Current Events in June 2008

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    Simmons Kids Recalls Crib Mattresses

    June 5, 2008
    Simmons Kids is recalling about 20,000 crib mattresses. Some of the crib mattresses can measure smaller than the 27 1/4 inch minimum width requirement for cribs, creating a gap between the mattress and crib side rails, posing an entrapment hazard to infants.

    Simmons Kids and CPSC have received one report of a 6-month old baby becoming wedged between the mattress and crib's frame. The baby was removed from the crib by the parent without injury.

    The recalled mattresses involve open coil crib mattresses manufactured between July 1, 2006 and March 23, 2008 with a color label attached to the top or side of the mattress that has the following model names:

    •   Pottery Barn Kids by Simmons Kids Lullaby
    •  Simmons Kids Slumber Time Evening Star Luxury Firm
    •  Simmons Kids Baby Mattress Series 400
    •  Simmons Kids Baby Mattress 234 Coil Count

    The crib mattresses also have a "law tag" that is sewn into the edge of the mattress. The law tag has the date of manufacture and in most cases will contain one of the following model numbers: H59044.15.0014, M59082.15.0002, M59027.15.0002 or M59065.15.0006. Pocketed Coils and Simmons Kids or Simmons Juvenile Products crib mattresses manufactured before July 1, 2006 or after March 23, 2008 are not included in the recall.

    The mattresses were sold at Pottery Barn Kids and nursery furniture retailers from July 2006 through May 2008 for between $100 and $150. They were made in the United States.

    Consumers should measure the width of their mattress using a reliable measuring device, such as a yard stick or tape measure, by removing all outer coverings, placing mattress on floor and measuring the width near the middle, from the outside edge of the tape binding to the opposite side of the mattress. Consumers should immediately stop using the mattress if it measures less than 27 1/4 inches and contact Simmons Kids to receive a free replacement mattress.

    For additional information, contact Simmons Kids at (800) 810-8611 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET, Monday through Thursday, and between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. ET, on Friday or visit the firm's Web site at www.simmonskids.com.

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

    Simmons Kids Recalls Crib Mattresses...

    Consumer Group Presses for Ban on Food Dye

    Claims link to hyperactivity, behavior problems in children


    In a formal petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is asking that eight widely-used food dyes be banned from the food supply. The consumer group says the substances are linked to hyperactivity and behavior problems in children.

    The food colorings in questions, according to CSPI, are Yellow 5, Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, and Yellow 6. The group says several are currently being phased out in the UK.

    CSPI points to work done in the 1970s by Dr. Ben Feingold, a San Francisco allergist, who reported that his patients improved when their diets were changed to remove food dye.

    CSPI says numerous controlled studies conducted over the next three decades in the United States, Europe, and Australia proved that some children's behavior is worsened by artificial dyes, but the government did nothing to discourage their use and food manufacturers greatly increased their reliance on them.

    "We spent years trying to figure out the cause of our son's behavioral problems," said Judy Mann, of Silver Spring, Md. "For a long time, we thought the culprit was sugar. But when we started carefully monitoring everything he ate we were able to see that artificial dyes and preservatives were the problem. Since eliminating them the change has been positively stunning."

    CSPI Executive Director Dr. Michael Jacobson was critical of both food manufacturers and federal regulators for failing to act on the wide body of research done on food colorings.

    "I was disappointed, but not surprised, that the Grocery Manufacturers of America would so reflexively ignore the science related to food dyes and behavior and assert that dyes are perfectly safe," Jacobson said. "It is far more distressing that a spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration, a public health agency, would assume a similar ostrich-like stance without reading the numerous studies that found that dyes impair children's behavior."

    CSPI's petition asks the FDA to require a warning label on foods with artificial dyes while it mulls CSPI's request to ban the dyes outright. CSPI also wants the FDA to correct the information it presents to parents on its web site about the impact of artificial food dyes on behavior.

    CSPI lists 19 psychiatrists, toxicologists, and pediatricians who co-signed a letter urging members of Congress to hold hearings on artificial food dyes and behavior, and to fund an Institute of Medicine research project on the issue.

    Those doctors include L. Eugene Arnold, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Ohio State University; Bernard Weiss, professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry; and Stanley Greenspan, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School.



    Consumer Group Presses for Ban on Food Dye...

    Verizon Wireless Snaps Up AllTel

    Deal would make Verizon the largest wireless carrier

    Alltel's 13.2 million cell phone subscribers are about to become Verizon Wireless customers. Verizon Wireless has agreed to buy its competitor for more than $28 billion, creating the U.S.' largest mobile phone company.

    The new combined company will have more than 80 million customers, placing it slightly ahead of AT&T, currently the nation's largest cell phone provider.

    Alltel currently operates its own network in 34 states, focusing mostly on serving small to medium sized U.S. cities. Verizon is purchasing Alltel from a unit of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which acquired it late last year.

    The deal still must be approved, not only by shareholders, but also by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department. Analysts say Verizon will most likely have to sell off some of its regional assets in places where both companies currently complete.

    Even so, executives at Verizon express confidence the deal can close by the end of 2008. Under the proposed terms, Verizon Wireless would aquire Alltel's assets for $5.9 billion and assume more than $22 billion in debt.

    Verizon Wireless Snaps Up AllTel...

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      Polaris Industries Expands Recall of ATVs

      June 4, 2008    
      Polaris Industries is expanding its recall of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). The ATVs can have defective Electronic Control Modules (ECM) that overheat, posing a fire and burn hazard to riders.

      Since the recall expansion announced in February 2008, Polaris has received four more reports of ECMs melting and two reports of smoke or fire contained to the ECM. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves the Polaris ATVs with model year 2004 and model numbers listed below that have been serviced for electrical problems and received a defective EMC during service work. The ATVs were sold under market names Scrambler 500 and Sportsman 400, 500, or 6 x 6. The model number is printed on a decal attached to the front side of the radiator (Sportsman) or the top of the front cab cover (Scrambler 500).

      Model YearModelMarket Name
      2004A04BG50AAScrambler 500 4x4
      2004A04BG50FAScrambler 500
      2004A04CH42AQSportsman 400
      2004A04CH42ARSportsman 400
      2004A04CH42ASSportsman 400
      2004A04CH42ATSportsman 400
      2004A04CH42AVSportsman 400
      2004A04CH50AOSportsman 500
      2004A04CH50AQSportsman 500
      2004A04CH50ARSportsman 500
      2004A04CH50ASSportsman 500
      2004A04CH50ATSportsman 500
      2004A04CH50AVSportsman 500
      2004A04CH50AWSportsman 500
      2004A04CH50AXSportsman 500
      2004A04CL50AASportsman 6x6

      The ATVs, made in the United States, were sold at Polaris dealers nationwide from July 2004 through January 2008 for between $3,800 and $7,900.

      Consumers should disconnect the negative (black) battery cable from the battery when the ATV is not in use. Consumers should contact their local Polaris dealer to schedule a free repair. Registered owners received direct mail notification of this recall.

      For additional information, contact Polaris toll-free at (888) 704-5290 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site at www.polarisindustries.com

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

      Polaris Industries Expands Recall of ATVs...

      Safeway, Warner Bros. Introduce 'Eating Right Kids'

      Cartoon characters will promote healthier food products on Safeway shelves


      Safeway is partnering with Warner Bros. Entertainment to launch a new line of Loony Tunes-festooned food and drink items for children, as an extension of the supermarket chain's Eating Right line of more nutritional foods.

      Dubbed Eating Right Kids, the new line-up, which will roll out this summer, includes more than 100 food and drink products that will be promoted as helping moms pick more nutritious food for their children.

      Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Barry Meyer said the deal is a way to turn its well-known cartoon characters into "ambassadors of health and fitness." He said the partnership "allows us to utilize the Looney Tunes characters' enduring popularity with kids and teens to promote a lifestyle choice that's healthier for them."

      Both supermarkets and Hollywood have been pilloried by consumer groups for promoting and selling too much junk food to children, contributing to a nationwide epidemice of obesity and early health problems.

      As part of the deal, Warner Bros. said it will no longer feature its Looney Tunes characters on less-healthy food packaging, other than certain ice cream products or birthday cakes.

      "We've cleared the market of anything that might be considered unhealthy," said Brad Globe, prexy of Warner Bros. Worldwide Consumer Products. "Our Looney Tunes characters are our crown jewels. We said, 'Hey, we need to figure out how we can be part of some kind of solution and use our characters in a positive way that will improve the issues related to childhood obesity.'"

      Safeway's Eating Right Kids packaging will exclusively feature such characters as Bugs Bunny, Tweety, Taz, Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote, Roadrunner, Marvin the Martian and Daffy Duck.

      Included in the line-up are breakfast foods, portable meals, dairy, snacks and beverages.

      Safeway said the products will be formulated based on the most recent dietary recommendations from several federal and state agencies, including the Dept. of Health and Human Services, the Dept. of Agriculture, Alliance for a Healthier Generation, as well as California's school nutrition guidelines.

      Major Hollywood studios have been trying to push healthier eating. Disney no longer promotes its films through McDonald's and has recently stayed away from junk food manufacturers as promotional partners, Variety reported. DreamWorks Animation has featured Shrek in anti-obesity campaigns.



      Safeway, Warner Bros. Introduce 'Eating Right Kids'...

      Patient Information Exposed in Data Breach at Walter Reed

      Army hospital says 1,000 patients may be affected


      Patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals had their personal information exposed in a security breach, officials said. As many as 1,000 patients may have been affected.

      Details are scarce but Walter Reed officials said that the breach, which included names, Social Security numbers, and birth dates, was discovered on May 21 by a third-party data mining company, which the hospital did not identify.

      Officials said the company found the exposed file while on another assignment and contacted Walter Reed.

      The Associated Press reported that Walter Reed officials would only confirm that the data was found on a "non-governmental, non-secure network."

      Walter Reed is contacting patients who were affected by the breach, and has set up a toll-free hotline (1-877-854-8542, ext. 9) for patients to determine if they were affected. Individuals affected by the breach will have credit monitoring services provided for them, the hospital said.

      Government and military installations have encountered numerous forms of data breaches in recent years, from lost laptops, to accidental posting of information online, to sharing data without proper security precautions.

      The biggest known government data breach on record remains the loss of records on 26.5 million veterans when a laptop containing the data was stolen from the home of an analyst for the Veterans' Administration (VA).

      The laptop was eventually recovered, but not before investigators admitted keeping the breach secret for several weeks, as well as hiding several other breaches that had taken place during the last few years.

      Other breaches included the accidental unencrypted transmission of 580,000 military members' personal data by contracting company SAIC in July 2007. SAIC had been handling health care processing claims for TRICARE, the military medical network, and had been assisting multiple branches of the military as well as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

      The extensive outsourcing of many governmental and military functions to private contractors has been criticized as a potential threat to national security.

      In 2006 a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the trend, particularly in cases when contractors who had received outsourced government information then subcontracted the data out to third-party companies, many of which were located outside the United States.

      Patient Information Exposed in Data Breach at Walter Reed...

      Physicians Warn Lawn Mowers Pose Danger To Children

      'Terrible, devastating injuries' can mark children for life


      Active children can face a number of dangers during the summer, but doctors warn that lawn mowers pose a real, and often overlooked, threat.

      In fact, nearly 210,000 people -- approximately 16,200 of them children under age 19 -- were treated in doctors' offices, clinics and emergency rooms for lawn mower-related injuries in 2007, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports.

      To help prevent injuries, the American Society for Reconstructive Microsurgery, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have teamed up to educate parents, adults and children about the importance of lawn mower safety.

      "Parents need to understand that lawnmowers can cause terrible devastating injuries to children's hands, feet or faces, which can impact the rest of their lives," said ASRM President Neil Jones, MD. "The tragedy is that most of these injuries are totally preventable by following some simple precautions."

      The doctors offer the following tips to help prevent lawn mower-related injuries:

      • Children should be at least 12 years old before they operate any lawn mower, and at least 16 years old for a ride-on mower.

      • Children should never be passengers on ride-on mowers.

      • Always wear sturdy shoes while mowing -- not sandals.

      • Young children should be a safe distance from the area you are mowing.

      • Before mowing, pick up stones, toys and debris from the lawn to prevent injuries from flying objects.

      • Always wear eye and hearing protection.

      • Use a mower with a control that stops it from moving forward if the handle is released.

      • Never pull backward or mow in reverse unless absolutely necessary carefully look for others behind you when you do.

      • Start and refuel mowers outdoors -- not in a garage. Refuel with the motor turned off and cool.

      • Blade settings should be made only by an adult .

      • Wait for blades to stop completely before removing the grass catcher, unclogging the discharge chute, or crossing gravel roads.

      Many lawn mower-related injuries require a team of physicians from various specialties to properly repair them. Often, patients must endure painful reconstructive operations to restore form and function.

      "Many children who sustain lawn mower injuries must undergo reconstructive surgery for months, sometimes years, after the initial accident," said ASPS President Richard D'Amico, MD. "The look on parents' faces can be truly heart wrenching. We are the physicians called to treat these devastating injuries, but would do anything to prevent them in the first place."

      "Parents want to protect their children from accidents and injuries. But every summer we see children and teens using lawnmowers in an unsafe manner," said AAP President Renee Jenkins, MD. "It is our job as pediatricians to help get information to parents about how to prevent injuries that are common during summer months, and that includes injuries from lawnmowers."

      Physicians Warn Lawn Mowers Pose Danger To Children...

      Soaring Egg Prices Blamed on Costs of Fuel, Feed, Chicks

      Prices up more than 30% in many supermarkets

      The price of the lowly egg has risen more than 30 percent over the last year in much of the country, but farmers say you shouldn't blame the chickens. Scratch around a little and you'll find that, like everything else these days, high gas prices are largely to blame.

      The wholesale price for Grade A eggs currently hovers around $1.14 in much of the country, which translates to a retail price of about twice that much. At Pavilions on W. Olympic Blvd. in Beverly Hills, Calif., Lucerne cage-free A eggs were on sale for $4.79 a dozen this morning. A Safeway in Fairfax, Va., was offering Lucerne large AA eggs for $2.19 a dozen.

      Like so many other food staples, eggs are found in a wide variety of prepared foods and are used extensively by do-it-yourself chefs, making it hard to avoid shelling out more for the nutritious ovoids. Egg substitutes are available but they usually cost more than the real thing.

      Chicken ranchers say the cost of getting a hen ready to lay eggs is up 60 percent, thanks to chicken feed that, well, isn't chicken feed anymore. Feed costs a third more than last year. Then there's diesel fuel that's approaching $5 a gallon and packaging costs that are climbing nearly as fast. The plastic containers that hold the eggs have gone from 5 cents to more than 7 cents in many areas.

      And don't forget those chilly mornings. Most chicken ranchers use propane to heat their chicken houses and provide hot water for washing the eggs. The cost of propane has risen 50 percent in the last year.

      Ethanol gets the blame

      So if chicken ranchers aren't to blame for the high prices, who is? Supermarkets say they're having trouble dealing with rising food and transportation costs while their customers become increasingly tight with a buck.

      The National Retail Federation, the Washington-based trade association for grocery stores, chain restaurants and other retailers, puts a big part of the blame on Congress and its love affair with ethanol .

      "We've seen a tremendous increase in food prices. I don't think there's any disagreement that our ethanol policy has played a role in that," said Erik Autor, a federation vice president, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We're very concerned about this. And it is one thing Congress can do something about."

      Trying to cut imports of oil from the Middle East, Congress has mandated that Americans use 9 billion gallons of ethanol by year's end and 36 billion gallons by 2022. In addition, oil refiners who blend ethanol with gasoline receive a 51-cent-per-gallon tax credit.

      Most of the nation's ethanol is produced from corn -- and corn is what makes the feed that fattens up not just hens but beef cattle, hogs and other creatures bred for human consumption. So as corn is diverted to gas tanks, there's less available for animal feed.

      Rising demand for corn in China, India and other developing countries is also driving up prices.

      Corn currently is going for about $5.99 a bushel but with fewer acres planted this year, prices could climb to $7 or even $8, some agriculture observers predict.



      Soaring Egg Prices Blamed on Costs of Fuel, Feed, Chicks...

      Daiso Recalls Children's Bracelets, Zodiac Signs

      Daiso is recalling children's bracelets and zodiac signs. The jewelry contains high levels of lead. Lead is toxic if ingested by young children and can cause adverse health effects.

      This recall involves children's bracelets and Zodiac-sign necklaces. The necklaces have a black, non-metal cord and a silver rectangular pendant. An abstract design and a zodiacal name is printed on the front. The bracelets have a black, non-metal cord and plastic beads. Silver pendants shaped as a knife, cupid, sun, heart and bird wings are sold with the bracelets. The jewelry has UPC numbers 984343144040 (necklace) and 947678164466 (bracelet) printed on the back label.

      The items were sold at Daiso retail stores in Washington State from October 2007 through December 2007 for about $2. They were made in China.

      Consumers should immediately take the jewelry from young children and return the item to the store where purchased for a full refund.

      Consumer Contact: For additional information, contact Daiso LLC toll-free at (866) 768-4620 between 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site at www.daisollc.com.

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

      Daiso Recalls Children's Bracelets, Zodiac Signs...

      Rewards Programs Not Always Rewarding

      Rewards are often difficult if not impossible to collect

      Everyone wants something for free and businesses cleverly exploit that desire with rewards programs, offering regular customers everything from a free night's stay in a hotel to a free pizza. But Consumer Reportssays its review of rewards programs finds reaping real savings can be tough.

      Consumers complain frequently to ConsumerAffairs.com about every imaginable problem with rewards programs. Take Joseph of Vacaville, Calif. He bought a washing machine from Best Buy, only to have his son--who lives 500 miles away--call to say that Best Buy was trying to deliver a washing machine to him.

      "Everytime I buy something the information is wrong," Joseph complained. "I have not received rewards in over a year which I was getting on a regular basis until these problems starting happening."

      Consumers frequently buy products or services based on rewards card promises that never come through. That's what happened to Michael of Seymour, Conn., who agreed to add AT&T's DSL service to his account based on a promise of a $50 credit to his phone bill and a $50 credit on a Visa rewards card.

      "About 2 weeks later I received a letter saying my phone choice will cause my bill to go to $79 a month. I called and the rep assured me $50 a month. Two months later I received my first phone bill for $149. The $50 credit on the account appears on my bill but is NOT applied to any charges, they won't adjust the bill ... and I cant get my reward card. They said it got lost in the mail," Michael said.

      About 85 percent of U.S. households participate in at least one rewards program. A recent poll of Consumer Reports Money Adviser subscribers found that 41 percent of the newsletter's subscribers carried three to five such membership cards, nine percent had six to nine of them, and 3 percent somehow found room on their key rings or in their wallet for 10 or more.

      Dizzying number

      Consumer Reports finds that along with the dizzying number of programs have come increasingly complex rules, restrictions, and limits on how much consumers can earn--making many of the programs not worth the bother.

      "Carrying the right cards and ignoring the rest can save you a little money on your purchases, but consumers must choose programs that compliment their spending habits," said Amanda Walker, senior project editor at Consumer Reports.

      Some rewards cards do double duty as credit cards. Cash-back, gas, and grocery rewards credit cards can offer some relief for costly essential items, but often carry higher Annual Percentage Rates than traditional credit cards. Looking at some of the more generous credit card rewards programs, CR found that rates varied from 9.74 percent to as much as 19.99 percent.

      "If the rates are high, the cost to carry a balance will often erase any savings the rewards program may offer," Walker said.

      What to do

      There are ways to come out ahead with rewards programs and Consumer Reports offers the following advice:

      Consider where you shop. Save your key ring or wallet space for cards that will earn rewards at stores you use most often.

      Project your spending. Translate the amount you're likely to spend into cash back or points, depending on the program. If it's points, find out how many you need to get something you might want. If you're using a credit card, subtract the annual fee, if any. If that calculation shows you'd have to spend a fortune to earn a pittance in rewards, you might want to use another card.

      Favor cash back. You might never redeem your points, so at least you will get something. Plus cash-back cards tend to be more generous in their rewards, CR's research has found.

      Skip credit if you carry a balance. Rewards credit cards often charge relatively high interest rates, which will eat up your reward if you carry a revolving balance. The issuer can also hold points hostage or stop adding to them if your payment is late.

      Do the math on do-good programs. Cards that give your reward to a charity usually pay only about 25 to 50 cents for every $100 you spend. And you can't write off the donation on your taxes. Both you and the charity might do better if you use a more generous rewards card, keep the money, and just write the charity a check.

      Use airline miles fast. Cashing in frequent-flyer rewards has become more difficult because airlines have cut flights and now have fewer seats available. So rack them up and use them up as quickly as possible. Airlines also change their rules frequently, and several big carriers have recently gone bankrupt.

      Avoid temptation. Research has shown that people who use rewards cards charge more. It's easy to overspend just to earn a new digital camera or set of golf clubs.

      Business cards

      The "use it fast" advice applies to more than just airline awards. Credit card awards can vanish in no time, as Marianne of Rockaway, N.J., learned.

      "I closed my Citibank credit card last month. It turns out that I closed it within a few hours of my statement closing date. Because of that, I missed out on over $200 cash in rewards," she told ConsumerAffairs.com.

      "I called Customer Service and was advised that I could not recoup my rewards for the statement. I asked to reinstate my card so that I could get these rewards returned to me and was told this is not an option. I was highly dissatisfied with this entire situation," she said.

      Perhaps the most notorious rewards program at the moment is the one offered to unwary customers by Vistaprint.

      "I ordered business cards through VistaPrint for my new business last April," said Mia of Brunswick, Ga. "In trying to rectify a strange charge on my account today, my husband noticed a charge for $14.95 for the VP Rewards program. He asked me about it, thinking it was a charge for a playgroup for our kids. Nope. Vistaprint. ... Once we went looking, he realized this charge had been occurring every month since May of 2007."



      Everyone wants something for free and businesses cleverly exploit that desire with rewards, offering customers everything from a free night's stay in a hot...

      Judge Approves De Beers Diamond Pricing Settlement

      Consumers, diamond merchants to split $297 million


      A federal court judge has given final approval to the settlement of a class action lawsuit against De Beers, the world's largest diamond importer, that would pay out roughly $297 million to consumers, diamond merchants and resellers.

      The lawsuit charged that De Beers and its subsidiaries violated antitrust, unfair competition and consumer-protection laws by monopolizing diamond supplies, and conspired to control the diamond prices by fixing and raising them as per their discretion.

      The South African company, which controls 40 percent of the world's diamond trade, was also charged with false advertising.

      Under the settlement, De Beers would pay $22.5 million to the "direct purchaser class members and $272.5 million to "indirect purchaser class members."

      Consumers who purchased diamonds from De Beers directly or indirectly between 1994 and 2006 will be eligible to receive a rebate. The rebate amount will be determined based on the quality of the diamond.

      De Beers said it had done nothing wrong. In a statement, the company said: We believe that settling these class actions has allowed us to put these matters behind us, and is in the best interests of our shareholders, our clients and, most importantly, consumers confidence in diamonds."

      More information is available at www.DiamondsClassAction.com.

      Judge Approves De Beers Diamond Pricing Settlement...

      TransUnion to Provide Credit Scores to Millions

      Huge class action settlement could affect 160 million consumers

      A $10 billion class action settlement with TransUnion Corp.could give millions of consumers free access to their credit scores. Consumer advocates expressed surprise and delight. One called the settlement "astonishing."

      The settlement, which still awaits final review in federal court, would cover some 160 million consumers in the United States. It's thought to be the largest number of class action plaintiffs ever included in a single case.

      Consumers would get either six months of basic credit reporting services -- which normally retails for $59.75 -- plus a cash payment. Or they could choose nine months of enhanced service, which includes a mortgage rate simulator and an insurance score.

      Though handy for just about anyone, the information would be especially helpful for consumers whose finances are in turmoil because of mortgage woes, sagging home values, high gas prices and other vexing economic issues.

      The service would give consumers access to the latest information in their credit reports as well as their current scores at any time.

      It would also would notify consumers by e-mail of significant changes to their files, including reports of late payments or accounts opened in their names. The latter information could help thwart attempted identity theft.

      The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, charged that TransUnion had sold customized information about consumers to lenders and retailers, who may have used the information fo rmarketing purposes.

      Federal law bars the sale of consumers' private credit information except under certain circumstances, such as when they have applied for a loan.

      Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, called the settlement "astonishing" and "mind-boggling."

      "It's everything we tell consumers that they need to find out if they have problems with their credit," he told The Los Angeles Times. "They are getting information on how to improve it and information about whether they are creditworthy."

      Federal law entitles everyone to a free copy of his or her credit report once a year from each of the three major credit-reporting companies, but it doesn't provide access to credit scores.

      TransUnion to Provide Credit Scores to Millions...