovich said he foresaw the "perfect storm" of the foreclosure crisis years ago, because of "ridiculous" loans and escalating prices that made real estate attractive to speculators. With foreclosures saturating the market with unsold houses, homeowners who need to sell can't find a buyer who will pay what they owe for the property. All too often, the unsellable house becomes another foreclosure statistic.

    In years past a real estate agent might work out a "short sale," with the buyer paying less than what is owed the lender. The lender would get less than the full amount of the loan and the homeowner would avoid foreclosure, and the deal might be done in as little as 90 days, avoiding having a home sit empty for months, dragging down surrounding property values.

    Petrovich says it's much harder to persuade lenders to agree to a short sale now, for a number of reasons. Many mortgages have been "securitized," meaning more parties have to agree to accept a loss. Because of lenders' huge financial losses, many people who service loans have been laid off. And the huge increase in the number of requested short sales, because of the foreclosure crisis, has led to big backlogs.

    "Perhaps the most obvious obstacle is the lenders' reliance on historic comparable sale values which do not reflect current values," Petrovich said. "Lenders are fierce in their quest to maximize net recovery and seem to be willing to proceed to foreclosure auction in hopes of higher recovery, which ain't happening."

    So the foreclosures continue, month after month.

    Where does it end? Petrovich thinks we have a long way to go yet, with as many as three million more people losing their homes. However, he says lenders have become more proactive, seeking to help homeowners before their loans go bad. That, he says, will pay off in the future.

    In the meantime, he says homeowners should educate themselves about foreclosure and their rights. Having an attorney look over your mortgage papers could be money well spent. Often legal aid services will do it at no charge, if you qualify.

    And don't wait. Petrovich says time is of the essence for homeowners who want to fight foreclosure.

    Month after month, the foreclosures mount. One in every 483 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing last month, the highest monthly rate since the re...

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      NHTSA to Hear 'Silent Killer' Complaints

      Hybrids pose risk to visually impaired

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) plans a day of public hearings to look at the dangers quiet-running hybrid vehicles pose for visually impaired pedestrians and bicyclists.

      Four states and the U.S. Congress are considering legislation to set minimum sound levels as a warning for pedestrians of an approaching hybrid running on electric power only.

      The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 proposes a two-year study to determine the most practical way for hybrid and electrical vehicles to provide non-visual cues for pedestrians.

      The National Federation of the Blind, with 50,000 members, will speak at the NHTSA hearing. The Federation advocates a minimum sound standard for all new vehicles sold and licensed in the U.S.

      A child in Minneapolis was hit in May by a Toyota Prius that the 8-year-old bicyclist did not hear. The child was not seriously injured.

      The Federation of the Blind has reported several close calls invovling blind pedestrians and hybrids.

      Six blind pedestrians were killed by moving vehicles in 2007, according to NHTSA. None of the vehicles involved was a hybrid, according to the agency.

      At low speeds, particularly near intersections, the gasoline-powered engine in a hybrid may shut down, eliminating most of the noise coming from the car.

      Hybrid sales rising

      Hybrid sales are increasing. They were up 38 percent in 2007 to 350,000 vehicles and are running ahead of that pace this year. The risk of stepping in front of a silent-running hybrid is likely to be on the rise.

      A University of California study by Lawrence Rosenblum, an adviser to SAE International which is an association of automotive engineers, concludes that hybrids operating at 5 mph need to be 74 percent closer than a conventional vehicle before they make enough noise for their location to be heard.

      Above 20 or 25 miles an hour, hybrid or electric car tires make enough noise for people to hear them.

      A California start-up company, Enhanced Vehicle Acoustics, is developing a system called the Pedestrian Awareness Noise-Emitting Device and Application.

      The system puts a small speaker near each front wheel of a hybrid and emits the sound of an internal combustion engine to warn pedestrians. The system requires no more power than a car radio and shuts off at speeds above 25 mph.

      Called PANDA by its developers, the system "allows drivers, companies or municipalities to potentially establish their own external automobile sound identities, all within a recognizable and respectful soundscape," according to the company.

      Now what sound should a Prius make while slowly passing a Hummer?

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) plans a day of public hearings to look at the dangers quiet-running hybrid vehicles pose for vis...

      California Prods CVS to Stop Selling Expired Products

      Chain also agrees to improve customer privacy protection

      California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. wants CVS Pharmacy to stop selling expired products, including baby food and over-the-counter medications, which were discovered during a recent undercover shopping investigation in Southern California.

      He also asked the chain to comply with California laws requiring proper storage and disposal consumer's confidential medical and financial information.

      "State investigators found that dozens of CVS pharmacies in Southern California have old and expired products, including medicines and baby food," Brown said. "CVS Pharmacy should immediately pull these expired products from its shelves and ensure that these consumer safety violations do not occur again."

      During a recent undercover shopping operation, state investigators found 48 expired products on the shelves of 26 CVS Pharmacies in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties.

      Some -- which included baby formula, toddler food, and over-the-counter medications -- were between four and six months old. Investigators also discovered expired food products including milk and eggs. Some of the "sell by" dates were hidden with price tags or other store stickers.

      Recent investigations by the New York Attorney General have found that CVS stores in New York have engaged in similarly unlawful selling practices.

      Although California law does not explicitly prohibit the sale of certain expired products, federal laws require that products contain expiration dates. The attorney general contends that placing expired items on its shelves violates false advertising and unfair business practices statues because CVS falsely implies that its products meet national quality control standards.

      Brown also asked the company to disclose its formal policies regarding the collection, retention and destruction of such information to determine whether the company is complying with California law.

      The attorney general said he has reason to believe CVS may not have properly safeguarded or disposed of consumers' private health and financial information, in violation of state consumer protection laws.

      In February, 2008 Brown reached a settlement with The Walgreen Company after state investigators discovered that that company had failed to properly retain, safeguard and dispose of confidential customer information, in violation of California laws. Under the terms of that settlement, Walgreens agreed to revise its disposal and retention policies, implement employee training, and review those policies annually.

      California Prods CVS to Stop Selling Expired Products...

      Arizona Sues Great Expectations

      Dating service accused of fraud

      Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has filed a lawsuit against Sun West Video, Inc., doing business as Great Expectations for Singles, a dating service located in Scottsdale, alleging that the company violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act and the Arizona Dating Referral Services Act.

      The lawsuit alleges that Great Expectations used coercive sales tactics, misrepresentations and other deceptive practices to sell expensive dating service memberships to Arizona consumers, typically costing thousands of dollars. The alleged illegal practices include:

      • Misrepresenting to consumers the overall number of Great Expectations' participating members, the number of participating members in certain age groups and the number of new members joining the service each month. Great Expectations also told consumers that two to three marriages occurred between members every month when it had no credible basis for such statements.

      • Misrepresenting to consumers that it had conducted a criminal background check on all of its members.

      • Using membership agreements that illegally extended initial memberships beyond one year and were designed to mislead consumers to believe they had no right to cancel or rescind the agreements.

      • Unlawfully obtaining consumers' credit information as soon as they arrived at the Great Expectations office to meet with a representative, before they received a sales presentation or agreed to purchase a membership.

      • Misrepresenting to consumers that Great Expectations staff would help them prepare their profiles and select other singles.

      • Using high-pressure sales tactics during one-on-one, hours-long presentations to consumers, during which:

      • Sales representatives urged consumers to contact their credit card companies to get an increased credit limit sufficient to pay for a membership.
      • Sales representatives encouraged consumers who wanted time to think about purchasing a membership to put down a deposit to hold a heavily discounted "first visit incentive" price, when doing so had the effect of obligating the consumer to pay for a membership.
      • Sales representatives showed potential new members written profiles and photographs of people they said were members of Great Expectations and were available for dates. In fact, many of the profiles and photographs were not of members or were of members on inactive status and unavailable for dating.

      The lawsuit was filed in Maricopa County Superior Court. The Attorney General's Office is asking the Court to:

      • Prohibit Great Expectations from violating the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act and the Arizona Dating Referral Services Act.

      • Require the defendants to return to all consumers any money or property they acquired through illegal acts.

      • Impose a penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.

      • Require the defendants to reimburse the Attorney General's Office for costs of the investigation and reasonable attorneys' fees.

      Also named in the lawsuit are Sun West Video's President John R. Meriggi, Great Expectations' Director Michael Buhler and sales representative Geri Schencker.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Arizona Attorney General has filed a lawsuit against Sun West Video, Inc., alleging the company violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act and Dating Referral...

      Public Citizen Sues FDA for Failure to Act on Darvon

      Suit says Darvon is dangerous and no more effective than similar drugs

      Public Citizen sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today for failing to act on its petition to withdraw Darvon, Darvocet and all drugs containing propoxyphene gradually from the market as is now required in the United Kingdom (U.K.).

      Public Citizens complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, argues that the FDA is violating the law and putting patients at risk by not acting on Public Citizens Feb. 28, 2006, petition.

      Propoxyphene is physically and psychologically addictive, is no more effective than safer alternatives and has been associated with more than 2,000 accidental deaths in America since 1981, Public Citizen told the FDA in its 2006 petition.

      Despite the drugs health risks, however, it was one of the 25 most prescribed generic drugs last year, with 22 million prescriptions filled in pharmacies in 2007.

      Top FDA drug officials, including Center for Drug Evaluation and Research Director Dr. Janet Woodcock and Dr. Robert Temple, are well aware that this drug has considerable human toxicity, addiction potential and abuse liability, but very limited therapeutic usefulness," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen.

      "Given this extremely unfavorable ratio of risks to benefits, it is inexcusable that the FDA did not take propoxyphene off the market long ago. It is our hope that this lawsuit will force the agency to finally begin this desperately needed regulatory process.

      The U.K. began a phased withdrawal of Darvocet from the British market in 2005, following the recommendation of the U.K. Committee on Safety of Medicines (CSM).

      In its report, the CSM stated that it could not identify any patient group in whom the risk-benefit [ratio] may be positive. The withdrawal was completed at the end of 2007.

      However, three years after the British government began its action to withdraw the drug, and two years after Public Citizen petitioned for its phasing out, the FDA still has not done anything to protect Americans from propoxyphenes dangerous side effects.

      A large proportion of the deaths from propoxyphene occurred because most of the drug is converted into a metabolite that is highly toxic to the heart, lasts longer in the body than the original compound and results in cardiac depression.

      Adverse cardiac events associated with propoxyphene include an interruption of heart transmission of electrical impulses, slowed heartbeats and a decreased ability of the heart to contract properly.

      Propoxyphene-acetaminophen, or Darvocet, is more dangerous than acetaminophen (the ingredient in Tylenol) alone, yet a study has indicated that Darvocet is no more effective in treating post-operative pain than acetaminophen, Public Citizen said.

      Reports on propoxyphene dosage suggest addiction can occur at less than the maximum recommended daily dose and unequivocally confirm addiction at just twice the recommended daily dose.

      In addition, propoxyphene has been deemed inappropriate for the elderly because of its adverse effects on the central nervous system - such as sedation and confusion - that have been found to increase the likelihood of falls and fall-related fractures.

      Yet studies have shown that propoxyphene use is widespread in emergency rooms, institutionalized populations and retirement communities.

      Public Citizen is asking the court to find that the FDAs delay in ruling on the 2006 petition is unlawful and to order the FDA to issue a decision on the petition.

      Public Citizen sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today for failing to act on its petition to withdraw Darvon, Darvocet and all drugs contain...

      Feds Raid PETCO Warehouse in Illinois

      Pet products stored in unsanitary conditions, FDA charges

      U.S. Marshals have today seized various pet products stored under what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called "unsanitary conditions" at PETCO's Animal Supplies Distribution Center in Joliet, Illinois.

      That distribution facility provides pet food products and supplies to PETCO retail stores in 16 states throughout the Midwest.

      Acting under a warrant issued by the Federal District Court in Chicago, U.S. marshals seized all FDA-regulated animal food susceptible to rodent and pest contamination, the FDA announced.

      The action comes on the heels of an FDA inspection in April that uncovered widespread and active rodent and bird infestation at the distribution center.

      The FDA inspected the facility again in May and found continuing infestation.

      "We simply will not allow a company to store foods under filthy and unsanitary conditions that occur as a direct result of the company's failure to adequately control and prevent pests in its facility," said the FDA's Margaret O'K. Glavin, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs.

      "Consumers expect that such safeguards will be in place not only for human food, but for pet food as well," she said.

      The products seized violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because they were held under unsanitary conditions, according a case filed by the United States Attorney.

      The FDA said it had no reports of pet illnesses or deaths associated with food from PETCO's facility. It also said it has no evidence that the food is unsafe for animals.

      The products seized, however, were in permeable packages and held under conditions that could affect the food's integrity and quality, FDA officials warned.

      As a precaution, the FDA recommends that consumers who handled any PETCO products from the distribution center thoroughly wash their hands with hot water and soap.

      FDA officials also said any surfaces that came in contact with packages from the PETCO facility should be washed, too.

      Consumers are further advised to thoroughly wash products sold in cans and glass containers from PETCO stores in the 16 affected states, which include Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

      ConsumerAffairs.com contacted PETCO on Thursday. The company has not returned our call.

      Pet owners should contact their veterinarian and report any illnesses to the FDA if their dogs or cats become sick after eating food from PETCO's distribution center

      More about pets ...

      U.S. Marshals have today seized various pet products stored under what the FDA called "unsanitary conditions" at PETCO's Animal Supplies Distribution Cente...

      Fewer Americans on Diets but More 'Eating Healthily'

      Consumers seeking out 'better-for-you' foods

      Fewer of us are dieting to lose weight these days but more of us say we're eating a healthier diet. So says a new report from NPD Group, a retail research organization.

      NPD's National Eating Trends report found that the percentage of adults on a diet has decreased by 10 percentage points since 1990, while the number of Americans eating healthier has increased.

      NPD found that at least once in a two-week period, more than 70% of Americans are consuming reduced-fat foods, and over half of them are eating reduced-calorie, whole-grain or fortified foods. In addition to these foods, other better-for-you items consumed include diet, light, reduced-cholesterol, reduced-sodium, caffeine-free, sugar-free, fortified, organic and low-carb foods.

      Awareness of these nutritional food elements continues to grow. For example, in 2005, 36 percent of consumers surveyed said they were trying to get more omega-3 fatty acids in their diets, and the most recent NPD Dieting Monitor shows that number increasing to 46 percent.

      The average American, according to National Eating Trends, has at least two better-for-you products a day.

      Healthy eating to consumers today tends to boil down to basic mathematics, says NPD vice president Harry Balzer, who has been tracking consumers food consumption behavior for 30 years.

      A generation ago it was about subtracting bad things from your diet, but today healthy eating is more a matter of addition and subtraction, he says.

      The ongoing concern about health appears to be paying off, according to Balzer. Recent U.S. government studies confirm obesity leveling off, and most recently, childhood obesity stabilizing.

      Even with concerns about the economic downturn, eating healthy still remains top-of-mind with consumers. According to a recent NPD Fast Check Survey on economic conditions, adults who identify themselves as financially worse-off compared to last year, said that eating healthy still had the greatest impact on the food and beverages their household selects. Saving money ranked a close second.

      While dieting for both women and men remain huge markets, they are not growing markets, said Harry Balzer, vice president, the NPD Group, in a statement. The desire to lose weight really was a 90s trend. Today consumers appear to be making healthier food choices.

      Fewer Americans on Diets but More 'Eating Healthily'...

      'Do Not Call' List Entries Are Now Permanent

      Consumers will not have to renew their entries

      The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) amended its rules yesterday to permanently honor registrations with the government's "Do Not Call" registry, bringing its rules into compliance with a law enacted by Congress earlier this year.

      The new rule "prohibits the removal of numbers from the Registry unless the consumer cancels the registration or the number has been disconnected and reassigned or is otherwise invalid," the agency said in a statement.

      FCC chairman Kevin Martin said that "The order we adopt ensures that consumers registered with the National Do Not Call Registry maintain the privacy they expect and deserve."

      Previously, registration with the "Do Not Call" list only lasted for five years, forcing them to re-register or risk a renewed onslaught of unwanted calls from telemarketers or solicitors.

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency charged with directly overseeing the registry, had initially said it would require consumers to re-register when their initial registrations expired, but later backtracked and committed to keeping registrations permanent. The FTC also regularly "scrubs" the list of invalid or disconnected numbers.

      Congress passed the "Do Not Call Improvement Act of 2007" earlier this year, which barred removal of any number from the registry unless it was invalid or disconnected, or the number's owner specifically requested such. Legislation was passed that also empowered the FTC to collect fees from telemarketers to continue the "Do Not Call" program.

      Since the registry was created, the FTC has initiated 27 cases of alleged DNC violations, resulting in a total of $8.8 million in civil penalties and $8.6 million in consumer redress payments. Perhaps most notably, DirecTV was fined over $5 million by the FTC in 2005 for multiple violations of the registry and its rules governing telemarketing sales.

      To sign up for the "Do Not Call" registry, visit the registry Web site.

      'Do Not Call' List Entries Are Now Permanent...

      Rental Car Companies Gouging Consumers with Refueling Fees

      Maryland AG fights fill-up costs for rentals

      Some rental car companies are charging as much as $13 a gallon when consumers return a car on empty, though not anymore in Maryland.

      Most car-rental companies offer consumers the opportunity to buy a full tank in advance, then return the car with the same amount of fuel as when the vehicles was rented. Consumers can also choose to have the agency refill with gas priced at a premium over the market rate.

      When the car come comes back to the rental company on empty, the gasoline bill can sometimes be be a shock, depending on the rental agency.

      AAA found one rental company near Philadelphia International Airport charging $13.50 a gallon for refueling.

      Budget Rent-A-Car has charged as much as $9 a gallon for a refill and Hertz has charged as much as $7.99. One consumer reported Rent-A-Wreck charged $7 a gallon plus $10 if the car came back on empty.

      Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler negotiated an agreement with car rental companies in his state to reduce refueling charges following a six-month investigation of gasoline prices charged consumers by the rental agencies.

      "Marylanders are already hurting at the gas pump, and paying $8.00 per gallon is just salt in the wound," Gansler said. "We have made it easier to visit and do business in Maryland, and these agreements can be a national model for states that want fair pricing."

      The Maryland investigation included rental charges at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and disclosed that some rental car companies had increased refueling charges far in excess of gas prices found in the Baltimore/Washington/Philadelphia area.

      Prior to the agreement, consumers would have paid an $8.00 per gallon refueling fee. Now the cost is a $5.85 per gallon refueling fee or 140 percent of the prevailing price of full service fuel.

      AAA said car-rental companies across the country should cut refueling charges.

      "It is ludicrous for a car-rental company to charge more than twice the price of a gallon of gas, especially when motorists are already paying a lot for gas," AAA spokeswoman Catherine Rossi said.

      Rental Car Companies Gouging Consumers with Refueling Fees...

      J. K. Harris Settles Deceptive Ad Charges

      Company took consumers' money, did nothing, states charged

      JK Harris airs a national TV ad campaign promising consumers it can settle consumers' debt with the IRS for "pennies on the dollar." Eighteen states sued, claiming the ads are deceptive.

      In a settlement J.K. Harris has agreed to stop misleading consumers about its services and to pay $1.5 million in restitution.

      "This company took advantage of people who paid for tax assistance and, in some instances, profited by taking their money and not giving them any help at all," said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. "This agreement will ensure that this firm is honest with its clients and provides refunds if they are unable to assist them."

      The 18 state attorneys general entered into a consent judgment with JK Harris and Company, L.L.C of Charleston, South Carolina, and its president, John K. Harris. According to the complaint, JK Harris did not help consumers with their tax problems as advertised and refused to give refunds when consumers complained that promised services were never completed.

      The complaint alleges that JK Harris regularly advertised that it could help people who owed back taxes to the IRS by filing an Offer in Compromise (OIC) on their behalf and consumers would only have to pay a small percentage of what they owed. An OIC is a program implemented by the IRS to assist consumers who owed back taxes as a legitimate alternative to declaring a case not collectible.

      JK Harris charged money upfront for this service without actually determining if consumers qualified for an OIC or while knowing that consumers in fact didn't qualify. The IRS accepts only a small number of these kinds of cases. In many cases, JK Harris did not even apply to the IRS to assist consumers as promised, but still refused to give those consumers their money back, the complaint alleged.

      The complaint detailed other issues; it said JK Harris regularly advertised that it had more than 450 offices nationwide. Typically, however, the person handling a consumer's OIC was actually located at the JK Harris home office in Charleston, South Carolina. If a consumer wanted to meet with a JK Harris representative about their file they had to physically travel to Charleston.

      The other offices were reportedly staffed by sales representatives who could not assist consumers with their tax problems.

      JK Harris also claimed that consumers' files would be handled by "tax experts" or "ex-IRS agents" when in fact, the states charged, the individuals handling the cases did not fit those descriptions and did not have tax expertise. JK Harris case managers changed frequently, and consumers complained that they often had to provide the same information to the company several times.

      Under the terms of the consent judgment, JK Harris must make clearer disclosures to consumers and refund them if the company is not able to work out a compromise with the IRS. The company must tell consumers under what circumstances they might qualify to reach a compromise with the IRS on back taxes and provide an accurate percentage of how many OIC offers the IRS accepts. The company must also refund consumers' money if the IRS does not accept their case.

      J. K. Harris Settles Deceptive Ad Charges...

      Record Gas Prices Move Higher

      California moves towards $5

      The national average price for gasoline continued to push higher setting a record of $4.080 with 28 states and the District of Colombia now above the $4 mark.

      Diesel also moved higher to $4.797, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report.

      Mid-grade gasoline averages $4.333 and premium $4.488 a gallon.

      One year ago regular self-serve gasoline sold for an average price of $3.008.

      Gasoline prices have surpassed $4 a gallon for more than a week following a year of $3-plus gasoline prices.

      The average pump price for regular has increase more than 35 percent in the last 12 months.

      Gas is most expensive in California, according to AAA, averaging $4.600 a gallon. Missouri has the lowest average price at $3.834 a gallon.

      $5 this year?

      Most analysts don't expect gas to hit a statewide average price of $5 in California or elsewhere in the contiguous 48 states, but some aren't so sure. But that doesn't mean it won't happen next year.

      "Maybe not by the end of the year, but certainly within a year we'll get there," said Rod Diridon, head of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

      The latest Gallup poll finds that many Americans blame President Bush for not doing enough to deal with rising prices. Only 17% say President Bush is doing enough to solve the country's energy problems, a significant decline from already low figures in 2006.

      Of the seven government and business institutions tested in the poll, the Bush administration ranks second on the blame list, behind U.S. oil companies (60%). Oil companies have topped the list each time Gallup has asked the question, and -- like Bush -- are blamed more now than they were in 2006.

      In California, drivers have been doing their part, driving less and switching to hybrids in greater numbers than elsehwere. Gasoline sales in the nation's largest state have been falling for more than two years, although they appeared to jump almost 7 percent in February, according to the State Board of Equalization. The board, which tracks gas sales through tax receipts, blamed the apparent increase on an accounting fluke and the addition of an extra day in February for leap year.

      Feds See No Relief from High Gas Prices...

      May Foreclosure Filing Rate Highest Ever

      Rate of increase slows slightly

      Ed McMahon is not alone. One in every 483 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing last month, the highest monthly rate since the real estate tracking firm RealtyTrac began issuing reports.

      The company said foreclosure filings default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions were reported on 261,255 properties during the month, a seven percent increase from the previous month and a 48 percent increase from May 2007.

      "May was the third straight month where we've seen a month-to-month increase in foreclosure activity and the 29th straight month we've seen a year-over-year increase," said James J. Saccacio, RealtyTrac's CEO.

      But there may be a hint of good news in the grim numbers.

      Saccacio says the rate of filings may be at its highest level, but at least the rate of increase is slowing down. Default notices were up just one percent from the previous month and auction notices were actually down three percent from the previous month.

      However, bank repossessions continued to surge in May posting a double-digit percentage increase from the previous month and more than twice the number reported in May 2007 which pushed the total inventory of bank-owned REOs in our database to more than 700,000.

      Nevada has highest rate

      With one in every 118 households receiving a foreclosure filing in May, Nevada posted the highest state foreclosure rate for the 17th consecutive month. Foreclosure filings were reported on a total of 9,009 Nevada properties, an increase of nearly 24 percent from the previous month and a 72 percent increase from May 2007.

      California foreclosure activity in May increased 11 percent from the previous month and 81 percent from May 2007, helping the state continue to register the nation's second highest state foreclosure rate. One in every 183 California households received a foreclosure filing during the month, a rate that was 2.6 times the national average.

      Arizona's May foreclosure rate one in every 201 households received a foreclosure filing during the month ranked third highest among the states for the second month in a row. Arizona foreclosure activity increased nearly 12 percent from the previous month and almost 119 percent from May 2007.

      One in every 228 Florida households received a foreclosure filing in May, giving it the fourth highest foreclosure rate among the states. Michigan foreclosure activity in May increased nearly 25 percent from the previous month, helping the state's foreclosure rate to jump to fifth highest among the states after ranking No. 9 the previous month. One in every 353 Michigan households received a foreclosure filing in May.

      Other states with foreclosure rates ranking among the top 10 were Georgia, Colorado, Massachusetts, Ohio and New Jersey.

      California has highest total

      Foreclosure filings were reported on 71,930 California properties, 37,364 Florida properties and 12,959 Arizona properties, the three highest state totals in May. Michigan was not far behind Arizona, with 12,792 properties receiving foreclosure filings during the month.

      Foreclosure filings were reported on 12,295 Ohio properties in May, the fifth highest state total despite a nearly 7 percent decrease from May 2007. With one in every 410 households receiving a foreclosure filing, Ohio's foreclosure rate ranked No. 9 among the states and was above the national average.

      Georgia foreclosure activity increased 11 percent from the previous month and 23 percent from May 2007, giving the state 10,241 properties with foreclosure filing in May the nation's sixth highest total. And with one in every 378 Georgia households receiving a foreclosure filing during the month, the state's foreclosure rate also ranked No. 6 among the states.

      Other states in the top 10 for total properties with filings were Texas, Illinois, Nevada and New Jersey.

      Top metros

      For the second month in a row, California and Florida cities accounted for nine out of the top 10 metropolitan foreclosure rates among the 230 metropolitan areas tracked in the report.

      Seven California cities were in the top 10, led by Stockton in the top spot. One in every 75 Stockton area households received a foreclosure filing in May more than six times the national average. Other California cities in the top 10 were Merced at No. 3, Modesto at No. 4, Riverside-San Bernardino at No. 5, Vallejo-Fairfield at No. 7, Bakersfield at No. 8, and Sacramento at No. 9.

      The Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area in Florida registered the second highest metro foreclosure rate in May, with one in every 79 households receiving a foreclosure filing during the month. The other Florida metro area in the top 10 was Port Lucie-Fort Pierce at No. 10.

      Las Vegas was the only city outside of California and Florida with a foreclosure rate ranking among the top 10. One in every 96 Las Vegas households received a foreclosure filing in May, more than five times the national average and No. 6 among the metro areas.

      Metro areas with foreclosure rates among the top 20 included Phoenix at No. 12, Detroit at No. 14, San Diego at No. 17 and Miami at No. 19.

      Ed McMahon is not alone. One in every 483 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing last month, the highest monthly rate since the real estate tracking...

      Golf Cart Injuries Increasing

      Adolescent, elderly males have high injury rates

      Who ever heard of a golf cart crash?

      Apparently there are enough of them that they have become a concern. In fact, golf carts are becoming a popular means of transportation away from golf courses, and new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Center for Injury Sciences says injuries associated with their use may be under-appreciated, suggesting the need for the implementation of new safety measures.

      In findings published in the June issue of the Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection and Critical Care, UAB researchers found that there were more than 48,255 golf-cart related injuries between 2002 and 2005, with the highest injury rates observed in males 10-19 years old and those over 80.

      "Golf carts are becoming a popular way to get around in some neighborhoods, particularly for adolescents and teenagers who cannot yet drive a car," said Gerald McGwin, Ph.D., associate director for research at the Center for Injury Sciences and professor of epidemiology. "A lot of people perceive golf carts as little more than toys, but our findings suggest they can be quite dangerous, especially when used on public roads."

      McGwin says fractures and head trauma are among the most common injuries associated with golf cart-related accidents.

      "Some communities encourage golf cart use as a primary means of transportation because of their low emissions, quiet operation and presumed safety," McGwin said. "There is little federal regulation and most states do not require operators to be of a certain age, use any sort of safety equipment, or obtain an operators license."

      McGwin suggests that safety standards are needed that manufacturers and sellers of golf carts should be required to include safety education materials at the time of sale.

      Due to the high risk of rollover and ejection, the use of helmets and seatbelts is recommended, particularly if the golf cart is driven on public roads. And McGwin suggests that developers should reevaluate the design of golf cart paths, addressing gradient, sharpness of curves and proximity to other hazards.

      "Golf carts are an attractive transportation solution due to their low emissions and cost effectiveness when compared to traditional motor vehicles," McGwin said. "But more stringent safety standards should be applied to the design and use of golf carts, particularly those operated on public roads."

      "A lot of people perceive golf carts as little more than toys, but our findings suggest they can be quite dangerous, especially when used on public roads."...

      Congressional Report Faults FDA Inaction

      Investigators say FDA has not implemented its own food safety plans

      Grappling with another high profile food contamination, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is coming in for more criticism, this time from Congressional investigators.

      The General Accountability Office told the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday the agency has done little to implement its own revised food safety plan. The charges echo similar complaints from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

      Plum, Roma and round tomatoes are filling trash bins behind restaurants and grocery shelves as 167 people have been reported ill from eating salmonella-tainted tomatoes. The outbreak has been documented in at least 17 states so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which is still getting reports of people falling ill.

      Since FDA's plan was first released in November 2007, FDA has added few details on the resources and strategies required to implement the plan, investigators report. FDA plans to spend about $90 million over fiscal years 2008 and 2009 to implement several key actions, such as identifying food vulnerabilities and risk. But to date, few steps have been taken.

      From the information GAO said it has obtained on the Food Protection Plan, however, it is unclear what FDA's overall resource need is for implementing the plan, which could be significant.

      For example, based on FDA estimates, if FDA were to inspect each of the approximately 65,500 domestic food firms regulated by FDA once, the total cost would be approximately $524 million.

      In addition, GAO said, timelines for implementing the various strategies in the plan are unclear, although a senior level FDA official estimated that the overall plan will take five years to complete. GAO also said it is concerned that the FDA hasn't provided much information about its plan. FDA officials reportedly told GAO that they had prepared a draft report on progress made in implementing the Food Protection Plan, but as of June 4, 2008, FDA told GAO that the Department of Health and Human Services had not cleared the report for release.

      "Concerns about food safety oversight are not new," said Lisa Shames, GAO Director Natural Resources and Environment, in testimony before the subcommittee. "GAO and others have consistently reported on a lack of adequate oversight of food safety by FDA, and have provided many recommendations for better leveraging FDA's limited resources and suggestions for additional authorities that would allow FDA to better fulfill its responsibilities.

      "In 1998, we reported that limitations in FDA's authority and its need to more effectively target limited resources could adversely affect its ability to ensure food safety. A decade later, the story remains the same and has only taken on a greater sense of urgency due to changing demographics and consumption patterns."

      In fact, Shames noted that FDA has implemented few of the GAO's past recommendations to leverage its resources and improve food safety oversight. Since 2004, GAO said it has made a total of 34 food safety related recommendations to FDA, and as of May 2008, FDA has implemented 7 of these recommendations.

      For the remaining recommendations, GAO said the FDA has not fully implemented them, but in some cases has taken some steps. GAO said planned activities in the Food Protection Plan could help address several of the recommendations that FDA has not implemented, but the agency has yet to act.

      CSPI's charges

      The GAO's findings follow complaints from consumer groups that FDA moves too slowly to effectively ensure the safety of food products.

      "Since 2006, CSPI has been urging FDA to require all farms that feed the American public to have written food safety plans, but the FDA has not done that," Klein said. "Instead, the agency and the Bush Administration rely on voluntary, and obviously ineffective, industry programs.

      The result is yet another produce outbreak sickening consumers and dealing another setback to another important industry, which includes many growers who have implemented food safety measures, Klein said.

      "Consumers can't afford to risk their health by eating tainted produce, and they can't afford the blow to their wallets when FDA tells them to throw out what may actually be safe food because the agency can't figure out the precise source of the contamination," she said.

      Some published reports say that Florida and the eastern shore of Virginia have been the target of an ongoing FDA "tomato safety initiative."

      FDA says the source of the contaminated tomatoes may be limited to a single grower or packer or tomatoes from a specific geographic area. The agency also notes that there are many tomato crops across the country and in foreign countries that are just becoming ready for harvest or will become ready in the coming months.

      Klein said trying to track down contamination after the fact isn't getting the job done.

      "Without food safety plans, on-farm inspections, and effective traceback systems, all consumers can do is cross their fingers and hope that the food they eat is safe," she said. "Even now, with 145 people in 16 states sick, FDA can't tell consumers whether the contaminated tomatoes were domestically produced or imported. The agency needs to overhaul its food safety system, and it needs to do it now."

      Klein said that since 1990, more than 3,000 Americans have gotten sick from tomatoes contaminated in 24 known outbreaks. And she said those numbers don't take into account what must be countless unidentified tomato-related outbreaks.

      "How many more consumers have to get sick before FDA gets serious about produce safety?" Klein asked.

      Grappling with another high profile food contamination, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is coming in for more criticism, this time from Congressional...

      Missouri Sues 'Diabetic Partner Dog' Business

      Heaven Scent Paws misrepresented its dogs' abilities, suit charges

      Missouri authorities have collared a business owner who allegedly misrepresented that she could train diabetic alert service dogs and charged consumers thousands of dollars in advance.

      Attorney General Jay Nixon sued Heaven Scent Paws (HSP) of St. Elizabeth, Missouri, and its owner Michelle Reinkemeyer for failing to refund consumers' money.

      In a lawsuit filed Monday in Cole County, Missouri, Circuit Court, Nixon stated the company only accepted consumers for its program who raised a minimum of $,6000 and then required those funds to be turned over to HSP before participants could start the three-week course.

      Nixon also stated that once consumers made that $6,000 payment, HSP required them to sign a contract that stipulated their participation in the program.

      Nixon said his office has received several complaints about Reinkemeyer and HSP, including:

      • They misrepresented that their trained dogs could alert diabetics to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), when some HSP-trained dogs could not;

      • They misrepresented that HSP-trained dogs were service dogs, when some of those canines lacked the temperament to act as service dogs;

      • They required consumers to sign contracts (after paying $6,000) that permitted HSP to dismiss them from the program -- at any time -- for reasons that were vague and subject to unilateral interpretation by HSP. The contracts also provided no recourse for consumers to challenge their removal from the program or to recover their money;

      • They required consumers to sign contracts that permitted HSP to remove a dog from the participant's possession -- at any time -- at the company's discretion. The contracts, however, did not give consumers' any recourse to challenge such action or recover their money;

      • They required consumers to sign contracts that allowed HSP to retain ownership of the dogs--even after completion of the program. The contracts also released HSP of any liability for the dogs, which they selected and trained, once the animals went home with consumers;

      • They falsely claimed that consumers who finished their program had completed the training and testing required by the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP). But the IAADP does not have a program for diabetic alert dogs, its standards are not meant to certify assistance dog teams, and the IAADP has demanded HSP to remove any mention of the organization from its graduation certificates.

      In the lawsuit, Nixon asked the court to bar Reinkemeyer and HSP from violating the state's consumer protection laws. The lawsuit also seeks full restitution for consumers, appropriate civil penalties, and all costs associated with the investigation and prosecution of the case.

      ConsumerAffairs.com contacted HSP, but no one return our call.

      The company's Web site , however, continues to tout its program, stating: "We specialize in Diabetic Alert Service Dogsupon completion of the 3 week classes, our clients will have the tools & skills needed to further, enhance, & strengthen the training started by HSP."

      The Web site adds: "Our Diabetic Alert Service Dogs detect & alert their diabetic partner and support team (parents, spouse, friend, etc) to both low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) & high blood sugar (hyperglycemia)."

      Consumers with concerns about HSP can file a complaint on the Missouri Attorney General's Web site or call its Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-392-8222.

      More about pets ...

      Missouri authorities have collared a business owner who allegedly misrepresented that she could train diabetic alert service dogs and charged consumers tho...