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Missouri Attorney General Takes On Foreclosure Scams

New operation designed to protect vulnerable homeowners

Missouri is cracking down on companies and individuals that run scams preying on homeowners facing foreclosure....

Missouri is cracking down on companies and individuals that run scams preying on homeowners facing foreclosure.

Attorney General Jay Nixon this week launched what he called "Operation Stealing Home" in an effort to protect vulnerable homeowners. Nixon filed seven lawsuits against individuals and businesses that his office learned had defrauded consumers in Missouri and several other states through refinancing, advance fee, and foreclosure consulting scams.

In several of the cases, Nixon said, the consumers lost their homes and ended up with more serious financial problems.

"As more and more families are threatened with foreclosure on their homes during these tough economic times, unscrupulous people will try to take advantage of them under the guise of help," Nixon said. "With these lawsuits, we are working to stop the empty promises made to and the exploitation of homeowners who already are in dire straits."

Four of the defendants named in the lawsuits operate what Nixon called "foreclosure rescue scams." The companies search foreclosure listings in publications or online and approach homeowners with promises to stop the foreclosures by paying off the lenders. They then convince the homeowners to deed their property over and rent it back from the companies allowing them to stay in their homes.

The companies also tell the consumers their rent will be used to make the mortgage payments. But homeowners later discovered the companies did not use their rent to cover their mortgage payments and the foreclosure proceeding were not stopped.

Nixon also said the defendants in these cases gave the homeowners the choice of leaving their homes or buying them back from the company.In one instance, he said, a consumer was told she would be thrown out of her home unless she paid the company $230,000.

Nixon alleged the following defendants carried out these foreclosure rescue schemes:

• St. Anthony Avenue LC, based in St. Louis County;

• Private Funding Solutions, based in St. Charles, Missouri, and its president, Mike C. Rothweiler;

• Brian J. Thompson, of Springfield, Missouri, who does business as "All Decked Out";

• Access Mortgage and Financial Corp., of Lansing, Mich., and its agents, David Snyder and Josh Nowell.

Mortgage companies sued

Nixon also sued several mortgage companies as part of Operation Stealing Home. These companies promised to obtain refinancing the homeowners could afford.

The homeowners victimized by these companies, Nixon said, were already facing skyrocketing house payments because of their adjustable rate mortgages, and wanted to find more favorable loans. But the homeowners often discovered the actual terms of their loans were much less favorable than the mortgage companies promised, Nixon said.

Some homeowners discovered they were charged much higher fees at closing than promised. In another case, the company failed to credit loan payments from consumers in a timely fashion and then charged them late fee. The company also filed credit reports indicating the consumers were delinquent with their payments.

Another defendant charged advance fees of as much as $30,000 for loans that were never obtained, Nixon said.

He sued the following defendants in connection with these schemes:

• Christopher E. Cosma, of St. Peters, and three companies for which he was an agent -- America One Finance Inc., of Bellevue, Wash., Accredited Home Lenders, of San Diego, and Castle Point Mortgage Inc., of Elkridge, Md.;

• Fouquet Financial Services Inc., located in St. Joseph, and its president, Joseph M. Fouquet;

• Saxon Mortgage Services, of Austin, Texas.

Advocates for Missouri senior citizens applaud Nixon's effort to protect consumers facing foreclosure.

"Anyone taking advantage of needy Missourians, especially seniors, in this way needs to be stopped," said Dorothy Knowles, President of the Missouri Alliance of Area Agencies on Aging. "I am encouraged that Attorney General Nixon is taking this legal action to protect homeowners who are already facing difficult and frightening circumstances."

John McDonald, Missouri's state director for AARP, added: "In this economic climate, elderly Missouri homeowners need to have confidence in their financial advisors and lenders. Our hope is that a crackdown like this one will send a message to others who would try to take advantage of seniors who desperately need help with their housing situation."

In his lawsuits, Nixon asked the courts to:

• Void the deeds the companies illegally obtained;

• Award restitution to consumers who suffered losses;

• Impose appropriate penalties;

• Issue injunctions that would prohibit the defendants from future violations of Missouri consumer protection laws.

Protect yourself

How can homeowners protect themselves from getting taken in a foreclosure scam? Nixon offered the following advice:

• Beware of anyone who asks for the deed to your home in exchange for fixing your mortgage problem;

• Be wary of any company that urges you to go ahead and sign confusing loan papers on the premise that you can always refinance later. This is a common tactic that usually traps consumers in unfavorable loans that cannot be refinanced;

• Remember that it is illegal to require you to pay a fee in advance in order to obtain a loan;

• Ask questions about any fees listed in the paperwork that you don't understand or didn't agree to pay;

• Take your time and read the fine print. Don't let anyone pressure you into signing quickly;

Nixon urged homeowners who were lured or duped by one of these scams to call his Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-392-8222. Consumers can also contact Nixon's office through his Web site:



Judge Rules Sprint Termination Fees are Illegal

Telecom must pay millions in class action suit

A California Superior Court judge has issued a preliminary ruling against Sprint Nextel for charging "termination fees" to customers who want to cancel the...

A California Superior Court judge has issued a preliminary ruling against Sprint Nextel for charging "termination fees" to customers who want to cancel their contracts early. Under the terms of the judgment, Sprint must pay $18.25 million to customers who sued the company for being charged termination fees, as well as an additional $54.75 million in credits to those who were charged but never paid the fees.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Bonnie Sabraw ruled that the penalties were illegal under California state law. Sprint had argued that the termination fees should be counted as monthly rates rather than special charges, and that federal law governing telecommunication service rate charges should supersede California law. Sabraw found that Sprint did not sufficiently prove that the termination fees were rates, and rejected their argument.

"Sprint's term contracts gave customers lower handset costs and lower monthly charges in exchange for the term commitment," Sabraw wrote. "It is, however, not clear whether the ETF was a part of Sprint's 'rates' given that they were imposed at the termination of service and not for services provided."

Sprint has two weeks to issue a rebuttal to the preliminary ruling before it becomes permanent, and is expected to appeal, so customers shouldn't expect any refunds right away. But the decision is another nail in the coffin of the industry's usage of termination fees due to the precedent it sets.

Verizon Wireless earlier this month agreed to pay $21 million to settle its own class-action lawsuit over termination fees in California. Verizon agreed to the settlement less than a month into the trial, as industry observers speculated that the judge would rule against them.

An earlier class action in California, this time against T-Mobile, was cleared to proceed last year.

Change in the weather

Termination fees have become a symbol of customer frustration with wireless companies. The companies claim they charge the fees to subsidize lower costs of handsets in order to attract customers. Critics of the fees claim they are designed to lock a customer into a contract and prevent them from shopping for better service.

Mounting criticism of the fees has led members of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to consider legislation limiting or governing termination fees for cellphone, cable, and landline telephone contracts.

In an effort to avoid new regulation, all four of the major wireless providers--Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T--began; prorating their termination fees and altering their contracts so customers could make changes to their plans without incurring new fees.

Verizon Wireless later partnered with the FCC to craft a national policy governing termination fees. Under the FCC-Verizon plan, termination fees would be further prorated and customers would have more freedom to change plans without incurring new charges. In exchange, the federal policy would preempt state regulators' ability to govern the fees, and any existing class-action lawsuits against the wireless companies would be thrown out.

The FCC-Verizon plan was criticized by consumer advocates as a giveaway to the wireless companies that weakened state authority.


Consumer Advocates Release Top 10 Consumer Gripes

Auto sale misrepresentations top the list

Auto sales misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes topped a list of the most c...

By Joseph S. Enoch

Auto sales misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes topped a list of the most common consumer gripes, according to a report released today by consumer advocates.

"The great majority of our auto sales complaints comes from the used car market," said Bob Harris, manager of the Office of Consumer Protection in Washington, D.C. "In particular, vehicles which were sold under misrepresentation as to their condition. We've seen ... several examples of what we've started to term in our office as Frankenstein cars. These are salvaged vehicles where one vehicle is made of two or three salvaged vehicles."

Consumers should get used vehicles inspected before purchasing, said Shawn Conroy, a spokesman from the Georgia Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs.

The report, which compiled data from 39 state and local consumer protection authorities, revealed the top 10 most common consumer gripes for the year 2007. Auto-related complaints are followed by:

2. Home Improvement/Construction: Shoddy work and failure to start or complete the job.

3. Credit/Debt Collection: Billing and fee disputes, mortgage fraud, predatory lending and illegal or abusive collection tactics.

4. Retail Sales: False advertising, defective merchandise, rebates, coupons and nondelivery.

5. Utilities: Service problems, billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas services.

6. Household Goods: Major appliances and furniture, problems with nondelivery, misrepresentations and faulty repairs.

7. Internet Sales: Misrepresentations and nondelivery in connection with online purchases.

8. Home Solicitations: Nondelivery, misrepresentations in door-to-door, telemarketing and mail solicitations and do-not-call violations.

9. Services: Misrepresentations, shoddy work and failure to have required licenses.

10. Landlord/Tenant: Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities and deposit and rent disputes.

"State and local agencies save and recover billions for consumers every year, but it's difficult for them to keep up with the demand to stop marketplace abuses, resolve individual complaints and educate people to avoid rip-offs," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the not-for-profit consumer advocacy group Consumer Federation of America. "In economic hard times, consumers are even more vulnerable to phony promises to help them financially or money-making schemes."

Grant said the fastest growing number of complaints in 2007 were for:

1. Mortgage fraud and foreclosure scams

2. Home improvement contractor misrepresentations

3. Questionable Internet sales

4. Credit/debt collection practices

5. Fake check scams

The report included these tips for consumers to protect themselves:

1. Check the track record. Before buying, check the complaint records of unfamiliar companies. Consult state or local consumer agencies, the Better Business Bureau and online complaint forums.

2. Hire licensed professionals. When hiring professionals such as home improvement contractors, ask state or local consumer protection agencies if they must be licensed or registered and how to confirm they are.

3. Pay the safest way. Pay with a credit card when buying goods or services that will be delivered later so you'll be able to exercise your right to dispute the charges if the seller doesn't provide the promised goods.

4. Don't pay in full upfront. Pay only a small deposit, if requested, for home improvement or other services, never the full amount upfront.

5. Recognize the danger signs of fraud. Watch out for any request to wire money; scare tactics or pressure to act immediately; promises that one can borrow, win or make money easily as long as he or she pays a fee in advance; or any situation in which someone wants to give a check or money order and asks to send money somewhere in return.

6. Get all promises in writing. Verbal agreements are hard to prove. Carefully read contracts or finance agreements and ensure full understanding before signing.

7. Get financial advice from legitimate sources. If having trouble paying bills, consult a local nonprofit consumer credit counseling service. A state or local consumer agency may be able to help consumers find other legitimate sources of assistance.


Baby Trend Child Safety Seat Recall

NHTSA warns seats could fail in a crash

NHTSA has issued a Consumer Advisory to alert owners of Baby Trend child safety seats that the seat base could fail and not protect a child during a collis...

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a Consumer Advisory to alert owners of Baby Trend child safety seats that the seat base could fail and not protect a child during a collision.

The Baby Trend seats involved in the recall are the Magnum (model number 6439), Galaxy (model number 6481), Silverado (model number 6448), and the 6400S bases that were sold separately and manufactured between May 14, 2007, and April 1, 2008.

"Baby Trend is recalling the bases of these child safety seats because they could fail to adequately protect children in a collision. Baby Trend will replace the base free of charge," NHTSA warned on its Web site.

Owners of the affected seats should contact Baby Trend at 1-800-328-7363 to obtain a free replacement base.

"In the meantime, NHTSA is urging consumers not to use the car seat with the base," the federal safety agency cautioned.


Two Canadians Plead Guilty in Telemarketing Scheme

Scheme raked in nearly $10.5 million from 37,000 Americans

Two Canadians Plead Guilty in Telemarketing Scheme...

Two Canadians each face up to 10 years in federal prison after admitting their participation in a telemarketing scam authorities say raked in nearly $10.5 million from some 37,000 American consumers, Canadian Press reports.

Steven Winter, 38, and Sean McVicar, 34, both of Toronto, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Sentencing was set for Nov. 2.

The pleas came just days after two other Toronto men were sentenced to lengthy federal prison terms and ordered to repay nearly $5.6 million for their roles in a separate telemarketing scheme that affected 40,000 people, many of them with poor credit.

The U.S. government said that for several years dating to 1999, companies headed by Winter and employing McVicar used high-pressure tactics in duping consumers into paying fees of $149 to $400 for items such as supposed credit-card protection services.

The telemarketers insisted that credit-card companies required consumers to have such safeguards and said the consumer would be responsible for all charges from unauthorized or fraudulent use of their credit cards. But under federal regulations, a consumer actually cannot be held liable for more than $50 for any unauthorized charged to a credit card account.

Federal prosecutors said consumers also were told that unless they paid a roughly $200 "processing fee" in advance to the defendants for a credit card, the consumer's credit history would be "red flagged," hurting that person's ability to get another credit card.

Neither Visa nor MasterCard authorized Winter or McVicar to market credit cards on their behalf.

No customer-service representatives were made available to buyers of the supposed credit-card protection. Instead, consumer calls were routed to an answering machine.

A 2007 indictment naming Winter and McVicar portrays Winter as the mastermind who set up and controlled the telemarketing operations in Canada, the U.S. and Belize under various corporate names, including HTC Holdings -- an acronym for "Hide the Cash" -- and BBC Corp., which stood for "Billionaire Boys Club."

As part of the scam, according to the indictment, telemarketers made 925,000 to 1.85 million telemarketing calls to the United States.

Canadians David Dalglish, 53, and Leslie Anderson, 56, were sentenced earlier to roughly two decades in prison for their roles in a scam that targeted U.S. residents with blemished or no credit, promising them through unsolicited telephone calls a credit card for an advance fee of $189 to $219.

In that case, consumers who let the telemarketers electronically take the fees from their accounts got no credit cards in return -- generally just advertising-stuffed packages or stored-value cards requiring them to deposit money to use, prosecutors said.

More Scam Alerts ...


House Committee to Consider Landmark Credit Card Legislation

Bill would curb predatory interest rate hikes and lending practices

House Committee to Consider Landmark Credit Card Legislation...

July 30, 2008
As a Congressional committee prepared to consider legislation that would curb predatory credit card lending practices, national consumer organizations called on members of the House Financial Services Committee to support the bill and to send it to the floor for passage.

The Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union said that the Credit Card Bill of Rights Act (H.R. 5244), introduced by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), would end credit card issuers' abusive lending practices at a time when the American economy is being pummeled by the collapse of another industry based on unsavory lending: the sub-prime housing market.

The proposal requires credit card companies to stop the following practices:

• Applying unfair interest rate hikes retroactively to balances incurred under the old rate;

• Assessing hidden and unjustified interest charges on balances already paid off;

• Piling on the debt that consumers owe by requiring them to pay off balances with lower interest rates before those with higher rates;

• Charging late fees even though consumers mail their payments seven days in advance of the due date.

"The fact that a House committee will be considering this legislation shows that Congress is taking a strong stand against the traps and tricks that many credit card companies use to increase their profits at the expense of financially vulnerable consumers," said Travis B. Plunkett, of the Consumer Federation of America. "We applaud Representative Maloney for introducing this important bill and urge the members of the House Financial Services Committee to vote for it."

"Consumers in perfectly good standing with their credit card company are understandably outraged when that company hikes their interest rate based on information unrelated to the card," said Pamela Banks of Consumers Union. "But it's even more outrageous to apply this type of rate increase to credit card debt already borrowed at the lower rate."

Although some credit card companies have disavowed the practice of increasing interest rates for consumers in good standing based on other unrelated credit behavior, such as a drop in their credit score, many still engage in it.

The practice, known as "universal default", dramatically increases the cost of purchases made when the lower rate was in effect, and leads to higher minimum payments and longer payoff periods even if the consumer makes no further charges. The legislation prohibits retroactive application of any interest rate hike based on behavior unrelated to the credit card or to actions related to the card, unless the consumer is more than 30 days late.

The legislation prohibits two types of unfair and hidden interest rate charges. It prohibits credit card companies from using "double-cycle billing" to charge interest on balances repaid during the grace period.

The legislation also requires issuers to apply payments proportionately to card balances with different interest rates. When consumers accept card offers or cash advances with short-term teaser rates and higher rates for other balances, credit card companies apply payments first to the lower-rate balance, allowing other balances to build up at the much higher interest rate. The practice creates a far higher effective interest rate than consumers expect.

The legislation provides that consumers demonstrating payment 7 days before the due date are presumed to have paid on time and cannot be charged a late fee. It also sets a single uniform time by which payments must be received on the due date to prevent companies from setting earlier and arbitrary deadlines that result in late fees. Issuers also must mail credit card bills 25 days before the bill is due, instead of the current rule requiring only 14 days, to help ensure that consumers will have enough time to pay.


Daily Pill Said To Stop Alzheimer's

British scientists claim treatment destroys "tangles" in brain

Just in time to treat a huge increase in the aging population, British scientists say they have developed a drug that, taken daily in pill form, stops Alzh...

Just in time to treat a huge increase in the aging population, British scientists say they have developed a drug that, taken daily in pill form, stops Alzheimer's disease in its tracks.

The drug is known as Rember, and scientists say it appears to be twice as effective as current Alzheimer's treatments, reducing the effects of the memory-robbing disease by as much as 81 percent. Even patients who have lost memory function appear to recover.

"We appear to be bringing the worst affected parts of the brain functionally back to life," said Dr. Claude Wischik, of the University of Aberdeen, who headed the research team.

The research was presented this week at the International Conference on Alzheimer's disease in Chicago. The trial involved more than 300 people with mild and moderate Alzheimer's disease in Britain and Singapore.

The subjects were divided into four groups, with three taking different doses of the drug and a fourth group taking a placebo After nearly a year, those with both mild and moderate Alzheimer's who were taking Rember experienced 81 per cent less mental decline compared with those on the placebo.

Those taking any dosage of the drug did not experience any significant decline in their mental function over 19 months, while those on the placebo got worse.

The drug reportedly works by targeting what are called "tangles" in the brain. These tangles are what destroy nerve cells and, over time, destroy the patient's memory function.

Currently, there is no known cure for Alzheimer's, which afflicts mostly elderly patients and eventually is fatal.

Researchers say the drug could be commercially available within four years, pending the outcome of further trials and the approval of regulatory agencies.

Today, as many as 5.2 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, which includes between 200,000-500,000 people under age 65 with young-onset Alzheimer's disease or other dementias. A report by the Alzheimer's Association projects that as many as 10 million baby boomers in the U.S. will eventually develop Alzheimer's as this large demographic moves into old age.

Experts predict by 2010, there will be almost a half million new cases of Alzheimer's disease each year; and by 2050, there will be almost a million new cases each year. Eventually, the report says, the disease will strike one out of every eight boomers.

Alzheimer's disease is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. and the fifth leading cause of death for those over age 65.



Bush Signs Housing Bailout Into Law

Measure criticized for not helping enough homeowners

The measure gives the U.S. Treasury Department the power to step in to protect the government-backed mortgage sellers, preventing them from going into defa...


Fake Check Scams Rise in Falling Economy

Secret shopper offers can lead to wire fraud and lost money

Fake Check Scams Rise in Falling Economy...

Hard economic times make it easier for scam artists to trick consumers into acting against their better judgment. The offer of easy money, says North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, makes the "secret shopper" scam and similar schemes particularly effective.

"The promise of easy money can be tempting, especially during these tight times," Cooper said. "But instead of making you any money, these scammers will take your money."

The "secret shopper" scam is a version of the counterfeit check scheme. Recently, at least 15 people per week have reported counterfeit check scams to Cooper's office.

One recent version of the scam starts with an advertisement in the newspapers or on the Internet, a telemarketing call, a letter or an email that promises you well-paying work as a secret or mystery shopper. People who respond are sent a real looking check, asked to deposit it and then wire the money back as a way to evaluate the wire service company.

A few days later, the check turns out to be fake, meaning that victims have wired away hundreds or thousands of dollars of their own money.

A related scheme claims to offer work as a payment processor for an overseas company. Consumers who respond are sent money orders or checks to deposit and then asked to wire the funds back to the company. In exchange, they're promised 10 percent of the money. Once the funds have been wired, the money order or check turns out to be fraudulent.

"The latest versions of this scam take advantage of people who are looking for work or extra income during a slowing economy," Cooper said.

Consumers also report getting fake checks in response to items they've posted for sale in newspaper classified advertisements or on web sites such as eBay or craigslist. Victims are sent a check for more than the asking price on their item for sale and asked to wire back the extra money.

People also continue to get counterfeit checks that come with an announcement that they have won a lottery or sweepstakes prize. They are told to use the check to cover taxes and fees on their prize. Again, once the check has been deposited and the funds wired away, the check turns out to be counterfeit.

Counterfeit check scams are popular with international fraud rings. With recent advances in printing technology, crooks can make fake checks and money orders that look very convincing.

"If someone sends you a check and asks you to cash it and wire money back, don't do it, no matter how real it looks," Cooper said. "What seems like a windfall will only end up costing you money."

More Scam Alerts ...


Study: 86 Percent of Americans Could Be Obese by 2030

More exercise recommended for weight loss

Most adults in the U.S. will be overweight or obese by 2030, with related health care spending projected to be as much as $956.9 billion, according to rese...

Most adults in the U.S. will be overweight or obese by 2030, with related health care spending projected to be as much as $956.9 billion, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Their results are published in the July 2008 online issue of Obesity.

"National survey data show that the prevalence of overweight and obese adults in the U.S. has increased steadily over the past three decades," said Youfa Wang, MD, PhD, lead author of the study and associate professor with the Bloomberg School's Center for Human Nutrition.

"If these trends continue, more than 86 percent of adults will be overweight or obese by 2030 with approximately 96 percent of non-Hispanic black women and 91 percent of Mexican-American men affected. This would result in 1 of every 6 health care dollars spent in total direct health care costs paying for overweight and obesity-related costs," Wang added.

The researchers conducted projection analyses based on data collected over the past three decades from nationally representative surveys. Their projections illustrate the potential burden of the U.S. obesity epidemic if current trends continue.

"Our analysis also shows that over time heavy Americans become heavier," according to May A. Beydoun, a former postdoctoral research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"The health care costs attributable to obesity and overweight are expected to more than double every decade. This would account for 15 to 17 percent of total health care costs spent," Wang said. "Due to the assumptions we made and the limitations of the available data, these figures are likely an underestimation of the true financial impact."

Current standards define adults with a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9 as overweight and adults with a BMI of 30 or higher as obese. Both the overweight and obese are at an increased risk for developing a number of health conditions, including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Researchers estimate that children and young adults may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents if the obesity epidemic is left unaddressed.

The authors warned that obesity has become a public health crisis in the U.S. Timely, dramatic and effective development and implementation of corrective programs and policies are needed to avoid the otherwise inevitable health and societal consequences implied by their projections.

If current trends continue, the researchers warn that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will not meet its Healthy People 2010 initiative to increase the proportion of adults who are at a healthy weight and to reduce the proportion of adults who are obese.

More exercise recommended for weight loss

In addition to limiting calories, overweight and obese women may need to exercise 55 minutes a day for five days per week to sustain a weight loss of 10 percent over two years. That's the conclusion of researchers writing in the latest issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

More than 65 percent of U.S. adults are overweight, a public health concern, according to background information in the article.

"Among obese adults, long-term weight loss and prevention of weight regain have been less than desired," the authors write. "Therefore, there is a need for more effective interventions."

Current recommendations prescribe 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week, for a total of 150 minutes per week. However, a growing consensus suggests that more exercise may be needed to enhance long-term weight loss.

To calculate the amount of exercise needed, John M. Jakicic, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues enrolled 201 overweight and obese women in a weight loss intervention between 1999 and 2003. All the women were told to eat between 1,200 and 1,500 calories per day. They were then assigned to one of four groups based on physical activity amount, burning 1,000 calories vs. 2,000 calories per week, and intensity. Group meetings focusing on strategies for modifying eating and exercise habits, as well telephone calls with the intervention team, also were conducted over the two-year period.

After six months, women in all four groups had lost an average of 8 percent to 10 percent of their initial body weight. However, most were not able to sustain this weight loss. After two years the women's weight was an average of 5 percent lower than their initial weight, with no difference between groups.

The 24.6 percent of individuals who did maintain a loss of 10 percent or more over two years reported performing more physical activity than those who lost less weight. They also completed more telephone calls with the intervention team, engaged in more eating behaviors recommended for weight control and had a lower intake of dietary fat.

"This clarifies the amount of physical activity that should be targeted for achieving and sustaining this magnitude of weight loss, but also demonstrates the difficulty of sustaining this level of physical activity," the authors wrote. "Research is needed to improve long-term compliance with this targeted level of physical activity. Moreover, continued contact with the intervention staff and the ability to sustain recommended eating behaviors also may be important contributing factors to maintaining a significant weight loss that exceeds 10 percent of initial body weight, which suggests that physical activity does not function independently of these other behaviors.



Pennsylvania to Require Licenses For Internet Payday Lenders

State banking office would credential online lenders

Pennsylvania has a new way of dealing with the growing number of online lenders. Internet payday lenders and other out-of-state companies that make consume...

Pennsylvania has a new way of dealing with the growing number of online lenders. Internet payday lenders and other out-of-state companies that make consumer loans to Pennsylvania residents will need to be licensed by the state Department of Banking and comply with state laws.

"Pennsylvania consumers should be protected by Pennsylvania laws regardless of where the company they're doing business with is located, whether it's down the street, in another state or on a Web site," said Secretary of Banking Steve Kaplan. "This new approach addresses the rising prevalence of Internet-based lending activity, especially Internet payday lending, which has left Pennsylvania consumers vulnerable to practices that our laws were intended to prohibit."

The Department of Banking had previously interpreted the state's Consumer Discount Company Act (CDCA) to apply only to companies with a physical location or employees in the commonwealth. As a result, companies in other states were able to make loans to Pennsylvania consumers via the Internet or mail under terms that would not comply with Pennsylvania law.

The department's new position states that the CDCA applies to any company that lends to Pennsylvania consumers. The CDCA limits the interest and fees a non-bank company can charge for non-mortgage loans of $25,000 or less. If companies do not obtain a license from the Department of Banking by Feb. 1, they will face the potential for fines and other penalties.

In May, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling in the department's lawsuit against Advance America, the nation's largest payday lender, for charging interest and fees on lines of credit that violated state law.

The department is now seeking restitution for Advance America customers who were charged nearly $150 per month in fees for loans up to $500.

Kaplan said some banks and credit unions offer similar loans that cost much less and can be paid back over longer periods of time than traditional payday loans.

The Pennsylvania Treasury Department and the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association partnered in 2006 to create the "Credit Union Better Choice" program. Today, there are 72 credit unions with 193 locations throughout the state that offer Better Choice loans.



Delta Passengers Stranded 7 Hours on Plane

Bad weather left plane stuck on tarmac until cancellation of flight

Delta Passengers Stranded 7 Hours on Plane...

The severe weather that resulted in drownings at New York beaches over the weekend also played havoc with air travel. There were massive delays at New York City airports, including one case where passengers reported being stranded aboard an aircraft for seven hours.

For airline passengers board Delta Airlines flight 621, the time spent aboard the aircraft on the tarmac greatly exceeded the scheduled time in the air of the New York to Las Vegas flight. The 184 passengers were offered refunds and other perks to compensate for the delays.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the nasty weather resulted in 136 flight delays at New York's JFK Airport. In the case of Delta's flight 621, the flight was ultimately canceled after it was determined there was no end in sight to its wait. Then, and only then, did the plane return to the terminal so passengers could disembark.

It's the latest incident in a recent trend of weather-related foul-ups that have kept passengers stranded on the tarmac for hours and spawning a passengers' bill of rights movement.

It began December 29, 2006 when American Airlines flight 1348 from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth sat on an Austin runway for nearly nine hours while fierce but slow-moving thunderstorms pounded the state of Texas.

Food, water, and patience were soon in short supply, along with working toilets. But passengers used their time to organize, and the airline passengers' bill of rights movement was born.

Since then, New York's JFK has been the scene of most of the extended delays. A Valentines Day 2007 ice storm froze operations at New York's JFK Airport, causing JetBlue to stranded passengers aboard jetliners for eight hours or more before cancelling many of its flights. Following the P.R. meltdown, the airline unveiled its own passengers' bill of rights.

Bipartisan legislation establishing a Federal Airline Passengers Bill of Rights was introduced in the U.S. Senate last year. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) authored a bill to ensure that travelers can no longer be unnecessarily trapped on airplanes for excessive periods of time or deprived of food, water or adequate restrooms.

Passengers' groups want airlines to allow passengers to get off the planes rather than spend hours sitting on the tarmac. However, airlines are extremely reluctant to agree to return planes to the gate during extended delays, arguing they would lose their place in line and fall even further behind schedule.


Young Adults Seen As Prime Identity Theft Targets

Group offers basic protection tips to keep students' data safe

Young Adults Seen As Prime Identity Theft Targets...

Senior citizens often are the most common targets of scams, but when it comes to identity theft, the younger generation appears to be particularly vulnerable. According to various studies, including the FTC's regular fraud complaint study, the 18-29-year-old age bracket continues to account for almost 30 percent of all identity theft complaints.

Parents sending kids off to college need to raise their awareness of identity theft and fraud. It's not enough to give them a laptop, cell phone, books and clean clothes. A cross-cut shredder and a locking box large enough to hold a laptop, loaded with current computer security software, are equally important.

Basic protective measures could be critical steps in protecting your teen's belongings and personal identifying information, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a nonprofit group that helps victims of identity theft.

Just as senior citizens need to be warned about scams, the group says young adults need to be armed with information about identity theft, scams and other rip-offs they might encounter while living on their own for the first time. The ITRC offers these tips for college students of all ages:

• Keep your Social Security card and number in a locked safe place. Do not carry it with you. Don't share it with anyone without knowing why they need it. Most schools now use a student identification number instead of the Social Security number (SSN). Parents, please note: This may be one factor to consider when choosing a college. Many prominent universities have been hit with data breaches in recent years, where hackers were able to make off with students' personal information, often organized and stored by their SSN.

• Store your laptop in a locking security box when you are not in the room and do not have it with you.

• Use your home address as the permanent mailing address rather than a temporary address used while in school. This will lessen the complications of multiple addresses. Dorm and apartment mailboxes are not always locked and are easily accessible by people who do not have your best interest in mind.

• Obtain and use a credit card and NOT a debit card. Credit cards may be pre-paid or have a low limit, if you so choose. Debit cards are targets for identity thieves. Check your monthly statements as they come in and look for unexplained expenses.

• Never supply a phone, in your name, to someone else, such as a friend or roommate. The reason they cannot get a phone is probably because they have bad credit to start in the first place. The chances of being paid back are slim.

• Never loan a credit or debit card to a friend. Co-signing for any cell phone, utility account, car loan or credit card puts you at major, unwarranted risk.

• Never loan your driver's license or identification card to anyone. They could use it as an ID card when stopped by the police and you will be listed as the offender.

• Finally, check your credit report annually using the free credit reports available at If you have never established credit, you will be told there is no report. If there is a report, check it out and make sure that none of the information is a result of fraudulent activity.

"All parents with teens or college-bound young adults need to make sure that their teens understand identity theft," said Rex Davis, ITRC Operations Director and a parent of two. "I sent my kids to college to help them with their futures. I would be remiss if I failed to educate them about the fastest growing crime today. A college degree doesn't mean much if an identity thief has put your child's credit score in the garbage and affected their ability to get credit or a job."


Survey: Banks Change Credit Card Terms "For Any Reason"

Even customers with good habits can be hit with "gotchas"

Survey: Banks Change Credit Card Terms ...

If you use a credit card, a regular history of paying your bills on time and not running up high balances should net you a good payment history and good credit terms, right? Wrong. According to a new survey released by Consumer Action, certain bank practices can ensnare even good customers in a web of late fees, penalties, and higher interest rates.

Consumer Action's "2008 Credit Card Survey," released July 22, studied 22 card issuers and 41 different credit cards to compile its results. The survey's findings indicated that the top five card issuers--Bank of America, Chase, Citi, American Express and Capital One--"write themselves a blank check to change rates," said Consumer Action's Linda Sherry.

One of the major new reasons for interest rate changes was "market conditions," the survey found. Several of the banks surveyed cited the worsening economy and credit availability as justification for hiking rates or charging additional fees. "What this means to even the best customers is that a perfect payment history is not a safeguard," said Sherry.

"Consumers should not need a crystal ball when they enter a contract," Sherry said. "When cardholders accept the offered price they don't know how 'market conditions' will impact the cost of carrying a balance that they took on at a much lower interest rate."

Among the survey's findings:

• American Express, First Command, US Bank, Washington Mutual and Wells Fargo said that they would reduce cardholders' credit limits because of perceived customer risk, such as high balances on credit cards, late payments, or lower credit scores.

• Once a cardholder's interest rates are raised, it's often difficult to return to the original lower rate. A majority of issuers told Consumer Action that cardholders would have to contact the bank and ask for an account review to qualify for a lower rate, while many required six months to a year's worth of good payment history before considering a rate change.

• 87 percent of the card issuers surveyed included binding arbitration clauses in their card agreements as well. Five of the twenty-two lenders surveyed said that they permit cardholders to "opt out" of the binding arbitration provision of the cardholder agreement, but only within a specifc defined period of time.

• Many large financial institutions have begun using a practice termed "in-house universal default," where a customer who has multiple accounts with the same institution can be hit with a card rate increase if they bounce a check or miss a mortgage payment.

Tightening the screws

As the economy falters and Wall Street struggles with the fallout of the housing market, many banks and lenders have been aggressively cutting credit lines while hiking fees, interest rates, and penalties in order to maintain their financial cushion of liquidity. The upshot for consumers is that they have less access to credit than ever, at a time when rising prices and stagnant wages means they may need it the most.

Members of Congress have introduced multiple pieces of legislation that would reform or restrict the more abusive practices of the credit card industry, from eliminating unwarranted interest rate hikes to enabling merchants to negotiate the price of credit card interchange fees.

The Federal Reserve has also opened public comment on its plans to reform lending agreements and procedures to prevent deceptive tactics. To date, the Fed has received over 30,000 comments from consumers on the issue, many of whom are asking for stronger rules.


A Done Deal: XM-Sirius Merger Wins Approval

FCC fines companies nearly $20 million as the price of approval

After over a year of wrangling, negotiating, and horse trading, the merger of XM Radio and Sirius was approved late Friday night by a 3-2 vote of the Feder...

After over a year of wrangling, negotiating, and horse trading, the merger of XM Radio and Sirius was approved late Friday night by a 3-2 vote of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), despite the opposition of broadcasters and major consumer organizations.

Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate removed the final obstacle to completing the deal when she agreed to vote in favor of it last night. To secure her vote, the companies voluntarily agreed to pay $19.7 million in fines for violating technical rules regarding the placement of booster antennas and the sale of overpowered radios.

The FCC ordered XM and Sirius to pay nearly $20 million in combined fines over technical problems with its radio towers that violated FCC regulations. XM was ordered to pay $17.5 million, while Sirius would pay $2.2 million. The fines were largely seen as a necessary technical detail in order to ensure the approval would go smoothly.

According to Martin, XM's fine was much higher due to the number of towers it had in operation that violated FCC broadcasting standards. Both companies said they would immediately bring their equipment into compliance.

FCC chair Kevin Martin, a Republican, had already announced his support for the merger in June after it was cleared to not violate antitrust law by the Department of Justice. Fellow Republican commissioner Robert McDowell also supported the merger, while Democratic commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps opposed it.

That left Tate as the decision-maker. According to sources close to the proceedings, Tate signaled her approval after adding conditions such as a faster rollout of radio receivers that could receive channels from both companies, as well as a three-year price freeze, and programming options that include "family-friendly" offerings and the ability to choose "a la carte" stations, rather than only being able to purchase package options.

Tate also reportedly supported provisions that would set aside channels for minority and woman-oriented programming, a condition supported by the Democratic commissioners.

Tate had originally wanted to fine both stations $8 million for the technical problems, but Martin ordered the fines increased.

The "a la carte" channel options, announced by Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin last year, were widely perceived by industry analysts as a method to win approval from Martin and the other Republicans on the commission. Martin has long championed "a la carte" programming for satellite radio and cable television, which enables subscribers to buy the channels they want rather than packages of channels, as a way to promote family-friendly programming.

Multiple consumer groups have opposed the merger on grounds that it would lead to a loss of competition and higher prices for consumers. The Attorneys General of eleven states also announced their opposition to the merger, claiming that the merged company would enjoy monopoly power over the satellite radio market, its incumbent advantages preventing challengers from giving listeners more options.

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

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

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

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


2007 Chevrolet Tahoe Ignites and Burns

Other fires reported while government probe underway

A General Motors SUV caught fire and heavily damaged a Wisconsin home even as federal investigators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (...


30,000 Consumers Weigh in on Abusive Credit Card Practices

Feds 'get the message,' consumer advocates say

30,000 Consumers Weigh in on Abusive Credit Card Practices...

By Joseph S. Enoch

July 24, 2008

More than 30,000 consumers have deluged the Federal Reserve Board's public comment system with opinions on the agency's upcoming proposed rulemaking that addresses abusive credit card practices, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

"The federal regulators have gotten the message from consumers that the banks are using unfair practices to make bad money on top of good money," Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the not-for-profit consumer advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said in an older prepared statement. "These rules will ban some of the unfair tactics that hurt American families."

The proposed rules are the first of their kind, said Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the not-for-profit Consumer Federation of America.

"This is the first time ever that a federal agency or Congress have decided to reign in the questionable credit card industry practices," Plunkett said.

Among the 12 items in the proposal are rules that would: prohibit rate increases to existing balances, increase the payment period, prohibit two-cycle billing and adjust the allocation of payments so that in the instance a consumer has two balances with a credit card company, the creditor cannot apply payments solely to the balance with the lower interest rate.

First step

"It's a good first step ... but there are a whole host of problems in the credit card market that are not addressed," Plunkett said. "For instance, reckless extension of credit to young people, to college students in particular, (and) high fees or fees that are assessed unfairly."

Some other credit abuses, such as the prevalence of extending credit to college students, have supporting legislation pending in Congress.

Although this is the first move of this kind by the government, Plunkett said last year the Federal Reserve implemented new rules to help educate consumers on credit abuses.

"They are improving credit card disclosures," Plunkett said. "But if the practice is abusive, merely telling somebody about it before you do it is not fair.

"Certain practices are by definition unfair and deceptive and should be restricted and prohibited and the Federal Reserve has finally come to that conclusion."

Personal pleas

Of the 30,000 comments, more than 12,000 are personal pleas from consumers acting on their own while about 19,000 other Americans have submitted form letters distributed by consumer advocacy groups and the credit industry.

This is the second largest number of public comments the Federal Reserve has ever received, trailing the reform of the mortgage brokers, Plunkett said.

The public comment period ends August 4, 2008.

Consumers who wish to air their grievances with the Federal Reserve can do so by e-mailing directly to and mentioning Docket No. R-1314 in the subject line.

The Board hopes to finalize the rulemaking by the end of the year, Plunkett said.

Although the outpouring of support for the rules is positive, Plunkett said the rules are far from law.

"They're under enormous pressure from the credit card companies to make this a weaker rule," he said.

Citibank, which has been at the center of many Congressional hearings for its abusive practices, did not return a phone call seeking comment.


Comcast Tries To Polish Its Image

Cable giant plays nice on many fronts to avoid FCC penalties

It's been a bad few months for Comcast. Ever since the cable giant was caught blocking access to the BitTorrent file-sharing engine, the cable behemoth has...

It's been a bad few months for Comcast. Ever since the cable giant was caught blocking access to the BitTorrent file-sharing engine, the cable behemoth has been targeted as a symbol of the need for net neutrality, the principle that all content on the Internet should be accessed equally. It's been hit with an investigationby the Federal Communications Commission, for which chairman Kevin Martin recently recommended the company be penalized.

It's also been served with a lawsuit from a customer over the content blocking, the outcome of which is on hold pending the FCC's final ruling in its investigation. If that weren't enough, Comcast incurred another black eye by hiring people to fill up seats at an FCC hearing in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the issue, blocking critics of the company from getting in.

It's no wonder that the company has been doing its best to polish its tarnished public image on as many fronts as possible, even in unexpected ways. The cable company recently found itself at odds with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo over blocking access to Usenet newsgroups in order to stop the spread of child pornography.

Cuomo, who had already secured agreements with other major Internet service providers (ISPs) to block or curtail Usenet newsgroups, has threatened Comcast with legal action if it does not comply with his code of conduct. "Time is of the essence here, as every day without these measures is another day that this illegal material is sluicing through the Internet," Cuomo said.

Cuomo's move has been criticized by free speech activists as denying innocent Web users access to a valuable resource which contains information on a wide variety of topics. Comcast has supported a nationwide industry agreement to curtail the spread of child pornography, but has not signed on to Cuomo's agreement, which his office crafted separately.

Comcast has also announced deals with Vonage and BitTorrent to develop "platform-agnostic" network management systems that can enable Internet traffic to flow freely without having to block or delay any user access. The company also announced a partnership with Rock The Vote to use its networks and Internet services to increase turnout and user registration for young voters.

Not off the hook

Supporters of net neutrality and broadband development want stronger action from Comcast on the issue of maintaining equal access to Internet content. Media watchdog group Free Press sent a filing to the FCC urging it to refute Comcast's justifications for blocking access to content. Free Press general counsel Marvin Ammori said that Comcast "should not only have the strict burden of demonstrating why it would engage in discrimination, it should also have the strict burden of demonstrating why it must violate Internet standards, and threaten to balkanize the Internet with non-standard practices."

"Cable companies share the 'last mile' of network access to the customer's home, which can lead to more network congestion and traffic," Ammori told "They should be able to manage it better, and they should be upgrading their networks to improve capacity."

Comcast, for its part, continues to claim that its network management techniques are "reasonable." "We have 9 billion unmanaged P2P flows on our network," said Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice. "When our P2P sessions meet or exceed a threshold, heavy usage can cause problems for other customers."

"We have increased our customers' speeds, and have pledged to increase our networks' capacity," Fitzmaurice told "The same pipe carries many signals...there are lots of things to do. Network speed isn't the same thing as network capacity," Fitzmaurice said. "You can't just build your way out of the problem."

Ammori challenged those arguments in the FCC filing. "Comcast appears to have increased the speed of its modems -- but not addressed its problem of insufficient shared neighborhood capacity," Ammori said. "Comcasts response is analogous to a village trying to solve a problem of its well running dry by replacing each familys bucket with one three times as large, rather than digging more wells. The larger buckets would not solve the water problem; they would worsen it."

Ammori also claimed that Comcast's practice of triggering network management at a certain threshold for technologies like file-sharing means that they can block particular content any time, rather than just at times of peak usage.

The price of fame

Even without the continuing dogfights over net neutrality and broadband buildouts, Comcast's primary struggle is its own success. The company has experienced rapid growth in recent years and has aggressively pursued new customers with offers of "triple play" Internet, phone, and cable service. But its continual expansion has come at a cost of frustrated customers who experience problems such as service cutoffs for using too much bandwith, even if they have no idea how much they've used.

Customers regularly write in to to express their frustration with Comcast's customer relations, performance, and networks. Reader "Spencer" from Chicago, Illinois missed two days of work waiting for a technician to fix his service. "Yet another horrible experience with Comcast," he wrote. "To think I pay you guys monthly for this type of service. I feel that maybe I should take your equipment outside and slam it on the porch and order from a company who cares about their consumers."



Cancer Center Workers Warned about Cell Phone Risks

Cell phone use should be limited, University of Pittsburgh cautions

Cancer Center Workers Warned about Cell Phone Risks...

It's being treated as though it's news -- a warning that cell phones may cause cancer. In fact, U.S. media have studiously ignored a growing wave of international concern about the long-term effects of cell phone usage for years.

The latest alarm comes from the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Dr. Ronald Herberman. He has issued an advisory to about 3,000 faculty and staff members warning about the possible health risks of using cell phones.

In his warning, Dr. Herberman makes some common-sense recommendations: limit the length of conversations, keep the phone away from your head, use speaker phones or headsets whenever possible.

Herberman also recommends that children not use cell phones except in emergencies. That's because a child's developing organs "are the most likely to be sensitive to any possible effects of exposure," he says.

It's also because children will be exposed to the radiation from cell phones for many more years than those who started using the gadgets when they were already middle-aged.

Though they're getting quite a bit of media play, Herberman's recommendations are hardly earth-shattering and are based on warnings issued after numerous studies by scientists in the U.S. and abroad. In fact, he notes that health researchers in other countries have long recommended limits on exposure, and that in Canada, officials in Toronto have advised young people to limit cell phone use.

Nevertheless, Herberman said he thinks he's the first cancer center director to approve the release of such an advisory, and the National Cancer Institute said it knew of no similar advisory issued by a U.S. cancer center director.

Perhaps, but no one can say there haven't been a few clues along the way. Here are just a few:

Study Cautions Pregnant Women On Cell Phone Use In May, a study by UCLA and and Danish researchers concluded that women who used a cell phone while pregnant are much more likely to have unruly children.

Researcher: Cell Phones 'More Dangerous Than Smoking' In March, British health researcher Dr. Vini Khurana said it pretty clearly: "Mobile phones could have health consequences far greater than asbestos and smoking."

Study Suggests Cell Phone-Salivary Gland Cancer Link In February, a study concluded that those who had held a mobile handset against one side of their head for several hours a day were 50 percent more likely to have a tumor in the salivary gland.

Cell Phones May Harm Sperm Cells, British Study Finds In 2005, a U.K. study found that, "Storage of mobile phones close to the testes had a significant negative impact on sperm concentration and the percentage of motile sperm." The study concluded, "These trends suggest that recent concerns over long-term exposure to the electromagnetic irradiation emitted by mobile phones should be taken more seriously."

Swedish Study Finds Cell Phone-Brain Tumor Link In 2004, Swedish scientists reported that people who have used cell phones for at least 10 years may have an increased risk of developing a rare brain tumor. They found that using a cell phone for a decade or more quadrupled the risk of developing acoustic neuromas. The rare tumors generally occurred on the side of the head where the phone was most often held.

AP asleep?

The Associated Press said Herberman's warning was "contrary to numerous studies that don't find a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public lack of worry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration." In fact, numerous studies besides those noted above have raised early alarms. The FDA has said it will review the health effects of wireless phones because of early studies indicating possible risks.

"No other major academic cancer research institutions have sounded such an alarm about cell phone use," the AP reported, ignoring the British and Swedish studies cited above.

Herberman himself noted that no conclusive evidence yet exists but said it's better to be safe than sorry, especially where children are concerned.

"Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use," he wrote in his memo.

No proof either way

Herberman credited a colleague with raising his awareness of the issue. Devra Lee Davis, the director of the university's center for environmental oncology, said that while there's no proof cell phones are dangerous, there's also no proof they are safe.

Since cell phones have only been in widespread use for a decade or so, there's simply not enough data to be sure, said Davis, who was a health adviser in the Clinton Administration.

She noted that 20 different groups have endorsed the advice the Pittsburgh cancer institute gave, and authorities in England, France and India have issued warnings about children's use of cell phones.

What to do

Here's more advice from Herberman:

• Use cellphones for short conversations or when a conventional phone isn't available.

• Use a hands-free device that will place more distance between the cellphone's antenna and your head. The antenna emits radio-frequency waves. And your brain lies just beyond your ears.

• Limit children's cellphone use -- both to reduce their exposure at a time when their brains are still developing and to reduce their lifetime exposure. (Unlike us, they still have a lot of years left.)

• In the car, use an external antenna mounted outside the vehicle.

• Keep the phone away from your body when it's turned on. Men, don't clip it to your belt.

• Check your phone's SAR value at the Federal Communications Commission website. This value, for Specific Absorption Rate, is the amount of radio-frequency absorbed from the phone into the user's tissues.



White Bread's Not Whole Grain, Sara Lee Agrees

Company agrees to alter claims for its 'Whole Grain White Bread'

White Bread's Not Whole Grain, Sara Lee Agrees...

Sara Lee's "whole grain white bread" is toast.

The company has agreed that labels for its "Soft & Smooth Made With Whole Grain White Bread" will make clear that the product is only 30 percent whole grain. It's part of a settlement agreement the company has reached with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Last December, the nonprofit nutrition watchdog group threatened to sue the company over the bread's labeling, which, at the time, suggested that it had as much fiber as 100 percent whole wheat bread.

Government guidelines recommend that consumers make at least half their grains whole, so Sara Lee's disclosure that this particular bread is just 30 percent whole grain will help consumers put it into that context, the group said. As part of the agreement, Sara Lee will add copy to the label stating that two slices have 10 grams of whole grain, and that USDA recommends consumption of 48 grams of whole grains daily.

"Consumers who want the health benefits of whole grains should look for bread that is labeled '100 percent whole wheat,' or failing that, a bread where whole wheat flour, not just 'wheat flour,' is the first ingredient," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "This settlement will help consumers comparison shop among breads: plain white bread, breads like Sara Lee's with 30 percent whole grains, and 100 percent whole wheat bread."

Sara Lee says its "Soft & Smooth Made With Whole Grain White Bread" is meant to be a transitional product, designed to get consumers who are used to the taste and texture of white bread to consume more whole grains.

Other food companies often give consumers the impression that their white-flour-based products are "made with whole grain" even if there is only a small amount. Kraft uses phrases like "good source of whole grain" or "excellent source of whole grain" on labels even if the product is mostly refined white flour. Kraft Supermac & Cheese, for instance, is advertised as a "good source" of whole grain, even though its first ingredient is white flour.

General Mills, to its credit, according to CSPI, recently began transitioning away from those types of source claims in favor of indicating the amount of whole grains in grams.

The distinction between white flour and whole wheat flour is an important one nutritionally. When whole wheat is refined into white flour, most of the fiber and key nutrients are lost.

Though some nutrients are added back in when white flour is "enriched," studies show that whole grain foods might be useful in reducing risk of heart disease and diabetes. White flour does not have anywhere near the same beneficial effects, according to nutrition experts.

"It's time to take the whole grain halo off of foods made primarily with white flour," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. "Companies that use the phrase 'whole grain' absolutely have the legal responsibility under state consumer protection laws to disclose exactly how much whole grain is there. We are pleased that Sara Lee has agreed to do that."



Women Fear Retirement More than Men — For Good Reason

Longer-lived and underpaid, women are more likely to outlive their assets

A new study finds women fear retirement more than men — and another study says there's a good reason for that fear....

A new study finds women fear retirement more than men — and another study says there's a good reason for that fear.

Women have three major worries when they think about retirement: inflation, health and longevity, according to a study by The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. They have reason to be nervous. Women work 12 fewer years than men on average, have less put away for retirement and face high odds of a long life spent alone, said Stephanie Chappell, The Hartfords corporate gerontologist.

At the top of the list, 83% of the women surveyed as part of the study said that they feared that their purchasing power would dwindle due to inflation, compared with 69% of men. Declining health came in second, with 75% of polled women saying that they were very or somewhat concerned.

Add the rising cost of health care to fears of poor health, and 87% of the women expressed nervousness concerning retirement. Sixty-four percent of the women said they were also worried about living too long, compared with 46% of men.

Meanwhile, a study by Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting group, found that women need to save more for retirement than men, but it also highlighted that the gap between the amount women need to save and the amount they are actually saving is larger than the gap for men.

Moreover, this gap will continue to grow due to lower salaries, conservative investing, longer life expectancies and higher retiree medical needs.

The study, which examined the projected retirement levels of nearly 2 million employees at 72 large U.S. companies, found that both men and women are on track to replace 85 percent of pay at retirement, assuming average life expectancy. However, women, on average, need to replace nearly 130 percent of their final pay at retirement, 7 percentage points more than men. When factoring in differences in longevity, that disparity jumps to 10 percentage points.

In other words, the average woman will need to save 2 percent of pay more per year than the average man, over 30 years, to achieve the same standard of living.

Multiple factors

Hewitts study and other research reveal that multiple factors — both financial and socioeconomic — contribute to the gap in retirement income replacement rates between women and men. Those factors include womens likelihood to:

Make less and live longer. Despite the fact that women's income has increased 63 percent in the past 30 yearsi, their salaries still trail men's, with the average woman earning just $57,000 a year compared to $84,000 for the average man in Hewitt's study. In addition, women are expected to live almost three years longer than men, an average of 22 years after retirement at age 65 compared to just 19 years post-retirement for men. As a result, most women will need to save more to make their retirement savings last over a longer stretch of time. In addition, because medical costs after retirement are a flat dollar amount for all employees, those costs will consume a higher percentage of women's retirement assets than men's.

Invest less assertively. Recent Hewitt research reveals that most women have less money saved in their 401(k) plans than men. The average plan balance for women is $56,320nearly $47,000 less than men. In addition, women tend to contribute less (7.3 percent of pay versus 8.1 percent for men) to their 401(k) plan, and they are less likely to take advantage of the employer match. Thirty percent of women did not contribute to their 401(k) plans in 2007 and another quarter (24 percent) did not contribute at a level high enough to take advantage of the company match, which, according to Hewitt research, is typically $0.50 for every dollar up to 6 percent of pay per year.

Delay retirement saving and have spotty saving patterns.Not surprisingly, Hewitt's study reveals that the earlier and more consistently employees save for retirement, the greater the impact on increasing overall income replacement rates. Unfortunately, Hewitt research also shows that women wait 2 to 4 years longer than men to start saving for retirement. In addition, they are more likely to be in and out of the workforce for family reasons, which can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in missed earnings, promotions, raises and benefits over the course of a career, including larger deficiencies in retirement savings.

Closing the gap

Despite the challenges they face, it is possible for women to get to a more comfortable place in retirement. In fact, making a few easy changes to their saving and investing behaviors can have a significant impact in helping women shrink the retirement income gap and get to more appropriate retirement levels.

Invest earlier and at a more vigorous rate. Hewitt research shows that the age at which employees start saving has a significant impact on their retirement balances. Women could potentially increase their nest egg by 18 percent simply by investing 2 years earlier than they do now, or 23 percent by investing just 4 years earlier.

In addition, women can increase their projected retirement income rates an average of 7 percent simply by investing just 2 percent of pay more a year in their 401(k)s. A woman who makes an average salary of $57,000 and who increases her annual 401(k) contribution from 2 percent to 4 percentan increase of just $95 per monthwill have accumulated an extra $81,000 by the time she reaches retirement age. What's more, she will tack on an extra $40,500 by having contributed at a rate high enough to take advantage of her employer's company match program.

Put off retirement for a few years. While most employees, including women, estimate they will retire by age 65, working just 2 years longer to age 67 can increase projected retirement replacement income levels by 13.5 percent for women who contribute to their 401(k) plans. And because women will have more money to live on during their years in retirement, their retiree medical costs typically a flat dollar amount on an annual basis won't eat up as large a percentage of their savings had they retired at age 65 or earlier.

Take advantage of advice. According to industry research, a staggeringly high number of women 90 percent have said they feel insecure when it comes to managing their finances. Thankfully, an increasing number of companies offer services and tools that not only help women feel at ease and make them more comfortable negotiating the financial landscape, but also put them on the right track to save more money in the long run. According to Hewitt research, 43 percent of companies offered online, third-party investment advisory services in 2007 and another 47 percent planned to offer them in 2008. In addition, nearly one quarter (22 percent) offered managed accounts, up from only 15 percent in 2007.

Keep money invested in 401(k) plans. According to Hewitt research, 45 percent of employees cash out their 401(k) plans when they leave a job. Although it seems tempting and intuitive to cash out 401(k) savings, particularly when taking time off to care for family, employees will forfeit 20 percent or more of their account's value in federal taxes and another 10 percent in early withdrawal penalties. Women should keep their money in their companies' 401(k) plans, even when switching jobs or exiting the workforce. By doing so, they can continue to grow their savings in a tax-free environment and, in many cases, avoid higher investment fees typically associated with retirement savings accounts offered in the retail market.



Colleges, Not Students, Often Benefit From Financial Aid

Financial planner offers tips and commisseration

Colleges, Not Students, Often Benefit From Financial Aid...

This is the time of year that students get ready to head off to college, and parents start checking their bank accounts. With college costs rising, finding a student aid package becomes an important priority.

Financial planner Reecy Aresty has specialized in helping students and parents find money for college. His book "How To Pay For College Without Going Broke, serves as a blueprint for finding financial aid.

"Many states, including California, have grant programs for low-income families," Aresty told "Other states, such as Florida, have 'merit aid' programs. Any family can qualify for substantial financial aid, if they own and control a small business. Private scholarships are great when the family can't qualify for need-based aid."

Aresty says the way students receive scholarships and financial aid is important to their overall bottom line. All too often, he says, a scholarship check is made out to both the student and the college. When that happens, he says the college usually reduces the amount of aid it has promised the student by the exact amount of the scholarship.

"The colleges consider it a resource to help pay for a student's education," he said.

For example, let's say the cost of attending college is $45,000. The "expected family contribution" is $10,000, so the family needs to come up with $35,000. In most cases the college is only too willing to help.

The college might guide the student toward Stafford Loans and other aid packages, cutting the need from $35,000 to $22,000. If it's a student the college really wants, Aresty says it might offer $22,000 in college scholarships, grants, and tuition waivers, and put the offer in writing.

But what happens when the college learns that the student has landed a $10,000 "private" scholarship? Aresty says the student gets another letter, showing the college's offer of $22,000 in aid has been reduced to $12,000.


Colleges might look at this policy as a commonsense way to spread aid around, but Aresty likens it to theft. He says many colleges require students to show their financial cards early in the process.

"Those students who applied to any of the 220 elite private and a few state colleges that require the CSS Financial Aid Profile financial aid form may have already indicated they would be scholarship recipients," Aresty said. "Section SR, Student's Expected Resources for 2007-2008, Question 5, asks for the total dollar amount expected from 'grants, scholarships, fellowships, etc., from sources other than colleges,' and they must be listed individually in Section ES."

Aresty says the majority of schools that only require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form simply send out a questionnaire asking about private scholarships. They're less devious, he says, but just as deft.

"Truth be told, it's all about the money, and have no doubt about it, he said. "Every year there are billions awarded in private scholarships, and who benefits? None other than these 'poor' institutions of higher learning, enriching their billion-dollar endowment funds at the cost of their deserving students."

While he says there are a number of reasons that college costs are rapidly rising, the amount of aid now available to students in the form of grants and loans is a large contributing factor.

"Guaranteed Stafford Loans of $5,500, $6,500, $7,500, and $7,500 enable schools to charge more because every student can now borrow more," he said.

Aresty recently founded the College Information Network, which includes the The High School Blog, The College Blog, Payless For College, and The Way To College.


New Bankruptcy Law Fails To Protect Consumers, Report Finds

Foreclosures, credit card debt increase in wake of changes to law

The passage of the tough new bankruptcy lawsin 2005 was supposed to benefit consumers in the form of reducing losses to lenders by making it harder to file...

The passage of the tough new bankruptcy lawsin 2005 was supposed to benefit consumers in the form of reducing losses to lenders by making it harder to file bankruptcy. But two new reports released this week show that the new laws not only cost consumers more in terms of credit card debt, but may actually be encouraging greater losses to banks due to increased foreclosures.

According to research conducted by Mike Simkovic, a former James M. Olin Fellow in Law and Economics at Harvard Law School, "after [the] 2005 bankruptcy reform went into effect, both personal bankruptcy filings and credit card company losses sharply declined."

At the same time, while upfront annual fees on credit cards have been all but eliminated, "Fees have been climbing and becoming less transparent over the years, and there is no evidence that [the] 2005 bankruptcy reform reversed this trend...over-limit fees and late fees have been climbing since well before bankruptcy reform, and that this trend continued after [the] 2005 bankruptcy reform."

Simkovic's paper, "The Effect of the 2005 Bankruptcy Reforms on Credit Card Industry Profits and Prices," compiled data from government, industry, and consumer resources to paint a picture of the lending landscape for debtors and creditors after the passage of the bankruptcy laws. According to Simkovic, industry consolidation in the credit card market enabled the top card issuers to avoid losses from "price wars" by reducing rates to attract new customers.

"The credit card industry might also be able to avoid price competition because of complex, multi-tiered pricing that can make it difficult for customers to comparison shop," Simkovic said. "These fees and interest ratescomplex in their own rightare presented in a form that is difficult to understand. Customers faced with such complex pricing systematically miscalculate and underestimate the cost of credit card debt."

Simkovic referenced a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found not only that bank fees and penalties are continuing to rise for card holders, but that credit card disclosures and explanations of fees are deliberately written in manners that make them hard to understand. The GAO also recommended in a separate report that credit card issuers use existing technology to customize card disclosures to individual cardholders, particularly those with high balances or frequent late payments.

"The fact that after bankruptcy reform, interest rates and fees continued to rise and grace periods continued to fall, even though credit card companies reaped tremendous gains from declining bankruptcy losses demonstrates that the credit card market is not price-competitive," Simkovic said. "This lack of price competition explains why the benefits of bankruptcy reform accrued exclusively to credit card lenders and were not shared with the average American family, and why...bankruptcy reform was a failure."

Negative Impact

Another effect of the bankruptcy laws is the increase in foreclosures and defaults by mortgage holders who can't afford to make payments on their homes. According to David Bernstein, "The more stringent bankruptcy code, by restricting financial relief available under the bankruptcy code and by increased the costs of filing bankruptcy, appears to have increased the number of individuals walking away from their homes, their mortgages, and their other financial obligations without seeking the protection of the bankruptcy court."

Bernstein, an economist at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, created and filed the "Bankruptcy Reform and Foreclosure" paper as a private citizen. Bernstein examined the changes to bankruptcy filing under the new laws, including the establishment of a means test to determine the filer's available income, and the higher costs of filing and paperwork.

Under the new law, most individual filers would not qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which allows for the liquidation and erasure of most debt. Instead, they would be forced to file under Chapter 13, which requires regular payments of at least some of their debt to creditors.

According to Bernstein, the more stringent requirements of the new laws may be causing homeowners to "walk away" and let their homes go into foreclosure rather than attempt to file for bankruptcy. The restrictions on bankruptcy filings and subsequent increase in foreclosures puts downward price pressures on neighborhoods where many homes are in default or foreclosed upon, he said.

"One of the great lessons and ironies associated with [the new bankruptcy law] is that the new law by increasing the dollar value of assets susceptible to default has weakened many of the financial companies that sought the more stringent bankruptcy code," Bernstein said.



Ford: Parts Now Available to Fix Faulty Cruise Control

Millions of Ford cars and trucks at risk

The Ford Motor Company says the parts needed to fix the fire-prone speed control system in millions of Ford cars and trucks are available at dealerships ar...

The Ford Motor Company says the parts needed to fix the fire-prone speed control system in millions of Ford cars and trucks are available at dealerships around the country.

"Affected customers should contact their dealer to schedule a service appointment to have final repairs completed," according to the automaker's Web site.

The Ford recall has dragged out for almost a decade as safety investigators struggled to identify the cause of the fires. The recall to repair a defective cruise control system eventually involved more than 12 million vehicles.

When the massive recall was announced in August of 2007, the automaker found there were insufficient parts available to repair the cars and trucks at risk of catching fire.

Ford is now prepared to install a fused wiring harness into the speed control electrical circuit or to replace the speed control deactivation system if it is found to be leaking.

"This is a quick repair, and will be performed on vehicles built between 1992 and 2004" the automaker said. "Ford dealers will provide this service to all affected vehicles at no charge to the customers. Owners of all affected vehicles will be notified by mail," according to Ford.

Here is the most recent list of recalled cars and trucks according to Ford:


  • 1997-2002 Expedition
  • 1998-2002 Navigator
  • 2002-2003 Blackwood
  • 1993-1996 Bronco
  • 2000-2003 Excursion (built prior to 11/4/02)
  • 1992-2003 Econoline E-150/250/350
  • 1996-2003 Econoline E450
  • 2002-2003 Econoline E550
  • 1998-2002 Ranger
  • 1998-2001 Explorer/Mountaineer
  • 2001-2002 Explorer Sport (2 door) & Sport Trac
  • 2003-2004 F-150 Lightning
  • 1993-2003 F-Series (Under 8500 lb. GVW)
  • 1993-2003 F-Series (over 8500 lb. GVW) all plants except Cuautitlan
  • 1994-2003 F-Series (over 8500 lb. GVW) Cuautitlan built only prior to 1/7/03
  • 1995-2002 F-53 Motorhome



  • 1992-1998 Town Car
  • 1992-1998 Crown Victoria
  • 1992-1998 Grand Marquis
  • 1993-1998 Mark VIII
  • 1993-1995 Taurus SHO (automatic transmission)
  • 1994 Capri


In the latest announcement, the automaker said it is "voluntarily recalling a number of vehicles equipped with speed control to repair the system in order to address the possibility of a fire."

Ford continued to warn consumers not to use the speed control system in a recalled vehicle until the repairs are complete.

While the most recent notice on the Ford Web site downplays the possibility of a car or truck fire because of the cruise control switch, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has warned owners of Ford cars and trucks that carry the defective speed control system to have the vehicle repaired or the system disconnected immediately or risk the vehicle catching fire.

"This condition may occur either when the vehicle is parked or when it is being operated, even if the speed control is not in use," the NHTSA advisory stated.

"Failure to have the switch disconnected could lead to a vehicle fire at any time, whether or not the key is in the ignition, and whether or not owners use the cruise control system," the strongly-worded NHTSA consumer advisory cautioned.

NHTSA concluded that the fire danger is present regardless of the age of the vehicle.

Ford truck and SUV owners wanting more information about the fire danger in their vehicle or the recall may contact Ford at 1-800-392-3673 or NHTSA 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153).



Women More Likely To Regret Tattoos

More women than men visit clinics to remove ink

Contrary to popular belief, people with tattoos really do care what others think of them, especially women....

Contrary to popular belief, people with tattoos really do care what others think of them, especially women.

According to a report in the July issue of Archives of Dermatology more women than men visit dermatology clinics for tattoo removal and maybe motivated by the social stigma associated with tattoos and negative comments by others. About one-fourth of adults age 18 to 30 have a tattoo.

"While the vast majority of individuals who are tattooed are pleased with their skin markings (up to 83 percent), the popularity and prevalence of tattoos often mean that dermatologists are increasingly hearing stories of regrets and requests for tattoo removal," the authors write. About 20 percent of those with tattoos are thought to be dissatisfied with their artwork, although only about 6 percent seek removal.

Researchers from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Lubbock, Texas, conducted a survey of 196 individuals who visited one of four dermatology clinics for tattoo removal in 2006. The 66 men and 130 women, with an average age of 30, answered 127 questions about demographics, obtaining their tattoo and their motivations for seeking removal. Their answers were compared with responses to a similar survey conducted in 1996.

"In both the 1996 and the 2006 studies, a shift in identity occurred, and removal centered around dissociating from the past," the authors write. In 2006, participants reported they had gotten a tattoo to feel unique (44 percent), independent (33 percent) or to make life experiences stand out (28 percent).

The main reasons listed for seeking tattoo removal included just deciding to remove it (58 percent), suffering embarrassment (57 percent), lowering of body image (38 percent), getting a new job or career (38 percent), having problems with clothes (37 percent), experiencing stigma (25 percent) or marking an occasion, such as a birthday, marriage or newly found independence (21 percent).

2006 survey also found that participants were more likely to be women (69 percent vs. 31 percent men) who were white, single, college-educated and between the ages of 24 and 39. They reported being risk takers, having stable families and were moderately to strongly religious.

While the women were pleased with their tattoos when they got them, they reported changes in their feelings over the following one to five years. "While men also reported some of these same tattoo problems leading to removal, there seemed to be more societal fallout for women with tattoos, as the tattoos began to cause embarrassment, negative comments and clothes problems and no longer satisfied the need for uniqueness," the authors write.

"Societal support for women with tattoos may not be as strong as for men," they conclude. "Rather than having visible tattoos, women may still want to choose self-controlled body site placement, even in our contemporary society."



Americans Becoming Even More Obese, CDC Says

Obesity increased 2% from 2005-2007, study finds

Americans Becoming Even More Obese, CDC Says...

Adult obesity in the U.S. grew nearly two percent between 2005 and 2007. And that's based on adults who admitted to being obese. Those in denial about their obesity aren't included in the latest tally from the Centers for Disease Control.

An estimated 25.6 percent of U.S. adults reported being obese in 2007 compared to 23.9 percent in 2005, an increase of 1.7 percent. The report also finds that none of the 50 states or the District of Columbia has achieved the Healthy People 2010 goal to reduce obesity prevalence to 15 percent or less.

Once again, Mississippi led the nation in obese adults, with 32 percent classifying themselves as obese. Colorado had the lowest obesity prevalence at 18.7 percent.

Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above. BMI is calculated using height and weight. For example, a 5-foot, 9-inch adult who weighs 203 pounds would have a BMI of 30, thus putting this person into the obese category.

The data were derived from CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a state-based telephone survey that collects information from adults aged 18 years and older. For this survey more than 350,000 adults are interviewed each year, making BRFSS the largest telephone health survey in the world. BMI was calculated based on this self-reported information.

"The epidemic of adult obesity continues to rise in the United States indicating that we need to step up our efforts at the national, state and local levels," said Dr. William Dietz, director of CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity. "We need to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, engage in more physical activity and reduce the consumption of high calorie foods and sugar sweetened beverages in order to maintain a healthy weight."

The study found that obesity is more prominent in the South, where 27 percent of respondents were classified as obese. The percentage of obese adults was 25.3 in the Midwest, 23.3 percent in the Northeast, and 22.1 percent in the West.

By age, the prevalence of obesity ranged from 19.1 percent for men and women aged 19-29 years to 31.7 and 30.2 percent, respectively, for men and women aged 50-59 years.

"Obesity is a major risk factor for a number of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. These diseases can be very costly for states and the country as a whole," said Deb Galuska, associate director for science for CDCs Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.

Obesity has gotten much worse within the last decade. The CDC has produced an animated map that starkly shows how quickly the problem has spread.


Trilegiant Settles Class Action for $25 Million

Company agrees to change its business practices

"We believe this settlement provides substantial benefit to the class members," said Brad Lakin of The Lakin Law Firm, which filed the suit against Trilegi...


Is It Time to Take In Boarders?

Renting your house or taking in boarders beats foreclosure

Is It Time to Take In Boarders?...


Photo: Utah History To Go

More and more middle class American homeowners are finding themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Financially strapped, theyre unable to sell the house they can no longer afford to live in because of the current slump in the housing market.

Some are facing foreclosure. Others may be unemployed and trying to downsize, or theyre about to retire and had planned to use the shrinking equity in their homes to fund their retirement.

In any case, they all desperately want to sell their homes, but cant because so few people are buying right now and mortgage money is hard to find. Many potential buyers are holding off on their purchases, fearing the value of any house or condo they purchase will drop as soon as the ink dries on the closing documents.

Therefore, homeowners with mortgages they can no longer pay, on homes that are worth less everyday, are seeking alternatives such as renting their house until the market improves or even taking in boarders to help pay the mortgage.

Both scenarios have their pros and cons.

Renting your house

If youre thinking about renting your house, the first thing you have to consider is where you will live.

If you rent your house to someone else, you have to move out. Are you buying another house or will you be renting as well? The next question is whether you take everything with you or do you rent your house furnished or partially furnished?

Second, once you take on renters, or boarders for that matter, you become a landlord and that comes with its own set of responsibilities. Youre responsible for all repairs, even though you no longer live there. You may also be liable if your tenant or someone else is injured on your property.

Third, how does renting impact your ability to eventually sell the property? Real estate agents are divided over this issue. Some will argue that while occupied homes tend to show better than vacant ones, that may not be the case when the home is being occupied by a tenant and not the owner. One reason is that the tenant may have signed a one-year lease, or may not be ready to move out when you want them to.

On the other hand, you shouldnt leave a house unoccupied for an extended period either. Insurance rates will go up, if you can even get insurance since most companies won't cover a vacant house after 90 days. Moreover, a vacant house attracts squatters, thieves and vandals.

Then there are those tax incentives to consider such as the one-time capital gains exclusion that requires you to live in the house for at least two of the last five years. If you rent your property for more than three years during that period, you lose that exclusion.

On the other hand, if you convert your primary residence to a rental property, you can deduct your mortgage interest payments, depreciation and other expenses. This might not help you right away but it can create some substantial savings at tax time.

If you choose to rent while you put your home on the market, make sure your tenants agree to let the house be shown by you or real estate agents whenever someone wants to see it. The tenants should also agree to maintain the property in what realtors call "show ready" condition.

In fact, if you have a lease — experts say you should have a lease for your own protection — make sure it clearly states specific tenant requirements regarding their role in the entire process from flexible show times to maintenance.

A key section of the lease should stipulate that the tenant be prepared to move if and when the house is sold. Many realtors recommend a month-to-month lease to maintain this flexibility. This works for the tenants as well because it allows them to move quickly if they decide to buy a home.

A third alternative to renting and borders is something known as house sitters. There are even house-sitting companies that screen potential sitters as well as the furnishings they plan to bring with them. Typically, a sitter agrees to maintain the house in show-ready condition and to be prepared to move out with two weeks notice.

Taking in boarders

If you want to continue living in your house but need additional income to offset your mortgage, utilities and other bills, you may want to take in a boarder.

Here youll find support from home-sharing agencies that cater to this situation. One nationwide agency is the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center Homesharing Program in Baltimore. They screen potential boarders to try to match boarders with home owners. This helps to alleviate the fear you may have of allowing total strangers to live in your house.

Home-sharing agencies conduct background checks on the boarder and the homeowner, screening out people with criminal records or histories of drug or alcohol use, as well as homeowners in shaky financial situations who may be facing imminent foreclosure. They also give out a ten-point questionnaire asking potential boarders and homeowners how they feel about pets, smoking, and overnight guests.

Deciding to either rent out your home or take in boarders is a difficult decision you should not take lightly. But if you are running out of alternatives, and if you believe — like many — that this poor housing market is going to continue a downward decline for another year or two, then becoming a landlord may be a necessary course of action.

Just keep in mind that with either renters or boarders, you must be prepared to deal with possible conflicts over everything from noise levels to privacy issues.

Most home-sharing agencies have different procedures for resolving conflicts, but in the end, the final responsibility will be with you and whoever you share your home with. Build into any agreement or lease an out. clause," outlining the terms under which either party may call an end to the arrangement.

In New York, homeownerowners have to give renters sixty days notice to break their arrangement; renters must give their landlords thirty days notice. The laws vary from state to state, and some states may not regulate the practice at all. Be sure your agreement complies with local and state laws.

You should also check to be sure that taking in boarders is permitted in your neighborhood. Zoning laws in some localities sharply restrict the practice. A quick call to your city or county offices should answer the question.

Whatever course you choose, don't feel bad. You're not alone. Millions of Americans are in dire financial straits through no fault of their own. All we can do is muddle through as best we can.



Nissan Recalls 2007-2008 Sentras

Brake fluid leak could lead to crash

Nissan is recalling 169,202 of the 2007 and 2008 model year Sentra because the brake master cylinder might leak fluid, according to the National Highway Tr...


Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum, Charger Recalled

Rear axle could 'disengage'

Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum, Charger Recalled: Chrysler is recalling 5,509 2008 Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum and Charger sedans because of a manufacturing def...


Honda Recalls TRX420 Rancher ATVs

Honda Recalls TRX420 Rancher ATVs...

July 17, 2008
Honda is recalling about 42,000 model year 2007-2008 TRX420 Rancher ATVs.

If the ATV's rubber CV (constant velocity) boots get punctured or torn the joint will become contaminated and severe binding of the CV joints could occur, resulting in the sudden loss of steering control. This poses a risk of injury or death to riders.

This recall involves Model Year 2007-08 Honda TRX420 ATVs, also known as the Honda FourTrax Rancher 4X4. These are adult-size ATVs designed for use by riders age 16 and older. The recalled ATVs are available in red, black, olive, and camouflage. The Honda name and wing logo are printed on the fuel tank. The model year is printed on a label located on the frame behind the left front wheel. The model name 'Rancher' is on a label at the left rear of the ATV.

The units were sold by Honda ATV dealers nationwide from January 2007 through May 2008 for between $5,300 and $5,600. They were made in the United States.

Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled ATVs and contact any Honda ATV dealer to make an appointment for a free repair. Registered owners of the recalled ATVs have been sent direct notices.

For additional information, consumers can contact Honda toll-free at (866) 784-1870 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the companys website at

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


Maryland Warns Of Extended Warranty Scheme

Beware of telemarketers selling extended auto warranties

Consumers around the country are being targeted in a a marketing campaign attempting to sell extended auto warranties, calling them on their cell phones an...

Consumers around the country are being targeted in a a marketing campaign attempting to sell extended auto warranties, calling them on their cell phones and landlines, as well as through postcards, letters and emails.

The marketers offer to sell expensive extended warranties, and often "phish" for personal information about the consumer.

In Maryland, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler says consumers should simply hang up if they receive unwanted telemarketing calls, and beware of any offers of extended warranties.

The marketing mailings may appear to be an important notice from the consumer's car dealer or auto manufacturer. There is always an eye-catching warning on the front of the card, such as: "Final Notice: Expiring Auto Warranty."

Whether by phone or mail, the marketers warn that the consumer's car warranty is about to expire, and urge the consumer to call a toll-free number or push a button to be connected to a representative in order to renew their warranty.

While state laws vary, Gansler says Maryland consumers should also be aware that the Maryland Telephone Solicitation Act generally prohibits a telemarketer from charging the consumer's charge card before receiving a written contract signed by the consumer. Therefore, there is usually no legitimate reason for the telemarketer to ask the consumer to provide account information.

To avoid becoming a victim of this scam, Gansler offers the following tips:

• Never give out personal financial information such as bank account numbers, credit card numbers or Social Security Numbers over the phone to someone who has called you;

• Beware of any mailings that appear to offer extended warranty coverage;

• When considering an extended warranty, or any other telephone or mail solicitation, always insist on getting the complete terms and conditions of your agreement in the form of a written contract before you agree to sign up, pay any money or provide your credit card information.

• Before entering into any contract, make sure you fully understand its terms and coverage.

There are many things to consider when you're offered an "extended warranty" or "service contract."

Gansler says consumers should beware that certain "extended warranties" do not always provide the peace of mind and financial protection that they might expected. Many of these contracts, when closely scrutinized, exclude so many items that they really provide very little coverage for outrageous prices, he said.

Make sure that you are dealing with a reputable, stable company. Some consumers have found when they sought to take advantage of the extended warranty or service contract that the company from which they purchased the extended warranty or service contract had gone out of business.

Check out a business with your state Attorney General's Office, your local Better Business Bureau and online consumer sites before you agree to do business with them.

More Scam Alerts ...


Brown Adds 'Shocking New Details' to Countrywide Allegations

California suit says Countrywide ignored its own underwriting guidelines

California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. has disclosed shocking new details about Countrywide Financialsbusiness practices which he said included ig...

California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. has disclosed shocking new details about Countrywide Financialsbusiness practices which he said included ignoring their own underwriting guidelines and rewarding employees for selling risky home loans.

"These shocking new details provide further evidence of Countrywide's dangerous lending practices, which included ignoring borrowers' low credit scores and rewarding employees for selling risky loans," Brown said. "In one case the company approved an adjustable rate mortgage to an 85-year-old disabled veteran with such a low credit score and high debt that he defaulted in less than six months."

Brown sued Countrywide last month charging that it had engaged in deceptive advertising and unfair competition by pushing homeowners into risky loans for the sole purpose of reselling the mortgages on the secondary market.

Today Brown filed an amended lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court which reveals twenty new details about the company's scheme to deceive consumers into taking out dangerous mortgages. The information had been previously withheld from the complaint.

Some of the new information includes the allegations that Countrywides wholesale lending officers received higher commissions for selling Pay Option Adjustable Rate Mortgages--loans that entice consumers with a very low initial "teaser" rate--and loans with weak underwriting standards. Countrywide also paid higher commissions for putting borrowers into loans with higher rates and fees than they qualified for based upon credit scores and other factors.

Countrywide ignored factors that it identified as having negative impacts on underwriting including: high debt ratios, low credit scores, and minimal down payments. Company employees regularly overrode warnings from Countrywide's computerized underwriting system, known as CLUES, which issued loan analysis reports rating consumer credit, purported ability to repay, and whether a proposed loan complied with underwriting guidelines.

Brown's suit cites these examples, which he said represent a small percentage of the large number of California residents who are facing foreclosure due to Countrywides dangerous practices:

• A Countrywide loan officer convinced a borrower to take a Pay Option ARM with a 1-month teaser rate and a 3-year prepayment penalty plus a full-draw piggyback home equity line of credit based on the loan officers representation that the value of the borrowers home would continue to rise and he would have no problem refinancing. The borrowers debt-to-income ratio was 47 percent and credit score was 663. The loan officer offered the loan even though the companys CLUES report and an underwriter review indicated strong doubts about the borrowers ability to repay. The loan closed in January 2006, and a Notice of Default issued in June 2007.

• The CLUES report issued for a loan applicant in February 2005 stated that the consumer had too much debt for the loan program and identified other elements of risk including a low credit score. The CLUES report raised doubts about the borrowers ability to repay the loan but Countrywide approved a 3/27 adjustable rate mortgage with a 3-year prepayment penalty, to an 85-year old disabled veteran with a credit score of 509 score and an debt-to-income ratio of nearly 60 percent. The loan closed in February 2005, and a Notice of Default issued in July 2005.

• The CLUES report for a proposed loan identified multiple risks that created doubts about the borrowers ability to make the payments, including the fact that a borrower had an open collection account. In January 2006, however, Countrywide granted exceptions for these risks and approved a reduced documentation Pay Option Adjustable Rate Mortgage loan for $352,000 with a 3-month teaser rate and a 3-year prepayment penalty, as well as a Piggyback home equity line of credit for $22,000. The loan closed in January 2006, and a Notice of Default issued in October 2006.

Many borrowers who obtained Pay Option and Hybrid ARMs did not understand that their initial monthly payment would at some point "explode," that their initial interest rate would increase and become adjustable, or that the principal amount of their loans could actually increase.

Countrywide received numerous complaints regarding these practices from borrowers, including over 3,000 complaints per year handled by the Office of the President between January 2005 and August 2007.

Countrywide gave branch managers commissions or bonuses based on the net profits and loan volume generated by each branching, thereby creating intense pressure to sell as many loans as possible, as quickly as possible, at the highest prices possible. Branch managers were rewarded for meeting production goals set by corporate management, increasing the number of loans sold per loan officer, and reducing the time periods between the loan application stage and funding--or penalized for failing to do so.

Foreclosure rates

Todays amended lawsuit also contains updated data about Countrywide's foreclosure rates. As of April this year, 21.11% of the mortgages owned by Countrywide Home Loans were in some stage of delinquency or foreclosure, including 47.97% of originated non-prime loans, and 21.23% of Pay Option ARMs.

In January and March, 2008, Countrywide recorded 3,175 notices of default in Alameda, Fresno, Riverside, and San Diego counties alone, representing an aggregate total of delinquent principal and interest of more than $917 million.


It's also being reported today that the FBI is examining Countrywide, IndyMac and at least 20 other mortgage lenders. The bureau is reportedly probing accounting fraud, insider trading and the "securitization" of mortgage-backed securities.

Countrywide was acquired by Bank of America earlier this year.



Class Action Challenges Credit Solutions

Texas-based company claims to help consumers work out their debt problems

A class action lawsuit charges a Texas company doesn't make good on its promise to help consumers who are having problems with their credit....

A class action lawsuit charges a Texas company doesn't make good on its promise to help consumers who are having problems with their credit.

The lawsuit, filed in Seattle, charges that Texas-based Credit Solutions, the country's largest debt-resolution company, has done more harm than good for thousands of its clients. Many customers said they would up deeper in debt after going to Credit Solutions for help.

The allegations in the lawsuit mirror complaints filed by readers.

"They have done nothing to help me. All they have done is ruin my credit," said Tina of Sacramento. "One company had proposed a settlement and when I inquired with CSA to find ot if the company would allow me to make monthly installment they NEVER responded resulting in the company to deny the settlement."

Alex of Astoria, N.Y., said he signed up with Credit Solutions after a divorce in 2006.

"Since that time they have not settled any accounts, have taken over $2300 from me, told me NOT to appear in court after I received a summons. Because of that, a judgment was passed against me and my bank account was levied for twice the amount I owed."

The Better Business Bureau says it has received more than 1,000 complaints against Credit Solutions in the past three years. It warns consumers that there are bad actors in the debt-resolution business.

Credit Solutions charges a fee of 15 percent of the debt amount. It promises to negotiate with the lenders so the client can pay less -- up to 60 percent less.

But Yolanda of Perris, Calif., said it didn't work that way for her. She sought help consolidating her credit card accounts.

"The person I spoke with told me that I can consolidate all of my accounts and make just one low payment a month. So I did it. One of my creditors call me last night and told me that if I don't make a payment now they're going to repossess my filter system," she told

Attorney Tyler Weaver, one of the lawyers filing the class action, said that consumers are paying Credit Solutions money that could have been better used to pay off their debts.

On its Web site, the company claims a 99.32 percent satisfaction rate with its customers, and says it has eliminated more than 265 million dollars of debt for its clients.

What to do

Consumer advocates generally agree that consumers in trouble should call the credit card companies, banks and other lenders personally and try to work out a payment plan. If you need more help, contact Consumer Credit Counseling Services, a national not-for-profit organization.

Consumers who are deeply in debt should also consider filing for bankruptcy.

More about debt counseling services.



Make Money at Home -- or Anywhere Else

Offbeat Web site owner shares the tricks of the trade

One of my favorite occupations as I stroll the streets of the city is to tear down notices that promise make hundreds of $$$ a day working from home! -- th...

siesta photoOne of my favorite occupations as I stroll the streets of the city is to tear down notices that promise make hundreds of $$$ a day working from home! -- theyre generally placed by pyramid schemers and the only money thats likely to be changing hands is from you to them.

The truth is that there are far more people trying to make money from you than those who want to help you make a living. Perhaps thats obvious but the guys who write the books on How to Become a Millionaire are still doing a good business. What you do is you publish a book for $20 on how to get rich and then sell 50,000 copies

Still, today I jumped out of bed at the crack of noon, made some coffee and then pulled out my laptop while still in bed to check my website income from the day before. I was on course to make $1,000 for the month. I went back to sleep for a while and then hit the beach. Another productive working day.

In the future well probably divide people between those who remember life before the Internet and those who have a hard time believing that people used to walk down to the post office to send mail. Generations to come will laugh at the idea that people used to pay to talk to each other on the phone and will be revolted by the idea that all media was once in the hands of greedy publishing, music and television companies.

Just wants to be free

The Internet has made information free. Naturally, it took the world a long time to wake up to this new paradigm and in the beginning there were a lot of people trying to charge for access to websites. Surfers just shrugged and hit the back button and moved on to a site that didnt ask for a credit card. Information is still the most valuable commodity in the world but the economic model changed.

Dig it, youre not paying to read this article but that doesnt mean theres no money being made here

Last summer I decided to take a six-month-long holiday and hung around camp fires at some hippie festivals with not a cell phone -- much less an electric socket -- in sight. In between banging out hopelessly off-key Bob Dylan songs on my guitar, I explained to my incredulous dreadlocked friends that Id made $30 that day before waking up. Okay, it was no fortune but the cash was coming in without me lifting a finger and kept me in a good supply of guitar strings and patchouli oil.

Running your own niche website is like cultivating a money tree. You plant the seed of a good idea, tend and cultivate the sapling for a year or so without any reward and then, as your website comes into maturity, you sit back and collect the fruit as it drops, just doing a bit of pruning here or there.

Unless youre a really driven type and want to plant a whole orchard of niche websites and secure a long-term revenue stream that will beat most pension plans

No geeks

By now your eyes are probably rolling. Thats all very well, you say but youre not a computer geek. The web is already full of millions of sites on every conceivable topic and anyway, how can anyone make money by giving information away for free?

I used to say the same things. Then an old friend told me that his collection of niche websites were bringing in 500,000 people a month. That was more than many magazines that I could think of. I checked out his sites and saw that far from using any complicated programs hed made them all in Notepad. Hed learnt about 10 little symbols that he needed to make the pages and although there was no design to speak of, the information was clear and accessible.

If you already send email and watch videos on YouTube then youre probably capable of learning how to set up and code your own website in a day. Just do a Google search for html tutorials and youll be on your way. Use a program like Dreamweaver that does the code for you and it gets even easier. And if you plan to make a more complicated site that needs some tricky code, you can find an Indian tech wizard though who will do all the hard work for you.

And although there are a BILLION WEBSITES in existence now, the web is still in its infancy.

After the first dotcom crash, many people seemed to think the internet would just fade away. Instead peoples ideas about it changed. The biggest names in the internet like Youtube, Myspace and Facebook are all recent ideas, evolving in the last 4 years as peoples imaginations have begun to catch up with the potential of the most important medium the world has ever seen.

A good way to think up ideas for niche websites is in your own search experience. I started my main website, because I was bored sick of all the inane travel stories and guides out there. I was sure that there were hundreds of thousands of people out there who also wanted to read alternative articles with attitude. Today, around 50,000 people a day visit the site and its developed a following within the niche that I identified.

But it can be even simpler than that. Maybe you have a hard time doing a web search to find out what live music is playing in your town? So you buy and set up and fill the niche yourself. If there are others who also want to learn about all the latest concerts then youve got traffic and an income in the making.

Or perhaps youre a devoted fan of Johnny Depp? If you can put together an authoritative site of all roles hes ever played, a list of all his interviews, trivia and photos available, then maybe you can create a resource for all the other millions who play at being pirates in front of the bathroom mirror.

Grains of sand

But with a web full of professional writing and photos, established sites and a million ego-fueled blogs, how will anyone ever find your little website?

Finding information on the web is the biggest challenge the internet faces today. Like free speech, it doesnt matter if the info you want is out there if theres so much crap in the way that you can never find it. Try to search for information about trips to Moscow, for instance, without being inundated with Russian bride sites.

Most sites depend upon search engines for their traffic, Google in particular. Google only got so big in the first place because they came up with the best way to sort through millions of sites in a second and most search engines soon copied their model. Their revolutionary concept was simple: one link = one vote. So sites that get lots of inbound links are more likely to featured on the first page of any search query.

But it doesnt end there. Google also reasoned that not all links are equal a link coming in from a CNN feature, for instance, scores way more points than a link from

So to bring traffic to your site you need links but who on earth will link to you?

For many webmasters, about 20% of their time is spent in begging, trading and even buying links. The bottom line, however, is that if you provide a cool, comprehensive resource or a useful service then people will link to you as a matter of course. People might link to this page as a guide to making money at home, for instance (hint, hint).

How to make it pay?

Now, assuming you manage to get some traffic, how do you make money out of it? Man cannot live on hits alone

Again, we have Google to thank. Their think tank looked at the internet and saw the greatest potential for advertising in history. They invented Adsense and became the middlemen between the advertisers and the publishers and made the whole process automatic so you dont have to waste your time trying to sell ad space.

It works like this: you install a bit of code on your site, Google spiders your pages, decides what theyre about and then inserts a relevant ad. So if youve written an article about vacations in Brazil you might well see ads about Flights to Brazil or Carnival Packages showing up.

But unlike traditional advertising where publishers get paid for placing the ad, you only get paid when someone actually clicks on it. The amount varies depending on the advertisers bid but if youre getting decent traffic the clicks soon add up and Google sends you a check each month. And yes, they will know if youre clicking on your own ads

You can also make money with affiliate deals where you get a small percentage of every flight, hotel reservation or book sold from your site, for example. Do a web search for affiliates and youll find enormous lists of them by subject. Just dont overburden your site with ads or affiliates or youll lose traffic in droves.

Okay, okay but what if you cant write or take photos to save your life and have no budget to pay others?

One of the pages I visit the most is an article that lists the best bit torrent sites on the web. I keep forgetting the name of the torrent sites that I use and so I return to the list about 5 times a week. Apparently many other people also found the list handy as it has a bunch of inbound links and sits at the top of Googles top ten when you search for best torrent sites. The point is that if you can find some way to sort and order the information out there then youre fulfilling a need and traffic will come your way.

For instance, if you reckon you have a great sense of humor (and who doesnt but they cant all be right..) then you could buy and embed 5 hilarious YouTube videos each day to save your audience the trouble of hunting them down themselves. If people know they can arrive at your site and be guaranteed a good laugh its likely theyll return again and again.

Learning how to build a niche website can be as shallow or deep as you like. All the tips and tricks you need to know are available via any Google search and is a great place to ask all your dumb questions and get patient answers.

A catchy name for your website helps and you can search for domain names at .coms sell for about $10 each and hosting will cost you another $100+ a year, depending on how big your site gets.

But thats the last money you need ever spend on building your niche site and beware anyone who tries to sell you their services to bring traffic remember the rule in the second paragraph and stick to the straight and narrow. There are ways to manipulate search engines into sending you traffic but rather intelligent people work at Google and theyre likely to find you out and blacklist your site sooner rather than later.

Oh, by the way, don't think you can copy entire articles from other web sites and post them on yours. This is illegal and most large web sites -- and not a few small ones -- will track you down and their lawyers will make you wish you had opened a bait shop instead.

Most people wont get rich by building a niche website. And you probably wont see any return from it for the first year or more. But after that your site stays open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week and the dollars will keep rolling in by themselves. Maybe enough to keep you on the beach in Mexico for the winter.

At school they told me that there was no such thing as a free lunch. Now that I sit under an orchard of niche websites, gathering the fruit that falls each day, I beg to differ.


Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.


Baby Boomers Face Longer Lives with Fewer Assets

Many may outlive their money

People in their 50s and 60s today can look forward to longer lifespans than even their parents' generation. But a new industry-funded study suggests that b...

People in their 50s and 60s today can look forward to longer lifespans than even their parents' generation. But a new industry-funded study suggests that baby boomers will need to tighten their belts as they age, since they are likely to outlive their assets.

The study, conducted by Ernst & Young on behalf of Americans for Secure Retirement, found that almost three out of five new middle-class retirees will outlive their financial assets if they attempt to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living.

The study also finds that middle-income Americans entering retirement now will have to reduce their standard of living by an average of 24 percent to minimize the likelihood of outliving their financial assets. Those Americans seven years out from retirement are even less prepared and the study estimates that they will have to reduce their standard of living by even more, an average of 37 percent, the study said.

These reductions will be necessary even when assuming that retirees can maintain the same standard of living with income equal to 59 to 71 percent of their pre-retirement wages.

"Many Americans envision a retirement where their lifestyle continues much as before," said Tom Neubig of Ernst & Young. "Our work shows that this is not a realistic expectation and that, with the current state of savings and potentially very long life expectancies, many retirees will have to cut back far more on expenditures than they had ever expected."

The study concludes that retirees have a much more secure retirement if they have some type of annuity or defined benefit plan, of the type marketed by the sponsors of the study. However, consulting with an independent financial planner, not affiliated with any type of investment instrument, is usually the best way to find the best fit for your individual needs.

AARP survey

An AARP survey finds more Americans plan to put off retirement and work longer.

The decline in both the stock market and the real estate market has hit many baby boomers hard, to the point that an increasing number of people approaching retirement age think the prudent course is to keep working. The survey found that 20 percent of people age 55 to 64 plan to delay retirement because of the economic downturn.

Other key findings of the Ernst & Young study include:

• Persons that are 5-10 years away from retirement have a higher risk of outliving their financial assets than those currently at retirement age. To avoid outliving their retirement assets, these workers aged 55 to 59 will have to increase their savings substantially or work beyond age 65. Otherwise, they will have to reduce their standard of living significantly more than today's retirees to minimize the risk of exhausting their financial assets.

• Married couples are more likely to outlive their financial assets, due to their longer joint life spans, than single households.

• Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota citizens have the highest likelihood of outliving retirement savings.

• D.C., Rhode Island, Utah and New York citizens have the least likelihood of outliving retirement savings.



Feds Study Hyundai Airbag Failures

Several Hyundai models the focus of safety probes

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating airbag failures in the 2001 and 2002 Hyundai Elantra....

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating airbag failures in the 2001 and 2002 Hyundai Elantra.

More than 150,000 of the economy-priced Korean sedans are covered by the investigation.

"The airbag system is susceptible to airbag light illumination and airbag non-deployment or inadvertent deployment from liquid contamination of the airbag control module," according to the NHTSA Web site.

The safety agency reported two fatalities occurred in crashes involving the Elantra when the airbag warning light was illuminated.

In a previous report earlier this year, NHTSA cited the results of the investigation of those deadly accidents.

"Post inspection and analysis indicate the airbag light had illuminated prior to the crash on both vehicles," NHTSA said on its Web site. In the first accident, "the center console covering the airbag control module was removed. The module and the main connector were covered with a brown sticky substance, possibly spilled liquid since the cup holders are positioned above the control module," according to NHTSA.

The NHTSA Web site reported that the "recovered fault codes indicate a prior short circuit condition that most likely would shut down the airbag control module," and prevent airbag deployment.

In the second fatal crash, NHTSA was told the airbag warning light had come on several months prior to the accident.

The safety agency and Hyundai have received 501 consumer complaints concerning the airbag system failures in the Elantra. The automaker has repaired the airbag system in 9,110 Elantra sedans under warranty claims, according to the NHTSA Web site.

The safety agency stated that it is also aware of "6 incidents of seat belt pretensioner and airbag deployments due to liquid spills," in the Elantra.

The owner of a 2002 Hyundai Elantra GLS in Hartford, New York reported a recent airbag warning light failure to ConsumerAfairs.Com.

The dealer told the Elantra owner that the "airbag system will not function" because the airbag module was no longer working. The airbag repair cost, paid by the consumer, was $560.

Other models

The Elantra is not the only Hyundai to experience an airbag failure according to a ConsumerAffairs.Com reader in Miami.

"Both of my daughters were involved in a roll-over accident in their 2006 Hyundai Tucson, he said. "The impact caused the Tucson to roll-over several times. None of the airbags deployed in the accident," he told ConsumerAffairs.Com.

"Thankfully, my daughters escaped with only minor injuries but I cannot believe not one airbag deployed given the severity of the accident," he said.

The Hyundai dealer told his Miami customer that the airbag failure was "a safety measure to reduce further injury."

A Canadian owner of a Hyundai Santa Fe also experienced an airbag warning light failure in his SUV. So far, the Hyundai dealer is unable to repair the warning light problem, he said.

Hyundai customers relations "ordered a new harness for wiring," the owner said but there is "no improvement."

The Canadian Hyundai owner is demanding the Korean automaker refund the money he paid for the Santa Fe and take the vehicle back.

"This vehicle has been faulty since its delivery to me, he said. "After 5 attempts to fix the vehicle even the service manager is at wits end."

Suspension failures

NHTSA is also investigating Hyundai vehicles for catastrophic suspension failure.

Federal safety investigators are examining consumer complaints of suspension failure, some at high rates of speed, in the 2001 model year Hyundai Santa Fe.

Two consumers reported to NHTSA that their vehicle "nearly rolled over" following the suspension failure.

The cause of the failures appears to be excessive corrosion in the vehicle suspension and federal safety investigators want to know if the Hyundai Santa Fe suspension rusts to the point of breaking.

NHTSA has received allegations that the subframe on the Hyundai Sonata can rust to the point of causing suspension failure as well.

The agency has received 40 consumer complaints about severe corrosion in the 1999 through 2002 model year Sonatas.

Consumers have reported "fist-sized holes in the frame" that can cause the suspension control arm to detach from the vehicle, according to federal safety investigators.

The result can be "wheel collapse or separation, half shaft detachment resulting in sudden vehicle disablement and or steering anomalies," according to the NHTSA Web site.



IndyMac Federal Stops Foreclosures

FDIC chief wants to keep homeowners in their homes

IndyMac reopened under the control of federal regulators yesterday and there was little doubt who was in charge....

IndyMac reopened under the control of federal regulators yesterday and there was little doubt who was in charge.

The failed California bank stopped all pending foreclosures at the direction of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) chair Sheila Bair, who has been prodding lenders to find more ways to keep financially-troubled homeowners in their homes.

Bair said that IndyMac Federal will "very aggressively pursue loan-modification strategies" for homeowners who are stuck with mortgages they can't afford. She said the goal would be to make those mortgages "affordable on a long-term sustainable basis."

When the FDIC seized it Friday, IndyMac had about $15 billion in outstanding mortgages. It was also servicing another $185 billion. The FDIC won't have as much flexibility with the loans the bank was servicing but Bair said the agency would "look at each one" to try to find a solution that would stave off foreclosure.

While that may be good news for borrowers, depositors weren't as pleased. Long lines stretched down the street at many IndyMac branches as consumers rushed to withdraw their funds when the bank reopened yesterday.

It wasn't really necessary for depositors to withdraw their funds, as deposits of up to $100,000 -- more in some cases -- are guaranteed by FDIC, but many customers were taking no chances.

Whatever steps FDIC takes to clean up the bank's operations will be temporary, as its primary goal is to sell the bank's assets within 90 days.


While the IndyMac clean-up continued, so did the blame game. The office of Thrift Supervision yesterday pinned blame for the bank's failure on Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Agency officials didn't leak their opinion, or have it attributed to "a senior official" within the agency. No, they put it right in their press release.

"The immediate cause of the closing was a deposit run that began and continued after the public release of a June 26 letter to the OTS and the FDIC from Senator Charles Schumer of New York," the news release stated. "The letter expressed concerns about IndyMac's viability. In the following 11 business days, depositors withdrew more than $1.3 billion from their accounts."

If that wasn't plain enough, OTS Director John Reich underlined the point.

"This institution failed today due to a liquidity crisis," Reich said. "Although this institution was already in distress, I am troubled by any interference in the regulatory process."

For his part, Schumer didn't take the criticism lying down. The senior senator from New York fired back that if OTS and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation had been doing their jobs, the meltdown might have been avoided.

IndyMac had been in a precarious financial situation that was caused, in part, by an unprecedented stress in the residential real estate market, combined with the evaporation of the non-agency secondary mortgage market in August of 2007. The OTS said it had significant concerns with the bank's funding strategy, had directed appropriate changes and was finalizing a new set of enforcement actions to address its numerous problems.

As a result of an OTS examination that began in January 2008, the OTS said it deemed IndyMac to be in troubled condition. An overwhelming majority of problem institutions are able to successfully modify their operations and business plans, work closely with their regulator and eventually return to a healthy condition, the agency said.

IndyMac had reacted to market conditions and OTS concerns in November 2007 by changing its operations and business plan to build a foundation for recovery, the OTS said, adding that IndyMac was actively seeking to arrange a significant capital infusion or find a buyer.

"The recent release of the senator's letter undermined the public confidence essential for a financial institution and took away the time IndyMac needed to pursue a recovery," the agency said in its news release.



Could a Corolla Be the Answer?

We spend a week putting the little econocar through its paces

Almost exactly two years ago, with gas well under $3, we had the opportunity to test drive a Toyota Prius and a Camry but Toyota turned aside our request f...


corolla photo Almost exactly two years ago, with gas well under $3, we had the opportunity to test drive a Toyota Prius and a Camry but Toyota turned aside our request for a Corolla, insisting that the Camry was the car most comparable to the Prius.

Well, maybe so but we've always thought that many families who need to save big bucks on their transportation costs -- as opposed to those who just want to be the first on their block to drive around on top of a battery -- should take a close look at the Corolla and similar cars before plopping down big bucks on the Prius.

Today, with gas climbing towards $5 and the price of other essentials going straight up, it's more important than ever to find efficient, economical transportation. The Prius is a technological gem but we're not convinced it's the best answer for families who need to pinch every penny and we've always wanted to put the Corolla through its paces.

So, when we found ourselves with three visitors who needed to tour college compuses and also do some sightseeing in the L.A. area, it presented just the excuse we'd been looking for. My daily driver seats just two, making it completely out of the question, so we hot-footed it over to California Rent-A-Car in Venice and picked up a 2007 Corolla.

The visitors plus me made a perfect test group -- four adults, all average size if slightly on the tall side.

The Corolla passed the first acid test nicely: everyone fit, even the 6'2" guy who got stuck in the back. The trunk was surprisingly big and, although we didn't use it, it would have easily held everybody's luggage.

I picked the car up Monday morning and it bounced happily out into traffic on Lincoln Blvd. Though I prefer a stick shift, the rental's automatic was responsive and the acceleration from the little four-banger was more than sufficient to propel me into spaces Suburbans could only dream of squeezing into.

We had a busy week in the little car and covered just about every kind of traffic Southern California offers. We tooled around the surface streets in Venice and Santa Monica, then hopped on the I-10 for a couple of visits in Hollywood.

We had no trouble scooting briskly onto the 10, even with four adults on board and the air conditioning blasting. The Corolla is quite peppy up until about 70 or so, when it starts to run out of headroom. At no time, however, did I feel it wasn't up to the task. We even dashed up the 405 (the nation's busiest freeway) to the Getty Museum, mixing it up with the double-tandem tanker trucks and the fast-fading army of Hummers and Rams.

One day's journey involved purring up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu. We wanted to put the Corolla through its paces on Decker Canyon Drive, probably the twistiest, narrowest, highest and scariest mountain road (trail is more like it) in any U.S. urban area. But unfortunately, our passengers protested, which might be just as well.

We did the next best thing though, shooting along Mulholland Drive, a much wider and less steep mountain road. Then we turned around and drove back the other way, taking the curves at speed and staying well ahead of the Audis and BMWs that occasionally came up behind us.

Kids, don't try this at home. The Corolla is not a sports car and shouldn't be driven like one. It's just not designed for it. However, for what it is, it did just fine -- far better than the Prius we drove a few years back. The first time we took a freeway exit in the Prius we nearly ended up in the woods. It handles like a pile of bricks on wheels and is about as much fun to drive as a wheelbarrow.

Our passengers had no complaints about the Corolla and neither did I. The brakes get a little mushy sometimes and when you listen to the engine, you're not misled into thinking you're driving a Maserati, but as a guy who likes cars and likes to push the envelope whenever possible, I thought the Corolla was just fine. With some decent tires and wheels, stiffer shocks and a stick shift, it would be a nifty little urban pocket rocket.

Right off the dealer's lot, it is all a thrifty family needs for most urban and suburban driving. The model we tested -- the basic CE -- is a well-equipped transportation appliance. It has the essentials but none of the geegaws that are guaranteed to break, malfunction or be stolen after a year or two.

OK, so let's do the numbers. In five days, we drove the car 224 miles, always carrying four people with the air-conditioning on and never taking fuel economy into consideration in our driving. We certainly did not "hyper-mile" it. Rather, we drove the hell out of it, trying to find defects and get the worst mileage we could.

On Friday afternoon, we pulled into a no-credit-card gas station and filled 'er up -- all 8.4 gallons worth. It cost us $38.72 for a week's worth of driving and if my math is correct that's 26.6 miles per gallon.

OK, this is not 40 mpg or whatever Prians claim they get but it's not bad. A CE with a stick shift driven sensibly would most likely get better than 30 mpg.

Perhaps more important is that I do believe a family could drive the wheels off a Corolla for years, spending next to nothing in maintenance. It's a simple, straightforward car and if you get the stripper with crank-up windows and no frippery, there's very little that can go wrong.

The "official" prices for these cars aren't that far apart -- $14,405 for the Corolla CE, $21,500 for the Prius "Standard." But in fact, dealers are loading up the Prius with every accessory they can think of, then charging a premium on top of that, so you'll probably pay around $30,000 for a Prius -- twice what a Corolla costs.

There are plenty of used Corollas around and it should be possible to get a recent vintage for $11,000 or less.

Speaking of cost, we've rented from California Rent-A-Car before and always had a good experience. They don't have an airport booth so you don't pay the outlandish airport fees, taxes, surcharges and other extortions. We paid $162 to drive the car for a week. You'll get cheaper rates on their Web site than if you walk in off the street.

Our time with the Corolla ended, we somewhat eagerly jumped back into our daily driver, a Porsche Boxster (which, by the way, normally gets about 22 mpg around town). Having gotten accustomed to the surprisingly roomy Corolla, we banged head and knee simultaneously while lurching into the Boxster's cozy (OK, cramped) interior.


Feds Seize Mortgage Lender IndyMac

FDIC takes over as IndyMac becomes the second-largest bank failure in history

Mortgage lender IndyMac was seized by agents of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Friday, becoming the second largest bank failure in U.S. history....

Mortgage lender IndyMac was seized by agents of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Friday, becoming the second largest bank failure in U.S. history. The FDIC was named conservator.

The agency said it will transfer insured deposits and substantially all the assets of the Pasadena, California bank to IndyMac Federal Bank, FSB. Brokered deposits will be held by the FDIC and those insured deposits will be paid off when the insurance determination is complete.

Under federal law, individual deposits are insured up to $100,000 $100,000 per depositor plus $250,000 per retirement account.

At the time of its seizure, IndyMac had total assets of $32.01 billion and total deposits of $19.06 billion as of March 31, 2008.

As conservator, the FDIC said it will operate IndyMac Federal Bank, FSB to maximize the value of the institution for a future sale and to maintain banking services in the communities formerly served by IndyMac Bank, F.S.B.

Insured depositors and borrowers will automatically become customers of IndyMac Federal, FSB and will continue to have uninterrupted customer service and access to their funds by ATM, debit cards and writing checks in the same manner as before, the agency said.

However, IndyMac depositors will have no access to on-line and phone banking services this weekend. These services will be operational again on Monday. Loan customers should continue making loan payments as usual, FDIC said in a statement.

Quick collapse

Earlier this week, IndyMac Bancorp. announced it was laying off more than half its staff and virtually abandoning the mortgage business.

CEO Michael W. Perry said the company was struggling with the continuing erosion of the housing and mortgage markets.

It's one of the latest aftershocks of the meltdown of the mortgage market. The stocks of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the huge government-sponsored entities that buy much of the paper in the mortgage industry, sank yesterday after a warning that they could need to raise as much as $75 billion in new capital.

IndyMac was founded in 1985 and became the leader in alt-A mortgages, those written to consumers whose credit was good if not outstanding, on terms that included adjustable interest rates, flexible pay plans and other features that often meant consumers' loan balances grew instead of declining over time.

The company was also heavily into subprime and home-equity loans and often required little or no documentation of borrowers' income, critics said.

The Center for Responsible Lending, a consumer advocacy organization, said IndyMac's decline was caused by unsound and abusive lending practices.



Melted Gold Isn't Always Green

Jewelry may be worth more than its weight in gold

No matter how high the price of gold has soared, it's never a good idea to send off your antique jewelry and coins to strangers. Those who do could not onl...

No matter how high the price of gold has soared, it's never a good idea to send off your antique jewelry and coins to strangers. Those who do could not only be taking a huge risk.

As the value of gold increases, some consumers are seeking to cash in with a process called gold melting. In gold melting, consumers sell the gold contained in their valuables, such as outdated bracelets, unwanted wedding bands, or a single earring without a mate.

But to a jewelry collector, your great grandmother's out-of-style gold brooch may be worth a lot more than its "melt price." Likewise, a coin collector may find your gold coins to be worth much more than simply the weight of the gold they contain.

That's why Ohio Attorney General Nancy H. Rogers says consumers should resist the temptation to sell an item before it reaches its potential value.

The value of gold and other precious metals is at near-record levels. If you decide to sell your precious metals, make sure you take the time to protect yourself and get the most for your valuables.

To avoid gold melting scams, follow these tips:

Get an appraisal. Have your gold assessed by an accredited appraiser or a neutral jeweler or collector to find the accurate weight and gold content.

Find a reputable buyer. Jewelry stores generally offer better prices than pawnshops. Search for complaints filed against a company with the Better Business Bureau at and other online consumer sites.

Beware of scams. Scam artists are also tapping into the gold rush. They're using phone solicitations, Internet sites, mail advertisements and Tupperware-style gold parties to trick consumers into selling their gold for less than its true value. Some mail-in companies promise consumers cash in exchange for sending in their unwanted gold jewelry and coins. If you mail your gold, however, you risk losing it completely or not getting a fair price for it.

Determine the fair markup price. Check the commodities markets for that day's spot price. Market prices are based on pure 24-karat gold, so the higher the karat, the more valuable it is. Gold less than 24K is discounted proportionately: 18K is 75% pure gold, 14K is 58%, and 10K is 41.7% gold. The scrap price is based on the value of the metal alone and doesn't reflect the craftsmanship or antique value of the item.

Shop around. Get at least three estimates from different jewelers. Ask jewelers how much they offer for pure gold, how they calculate the value of a gold item, and what percentage commission they charge (typically about 10%).

Consider the consequences. When you melt your gold jewelry, you lose all of its retail (and sentimental) value. Your antique jewelry may be worth more than its weight in gold. Think twice before you melt it.



Verizon Pays $21 Million to Settle Termination Fee Lawsuit

Other carriers watch decision carefully

Verizon Pays $21 Million to Settle Termination Fee Lawsuit...

Verizon Wireless says it will pay $21 million to settle a class-action lawsuit over early termination fees, which can often cost customers anywhere from $175 to $225 when they ditch their cellular contract early.

The settlement came less than a month into trial proceedings for the suit, filed in 2006 in California by plaintiffs who claimed the fees were a violation of California's state law.

The turn of events is thought to bode ill for Sprint, which faces a similar lawsuit before the same court and judge in Alameda County Superior Court. Sprint representatives declined to comment on the settlement, saying they were focused on their own legal proceedings.

California's Supreme Court has already cleared lawsuits against carriers such as T-Mobile to proceed, saying that the nature of the contracts and the punitive fees were "unconscionable" under California consumer protection law.

T-Mobile suffered another defeat when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear its appeal for a separate lawsuit dealing with the wireless carrier's usage of mandatory binding arbitration in its contracts, a decision which could set precedent for lawsuits against the other carriers.

All four of the major wireless carriers -- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile -- have faced increasing pressure from consumers and the media over the fees. The wireless companies say the fees are a necessary cost of providing inexpensive phones to customers, while critics say the fees lock customers into a multi-year contract and prevent them from shopping for better alternatives.

Congress considers

The outcry against termination fees led to calls for investigation and new legislation from Congress that would mandate prorating termination fees over the life of a contract, and would restrict the levying of new fees as well as requiring disclosure of a potential fee charge when customers upgrade a handset or change a plan.

In response to the criticism and attempts to preempt new regulation from Washington, all four carriers recently agreed to modify their contract policies to prorate termination fees, and limit or remove fees for contract changes.

Verizon Wireless then partnered with the FCC to introduce plans for federal regulation of the fees, which would include a nationwide standard for the fees and how they can be prorated, and would give consumers a window to try a phone and cancel the service without incurring a penalty.

In exchange, the FCC would block the ongoing lawsuits over the fees, and would restrict the ability of state lawmakers to control the fees in favor of the federal laws.

The proposal was heavily criticized by consumer advocates and even members of the FCC itself, who saw it as a power grab by the major telecom companies and Washington at the expense of state regulators and consumers.

The proposal was also seen as a strategic thrust by Verizon Wireless, as industry insiders claimed a reduction in termination fees would enable it to pick up customers from struggling rivals such as Sprint.


Comcast Cuts Deal With Vonage on Internet Traffic

Companies to work togther on "network management"

In the wake of revelations that Comcast regularly shaped and blocked customer accessto Internet services, the company announced today that it was partnerin...

In the wake of revelations that Comcast regularly shaped and blocked customer accessto Internet services, the company announced today that it was partnering with Internet phone company Vonage to "address reasonable network management" and prevent Vonage customers from being knocked offline by Comcast.

"This agreement helps Vonage to ensure that customers have the best possible Internet experience," said Vonage chief technology officer Louis Mamakos.

"Although we're competitors with Comcast, this understanding helps our two companies work together to balance the needs of network management with consumers' ability to freely access the services, applications and content of their choice," Mamakos said.

"This collaboration with Vonage, and our outreach to many key participants in the Internet community, demonstrate that we are committed to provide network management solutions that benefit consumers and competition," said Comcast chief technology officer Tony Werner.

Comcast, like many other cable and telecom companies, had put a severe dent in Vonage's business through offering its own Internet phone services, usually as part of "triple play" packages that combine Internet access, cable television, and phone service. The struggling Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service has been looking for new financing to pay off its $253 million in debt and avoid bankruptcy.

But the announcement of the deal raised questions among critics of Comcast's practices as to why they would make such a deal with a competitor, particularly one like Vonage that did not rely on peer-to-peer file sharing services.

Marvin Ammori, general counsel for media watchdog group Free Press, said they were "baffled as to why it was necessary for Vonage to strike a network management agreement with Comcast to guarantee that their services are not degraded or blocked. Such anti-competitive, anti-consumer practices are already against the law."

"This announcement calls into question the company's honesty about its treatment of competing services. Was Comcast degrading Vonage's VoIP service before this announcement? And are they continuing to degrade other services that compete with their products?" Ammori said.

Playing nice

After the revelation that Comcast was blocking user access to the BitTorrent file sharing engine, the company was put in the sights of an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as well as a lawsuit by customer Jon Hart, who alleged that the blocking of services constituted deceptive marketing.

The judge in the lawsuit recently ruled that the suit should be put on hold, pending the outcome of the FCC's investigation.

In order to polish its image before the FCC, Comcast previously announced a deal with BitTorrent to improve its network management practices, and move to a "protocol agnostic" standard that would enable it to direct Internet traffic without blocking or slowing access for certain customers.

The usage of the phrase "reasonable network management" was a direct response to the FCC, which used similar phrasing in its declaration of principles for governing Internet traffic.

But Comcast was hit with more bad publicity after admitting that it had paid people off the street to fill seats at an FCC hearing on its network practices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The paid attendees evinced loud support for Comcast's representatives and blocked critics of the company from getting into the hearing.

Comcast's regular content blocking re-ignited debate over "net neutrality," the principle that all content on the Internet should be accessed equally, leading to several hearings and new legislation on Capitol Hill on how to ensure that the Internet would remain open to all users.



Lawyers Rate Allstate as Worst Insurance Company

'Boxing gloves' replace 'good hands,' lawyers charge

Allstate ranks as worst insurer for consumers, according to a comprehensive investigation of thousands of legal documents & financial filings by American A...


Feds Investigate Suspension Failure in Hyundai Santa Fe

Some failures occurred at high speeds

Federal safety investigators are examining consumer complaints of suspension failure, some at high rates of speed, in the 2001 model year Hyundai Santa Fe....

Federal safety investigators are examining consumer complaints of suspension failure, some at high rates of speed, in the 2001 model year Hyundai Santa Fe.

Two consumers reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that their vehicle "nearly rolled over" following the suspension failure.

NHTSA has received six consumer complaints about failed suspension parts in the Hyundai SUV that claim the rear trailing arm in the vehicle failed because of excessive corrosion.

Safety investigators want to know if the Santa Fe suspension rusts to the point of breaking.

Three people reported that they lost control of their Santa Fe while traveling at speeds of 55 mph or more.

The safety agency has opened a "preliminary evaluation" of the complaints which could eventually lead to the recall of 25,000 Santa Fes.

NHTSA is also investigating allegations that the subframe on the Hyundai Sonata can rust to the point of causing suspension failure.

The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) at NHTSA has received 40 consumer complaints about severe corrosion in the 1999 through 2002 model year Sonatas.

Consumers have reported "fist-sized holes in the frame" that can cause the suspension control arm to detach from the vehicle, according to federal safety investigators.

The result can be "wheel collapse or separation, half shaft detachment resulting in sudden vehicle disablement and or steering anomalies," according to the NHTSA Web site.

The federal agency has also received reports of corrosion in the engine cradle and front cross-member.

NHTSA said that "there appears to be an increasing trend in failures, with 10 reported so far in 2008, 19 in 2007, 11 in 2006 and 1 in 2005."

Most of the complaints come from states where large amounts of salt are used on roads during snowy months, according to NHTSA.

The "salt belt" states according to NHTSA are Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

Some consumers report discovering the severe corrosion during routine maintenance such as an oil change but the majority of the complaints "allege that the corrosion was not detected until it resulted in suspension failure" or a wheel came off, according to NHTSA.

Sonata owners reported traveling at speeds from 5 to 65 mph when they encountered the suspension failure. Some of the incidents "resulted in the vehicle becoming disabled in the traffic lane at night with the driver and child stuck in the car," according to the NHTSA Web sit. "Passing traffic swerved around the vehicle at high speeds," NHTSA said.

One consumer told federal safety regulators that the Hyundai Sonata was "stuck in the middle of a dangerous intersection."

Another reported the Sonata was so badly rusted the vehicle was declared a total loss by the insurance company after the lower control arm completely separated from the vehicle "causing the half-shaft to detach from the transmission and resulting in damage to the wheel housing and quarter panel from the detached wheel.



'Red Flags Rules' for Identity Theft on the Way

Feds push for better fraud and theft prevention

'Red Flags Rules' for Identity Theft on the Way...

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Reserve and the government's other financial regulatory agencies are phasing in new rules for financial institutions that govern their detection of, response to, and prevention of identity theft.

Called the "Red Flags Rules," the rules mandate that banks, credit unions, and similar institutions set up written plans for identifying suspicious "red flag" transactions that could indicate identity theft or fraud, and update their plans with changing trends in financial crimes.

The rules were passed as part of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) in 2003, but did not go into effect until January 1, 2008, and full compliance is not due until November 1, 2008.

The long delay of full implementation and lack of consumer awareness led to scarcity of information and some confusion among financial institutions as to who should comply and what compliance requires. After several revisions, the final rules were issued on October 31, 2007.

The FTC is pushing a "general outreach" campaign to educate businesses and individuals as to what the Red Flags Rules mean.

"We want financial institutions and creditors to know that they are covered by the Red Flags Rules and to understand what is required of them," said FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection director Lydia Parnes. "We encourage all organizations that have ongoing accounts or relationships with consumers to keep an eye out for red flags that signal identity theft."

What kind of financial activity constitutes a "red flag" under the new rules? Included among the potential warning signs:

• Alerts from credit bureaus, such as requests for consumer credit reports that have fraud alerts or credit freezes in place.

• Suspicious or apparently forged documents, such as photo identification that doesn't match the person presenting the identification, or unverifiable addresses and Social Security numbers.

• Suspicious account activity from the customer, such as sudden spending on goods that can be resold for cash, frequent requests for cash advances, or failures to make payments on balances after making initial payments.

The Red Flags Rules govern financial institutions and creditors that have specific, ongoing transactional relationships with customers who maintain a regular account with the entity, such as banks, credit unions, and savings and loan associations.

"Creditors" include a wide range of businesses, from automobile dealerships to telecommunications companies, all of which are considered "any entity that regularly extends, renews, or continues credit; any entity that regularly arranges for the extension, renewal, or continuation of credit; or any assignee of an original creditor who is involved in the decision to extend, renew, or continue credit" under the rules.

The FTC said that more guidance on the rules would be forthcoming, possibly including details on punishments for financial entities that fail to comply with the rules or the regular reporting requirements.

No. 1

Identity theft has been the number one fraud complaint filed with the FTC for the better part of a decade. The agency's yearly publication of its fraud complaints regularly finds identity theft outstripping all other categories. In 2007, the FTC reported that of 813,899 total complaints received in 2007, 258,427, or 32 percent, were related to identity theft.

According to the FTC, total consumer fraud losses totaled $1.2 billion, with the average monetary loss for an individual at $349.

The FTC's last official survey, released in November 2007, claimed 8.3 million Americans had been victims of identity theft in 2005. The agency recently announced that it would commission a new study of the experiences of identity theft victims, including their knowledge of remedies available to them under the law.

Although the FTC does not publish identity theft trends broken down by businesses or industries, privacy expert Chris Hoofnagle used the FTC's complaint data to determine that large banks and telecommunications companies had a disproportionately large share of consumer complaints relating to identity theft.

Hoofnagle said that publicly-available reporting data on institutions' experience with identity theft could help consumers make better decisions about which companies to do business with.

Another research report noted that existing data breach disclosure laws seem to do little to actually prevent identity theft, in part because companies may comply with breach laws, but do little to actually improve their security procedures in the long run.


Obama Calls For Bankruptcy Law Reform

Says process should be improved for military, disaster victims

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama wants to implement reforms to bankruptcy law in order to make the process smoother for military families and...

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama wants to implement reforms to bankruptcy law in order to make the process smoother for military families and disaster victims, and to help homeowners filing for bankruptcy keep their homes.

"I'll reform our bankruptcy laws to give Americans who find themselves trapped in debt a second chance," the Illinois senator told a crowd of 2,700 in Powder Springs, Georgia.

"While Americans should pay what they owe and we should be fair to those creditors who were fair to their borrowers, we also have to do more for the struggling families who need help the most," Obama added.

"[I]nstead of standing up to the big banks and credit card companies to strengthen our safety net, Washington has been helping them shred it. For too long, our bankruptcy laws have protected big banks and credit card companies instead of struggling families."

Obama's proposed reforms included a "fast track" process for service members and their families who have declared bankruptcy, exempting them from the "means test" instituted as part of the harsh new bankruptcy laws passed in 2005.

Under current law, anyone filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy must undergo a "means test" to determine their actual income levels and expenses for qualification, regardless of circumstances. Those who did not qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy under the means test would be shifted to Chapter 13, where they would have to arrange a repayment plan of their debts with their creditors.

Obama said the "fast track" process would also eliminate "unnecessary paperwork" and the mandatory credit counseling requirement passed as part of the new laws.

The candidate also said that seniors filing for bankruptcy would get a minimum federal homestead exemption that would give them a better chance to keep their homes, and would streamline the filing process for victims of a natural disaster.

Obama's campaign platform had already included providing exemptions in bankruptcy law for victims who could prove they were filing due to heavy medical expenses.

Obama used the proposed reforms as a way to delineate differences between him and his Republican opponent, Arizona senator John McCain. Obama said McCain "would continue the economic policies that would hobble families and our entire economy." McCain voted for the bankruptcy legislation, while Obama voted against it.

"While I was opposing the credit card industry's bankruptcy bill that made it harder for working families to climb out of debt, he was supporting it and he even opposed helping families who were only in bankruptcy because of medical bills they couldn't pay," Obama said.

Congress' gift

The legislation was widely derided as a gift from Congress to the credit card and financial industries, blessing the banks and saddling consumers with tough new requirements and additional costs to filing for bankruptcy.

While the new laws initially caused a dramatic drop in filings after its becoming law in October 2005, the fallout from the housing crisis and general worsening of the economy has led to a steady uptick in filings over the last two years.

The new bankruptcy laws also proved a burden for victims of Hurricane Katrina, who ran up huge debts while trying to pay mortgages on houses that were damaged or destroyed as a result of the September 2005 storm. Congress refused to grant relief for victims of the hurricane who could not produce proof of their employment or credit histories due to the destruction. Eventually the Justice Department stepped in and waived some of the provisions temporarily.

Although Obama and McCain have been regularly sparring over the economy over the course of the campaign, Obama's speech today marked one of the few times the issue of bankruptcy took center stage.

Connecticut Senator and former presidential candidate Chris Dodd had also made reform of the bankruptcy laws a primary plank of his short-lived campaign, but the issue had been largely absent from the candidates' attention recently, supplanted by high gas prices and the foreclosure crisis.



FDA Wants Black Box Warning on Antibiotics

Tendinitis, other side effects can occur

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has requested a "black box" warning on certain antibiotics, alerting consumers to the increased risk of tendinitis an...

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has requested a "black box" warning on certain antibiotics, alerting consumers to the increased risk of tendinitis and tendon rupture but Public Citizen said the agency should have taken the step years ago.

The agency has also determined that it is necessary for manufacturers of the drugs to provide a medication guide to patients about possible side effects.

The antibiotics in question are flouroquinolone drugs, which are powerful antibacterials. Among the best known drugs in that class are Cipro, manufactured by Bayer, and Levaquin, which is produced by Ortho-McNeil.

The FDA has notified the manufacturers of these drugs that a "Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS)" is necessary to ensure that the benefits of the drug outweigh the risks. The medication guide will be considered to be an element of the REMS.

Sidney Wolfe, M.D., Director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen, noted that his organization had asked the FDA to require the black box warning nearly two years ago.

"While we are pleased the agency has moved forward on part of the petition we filed in August 2006, there is still more that the FDA must do to make doctors and, indirectly, patients aware that fluoroquinolone antibiotics, such as Cipro, Levaquin and others, can cause serious tendon ruptures and tendinitis," Wolfe said.

Wolfe said the FDA has not responded to a request that it also send a warning letter to physicians clearly describing possible adverse reactions, such as tendon pain, so that patients can be switched to alternative treatments before tendons rupture.


"We are troubled that the FDA is not doing everything within its power to prevent more people from needlessly suffering disabling tendon ruptures. Nothing could be simpler and more effective than a letter to doctors in addition to what the FDA has proposed," he said.

Since Public Citizen filed its petition, more than a hundred cases of tendon ruptures have been reported to the FDA that might have been prevented had the FDA acted with more urgency, Wolfe charged.

"From November 1997 through December 2007, there have been 407 reported cases of tendon rupture and 341 cases of tendinitis in patients using fluoroquinolone antibiotics," he said. "Because only a small fraction of cases are typically reported to the FDA, the actual number of ruptures and other tendon injuries attributable to the antibiotic is much higher."

Fluoroquinolones are drugs approved for the treatment or prevention of certain bacterial infections. Like other antibacterial drugs, fluoroquinolones do not treat viral infections such as colds or flu.

"Fluoroquinolones are effective in treating certain bacterial infections, but health care professionals and patients need to be aware of the increased risk associated with the use of these drugs of developing tendinitis and tendon rupture, particularly for certain patient populations," said Edward Cox, M.D., director, Office of Antimicrobial Products, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

"The FDA believes it is important to highlight and strengthen information regarding possible side effects of fluoroquinolones because it may affect decisions about the relative risks and benefits associated with these products."

The FDA has conducted a new analysis of the available literature and post-marketing adverse event reports. This new analysisreconfirmsthat use of fluoroquinolones is associated with an increased risk of tendon rupture.

It also demonstrates that despite the current warning of tendon rupture in the labeling for the fluoroquinolones, large numbers of tendon-related adverse events continue to be reported. The FDA considers this new analysis to be "new safety information" as defined in federal law.

The FDA also issued a bulletin to alert health care professionals to the increased risk of tendinitis and tendon rupture in patients taking these drugs and to highlight new information concerning who may be at higher risk for this side effect.

The risk of developing fluoroquinolone-associated tendinitis and tendon rupture is further increased in people older than 60, in those taking corticosteroid drugs, and in kidney, heart, and lung transplant recipients.

Patients experiencing pain, swelling, inflammation of a tendon or tendon rupture should be advised to stop taking their fluoroquinolone medication and to contact their health care professional promptly about changing their antimicrobial therapy. Patients should also avoid exercise and using the affected area at the first sign of tendon pain, swelling, or inflammation.

Manufacturers are being notified of the need to change labeling so that all of the drugs in the class carry uniform updated warning language.

Fluoroquinolone manufacturers are required to submit the safety labeling changes, including the strengthened warnings and the Medication Guide, to the FDA within 30 days, or to provide a reason why they do not believe such labeling changes are necessary.

Health care professionals should consider the potential benefits and risks for each patient, the FDA said. While most patients tolerate these medicines well, occasionally some will develop other serious adverse reactions that may include convulsions, hallucinations, depression, abnormalities in heart rhythm, or severe diarrhea.


Public Citizen sued the FDA in January for not responding to its petition in a timely manner.

"There is no excuse for the FDA not fully complying with our petition," Wolfe said. "No one in the medical community disputes that these antibiotics can cause tendon ruptures, and the FDA has not learned anything new since we filed our petition and lawsuit. It shouldnt require legal action to get the FDA to do its job."



Emergency Regs Needed for Tracking Produce, Food Groups Say

Traceability would speed response to outbreaks

Using the same system that allows a supermarket cashier to identify a piece of produce at the checkout counter could also allow investigators to trace the ...

Using the same system that allows a supermarket cashier to identify a piece of produce at the checkout counter could also allow investigators to trace the origin of unsafe food, two consumer groups say.

The pointed to the latest salmonella crisis, in which investigators' attention has recently shifted from tomatoes to jalapeño peppers after hundreds of consumers were sickened and millions of tomatoes were destroyed.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America, in a letter to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), argue that if fruits and vegetables can be tracked back up through the supply chain back to the farm, investigators would have an easier time nailing down the source of outbreaks of Salmonella, E. coli, and other dangerous pathogens.

"Effective traceability labeling must encompass the multiple steps along the path from farm to table, including farm-of-origin, packer, distributor, and retailer," the groups wrote in a letter to Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach.

"Such a system should use a standardized code for all FDA-regulated items to streamline investigations and ensure effective record-keeping by all entities along the production chain," the groups said.

Simple system

The groups say the system could be very simple: placing little stickers on fruits and vegetables at the point of origin. The industry already has standard price look-up codes, or PLUs, that retailers can use at the register. Tomatoes that bear a sticker with the number 4087 are red Roma tomatoes, for instance.

Similar standardized codes could let retailers, food safety investigators, or even curious consumers know exactly what farm a given bunch of asparagus or bag of spinach hails from, the say.

"Each outbreak causes huge losses, both for the consumers who become severely ill and for the growers, who often can't sell their products," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. ""Unfortunately, as this investigation has dragged on, the produce industry is reaping what it sowed when it sought and received special exemptions that allowed the industry to avoid the country of origin labeling requirements Congress passed in 2002."

"While new requirements are scheduled to go into effect later this year, FDA needs to go beyond country of origin labeling and give public health officials the ability to trace produce from the fork back to the farm," DeWaal said.

Wider net

Although the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control are casting a wider net to locate the food source responsible for the current Salmonella outbreak, CSPI says the public should still follow the FDA's current advice which tomatoes to eat and which to avoid.

"If FDA had put a traceability system in place two years ago following the spinach outbreak, this current investigation might be moving more quickly," said Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America.

"This latest outbreak demonstrates very clearly the need for the federal government to quickly and easily trace an implicated food to its source," he said.

The letter from CFA and CSPI also urges the agency to require growers and packers to implement written food safety plans, similar to the hazard control plans that have proved successful in reducing bacterial contamination of fresh meat and poultry. CSPI has been encouraging the FDA to require such plans since 2006.

When distributors mix and match produce from different sources, a practice called "repacking" in the industry, they should be required to maintain the identifying marks or labels that would allow FDA to determine the origin, according to the food safety groups.

Since 1990, CSPI has tracked over 700 outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to produce items, including two dozen outbreaks linked to tomatoes that have caused more than 3,000 illnesses. While 869 have been sickened in the current outbreak, foodborne illness is dramatically underreported, so the actual number of illnesses is likely many times higher.

Focus shifts

Over the weekend, federal health officials said that maybe tomatoes weren't to blame for the odd strain of salmonella that has sickened hundreds of consumers after all.

Stores pulled tomatoes off the shelves, restaurants filled dumpsters with them and shoppers shunned them, all as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said they were trying to find the tomatoes that were causing the problem.

But now, the CDC thinks that perhaps it's been something else causing trouble all along, the Wall Street Journal reports. Jalapeño peppers, maybe. Or maybe cilantro and Serrano peppers.

The current theory making the rounds is that salsa prepared in restaurants may be the common thread that ties all the incidents together. After all, salsas is made with tomatoes. And jalapeño peppers. Cilantro too, come to think of it.

The reason the CDC thinks this is that it has been interviewing people who got sick, asking them what they ate and when, and then looking for a common element that might explain the outbreak of the Saintpaul strain of salmonella, a relatively rare and rather virulent version of the disease.

Consumer advocates have been irate for years with the apparently declining state of food safety in the U.S. Now restaurants and tomato growers are angry as well. They've lost millions of dollars and thrown away mountains of what may have been perfectly good produce.

The FDA has been hedging its best for the past few weeks, saying it couldn't be certain tomatoes were the problem. The biggest clue? Although tomatoes had been taken off the table, people were still getting sick.

So now, the prevailing theory is that maybe it's something that is commonly eaten with tomatoes. Salsa, after all, is made with tomatoes and other produce like, oh, jalapeño peppers.

CDC is hedging its bets this time around, saying it is looking at "certain restaurants" but refusing to name them. It's dropping little hints, though, saying it's not looking at chain restaurants.

All of this frustrates restaurateurs no end.

"To blame salsa brings nothing to the table," a Texas Restaurant Association executive told the Journal. "There's all kinds of salsas."

Symptoms of salmonella include bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever.

It can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections particularly in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. Healthy people often experience fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, the organism can get into the bloodstream and produce more severe illnesses.


Solar Panels to Power Prius Air Conditioning

Toyota hopes new option helps it maintain its green image

Toyota is considering solar panels to power air conditioning for the Prius hybrid when the third generation of the car goes on sale next year....

Toyota is considering solar panels to power air conditioning for the Prius hybrid when the third generation of the car goes on sale next year.

The solar panels will be available on the most expensive models of the Prius and will supply a portion of the electrical power required to run the air conditioning system in the hybrid.

The symbolic gesture is part of Toyota's effort to maintain a green image as the leading producer of hybrids.

The price of the solar panel option is not yet available. Solar panels are made of silicon and are expensive.

Mazda offered a solar panel option in the early 1990s to ventilate cars while parked on hot summer days. The option was discontinued after a few years because of lack of interest.

Sales of the Toyota Prius declined in June, in part because the automaker was unable to keep up with soaring demand for the hybrid. The waiting list for a new Prius now extends several months in many areas of the country.

With the average gasoline price in the U.S. at $4.107 after 8 consecutive days of record highs, demand for the Prius is certain to continue to increase.

The Prius first went on sale in Japan in late 1997 and arrived in the U.S. in 2000. Sales of the Prius have topped 1 million units worldwide.



Shortness of Breath Shouldn't Be Ignored

The Healthy Geezer

The likelihood of suffering shortness of breath becomes greater the older we get. As we age, our air passages get smaller, chest muscles weaken, and our lu...

Q.My wife has complained of being short of breath while shopping in the mall. She says its just a sign of age, but Im concerned about her.

A. The likelihood of suffering shortness of breath or dyspnea (disp-nee-ah) becomes greater the older we get. As we age, our air passages get smaller, chest muscles weaken, and our lungs become less flexible. These changes reduce our air flow.

Dyspnea should happen rarely to healthy people. It can be brought on by exhaustive exertion, high altitude, extreme temperatures. Otherwise, shortness of breath is commonly a sign of a medical problem. So your wife should get this symptom checked by a doctor immediately.

Dyspnea is associated with the major breathing disorders that can develop in seniors. These disorders are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, obstructive sleep apnea, pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary thromboembolism and aspiration.

COPD involves difficulty in exhaling. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are COPDs. Emphysema makes the small air spaces in the lungs collapse. Bronchitis is inflammation of the airways.

Most asthma is caused by allergies to airborne particles such as dust and mold. The airways become inflamed, which causes them to spasm. Unlike COPD, asthma is reversible.

Diagnosing conditions in seniors can be challenging, because asthma in older people is often difficult to distinguish from emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In addition, many seniors have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Obstructive sleep apnea is common in older adults. People with sleep apnea stop breathing for as long as 30 seconds at a time. These interruptions can happen hundreds of times a night. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax, narrowing your airway and cutting off your breathing.

In pulmonary fibrosis, the lungs air sacs become filled with scar tissue. The damage is permanent. Pulmonary fibrosis usually begins in your 40s or 50s, but can develop at any age.

Pulmonary thromboembolism is a life-endangering blockage of a blood vessel by a blood clot that travels often from the legs to the lung and damages tissue. Pulmonary thromboembolism is most common after age 65.

When something from your mouth goes down the wrong pipe, you have aspiration. Aspiration is inhaling food particles, liquids or bacteria. If the amount of aspirated material exceeds the ability of the immune system to handle it, you can get a serious lung infection.

Symptoms of shortness of breath can be caused by a variety of abnormalities in organs other than the lungs.

When the heart fails, it loses its ability pump blood. This elevates pressure in the blood vessels around the lung. Sometimes fluid collects in the lungs and interferes with breathing, causing shortness of breath, especially when a person is lying down.

A low red-blood-cell count causes dyspnea because the red cells carry oxygen. When their number is extremely low, your body doesnt get enough oxygen.

In addition, a high thyroid level, shock, systemic infection, kidney or chronic liver problems, stroke, nerve and muscle disorders, and anxiety can bring on dyspnea.

The following are some symptoms that indicate a medical condition: shortness of breath at rest, with exercise, when lying down or upon exposure to allergens. In addition, you may have a problem if shortness of breath is accompanied by: chest pain or discomfort, arm pain, jaw pain, neck pain, swelling in the ankles and feet, fluid weight gain or unintentional weight loss with reduced appetite, unusual fatigue, sweating, yellow or green phlegm, blood in spit, fever, wheezing, persistent cough, blue lips or fingertips, fainting.

All Rights Reserved © 2008 by Fred Cicetti



Fighting Foreclosure: One Family's Story

How fighting back enabled a family to keep its home

When Sheila Smith got a look at what she thought was her dream home, she didn't hesitate to take it....


Nebraska Beef Recall Expanded to 5.3 Million Pounds

Feds blast Nebraska Beef's practices

Nebraska Beef Recall Expanded to 5.3 Million Pounds...

The ground beef recall, initiated after an outbreak of E. coli in Ohio and Michigan, has mushroomed to 5.3 million pounds of meat, as federal regulators have blasted the meat packing company responsible for the outbreak.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Services says Nebraska Beef, Ltd. uses production practices that "are insufficient to effectively control E. coli O157:H7 in their beef products that are intended for grinding.

The products subject to recall may have been produced under unsanitary conditions, the agency said.

The recall began June 25 when Kroger stores in Ohio and Michigan voluntarily recalled hamburger meat, in response to a number of illnesses. That led investigators to Nebraska Beef, which on June 30 recalled a half million pounds of ground beef, processed between May 16 and June 26.

FSIS says the expanded recall is based on its, and other agencies', ongoing epidemiological and traceback investigations. The products subject to recall were further processed into ground beef at other firms, and FSIS says they will likely not bear the establishment number "EST 19336" on products made available for direct consumer purchase.

FSIS is advising all consumers to safely prepare their raw meat products, and only consume ground beef or ground beef patties that have been cooked to a safe internal temperature of 160 F. The only way to be sure ground beef is cooked to a high enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria is to use a thermometer to measure the internal temperature.

Meanwhile, the epidemiological investigations and a case control study conducted by the Michigan and Ohio Departments of Agriculture and Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that there is an association between the ground beef products and 40 illnesses reported in Michigan and Ohio.

The illnesses were linked through the epidemiological investigation and by their PFGE pattern, or DNA fingerprint, found in PulseNet, a database maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, kidney failure.

The very young, seniors and persons with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness. Anyone with signs or symptoms of foodborne illness should see a physician promptly.


Watermelon May Have Viagra Effect

The big juicy fruit may increase libido, researchers find

A cold slice of watermelon has long been a Fourth of July holiday staple. But according to recent studies, the juicy fruit may be better suited to Valentin...

watermelon photoA cold slice of watermelon has long been a Fourth of July holiday staple. But according to recent studies, the juicy fruit may be better suited to Valentine's Day.

Scientists say that's because watermelon has ingredients that deliver Viagra-like effects to the body's blood vessels and may even increase libido.

"The more we study watermelons, the more we realize just how amazing a fruit it is in providing natural enhancers to the human body," said Dr. Bhimu Patil, director of Texas A&M's Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Center in College Station. "We've always known that watermelon is good for you, but the list of its very important healthful benefits grows longer with each study."

Beneficial ingredients in watermelon and other fruits and vegetables are known as phytonutrients, naturally occurring compounds that are bioactive, or able to react with the human body to trigger healthy reactions.

In watermelons, these include lycopene, beta carotene and the rising star among its phytonutrients -- citrulline -- whose beneficial functions are now being unraveled. Among them is the ability to relax blood vessels, much as Viagra does.

Scientists know that when watermelon is consumed, citrulline is converted to arginine through certain enzymes. Arginine is an amino acid that works wonders on the heart and circulation system and maintains a good immune system.

"The citrulline-arginine relationship helps heart health, the immune system and may prove to be very helpful for those who suffer from obesity and type 2 diabetes," said Patil. "Arginine boosts nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels, the same basic effect that Viagra has, to treat erectile dysfunction and maybe even prevent it."

While there are many psychological and physiological problems that can cause impotence, extra nitric oxide could help those who need increased blood flow, which would also help treat angina, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems.

"Watermelon may not be as organ-specific as Viagra," Patil said, "but it's a great way to relax blood vessels without any drug side-effects."

The benefits of watermelon don't end there, he said. Arginine also helps the urea cycle by removing ammonia and other toxic compounds from our bodies.

Citrulline, the precursor to arginine, is found in higher concentrations in the rind of watermelons than the flesh. Because the rind is not commonly eaten, two of Patil's fellow scientists -- Drs. Steve King and Hae Jeen Bang, are working to breed new varieties with higher concentrations in the flesh.

In addition to the research by Texas A&M, watermelon's phytonutrients are being studied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Lane, Oklahoma.

As an added bonus, these studies have shown that deep red varieties of watermelon have displaced the tomato as the lycopene king, Patil said. Almost 92 percent of watermelon is water, but the remaining 8 percent is loaded with lycopene, an anti-oxidant that protects the human heart, prostate and skin health.

"Lycopene, which is also found in red grapefruit, was historically thought to exist only in tomatoes," he said. "But now we know that it's found in higher concentrations in red watermelon varieties."

Lycopene, however, is fat-soluble, meaning that it needs certain fats in the blood for better absorption by the body.

"Previous tests have shown that lycopene is much better absorbed from tomatoes when mixed in a salad with oily vegetables like avocado or spinach," Patil said. "That would also apply to the lycopene from watermelon, but I realize mixing watermelon with spinach or avocadoes is a very hard sell."

No studies have been conducted to determine the timing of the consumption of oily vegetables to improve lycopene absorption.

"One final bit of advice for those Fourth of July watermelons you buy," Patil said. "They store much better uncut if you leave them at room temperature. Lycopene levels can be maintained even as it sits on your kitchen floor. But once you cut it, refrigerate. And enjoy."



Study: Coffee Helps Replenish Muscles After Exercise

Caffeine stimulates glycogen, rebuilding fuel for the next day's workout

More good news for coffee drinkers. A study released last month found no ill effects from coffee and now Australian researchers say coffee can be just the ...

More good news for coffee drinkers. A study released last month found no ill effects from coffee and now Australian researchers say coffee can be just the thing after strenuous exercise.

Researchers say that glycogen, the muscle's primary fuel source during exercise, is replenished more rapidly when athletes ingest both carbohydrate and caffeine after rigorous exercise. They found that athletes who ingested caffeine with carbohydrate had 66% more glycogen in their muscles four hours after finishing intense, glycogen-depleting exercise, compared to when they consumed carbohydrate alone.

"If you have 66% more fuel for the next day's training or competition, there is absolutely no question you will go farther or faster," said Dr. John A. Hawley, the senior author of the study published by the American Physiological Society.

The study involved seven well-trained endurance cyclists, who were asked to ride a cycle ergometer until exhaustion, and then consume a low-carbohydrate dinner before going home.

The athletes did not eat again until the next day for the second session, when they again cycled until exhaustion. The participants were given a drink that contained carbohydrate alone or carbohydrate plus caffeine and rested in the laboratory for four hours. Both the processes were repeated 7-10 days later.

The researchers found that one hour after exercise, muscle glycogen levels had been refilled to the same extent whether or not the athlete had the drink containing carbohydrate and caffeine or carbohydrate only.

However, four hours after exercise, the drink containing caffeine resulted in 66% higher glycogen levels compared to the carbohydrate-only drink and caffeinated drink resulted in higher levels of blood glucose and plasma insulin.

Several signalling proteins believed to play a role in glucose transport into the muscle also elevated to a greater extent after the athletes ingested the carbohydrate-plus-caffeine drink, compared to the carbohydrate-only drink.

The researchers warned that athletes who want to incorporate caffeine into their workouts should experiment during training sessions well in advance of an important competition to find out what works for them.

Besides coffee, caffeine is also present in common foods and beverages, including, tea, chocolate and cola drinks.



July 4th Can Be Dangerous for Dogs

Fireworks, cook-outs, snacks can cause problems

As families across the country prepare for the 4th of July celebration, veterinarians warn this is an extremely stressful holiday for pets....

As families across the country prepare for the 4th of July celebration, veterinarians warn this is an extremely stressful holiday for pets.

The loud bang and boom of fireworks and flashes of light can terrify many of our four-legged friends.

Even unlit fireworks pose a danger to pets, veterinarians warn. So do insect repellents, alcoholic beverages, and some foods people grill during holiday picnics.

To keep your dogs and cats safe this Fourth of July, veterinarians at The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal's Poison Control Center recommend the following:

• Never use fireworks around pets. Fireworks can cause severe burns or trauma to the face and paws of curious pets. Unused fireworks also pose a danger to pets because many contain potentially toxic substances, including potassium nitrate, arsenic, and other heavy metals;

• Do not take pets to fireworks displays. It's best to keep them in a quiet, sheltered, escape-proof part of your home. Some veterinarians recommend playing soothing background music for pets. And be sure they have plenty of water;

• Do not put "glow-in-the dark" jewelry on pets. Don't let them play with any of this jewelry, either. The luminescent substance in these products is not highly toxic, but excessive drooling and gastrointestinal irritation could result if your pets ingest the liquid. Pets can also suffer from intestinal blockage if they swallow large pieces of the plastic containers;

• Keep citronella candles, insect coils, and oil products out of pets reach. The ingestion of these products can cause stomach irritation and possibly even central nervous system depression. If inhaled, the oils can cause aspiration pneumonia in pets.

• Keep matches and lighter fluid away from pets. Some matches contain chlorates, which could potentially damage blood cells and result in difficulty breathingor even kidney disease in severe cases. Lighter fluid can also irritate the skin and--if ingested--cause gastrointestinal irritation and central nervous system depression. If lighter fluid is inhaled, aspiration pneumonia and breathing problems could develop;

• Never leave alcoholic beverages where pets can reach them. These drinks have the potential to poison pets. If ingested, an animal could become intoxicated and weak, severely depressed or lapse into a coma. Death from respiratory failure is also a possibility in severe cases;

• Do not apply sunscreen or insect repellents to your pet that are not specifically made for use on animals. Ingestion of sunscreen products can result in drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive thirst and lethargy. Insect repellent that contains DEET can lead to neurological problems;

• Keep your pets on their normal diet. Any change, even for one meal, can give your pet severe indigestion and diarrhea. This is especially true for older animals that have more delicate digestive systems and nutritional requirements. And keep your pets away from foods that can be potentially toxic to them, including onions, chocolate, coffee, avocado, grapes, raisins, salt, and yeast dough;

Poison control

If you suspect your pet has become poisoned, immediately contact your veterinarian. If you go to the vet's office, take the package the suspected poison came in for reference. It's also helpful to collect--in a sealable plastic bag--any material your pet may have vomited or chewed.

Pet owners can also contact the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435. There is a $60 consultation fee for this service.

Be prepared to give the veterinarians or toxicologists the following information:

• the species, breed, age, sex, weight and number of animals involved
• the animal's symptoms
• information regarding the exposure, including the agent (if known), the amount of the agent involved and the time elapsed since the time of exposure.

Veterinarians say it's also a good idea to invest in an emergency first-aid kit for your pet. The kit should contain:

• A fresh bottle of hydrogen peroxide, 3 percent USP (to induce vomiting);

• A turkey baster, bulb syringe or large medicine syringe (to administer the hydrogen peroxide);

• Saline eye solution;

• Artificial tear gel (to lubricate eyes after flushing);

• Mild grease-cutting dishwashing liquid (for bathing an animal after skin contamination);

• Forceps (to remove stingers);

• A muzzle (to protect against fear-or excitement-induced biting);

• A can of your pet's favorite wet food;

• A pet carrier

Pet owners should consult a veterinarian for directions on how and when to use these emergency first-aid items.

More about pets ...



Kroger Expands Ground Beef Recall

Recall extends beyond Michigan, Ohio stores

Kroger Expands Ground Beef Recall...

Kroger Co. has increased the amount of ground beef included in its voluntary recall of products linked to an E. coli outbreak in Michigan and Ohio. The company acted after the U.S. Department of Agriculture identified Nebraska Beef, in Omaha, as the source of the tainted beef.

Kroger said it is also recalling ground beef sold in Styrofoam trays with "sell by" dates up to July 5, at its Kroger, QFC, Fred Meyer, Fry's, Ralphs, Smith's, Baker's, King Soopers and City Market outlets in a number of states, beyond those in Ohio and Michigan.

Kroger stores in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Knoxville, Tenn., are not included in the recall.

The recall was expanded after USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced that Nebraska Beef, recalling approximately 531,707 pounds of ground beef components that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. The following products subject to recall include:

• Combo bins of "Coleman 75/25 Trim." The shipping containers bear the case code "38097," and were produced on June 17. These products were sent to an establishment in Colorado for further processing.

• Combo Bins of "Coleman Plate Navel Combo." The shipping containers bear the case code "38044," and were produced on June 17 and 24. These products were sent to an establishment in Texas for further processing.

• 60-pound boxes of "Nebraska Beef, Beef Chuck." The boxes bear the case code "10260," and were produced on May 19. These products were distributed to wholesalers in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania.

• 60-pound boxes of "Nebraska Beef, Beef Chuck." The boxes bear the case code "10263," and were produced on May 19. These products were distributed to wholesalers in New York.

• 60-pound boxes of "Nebraska Beef, Beef Knuckle." The boxes bear the case code "46140," and were produced on June 9. These products were distributed to wholesalers in Illinois and New York.

• 60-pound boxes of "Nebraska Beef, Beef Clod." The boxes bear the case code "13060," and were produced on June 9. These products were distributed to wholesalers in Illinois.

The shipping containers and product labels bear the establishment number "EST. 19336" inside the USDA mark of inspection, however these products were further processed into ground beef and will likely not bear the establishment number "EST. 19336" on products available for direct consumer purchase.

The additional following products subject to recall were sent to establishments in Nebraska for further processing and will likely not bear the establishment number "EST. 19336" on products then made available for direct consumer purchase include:

• Combo bins of "Coleman 85/15 Chuck." The shipping containers bear the case code "63503," and were produced on June 17 and June 24.

• Combo bins of "Coleman 85/15 Shank." The shipping containers bear the case code "26442," and were produced on June 17.

• Combo bins of "Coleman 80/20 Beef Trim." The shipping containers bear the case code "39521," and were produced on June 17.

• Combo bins of "Coleman 91/9 Trim." The shipping containers bear the case code "54674," and were produced on June 17 and June 24.

• Combo bins of "Coleman 85/15 Shank Combo." The shipping containers bear the case code "2644211," and were produced on June 24.

• Combo bins of "Nebraska Beef Front Shank." The shipping containers bear the case code "67200," and were produced on May 16, June 9, June 17 and June 24.

• Combo bins of "Nebraska Beef Hind Shank." The shipping containers bear the case code "67100," and were produced on May 16, June 17 and June 24.

• Combo bins of "Nebraska Beef Rose Meat." The shipping containers bear the case code "58860," and were produced on May 16 and June 24.

• Combo bins of "Nebraska Beef Heel Meat." The shipping containers bear the case code "66800," and were produced on June 24.

• Combo bins of "Nebraska Beef Loin Trimmings." The shipping containers bear the case code "66900," and were produced on June 24.

• Combo bins of "Nebraska Beef Chuck Trim Neck." The shipping containers bear the case code "67300," and were produced on June 24.

• Combo bins of "Nebraska Beef Chuck Trim 70%." The shipping containers bear the case code "67400," and were produced on June 24.

• Combo bins of "Nebraska Beef, Special Trim." The boxes bear the case code "56060," and were produced on May 16.

The agency said the problem was discovered through traceback investigations and ground beef samples collected from two federally inspected establishments positive for E. coli O157:H7, as well as multiple samples of Kroger brand ground beef positive for E. coli O157:H7, with matching pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) patterns.

FSIS said it is continuing its investigation into any products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 or that are associated with illnesses and will take appropriate action when necessary.

Kroger brand ground beef samples were collected by the Michigan and Ohio Departments of Agriculture and Health from patients in Michigan and Ohio. Nebraska Beef, Ltd., was identified as a common supplier to those stores in addition to two federally inspected establishments where FSIS obtained a positive ground beef sample that was matched to the outbreak strain identified in Michigan and Ohio.

E. coli

E. coli 0157:H7 is an especially toxic strain that can cause severe illness, and on occasion, even death. Symptoms can include stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Most people get better within 15 days, but some cases can lead to kidney failure.

The CDC estimates that there could be about 70,000 infections with E. coli O157:H7 each year in the U.S., but no one knows for use because many of those who get sick don't see a doctor.

The last major E. coli-related beef recall came last October, when Cargill, one of the largest U.S. food producers, recalled 840,000 pounds of ground beef. The previous month Topps Meat Company recalled 22 million pounds of frozen beef patties, forcing the company into bankruptcy.


AT&T To Offer Contract-Free iPhone

The phone will work only on the AT&T network, though

AT&T says the new iPhones, which will normally cost $199 and $299 with a two-year contract, are priced higher without a contract because that's the actual ...


It sounds almost too good to be true: Get a new iPhone from AT&T without having to sign a contract.

Well, there is one very hefty string attached. In order to get the service without the contract, you have to spend an extra $400 for the iPhone.

In announcing its new policy, AT&T said the iPhones without a contract will cost $599 or $699. It didn't say when it would start its new policy, only saying it would happen "in the future," which covers a lot of territory.

AT&T says the new iPhones, which will normally cost $199 and $299 with a two-year contract, are priced higher without a contract because that's the actual cost of the phone. AT&T says it subsidized part of the cost for contract customers, getting the money back over the life of the contract.

AT&T says it's offering the no-contract option in response to customer demand. Regulators and members of Congress have also prodded cell phone companies to be more accommodating to subscribers when it comes to early termination fees.

Even though you can get an iPhone without signing an AT&T contract, you will still have to use AT&T service. The iPhone remains locked, meaning it can't be used on other networks.

Since the early termination fee for ending a contract is normally $175, it isn't immediately clear if many consumers will pay an extra $400 just to avoid a contract.


More Rated Best Web Site for New-Vehicle Shopping

Ford, Mazda also rank well in J.D. Power study

With more and more people using the Internet to shop for a new car, Kia.comhas pulled into the lead....

With more and more people using the Internet to shop for a new car, has pulled into the lead.

The site ranks highest among automotive manufacturer Web sites for usefulness in the search for a new vehicle, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2008 Manufacturer Web Site Evaluation Study -- Wave 2.

The semi-annual study measures the usefulness of automotive manufacturer Web sites during the new-vehicle shopping process. New-vehicle shoppers evaluate Web sites in four key areas: appearance, speed, navigation and information/content.

Kia ranks highest with an index score of 872 on a 1,000-point scale -- marking a nine-point increase from the last wave of the study, which was released in January.

Closely following Kia in the rankings are Ford (871) and Mazda (870), with Ford performing particularly well in the appearance factor. Also performing significantly above the industry average are Honda, Jeep, Lincoln, Porsche, BMW, Cadillac and Subaru.

"Over the years, Kia has successfully satisfied shoppers with its straightforward, intuitive Web site by providing pages that load quickly and that are easy to navigate," said Arianne Walker, director of marketing/media research at J.D. Power and Associates.

"By focusing on these key aspects of the Web site experience, Kia has continually met the expectations of its customers. In fact, this marks the fourth time in 10 reporting waves that Kia has ranked highest."

On average, most manufacturer Web sites undergo a major redesign every two to three years. While redesigns can eventually lead to increased satisfaction, small updates to improve critical areas on a manufacturer Web site -- such as information and content and ease of navigation -- can also positively impact the customer experience in a more cost-effective manner.

In particular, Ford and Porsche have made frequent tweaks and updates to their sites, all leading to a steady increase in satisfaction scores during the past four years, without a major redesign.

"Ford and Porsche provide a great example of how targeted, consistent improvements to a site can really pay off," said Walker.

"With limited resources at many of the manufacturers and their advertising agencies, choosing to stick with a well-thought-out master design while consistently improving site content, framework and behind-the-scenes programming can prove not only more cost effective, but just as successful as a major site redesign in meeting the needs of shoppers."

The study also finds the following key patterns:

• Satisfaction with a manufacturer Web site tends to increase shopper visits to the dealership, as 75 percent of shoppers who give high ratings on a site are more likely to go to a dealership to test drive a vehicle.

• Overall satisfaction with manufacturer Web sites has increased to 849 -- eight points more than the previous wave of the study. In particular, satisfaction with loading speed has increased as manufacturer Web sites have employed a variety of techniques -- such as better navigation schemes, more aggressive caching, better page load order and pre-loading of content -- to offer rich content that loads quickly.



Feds Delay New Roof-Crush Rule til October

Safety agency bows to protests from consumer leaders, safety advocates, Congress

Feds Delay New Roof-Crush Rule til October...

With hours to spare before the July 1 deadline to improve the nation's vehicle roof crush standard, the secretary of the Department of Transportation informed Congress last night that the new standard is being delayed until October 1.

In a letter to the heads of the Congressional committees that have jurisdiction over the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Secretary Mary Peters wrote: Because of the number of new comments we received and the additional analyses that are required, additional time is now needed to complete the final rule. We will issue a final rule by October, 2008.

Peters's letter follows months of protests by consumer advocates and some U.S. senators who felt that after 35 years without any substantial change, the new roof crush standard the agency planned to propose would not do enough to save consumers' lives.

Although rollovers comprise less than five percent of all crashes, 25 percent of all vehicle fatalities are from rollovers approximately 10,000 every year, according to the campaign website for Ralph Nader, the longtime consumer advocate who is running for president as an independent in 2008 and who has loudly protested NHTSA's new proposal.

American auto companies want a weak standard that will kill more Americans and produce more quadriplegics and paraplegics, Nader said at a protest outside the Department of Transportation in May.

But probably one of the greatest catalysts for the delay is a bi-partisan letterletter written to Peters last month by Senators Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Danielle Inouye (D-Hawaii).

We are writing to express our concerns with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations (NHTSAs) proposed rule on vehicle roof strength, the senators wrote. We also write to encourage you to extend the current deadline for issuance of the final rule and set a new date for that purpose. ... We believe that an extension is necessary to best protect the American public.

The current rule requires that a vehicle's roof withstand 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle, slowly applied to one side of the roof by a metal plate called a static crusher, without caving into the cabin more than five inches.

The new rule as it was written would have upgraded that standard to a 2.5 times strength-to-weight ratio, applied to both sides of a vehicle's roof.

But the agency never gave any clear explanation as to how it came to this new standard, according to the senators' letter.

Given the lack of data and clear explanation from the NHTSA supporting the need for this strength-to-weight ratio (SWR) standard, it is difficult to think that the selection of this number was anything more than arbitrary, the senators wrote. In addition to appearing to be an arbitrary choice, the minimal impact that such a test is estimated to have on saving lives is also of great concern to us. The NHTSAs own estimates are that a 2.5 SWR standard would only save between 13 to 44 lives a year. The NHTSA does not conduct similar estimates or analysis for other SWRs, such as 2.0, 3.0, 3.5, or 4.0.

Consumer advocates and the senators also believe the proposal should utilize dynamic tests, which they say more accurately represents the violent motion of a rollover. Industry advocates argue dynamic tests are unusable because the motions are not repeatable. Many luxury foreign manufacturers such as Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and BMW put some of their vehicles through dynamic tests.

The most controversial aspect of NHTSA's proposed rulemaking was a clause that would have preempted many consumers from filing lawsuits against automakers should they end up injured in a rollover.

If this provision (preemption) is included in any final rule, this would constitute an unprecedented incursion upon the Constitutional rights of consumers, who will remain uncompensated for the needless deaths and injuries that occur due to the foreseeable negligence of manufacturers, the Senators wrote in their letter.

At a June 4 hearing, Senators warned James Ports, NHTSA's Deputy Administrator, that if the agency can't write an adequate proposal that will save lives, Congress will step in and do it.


'Natural' On The Label Can Be Misleading

Turns out, it doesn't really mean very much

The government has some very precise rules about what food can be labeled "organic." But there are few real rules to govern the use of "natural," and the r...

The government has some very precise rules about what food can be labeled "organic." But there are few real rules to govern the use of "natural," and the result, food producers warn, can lead to consumer confusion.

Scientific experts tried to clarify the use of the term "natural" on products during the Institute of Food Technologists "Best of Food Thinking" Annual Meeting and Food Expo over the weekend in New Orleans.

Despite the term's widespread use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration discourages the food industry from using "natural" on labels because of its ambiguity. As well, "natural" implies that a food product is superior, fresher, safer or more healthful than its counterparts, said the FDA's Ritu Nalubola.

However, neither FDA nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has precise rules for "natural." And the food-and-beverage product industry, represented by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, has no consensus.

In 1991, FDA tried to define the term but by 1993 had given up. In the end, it decided to not restrict the use of "natural" on products.

"It is a very complex term," Nalubola said.

Today FDA is continuing that practice, originated in 1988. For a product to be called natural, it must be free of artificial or synthetic ingredients or additives, including color, flavor or any ingredient "not normally expected." For example, lemonade flavored with beet juice cannot be called natural. In addition, any food enhanced with caramel, paprika or color (consider bright orange cheese) cannot be called natural.

FDA will continue to judge products "on a case-by-case basis," said Nalubola.

USDA, which regulates meat, poultry and egg products, is working on a more specific policy, said Daniel Engeljohn, Ph.D., of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Though not a food safety issue, he said that USDA's policy will be in place by the end of 2008 and address such issues as tenderizing, processing and flavor-enhancing. Until then, he said, products and their claims will be weighed "case by case."

In the grocery industry, disagreement reigns on the term's definition, according to Regina Hildwine, senior director of Food Labeling and Standards for the trade organization, Grocery Manufacturing Association.

Because such regulatory agencies as FDA and USDA haven't clarified the term, products are subject to the agencies' "best current thinking of what constitutes truthful labeling," Hildwine said.

States have authority to set rules on some labeling matters, and a state could drive a future definition, she said.

At this point, she warns, "We don't go too far or we might end up with something not everyone wants."



Kmart Expands Generic Rx Discounts to 500 Drugs

Schnucks adds 300 drugs to its St. Louis-area discount program

Kmart says it is expanding its generic prescription drug program to include more than 500 common medications from about 300 and cutting prices for some pro...

Kmart says it is expanding its generic prescription drug program to include more than 500 common medications from about 300 and cutting prices for some products. In the St. Louis area, Schnucks supermarkets added more than 300 generics to its discount program.

Kmart said it is offering more than 100 generic antibiotics and cold treatments for $5 a prescription and has lowered the cost of a three-month supply for many drugs to $10 from $15 at its 1,100 pharmacies nationwide.

There are still some generic drugs -- about 130 -- that cost $15 for the 90-day supply, a spokeswoman said.

Kmart said it is also providing about 50 generic drugs for women -- including oral contraceptives, prenatal and osteoporosis medications -- at prices of up to $25 for a 90-day supply.

Schnucks, meanwhile, said it had added more than 300 commonly prescribed generic drugs to its prescription savings program via several new offers, including $4 generics for up to a 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply on medications to treat a variety of ailments including high blood pressure, arthritis, asthma, cholesterol, diabetes and allergies, according to published reports.

"Back in October, Schnucks became the first chain to offer customers a 21-day supply of any one of more than 50 generic oral antibiotics at no charge," said Schnucks vice president of pharmacy Michael Juergensmeyer. "We've been able to significantly strengthen the program by bringing many more medications in through our own distribution center. This has enabled us to cut supply chain costs and pass those savings on to our customers."

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.

Safeway last month began offering $4 prescriptions on hundreds of generic drugs at stores in the eastern United States and parts of the Midwest. 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 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 ...