Current Events in July 2008

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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.

    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:

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

    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 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.

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

    Consumer Advocates Release Top 10 Consumer Gripes

    Auto sale misrepresentations top the list

    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.

    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...

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      Baby Trend Child Safety Seat Recall

      NHTSA warns seats could fail in a crash

      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.

      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...

      Two Canadians Plead Guilty in Telemarketing Scheme

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

      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 ...

      Two Canadians Plead Guilty in Telemarketing Scheme...

      House Committee to Consider Landmark Credit Card Legislation

      Bill would curb predatory interest rate hikes and lending practices

      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.

      House Committee to Consider Landmark Credit Card Legislation...

      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 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.

      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...

      Bush Signs Housing Bailout Into Law

      Measure criticized for not helping enough homeowners

      President Bush today signed into a law a bill to prevent mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from collapsing, while instituting new protections to prevent many homeowners from going into foreclosure.

      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 default. By doing so, U.S. taxpayers will assume substantially more risk, promising to bail out the two firms if they begin to teeter toward bankruptcy.

      "We look forward to put in place new authorities to improve confidence and stability in markets, and to provide better oversight for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "The Federal Housing Administration will begin to implement new policies intended to keep more deserving American families in their homes."

      In order to pass the bill, lawmakers had to officially raise the U.S. debt ceiling, increasing it to $10.6 trillion. The measure enjoyed bi-partisan support, sailing toward passage by a 72-13 vote.

      It is the latest in a serious of extraordinary steps the government has taken this year to try and head off a major financial collapse. It follows a $29 billion loan by the Federal Reserve to JP Morgan Chase & Company to by the investment bank Bear Stearns, which was days away from default.

      The bill's passage also comes on the heels of record price drops for both new and existing homes recorded in the past week.

      "Not enough"

      Under the new legislation, the Federal Housing Administration will be granted authority to insure up to $300 billion in refinanced mortgages, in hopes of reducing the rising number of home foreclosures. Critics of the plan have called it enormously risky for taxpayers. But Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-CT) said Congress had to act quickly.

      "With one of every eight homes projected to enter foreclosure over the next five years, and the economy shedding jobs as the costs of energy, health care and food skyrocket, the American dream has become a nightmare for countless families across the country," Dodd said. "This legislation will address our broader economic problems by helping to reform our housing sector and provide reassurances to our financial markets."

      Others have criticized the legislation for not reaching far enough. The initiatives designed to help homeowners keep their homes are purely voluntary on the part of lenders, and not all lenders may choose to institute them. Even if they do, only 400,000 to 500,000 homeowners in trouble may qualify.

      "The housing bill is a good step but even so will, at best, help about 500,000 families stay in their homes. Thats not enough," said Mike Calhoun, president of the Center For Responsible Lending. "The economy will continue to take a beating if we don't do more to stop 6.5 million foreclosures Wall Street analysts expect over the next few years."

      Key provisions

      The legislation contains a number of provisions that Dodd says will help homeowners and communities. The legislation also includes several tax measures authored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Key provisions include:

      The HOPE for Homeowners Act: Creates an initiative within the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to prevent foreclosures for hundreds of thousands of families at no estimated cost to American taxpayers.

      Assistance for Communities Devastated by Foreclosures: To ensure that communities can mitigate the harmful effects of foreclosures, $3.92 billion in supplemental Community Development Block Grant Funds will be provided to communities hardest hit by foreclosures and delinquencies.

      Foreclosure Counseling for Families in Need: To help families avoid foreclosure, the bill provides $180 million in additional funding for housing counseling and legal services for distressed borrowers.

      GSE Reform: Creates a world class regulator for the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) so that these vital institutions can safely and soundly carry out their important mission of providing our nation's families with affordable housing.

      Treasury Emergency Authority: To shore up confidence of the financial markets in Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks, the legislation contains several temporary provisions requested by the Treasury Secretary including authority for Treasury to purchase common stock and debt securities issued by the GSEs.

      Preserving the American Dream for Our Nation's Veterans: This bill contains several provisions to help returning soldiers avoid foreclosure, including lengthening the time a lender must wait before starting foreclosure from three months to nine months after a soldier returns from service.

      FHA Modernization: Reforms to modernize, streamline and expand the reach of the FHA, allowing families in all areas of the country to access secure and affordable mortgages through FHA.

      Affordable Housing Fund: A new, permanent fund that will help create more affordable housing for Americans in communities across the country.

      Enhancing Mortgage Disclosure: To ensure that consumers know the exact amounts of their mortgage payments, including the maximum possible payment under the terms of the loan and changes in payments associated with adjustable rate mortgages, lenders will be required to provide borrowers with more timely and meaningful mortgage disclosures on all home purchase loans, loans that refinance a home, and loans that provide a home equity line of credit.

      Standard Property Tax Deduction: To make tax relief available to all American homeowners, the bill will provide a standard deduction -- $500 for single filers and $1,000 for joint filers -- for the 28.3 million non-itemizers who pay property taxes. Present law allows only those who itemize deductions on their federal tax returns to deduct state and local property taxes from their income.

      Mortgage Revenue Bonds: To provide for refinancing of subprime loans, mortgages for first-time homebuyers and multifamily rental housing, $11 billion of Federal tax-exempt private activity bond authority is included in this bill.

      Credit for First-Time Homebuyers: The bill includes a refundable tax credit that is equivalent to an interest-free loan equal to 10 percent of the purchase of the home (up to $8,000) by first-time homebuyers to help reduce the existing stock of unoccupied housing.

      Increase in low-income housing tax credit: The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program helps finance the development of rental housing for low-income families. Under current law, there is a state-by-state limit on the annual amount of federal low-income housing tax credits that may be allocated by each state. The bill would increase these limits.

      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

      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 ...

      Fake Check Scams Rise in Falling Economy...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      Delta Passengers Stranded 7 Hours on Plane

      Bad weather left plane stuck on tarmac until cancellation of flight

      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.

      Delta Passengers Stranded 7 Hours on Plane...

      Young Adults Seen As Prime Identity Theft Targets

      Group offers basic protection tips to keep students' data safe

      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."

      Young Adults Seen As Prime Identity Theft Targets...

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

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

      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.

      Survey: Banks Change Credit Card Terms...

      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 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.

      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...

      30,000 Consumers Weigh in on Abusive Credit Card Practices

      Feds 'get the message,' consumer advocates say

      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.

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

      Cancer Center Workers Warned about Cell Phone Risks

      Cell phone use should be limited, University of Pittsburgh cautions

      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.

      Cancer Center Workers Warned about Cell Phone Risks...