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    30,000 Consumers Weigh in on Abusive Credit Card Practices

    Feds 'get the message,' consumer advocates say

    By Joseph S. Enoch
    ConsumerAffairs.com

    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 regs.comments@federalreserve.gov 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...
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    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.

    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.

    A new study finds women fear retirement more than men — and another study says there's a good reason for that fear....
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    White Bread's Not Whole Grain, Sara Lee Agrees

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

    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."



    White Bread's Not Whole Grain, Sara Lee Agrees...
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      Colleges, Not Students, Often Benefit From Financial Aid

      Financial planner offers tips and commisseration


      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 ConsumerAffairs.com. "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.

      "Theft"

      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.

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

      Trucks:

      • 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

      Cars:

      • 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).

      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...
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      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.

      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."



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

      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...
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      Americans Becoming Even More Obese, CDC Says

      Obesity increased 2% from 2005-2007, study finds


      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.



      Americans Becoming Even More Obese, CDC Says...
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      Is It Time to Take In Boarders?

      Renting your house or taking in boarders beats foreclosure

      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.

      Is It Time to Take In Boarders?...
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      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..

      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 www.powersports.honda.com.

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

      Honda Recalls TRX420 Rancher ATVs...
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      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 Financials business 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.

      FBI

      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.

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

      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...
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      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.

      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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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 ConsumerAffairs.com.

      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.

      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....
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      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.

      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.

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