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A Katrina refugee pays a return visit08/29/2008ConsumerAffairs
After The Storms of 2005, we found rooms in Lafayette, "The Hub City" of Acadiana, but kept Squalor Heights, our Faubourg Marigny garret on the edge of the...
Comcast to Cap Internet Usage for Customers
Residential users top out at 250 gigabytes per month under new policy08/29/2008ConsumerAffairs
Comcast to Cap Internet Usage for Customers...
The era of unlimited Internet usage for a flat monthly price is one step closer to its end, as cable giant Comcast officially announced today that residential subscribers would top out at 250 gigabytes (GB) per month of data bandwith availability, beginning October 1.
The new policy, announced on Comcast's network management site, codifies the company's practice of canceling or limiting customers' access once they go over a specific amount of usage. Comcast had previously refused to disclose its caps for fear of driving customers to competitors who still offered flat-rate prices for Internet access.
"This is the same system we have in place today," Comcast said in the announcement. "The only difference is that we will now provide a limit by which a customer may be contacted. As part of our pre-existing policy, we will continue to contact the top users of our high-speed Internet service and ask them to curb their usage."
According to the company, in order to exceed a cap of 250 GB, a user would have to:
• Send 50 million emails (at 0.05 KB/email)
• Download 62,500 songs (at 4 MB/song)
• Download 125 standard-definition movies (at 2 GB/movie)
• Upload 25,000 hi-resolution digital photos (at 10 MB/photo)
Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas emphasized that the policy change would be "not relevant to 99 percent of our customers...only the less than 1 percent who use an extreme amount of bandwith."
"We are calling people and letting them know when they are going over the limit, and most people voluntarily moderate their usage on the first call," Douglas said. Those who continued to exceed the cap after being warned would face suspension of their account for one year, he said, "but that hasn't really been a factor...most people change their habits after the first warning. They really just wanted to know the number [of the cap]."
Douglas also emphasized that the network policy change would be advertised on several Comcast sites, including the Comcast.net customer portal, and that mailed announcements would be sent to customers along with their next bill.
Karl Bode, editor of BroadbandReports.com, was among the first to report Comcast's plans to officially cap users' bandwith. Bode told ConsumerAffairs.com that the 250 GB cap was "more than generous for the majority of users."
"For going on half a decade Comcast customers have complained that the company employed a glass ceiling limit while marketing their service as 'unlimited.'," Bode said. "When customers crossed this limit they were told they could see their connection terminated if they didn't scale back usage, but were never told how much consumption was too much. This new approach looks to simply clarify an existing but murky monthly consumption limit, and in that sense is actually good for consumers."
Several Internet providers, such as Time Warner and Frontier Cable, have been testing or implementing "metered" broadband plans, where users would pay excess usage charges if they went over a specific caps--many of which are considerably lower than Comcast's 250 GB.
Critics of metered broadband say that the plans offer too little bandwith for too high a price. Customers will shy away from using high-speed Internet's full potential, such as uploading or streaming videos, if they are afraid of going over their limits in doing so, and that companies who are supporting metered plans do so to protect their own video channels and hamstring competitors such as YouTube.
Comcast's plan was originally rumored to include charges for exceeding the bandwith cap, but the official announcement did not do so. The company had previously announced that it would employ new network management systems to slow down Internet speeds for the heaviest users in order to prevent congestion.
"While I think caps are fair if reasonable (the 5GB or even 40GB limits being tested by Time Warner Cable are absurd), I've generally been strongly opposed to the overage fee system and metered billing, given the potential for abuse by carriers looking to protect TV revenues," Bode said. "I think there's strong pressure from the investment community to begin metered billing."
Comcast's policy changes come in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)'s ruling penalizing the company for its blocking access to the BitTorrent file-sharing service. Under the terms of the FCC's order, Comcast must provide detailed explanations of how it will manage its networks without denying customers access to services.
Media watchdog group Free Press, which had pushed the FCC to rule against Comcast, said that while the cap was a better solution than blocking customers' access, "[i]t remains unclear how the cap announced today helps solve Comcast's supposed congestion problems -- or how the cap will work with other usage limits Comcast has been considering."
"If the United States had genuine broadband competition, Internet providers would not be able to profit from artificial scarcity -- they would invest in their networks to keep pace with consumer demand," said Free Press' research director S. Derek Turner. "Unfortunately, Americans will continue to face the consequences of this lack of competition until policymakers get serious about policies that deliver the world-class networks consumers deserve."
Retail Chains Agree to Stop Selling Recalled Bassinets
Death of two infants blamed on Simplicity models08/29/2008ConsumerAffairs
Retail Chains Agree to Stop Selling Recalled Bassinets...
Six nationwide retailers say they will stop selling Simplicity bassinets implicated in the deaths of two infants. Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us, Kmart, Big Lots, Target and J.C. Penney said they will provide a refund or store credit to consumers who bought the bassinets.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a warning urging parents and caregivers to stop using the bassinets. That warning came eight hours after an exclusive ConsumerAffairs.com report about the dangers of the Simplicity bassinets, sold largely at Wal-Mart.
Although the agency acted swiftly after our story, critics say the agency has known about the dangers of these bassinets for months and could have prevented the recent death of six-month-old Kennedy Brotherton.
Below is a listing of Simplicity 3-in-1 and 4-in-1 Convertible "Close-Sleeper" model bassinets that are included in the recall. The model number can be found on a label on the underside of the bassinet.
RECALLED Model Numbers
An apparently faulty frame on the Winnie the Pooh 4-in-1 Simplicity Bassinet crushed and suffocated two babies according to family members and a police report. The Simplicity 3-in-1 and 4-in-1 convertible bassinets had a removable flap of cloth that separated a side railing and the bed. Babies could slip through the space between the mattress and the railing.
The most recent death occurred last week on Thursday when Kennedy Brotherton slipped between the mattress and the side railing after the mattress came loose from the frame, her aunt, Melissa Brotherton, told ConsumerAffairs.com in a phone interview.
Kennedy's body slipped through a space between the mattress and the railing until she dangled by her head on the lower bar of the railing and choked, according to Capt. Ron Copeland of the Shawnee Police Department in Kansas.
"She was laughing and smiling when her parents put her to bed," Brotherton said. "They checked on her three times within an hour period. They were in the living room less than 10 feet away. She never cried."
The first death occurred last fall when Katelynn Simon suffered a similar fate in the same bassinet. "The rail design allowed her to slip her legs through and as she kept inching out she slipped lower," Simon's grandmother, Lori Crammond, wrote in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com. "Finally, her lungs were unable to expand."
The product appears to be sold exclusively at Wal-Mart and on Wal-Mart's Web site. As of yesterday, ConsumerAffairs.com found the product at two Washington, D.C.-area Wal-Marts we visited. The bassinet comes in two different Winnie the Pooh fabrics with the product identifications 3123DOH8 and 3112DOH7 and sells for between $100 and $110.
Pictures of bassinets on sale at Wal-Mart.
Crammond wrote that she warned Wal-Mart of the dangerous bassinet last fall. "Wal-Mart is very aware of what happened but continues to sell it with a five star rating," she wrote.
Wal-Mart has not returned two requests for comment made yesterday morning and this morning. Wal-Mart spokesperson Tara Raddohl said in an email sent to ConsumerAffairs.com Tuesday that they are "investigating."
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is simply issuing a warning rather than a recall because SFCA, the company that owns the defunct Simplicity, Inc. and the products it manufactured, refused to cooperate.
"SFCA maintains that it is not responsible for products previously manufactured by Simplicity Inc.," according to a CPSC press release. Simplicity's lawyer, Rick Locker, has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
A phone call to the company's headquarters was met with a prerecorded message stating "Simplicity, Inc. is no longer in business and we no longer service Simplicity, Inc. products."
Using authority recently granted to the agency under a new law, the two standing commissioners were able to vote to release the warning. Further action may be taken against SFCA, Inc. to force it to recall the products.
An attorney for the Simons notified the CPSC a few days after Katelynn's death about the dangers of the Simplicity bassinet, but never heard back from the agency, he told the Chicago Tribune.
Agency spokeswoman Julie Vallese told the paper they are still investigating the death of Simon because there are still questions surrounding the circumstances of that baby's death."
But McDonald County, Mo. coroner B.J. Goodwin III told the Tribune there was no doubt the death was an accident. "It was clear-cut," he said. "We all felt it was the crib that caused the passing."
Both the Brotherton and Simon families said their goal is to warn as many consumers as possible."Our main concern is to get the product recalled," Brotherton said.
More than a million Simplicity cribs were recalled for the same reason from May 2005 to September 2007 in four separate recalls, after four children died and countless others were injured when they were trapped between the mattress and the railing.
The product also is under the Baby Disney product line since the bassinet is adorned in Disney's Winnie the Pooh characters. Disney responded last night but has not returned a subsequent phone call.
The buildup of snow or ice on the windshield or wipers could restrict the movement of the wiper arm.08/28/2008ConsumerAffairs
General Motors is recalling 88,809 of the 2008 Buick Enclaves, 2007 to 2008 GMC Acadias and Saturn Outlooks to repair the windshield wipers....
Feds Step Up Rusting Hyundai Investigation
Recall possible as Sonata and Santa Fe scrutinized08/28/2008ConsumerAffairs
Feds Step Up Rusting Hyundai Investigation...
Some models of the Hyundai Sonata can rust so severely along the sub-frame that the front wheels collapse or separate from the vehicle, according to reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
NHTSA has elevated an initial evaluation of rusting in the Korean made economy car to an "engineering analysis." The analysis could eventually lead to the recall of 197,906 Sonatas to repair the rusting frames.
The Hyundai Sonatas that are the focus of federal safety attention are the 1999 Sonata GLS, the 1999 Caribbean Sonata and the 1999 to 2004 Sonata.
The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) at NHTSA has received 84 complaints from consumers about sub-frame rust in the Sonata. The agency reported that "approximately on-third of the complaints to ODI allege that the sub-frame corrosion resulted in a loss of control and or a vehicle disablement due to wheel collapse or separation."
There are two reports claiming Sonatas crashed because of the rusting sub-frame.
In the first report, the lower front control arm of the Sonata broke away from the frame of the car while the Korean car was traveling at 55 mph. The driver, according to the report, lost control of the vehicle and the Sonata came to rest in the yard of a house.
A second consumer claimed in a report to NHTSA, "that while driving around a slight curve at 65 mph on a freeway, the vehicle sub-frame fractured and the driver lost control of the vehicle and went off the road."
No injuries were reported to the federal safety agency in either of the crashes.
When NHTSA opened the initial inquiry of excessive rust on the Sonata sub-frame in April, the agency reported that some consumers had complained of "fist-sized holes in the frame" that could cause the suspension control arm to detach from the vehicle.
The failure could result in "wheel collapse or separation, half shaft detachment resulting in sudden vehicle disablement and or steering anomalies," NHTSA reported on its Web site. The federal agency also received reports of corrosion in the engine cradle and front cross-member of the Hyundai Sonata.
Most of the complaints arose in states where large amounts of salt are used on roads during snowy months, according to NHTSA.
The "salt belt" states according to NHTSA are Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.
NHTSA said that "there appears to be an increasing trend in failures, with 10 reported so far in 2008, 19 in 2007, 11 in 2006 and 1 in 2005."
One consumer told NHTSA that his Sonata was so badly rusted the vehicle was declared a total loss by the insurance company after the lower control arm separated from the vehicle "causing the half-shaft to detach from the transmission."
A Maryland Sonata owner recently reported to ConsumerAffairs.Com that a Hyundai service technician noticed a softball-sized hole in the front right hand side of the sub-frame of their 2002 Hyundai Sonata GLS.
"I am afraid to drive this car," the Hyundai owner said.
Another consumer reported that the sub-frame on his Sonata is so badly rusted that the sub-frame needs to be replaced and the dealer will provide no assistance.
In Fairfax, Virginia, a consumer told us that his 2000 Sonata fell apart with the "sudden collapse of the right front suspension system," while he was in a parking lot.
NHTSA is also investigating excessive rust and corrosion in the Hyundai Santa Fe. Federal safety investigators reported in July that they were examining consumer complaints of suspension failure, some at high rates of speed, in the 2001 model year Hyundai Santa Fe. The investigators want to know if the Santa Fe suspension rusts to the point of breaking.
Three people have reported to NHTSA that they lost control of their Santa Fe while traveling at speeds of 55 mph or more.
The safety agency investigation of the Santa Fe is still in the "preliminary evaluation" stage.
At least one report to ConsumerAffairs.Com demonstrates the urgent need for the safety evaluation. A Michigan woman reported that her Santa Fe is "rusted so bad underneath that the frame dropped down and caused a tire to blow."
College Students Prefer Simple Cell Phones
Practicality reigns over high tech on campuses08/28/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
College Students Prefer Simple Cell Phones...
Apple and other manufacturers of multi-faceted cell phones (aka "smartphones") perhaps should not count on tech-savvy young people as their principal market. When it comes to cell phone usage at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), a study shows practicality is in and high tech is out.
A marketing research class at the UNH Whittemore School of Business and Economics conducted a survey of 707 undergraduate students. When asked about the top three uses for their cell phone, 91 percent said talking, 87 percent said text messaging and 80 percent said alarm clock.
"UNH students want pragmatic and practical feature on their cell phones," said Chuck Martin, adjunct professor of marketing at UNH who taught the marketing research class. "Students use their cell phones to make phone calls, text message, and as an alarm clock. Features such as music, global positioning satellite (GPS), email, and video messaging were among the lowest used features on current cell phones, and the research indicates that this isn't changing anytime soon."
Regarding cell phones of the future, 68 percent of students said the top feature they would like is longer battery life, while 58 percent said they want it to be waterproof. The features that the fewest number of students want are video surveillance, video projection and video editing.
However, price is a major stumbling block for students. While the majority of students want a longer-lasting battery life, they are not willing to pay a high price. Eighty-six percent of students said that price is the top reason for not purchasing cell phones in the future.
Other interesting results include:
• First-year students are more likely to use their phone as a camera while seniors are more likely to use it as a calculator: 63 percent of first-year students use the camera feature regularly, compared with 51 percent of seniors. In contrast, 61 percent of seniors use the calculator feature regularly, compared with 51 percent of first-year students.
• Students at the College of Engineering and Physical Science are significantly less interested in voice-to-text capabilities compared with their peers in other schools. Only 8 percent of CEPS students are interested in the feature, compared with an average 20 percent of respondents from other schools.
• Business school students were the most interested in the future feature of voice to text. They were the only school to have more than 50 percent of respondents interested in the feature.
Even less volatile investments have a "sell by" date08/27/2008ConsumerAffairs
All you can do is keep your eye on the prize and if it starts to fall too far and too fast, follow either Smartstops or Morningstar's guidance and sell bef...
Simplicity products still at stores and for sale online08/27/2008ConsumerAffairs
Wal-Mart Selling Bassinets Blamed for Killing Two Babies...
New College Students Face Money Management Challenges
Counselor urges discipline, budgeting, and using cash08/27/2008ConsumerAffairs
New College Students Face Money Management Challenges...
Whether or not economics 101 is on their course schedule, most college freshmen get a quick lesson in finance, and not all of them get a passing grade. And some learn the hard way about the dangers of credit cards.
Doug Borkowski, director of Iowa State University's Financial Counseling Clinic, says students should do a little prudent planning before using a credit card. In his face-to-face meetings with ISU students regarding their financial matters, he often tells them to start the planning process by making a budget and tracking spending for at least a month.
"They need to know what they are spending their money on," he said. "This is the start of a budget. Now they have some more accurate numbers to work with."
He says setting goals related to finances is also very important.
"It certainly can help to show how saving to make a purchase -- and not just spending impulsively -- can help in the long run," he said.
Borkowski says students have to also understand wants versus needs.
"If you are considering buying something, ask yourself, 'Do I need it or is it just a want?' Do not buy it right at that moment," he said. "Leave the store and think about it and see if you decide to come back and purchase the item at a later date."
Borkowski advises students to use a debit card first, when it is not a line of credit, to see how they can manage their spending habits. "If you overspend with a debit card and get an overdraft, you are not ready for a credit card," he said.
Since most people find it harder to actually hand over the money rather than just swipe a credit card, he recommends that students try cash first instead of plastic.
"I have found that if a young person understands that the same amount of money they pay every month for a minimum payment on their credit card could potentially make them a millionaire by the time they reach 65, they might think twice about using that credit card," he said.
And once parents send their kids off to school, they're not excused from the money management education discussion.
"Parents need to take the time to talk to their children," Borkowski said. "If parents are spenders, they should tell their children 'You do not want to live paycheck to paycheck like we do.' If they are savers, let them know how that has worked for them."
Borkowski says that students need to be educated to the fact that if they have too much credit card debt or miss credit card payments, they can ruin their credit scores and have a very difficult road to credit repair over their lifetime.
"A bad credit score can mean not being able to buy a car or home. It also can mean higher interest rates and future credit costing you more," he said. "I think the credit card issue is about scaring students some, but still letting them know that when they are used properly, credit cards can be a good financial tool."
Bank agrees to stop illegal 'sweeps,' make refunds08/26/2008ConsumerAffairs
California: Citibank Stole $14 Million from its Customers...
Average Airfare Rises 10 Percent In Second Quarter
Fuel costs push carriers to raise fees08/26/2008ConsumerAffairs
Average Airfare Rises 10 Percent In Second Quarter...
It's not just the fee for extra baggage that's going up. The average cost of airfare rose 10 percent in the second quarter of 2008, according to American Express Business Travel.
The company's Business Travel Monitor reports high fuel prices, which led many airlines to make capacity reductions and tighten ticketing restrictions, increased the average airfare paid, motivating companies to strengthen policy compliance strategies when managing travel and entertainment spending.
"External market forces continue to pressure business travel budgets at the same time that high fuel costs push travel prices to new highs," said Herv Sedky, vice president and general manager, Global Advisory Services, American Express Business Travel.
The second quarter of 2008 marked a seven-year high in the average airfare paid by business travelers. Oil prices, capacity constraints and ticketing restrictions drove up airfare 10 percent year-over-year. The average one-way airfare paid was $260, up $24 from the same period last year. Compared to the first quarter of 2008, the fare was up $27, an increase of 12 percent.
"During times when economic conditions are volatile, companies step up efforts to stress the importance of purchasing tickets in advance in order to use discount tickets in a negotiated travel program," said Sedky. "Our data shows that during the second quarter of 2008, 89 percent of tickets purchased were domestic discount coach fares, this shows that more travelers purchased tickets in advance. These subtle changes can translate into significant savings -- 17 percent or more in some cases. Looking at the first six months of 2008, the companies that had travelers purchase 8-14 days in advance rather than 0-7 days in advance saved an average of $49 per segment."
The average international one-way airfare paid during the second quarter of 2008 set a new record, at its highest level since the inception of the Business Travel Monitor in 1999. With an 11 percent increase in the second quarter of 2008, over the same period in 2007, international airfares reached nearly $2,000, with a final average of $1,980.
American Express data also shows that the percentage of international business class tickets purchased was at the lowest level since the third quarter of 2004 at 49 percent. Increases in the percentage of tickets purchased in other classes of service show that companies are employing strategies to encourage travelers to trade down to other classes of service.
"As globalization continues to pull business travelers to international destinations, we advise our clients to focus on international travel policy compliance," said Sedky. "Strategies including encouraging employees to take advantage of corporate discounts negotiated with preferred suppliers and trading down to lower classes of service when appropriate are driving savings for our clients despite the difficult travel market. Our recommended best practices also include using tools like the Pre-Trip Auditor to ensure greater compliance."
Housing Market Still Favors Buyers Over Sellers
Condo market remains glutted, while single-family homes sell faster08/25/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Housing Market Still Favors Buyers Over Sellers...
There's good news for both sellers and buyers in the July home sales report. Sales were up 3.1 percent from the previous month, but there were also a record number of homes to choose from, and prices continue to fall. A closer look at the numbers suggests it's still a buyers' market, however.
The monthly report from the National Association of Realtors shows existing-home sales including single-family, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops increased 3.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.00 million units in July from a downwardly revised level of 4.85 million in June. That number is down 13.2 percent from the 5.76 million-unit pace in of July 2007.
The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $212,400 in July, down 7.1 percent from a year ago when the median was $228,600.
Total housing inventory at the end of July rose 3.9 percent to 4.67 million existing homes available for sale, which represents an 11.2.-month supply at the current sales pace, up slightly from June. The rise in supply results from a sharp increase in condo inventory; the single family supply declined.
"Sales have picked up significantly in several Florida and California markets," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "Home prices generally follow sales trends after a few months of lag time. Still, inventory remains high in many parts of the country and will require time to fully absorb. We expect more balanced conditions in 2009 and will eventually return to normal long-term appreciation patterns."
According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage rose to 6.43 percent in July from 6.32 percent in June; the rate was 6.70 percent in July 2007.
Single-family home sales rose 3.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.39 million in July from 4.26 million in June, but are 12.4 percent below the 5.01 million-unit level a year ago. The median existing single-family home price was $210,900 in July, down 7.7 percent from July 2007.
Existing condominium and co-op sales increased 3.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 610,000 units in July from 590,000 in June, but are 18.6 percent below the 749,000-unit pace in July 2007. The median existing condo price4 was $223,400 in July, which is 2.7 percent below a year ago.
Regionally, existing-home sales in the West jumped 9.7 percent in July to a level of 1.13 million and are 0.9 percent higher than July 2007. The median price in the West was $273,200, down 22.2 percent from a year ago.
In the Northeast, existing-home sales rose 5.9 percent to an annual pace of 900,000 in July, but are 11.8 percent below a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $278,700, which is 4.9 percent lower than July 2007.
Existing-home sales in the Midwest increased 0.9 percent to an annual rate of 1.12 million in July, but are 17.0 percent lower than July 2007. The median price in the Midwest was $175,400, up 1.0 percent from a year ago.
In the South, existing-home sales slipped 0.5 percent to an annual pace of 1.85 million in July, and are 18.1 percent below a year ago. The median price in the South was $179,300, down 3.5 percent from June 2007.
Are Your Tax Dollars Paying for Excessive CEO Salaries?
Groups charge tax code loopholes subsidize corporate heads08/25/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Are Your Tax Dollars Paying for Excessive CEO Salaries?...
Think it's none of your business what a corporate CEO earns? A study by two advocacy groups makes a case that when corporations pay their top executives millions a year, its taxpayers who end up subsidizing part of their paychecks.
The study, by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, calculates the annual cost to taxpayers at $20 billion per year, because of the following tax and accounting loopholes that they say encourage excessive executive pay:
• Preferential capital gains treatment of carried interest ($2.6 billion)
• Unlimited deferred pay ($80.6 million)
• Offshore deferred compensation ($2.1 billion)
• Unlimited deductibility of executive compensation ($5.2 billion)
• Stock option accounting double standard ($10.0 billion)
"These loopholes allow top executives to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. As a result, ordinary taxpayers wind up picking up the bill," said report co-author and IPS Associate Fellow Sam Pizzigati.
Pizzigati says members of Congress have attempted to plug each of these five loopholes, but their efforts have stalled in the face of strong opposition from corporate lobby groups.
The presidential race is shining a brighter spotlight on the issue, as both candidates have attacked excessive executive compensation on the campaign trail. And yet the report points out that neither Barack Obama nor John McCain has yet endorsed all the major reforms needed to eliminate subsidies for executive pay.
"It's outrageous that our tax dollars are inflating executive paychecks," says Institute for Policy Studies fellow Sarah Anderson, a lead author of the annual Executive Excess reports for the past 15 years. "Surely in these troubled economic times we can find better ways to spend our nation's wealth."
Data Breaches Exceed 2007 Record
Higher numbers include breaches reported by Attorneys General08/25/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The number of data breaches hit a record high in 2007, but it appears this year will be significantly more dangerous, when it comes to potential identity t...
The number of data breaches hit a record high in 2007, but it appears this year will be significantly more dangerous, when it comes to potential identity theft. More than four months before the end of 2008, the total number of breaches on the Identity Theft Resource Center's (ITRC) breach list has surpassed the final total of 446 reported in 2007.
As of 10 am on August 22, the number of confirmed data breaches stood at 449. The actual number of breaches is most likely higher, due to under-reporting and the fact that some of the breaches reported, which affect multiple businesses, are listed as single events, the group said.
In the last few months, two subcontractors became examples of these "multiple" events. In one case, the customers and/or employees of at least 20 entities were affected by a breach that the ITRC reported as a single breach event.
ITRC says it recognizes that 446 breaches in less than a year is a small number when compared with the total number of business, governmental, health, banking and educational entities that have databases. However, for the individuals whose information has been exposed, 446 data exposure events are still too many.
It should be noted that the growth in the number of breaches from year to year can no longer only be attributed to required reporting laws and media investigative work.
Linda Foley, ITRC Founder, attributes part of the growth of the ITRC's breach list to the ability to access state Attorney General notification lists that contain breaches that were not reported via media or other sources.
"If more states would publish breach notification lists, there would be more information to study and to help us understand this growing concern," Foley said. "At this time, only three states publish such information. Additionally, more companies are starting to audit their security and network systems and use readily available security measures. This pro-active approach means that breaches are being identified that might otherwise have gone undetected."
"The number of attacks, in addition to publicly disclosed breaches, continues to escalate as criminal networks mushroom around the world, while economies weaken," according to Avivah Litan, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Inc. "A more concerted effort is required among companies to secure and protect customer data, regardless of regulatory oversight."
In the last few weeks, the US Secret Service announced the investigation of a cybercrime group that may have hacked tens of thousands of credit and debit card accounts from Louisiana and Mississippi restaurants this year, allegedly leading to over $1 million in losses for the banks that issued them.
Also, on August 5, 2008 the U.S. Attorney General's office announced the indictments of 11 defendants who tapped the computer networks of TJX Cos.' Marshalls, BJ's Wholesale Club Inc., Barnes & Noble Inc. bookstores, Sports Authority, Boston Market Corp., OfficeMax Inc., Dave & Buster's restaurants, DSW Inc. shoe stores and Forever 21.
"These two cases highlight our increasing vulnerability to the theft of personal information. Unsecured networks are a friendly target for such groups. Additionally insider theft, data on the move and inadvertent posting of personal information to websites add to the problem. Breaches are not simply the affect of malicious attacks but also of human error and poor information handling procedures," said Rex Davis, ITRC's Director of Operations.
"It is critical that law enforcement, governmental agencies, businesses, consumers and legislators understand the causes of breaches. With this in mind, the ITRC has continued to create new database tools to better analyze breach information. When we understand how data is exposed or stolen, we can avert many breaches because of improved security procedures and safe information handling," explained Jay Foley, ITRC Executive Director.
It should be noted that the ITRC does not place an inordinate weight on the count of records exposed. While the ITRC breach list reflects compromised records of more than 22 million, in almost 40 percent of breach events, the number of records exposed is not reported or fully disclosed. This means the number of affected records is grossly incomplete and unusable for any statistic or research purpose. The use of potentially affected records generally causes more concern and is 'news-sexy'.
The ITRC breach list is a compilation of breaches confirmed by various media sources and notification lists from state governmental agencies. ITRC uses several websites to help search for verifiable breaches, such as Pogowasright.org, Phiprivacy.net, and Attrition.com. To qualify, breaches must include personal identifying information that could lead to identity theft, especially the loss of Social Security numbers.
Report Links Tobacco Marketing and Movies With Youth Smoking
Even brief exposure to tobacco ads can hook kids for life, study finds08/22/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Report Links Tobacco Marketing and Movies With Youth Smoking...
A new National Cancer Institute report has reached the government's strongest conclusion to date that tobacco marketing and depictions of smoking in movies promote youth smoking.
The 684-page report, The Role of the Media in Promoting and Reducing Tobacco Use, presents definitive conclusions that tobacco advertising and promotion are causally related to increased tobacco use, and exposure to depictions of smoking in movies is causally related to youth smoking initiation.
The report also concludes that mass media campaigns can reduce smoking, especially when combined with other tobacco control strategies. However, youth smoking prevention campaigns sponsored by the tobacco industry have been generally ineffective and may actually have increased youth smoking, the report finds.
This report provides the most current and comprehensive analysis of more than 1,000 scientific studies on the role of the media in encouraging and discouraging tobacco use. Research included in the review comes from the disciplines of marketing, psychology, communications, statistics, epidemiology, and public health.
"The media have been used to promote cigarettes and smoking through infamous advertising icons -- such as the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel -- and through tobacco images in Hollywood movies," said Ronald M. Davis, M.D., senior scientific editor, director of the Henry Ford Health System's Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.
On the other hand, Davis notes the media also have been used to increase smoking cessation and reduce smoking initiation, through paid advertising campaigns and public service announcements about the dangers of smoking.
The report also concludes that:
• Cigarettes are one of the most heavily marketed products in the United States. Between 1940 and 2005, U.S. cigarette manufacturers spent about $250 billion (in 2006 dollars) on cigarette advertising and promotion. In 2005, the industry spent $13.5 billion (in 2006 dollars) on cigarette advertising and promotion in the U.S. -- $37 million per day on average.
• Much tobacco advertising targets the psychological needs of adolescents, such as popularity, peer acceptance and positive self-image. Advertising creates the perception that smoking will satisfy these needs.
• Even brief exposure to tobacco advertising influences adolescents' attitudes and perceptions about smoking and smokers, and adolescents' intentions to smoke.
• The depiction of cigarette smoking is pervasive in movies, occurring in three-quarters or more of contemporary box-office hits. Identifiable cigarette brands appear in about one-third of movies.
• When allowed by a nation's constitution, a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising and promotion is an effective policy intervention that prevents tobacco companies from shifting marketing expenditures to permitted media.
• The tobacco industry works hard to impede tobacco control media campaigns, including attempts to prevent or reduce their funding.
Both tobacco industry and tobacco control forces are harnessing the media to influence the attitudes and behavior of the American public. In today's media landscape, which has expanded beyond traditional channels such as newspapers, magazines, radio, and television to the Internet and interactive video gaming -- the challenge is even more urgent.
Although 46 million Americans have stopped smoking, 45 million Americans -- about 20 percent of American adults -- still smoke and nearly 4,000 adolescents smoke their first cigarette each day.
Tobacco use is the single largest cause of preventable death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 400,000 premature deaths per year and reduces the life expectancy of smokers by an average of 14 years.
The editors of the report outline several steps that have been proposed to reduce use of the media in promoting tobacco use and increase its use in discouraging tobacco use, including:
• Impose a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising and promotion;
• Adequately fund mass media campaigns and protect them from tobacco industry efforts to impede them;
• Monitor tobacco industry activities including public relations and advertising expenditures in a changing media environment;
• Use research to inform tobacco control policy and program decisions;
• Place anti-tobacco advertisements before films to partially counter the impact of tobacco portrayals in movies; and
• Increase public awareness of tobacco industry attempts to shut down public health campaigns.
"The tobacco industry tried for five years to shut down our successful truth youth smoking prevention campaign," said Dr. Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation.
"Ninety percent of adult smokers began before the age of 20, so cultivating new smokers is critical to Big Tobacco's business model, to replace the more than 400,000 adults who die from tobacco annually with new smokers. Keeping young people from starting to smoke is a critical part of the equation if we want to make major strides toward saving lives. Bold, effective counter-marketing campaigns that reduce smoking rates and change social norms are proven effective in doing just that," she said.
Color Blindness Isn't Black and White
The Healthy Geezer08/22/2008ConsumerAffairs
Color blindness affects about 10% of men, but only 1% of women. Most people with color blindness inherited it. There is no treatment to correct inherited c...
Q. Do people who are color blind see everything in black and white?
"Color blindness" is the common term used to describe color vision deficiency. The term is misleading, because total color blindness that turns the world into shades of gray is rare.
The most common type of color blindness makes it difficult for people to discriminate between red and green. The next most common form of the deficiency affects the perception of blues and yellows. Those with blue-yellow blindness almost always have red-green blindness as well.
Many people with color blindness don't know they have it. For example, they are taught at an early age that grass is green. They look at lawns and see yellow grass. Subsequently, if you ask them what color the grass is, they will tell you it's green.
(Please don't ask me how they handle shopping for bananas.)
Color blindness affects about ten percent of men, but only one percent of women. Most people with color blindness inherited it. There is no treatment to correct inherited color blindness. However, there are specially tinted eyeglasses that can help people with deficiencies to discriminate between colors.
Another cause of color blindness is simple aging, which gradually diminishes our ability to see colors.
Diseases can affect your color vision, too. Usually, diseases affect the perception of blue and yellow. Some conditions that can cause color blindness are diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, leukemia and sickle cell anemia.
Some drugs can alter color perception, too. These include drugs for heart problems, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, nervous disorders and psychological problems.
Exposure to certain chemicals can cause color blindness. These include carbon disulfide, fertilizers, styrene and mercury.
The eye is like a camera. There's a lens in the front that focuses images on the retina in the back. The retina contains nerve cells that react to light and transmit information to your brain. If the cells responsible for color don't work properly, you suffer from color blindness.
If you think you are having a color-vision problem, see an eye doctor. You'll be asked to look at a book containing several multicolored dot patterns. If you have a color vision deficiency, you won't be able to pick out numbers and shapes from within the dot patterns.
All Rights Reserved © 2008 by Fred Cicetti
West Virginia Warns About Phony Debt Collectors
Scammers claiming to be authorities demand money transfers08/22/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
West Virginia Warns About Phony Debt Collectors...
Consumers in West Virginia who at one time obtained payday loans over the Internet -- and even those who never borrowed money at all --have been getting threatening phone calls from alleged debt collectors.
West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw says the debt collectors are actually scam artists. The "debts," he says, are not legitimate.
Internet payday loans are short-term loans or cash advances, usually for 14 days, made over the Internet via interactive web sites and secured by an agreement authorizing debits of the loan and all fees owed from the consumer's checking account. These loans typically charge interest rates ranging from 600-800 APR and are unlawful in West Virginia.
The scam artists, who speak English with a foreign accent, call themselves "U.S. National Bank," "Federal Investigation Bureau," "United Legal Processing" and numerous other phony names. They refuse to disclose real names and addresses and are believed to be operating "off the grid" from homes, automobiles, or from off shore locations or foreign countries, including India. Since the scammers have kept themselves purposely well hidden, McGraw says no law enforcement agencies have succeeded in locating or shutting them down.
The scammers typically pose as law enforcement officers, investigators, lawyers, and bankers and threaten consumers that they will be arrested for "bank fraud" or other fictitious crimes unless money is wired immediately. They simultaneously scare and confuse consumers by using meaningless legalese gobbledygook phrases such as, "We are downloading warrants against you" or "We are filing an affidavit against you." Consumers who don't immediately fall for the scam are warned, "Only God can help you now."
The scammers almost always call consumers at work several times a day, and tell their supervisors, "Your employee has committed fraud and is about to be arrested." Such threats have proven unsettling even to the most savvy consumers and employers who suspect the calls are fraudulent.
"Ordinarily my office protects consumers from fraudulent activities by seeking injunctions in court. But legal action cannot be taken until the scam artists can be located," McGraw said. "Even then, it is unlikely that the persons behind the fraudulent calls and extortionist threats would obey a court order. In this case, the consumer's best defense is to be armed with the knowledge of the scam so that all demands for money can be resisted, despite the false but scary threats of arrest."
Comcast to Slow Internet Speeds for Heaviest Users
File-sharers will get throttled to prevent congestion08/21/2008ConsumerAffairs
Comcast to Slow Internet Speeds for Heaviest Users...
In the wake of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling against Comcast for its blocking users' access to file-sharing services such as BitTorrent, the cable giant is rolling out plans for its new network management system--plans which involve throttling back and slowing service for heavy users for between 10 and 20 minutes.
The slower service would be equivalent to "a really good DSL experience," Comcast senior vice-president Mitch Bowling told Bloomberg News. The users would see their speeds return to normal after the congestion throttling was lifted.
DSL, which uses conventional phone lines for Internet access, is faster than dial-up, but considerably slower than the speeds promised by cable companies such as Comcast.
Comcast's plans were announced a day after the FCC published its formal order punishing Comcast for content blocking. The FCC voted 3-2 to penalize Comcast on August 1, with the majority saying that Comcast's practices violated FCC rules and would set a bad precedent for preventing innovation and choice on the Internet.
"We predict that prohibiting network operators from blocking or degrading consumer access to desirable content and applications on-line will result in increased consumer demand for high-speed Internet access and, therefore, increased deployment to meet that demand," the FCC said in its ruling. "Similarly, ensuring that consumers have unimpeded access to such content and applications will promote the availability of such content and applications. "
Comcast has emphasized its move to what it called a "protocol agnostic" system of managing its Internet traffic for several months, a method of polishing its image after being criticized for its content blocking by consumers, industry, and media alike. The new system is still being tested, spokespeople said, but could involve analyzing periods of high congestion and reducing the heaviest users' speeds, regardless of their overall usage history.
Comcast was outed in November 2007 as blocking transmissions of files between BitTorrent users by making it appear as if one user had dropped the connection, when in fact it was Comcast preventing the connection from taking place. Although Comcast claimed it only blocked high-bandwith-consuming users for short periods, further research found that both it and Cox Communications were blocking users at all times of the day, regardless of their actual bandwith consumption.
Even before it was caught blocking content, Comcast was criticized for canceling users' accounts if they violated an undisclosed "bandwith cap," meaning customers could be shut off without ever knowing how much bandwith they actually used.
Many Internet providers have been experimenting with "metered" or "pay-as-you-go" broadband access plans, which would charge users for going over set caps on their available bandwith. Consumer groups such as Free Press have criticized metered broadband plans as denying customers the ability to enjoy the benefits of high-speed Internet and rich content, which would drive them into the arms of competitors who still offered "all-you-can-eat" bandwith prices.
"Comcast has shown itself to be dishonest, so we have to be skeptical and vigilant," said Free Press' policy director Ben Scott. "Any move that doesn't involve illegally blocking consumers' access to the Internet is a positive step -- but we won't know for sure until we see the details."
Government safety agency mum, company blames victims for cuts, burns08/20/2008ConsumerAffairs
Many consumers still rely on Pyrex bakeware for everyday cooking chores, trusting that the baking dishes can safely go from the oven to the countertop to t...
Signal Problems Plague iPhone 3G
Apple issues firmware upgrade but analysts are skeptical08/20/2008ConsumerAffairs
Signal Problems Plague iPhone 3G...
By Truman Lewis
Problems with cracked iPhone screens have been getting lots of press but a potentially more serious and widespread glitch has to do with the 3G model's ability to pull in a strong signal — which, after all, is a pretty basic requirement of any cell phone, especially one loaded down with as many features as the iPhone.
Apple released a firmware update today for 3G, claiming it will clear up the problems but some analysts aren't so sure about that.
There's speculation among some Wall Street types that the reception problems are being caused by an antenna design flaw or an issue with the chipset and that a simple firmware upgrade won't be enough to get iPhone users the five bars they're hoping for.
Financial analysts get angina whenever there's an indication of hardware problems that could force a massive — and costly — recall.
Some users rushed to blame AT&T Wireless for the weak reception but cooler heads note that other portable devices in the same reception areas are working just fine, thanks — both cell phones and other Web-enabled devices that use the EDGE network.
Adding fuel to the fire are reports from Europe, where users are encountering similar problems in locales where the signal strength has never been a problem before.
Engineers quoted in the trade press are speculating that the antenna is the likely culprit. The iPhone 3G has no fewer than ten different antennas. That's a lot of antennas in a small place, and as any radiohead will tell you, having too many antennas in one place can cause interference and signal loss.
Of course, most consumers could care less what the problem is, they just want the thing to work. When it doesn't, customers can find themselves facing a stiff termination fee if they want to throw up their hands and walk away.
"Advertised twice as fast for half the price, but the twice as fast and the iPhone don't communicate," lamented Richard of Victorville, Calif. "AT&T is requiring customers who return their iPhones for this failure to pay a restocking fee; Apple Stores will replace the phones, but you are likely to end up with a replacement that has the same problem."
"Apple has refused to acknowledge the issue: AT&T;'s spokespersons deny any widespread problems; iPhone 3G users have to pay for 3G service that many (most) are not able to access due to the faulty iPhone," he said.
Likewise Mike of Waldwick, N.J. He bought an iPhone 3G on eBay but found he couldn't get a reliable signal.
"Tried to cancel this contract since I was within my 30 days. It took me 2 days with AT&T; after convincing them that one of the phone was purchased off ebay instead of having them making me take the phone back to an Apple store," Mike told us.
"The iPhone is a nice item but as I found out it really isnt worth the headache," Mike concluded.More about the iPhone ...
New rules said to protect consumer privacy08/19/2008ConsumerAffairs
"Just like the provisions of the Do Not Call Registry, these changes will protect consumers' privacy," said FTC Chairman William E. Kovacic....
Researchers Claim Vioxx Safety Study Was Actually Marketing Plan
Merck challenges researchers' assertions regarding painkiller08/19/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Researchers Claim Vioxx Safety Study Was Actually Marketing Plan...
Researchers studying Merck & Co internal documents conclude the drug giant's 1999 clinical study of possible side effects from its painkiller Vioxx was in actuality a pre-launch marketing campaign for the drug.
Merck was forced to withdraw the prescription drug in 2004 after tests linked it to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The researchers outline their case against Merck in the latest issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.
"Documentary evidence shows that Advantage is an example of marketing framed as science," they wrote.
The team gathered documents collected by plaintiffs' lawyers in the personal injury and liability lawsuits filed against the pharmaceutical company. The researchers claim the real purpose of the study, called Advantage, was to promote the drug as an arthritis treatment when it became commercially available.
Vioxx received FDA approval not long afterward and it quickly became one of Merck's most profitable products.
In their report, Kevin Hill of McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, and colleagues, said the practice of "seeding" the drug with a marketing study, disguised as science, raises a number of ethical issues.
Merck takes strong exception to the researcher's conclusions, and denies Advantage was a "seeding" project. It said the study in question compared Vioxx with another medication in its effect on stomach upset. It also said the article contained "numerous inaccuracies."
Merck faced a flurry of litigation over Vioxx. After insisting it would contest each of the thousands of product liability lawsuits over Vioxx, Merck agreed in November 2007 to settle claims over the withdrawn painkiller for $4.85 billion.
The cases were filed in connection with Vioxx's removal from the market, with plaintiffs charging the company should have acted sooner. More than 27,000 consumers or their family members filed suit against Merck as a result. In the last three years, only a handful of the cases had gone to trial.
Hershey's Announces Candy Price Hike
Rising food costs make sweet tooth satisfaction more expensive08/18/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Cocoa prices have hit a record high of $2,801 per ton, an increase of almost 30 percent since January, according to a report from the Cocoa Producers' Alli...
It's going to cost more to satisfy your sweet tooth. The Hershey Company, reacting to increases in the price of cocoa and other ingredients, says it's increasing wholesale prices across its U.S., Puerto Rico and export chocolate and sugar confectionery lines.
A weighted average 11 percent increase on the company's instant consumable, multi-pack and packaged candy lines is effective immediately. The changes approximate a 10 percent increase over Hershey's entire domestic product line and will help offset a portion of the significant increases in the Company's input costs, including raw materials, packaging materials, fuel, utilities, and transportation.
"Commodity costs have been volatile over the last several years and continue to remain at levels that are well above historical averages," said David J. West, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Hershey Company. "Market prices for ingredients such as cocoa, corn sweeteners, sugar and peanuts are up 20 to 45 percent since the beginning of the year. As such, in 2009 we expect our commodity cost increase to be more than double the 2008 increase.
Hershey said it has executed a commodity hedging strategy that will firm up its 2009 commodity cost profile, but needed the price increase to maintain its profit margin.
"Hershey remains committed to providing the world's best chocolate and confectionery products made with the highest-quality ingredients. Our consumers and customers understand this and realize that Hershey products will continue to represent outstanding quality and excellent value," West said.
Food commodity prices have been rising in response to increasing global demand. Cocoa prices have hit a record high of $2,801 per ton, an increase of almost 30 percent since January, according to a report from the Cocoa Producers' Alliance.
New Prostate Cancer Treatment Shows Promise
Continuous low doses of medicine is more tolerable, shows better results08/18/2008ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
New Prostate Cancer Treatment Shows Promise...
New research indicates that giving patients a continuous low dose of an immune system booster -- a method known as metronomic dosing -- as part of a therapeutic prostate cancer vaccine strategy is safe and produces similar immune responses and fewer side effects than the more common dosing method, which is not well tolerated by many patients.
The vaccine used in this study, published in the Aug. 15, 2008, issue of Clinical Cancer Research, is designed to stimulate an immune response against prostate-specific antigen (PSA), a protein produced by the prostate that is often found at elevated levels in the blood of men who have prostate cancer and some non-cancerous prostate conditions.
In the study, researchers at that National Cancer Institute examined the side effects and immune responses of patients treated with a three-pronged approach: the vaccine, radiation therapy, and an alternative dosing regimen of an immune system booster, interleukin-2.
The patients all had localized prostate cancer, had not undergone surgery to remove the prostate, and were candidates for radiation therapy as their primary form of treatment.
"Developing an alternative method of administering vaccine therapy that is well tolerated by most patients and produces similar immune responses to standard methods may help further the development of vaccine therapies for prostate cancer," said James L. Gulley, M.D., Ph.D., of NCI's Center for Cancer Research.
Therapeutic cancer vaccines are designed to treat cancer by stimulating the immune system to attack tumor cells without harming normal cells. Several proteins, including PSA, are overexpressed, or produced in excess amounts, by cancer cells and have shown potential to serve as triggers in initiating immune responses.
These findings have led to the development of cancer vaccines that target these proteins, also known as tumor-associated antigens. To heighten the body's natural defenses, immune system boosters, such as IL-2, are often given with the vaccines. IL-2 administration, however, is frequently associated with substantial side effects, including fatigue and high blood sugar.
In a previous study involving the same prostate cancer vaccine, IL-2 was given to 19 patients daily for five days during each 28-day vaccine treatment cycle. However, a large majority of the patients had to have the dose of IL-2 reduced or discontinued, primarily because of fatigue.
In this new study, the researchers sought to decrease the side effects associated with IL-2. To do this, the team treated 18 patients with the vaccine and radiation therapy, but with lower doses of IL-2 given over a longer period of time. The patients received the same total amount of IL-2 as in the previous study, but it was administered in smaller daily doses for 14 days of each 28-day treatment cycle.
With metronomic dosing, less than a quarter of the patients had side effects that required their dose of IL-2 to be reduced.
"Based on safety and feasibility, metronomic dosing appears to be superior to standard dosing and administration," said Gulley. "More research is needed to evaluate the efficacy of this dosing method in treating prostate cancer."
Internet Providers Admit to Monitoring Customers' Web Surfing
Congress demands more information from companies08/18/2008ConsumerAffairs
Internet Providers Admit to Monitoring Customers' Web Surfing...
Earlier this months several members of Congress signed a letter to 33 leading Internet and broadband companies including Verizon, AT&T;, Time Warner, Comcast, Microsoft, Google, and others, pressing them for information about the extent to which they collect information about consumers' use of their broadband services or websites.
Apparently, some are collecting quite a bit.
Cable One, a large cable operator in the Phoenix, Arizona area, says it conducted a six-month trial of new technology that tracks consumers' Internet habits and custom tailors ads, to make them more relevant. Several other cable operators and Internet service providers (ISPs) responded with letters saying they have, or plan to, run similar tests.
Meanwhile, AT&T; told the lawmakers its concerns are misplaced, insisting that Google's online ad networks are much more invasive than anything the ISPs are planning. But the members of Congress say any erosion of privacy on the Internet is a cause for concern.
"Privacy is a cornerstone of freedom. Online users have a right to explicitly know when their broadband provider is tracking their activity and collecting potentially sensitive and personal information," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
"New technologies, such as 'deep packet inspection' technologies, have the ability to track every single website that a consumer visits while surfing the Web. This sweeping ability to collect, analyze, and profile how individuals use their broadband connection raises clear privacy issues and I believe such activity should occur only with the express prior consent of individual citizens."
Markey also said individual websites and search engines and their affiliates that monitor users also owe consumers constructive notice of such activities and the right to limit or thwart any personal data collection.
FDA Again Finds BPA Safe Despite Critics' Concerns
Widespread use of potent chemical in infant products riles parents08/16/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
FDA Again Finds BPA Safe Despite Critics' Concerns...
Although parents, consumer groups and many retailers are shunning bisphenol A — commonly called BPA — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has once again asserted that the chemical is safe.
BPA is a "hardening agent," widely used in baby bottles, canned food and other consumer products. It acts as both a seal to keep contaminants out of canned goods and makes plastics shatterproof.
Its defenders say it makes modern life safer, especially for infants. Its detractors say babies would be safer without it.
The FDA has previously found that the substance was not cause for concern. And now, after revisiting the question, it has come to the same conclusion. An outside committee of experts will study the FDA's latest findings in September and issue recommendations. But that's not likely to settle the question.
Dozens of state and national environmental health organizations in the U.S. and Canada are calling for an immediate moratorium on the use of bisphenol A in baby bottles and other food and beverage containers; they say studies show that the chemical leaches from popular plastic baby bottles when heated.
Canada plans to ban its use in baby bottles. California, New Jersey and other states are considering bills that would restrict its use. And many retailers are shying away from products containing BPA.
Wal-Mart says it plans to drop baby bottles that contain it and Toys R Us is considering a similar move.
Concern about BPA began to grow after a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that trace amounts of the chemical could be found in 93 percent of Americans. But the FDA insists that the trace amounts are thousands of times below dangerous levels.
Dow Chemical, Bayer and other large chemical companies produce more than six million pounds of BPA in the United States each year. Critics charge the FDA has gotten too cozy with industry and relies too extensively on industry-financed studies.
In testimony before a Senate subcommittee earlier this year, FDA Associate Commissioner for Science Norris Alderson said the agency is relying on a "large body of scientific evidence" that shows the chemical can safely be used in plastics that hold food and beverages.
But critics say there are plenty of studies that have, at the very least, raised questions about potential health problems in laboratory animals exposed to BPA. A study by the federal National Toxicology Program found "some concern" about the chemical's use in baby products.
The results of one study show that, when new bottles are heated, those manufactured by Avent, Evenflo, Dr. Brown's and Disney/First Years leached between 4.7 to 8.3 parts per billion of BPA.
"The only appropriate response to evidence that a known toxic chemical leaches from baby products is to phase it out and replace it with safer products in order to prevent harm wherever possible," said Mike Schade, a researcher with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, when the study was first issued.
"Environmental health organizations from across the U.S. are calling for an immediate moratorium on the use of BPA in baby bottles and other food and beverage containers," he said.
Recent research on animals shows that BPA can be harmful by disrupting development at doses below these levels. The bottles used in the study were purchased at retailers across the country in nine states: Babies"R"Us, CVS, Target, Toys"R"Us, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart.
Earlier this year, Michigan Reps. John Dingell and Bart Stupak launched a Congressional investigation to ascertain the safety of BPA used to line the cans of infant formula products. The study was commissioned by Environmental Defense of Canada in cooperation with The Work Group for Safe Markets in the U.S., and researched by the laboratory of Frederick vom Saal, PhD., at the University of Missouri.
Read more about BPA.
Sites promising exotic Asian, Russian women are often scams ... or worse08/15/2008ConsumerAffairs
I was in an internet caf in Thailand last year, trying to work out which continent I should fly to next, when my attention was entirely absorbed by an a......
Airborne Health to Pay FTC $30 Million for False Claims
Company settles charges that it falsely advertised its cold remedies08/15/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Airborne Health to Pay FTC $30 Million for False Claims...
Thousands of consumers who bought Airborne Health's popular Airborne Effervescent Health Formula, an effervescent tablet marketed as a cold prevention and treatment remedy, have refunds coming.
The Federal Trade Commission says the company of has agreed to pay up to $30 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it did not have adequate evidence to support its advertising claims.
"There is no credible evidence that Airborne products, taken as directed, will reduce the severity or duration of colds, or provide any tangible benefit for people who are exposed to germs in crowded places," said Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
In addition to the company,the FTC's lawsuit also names Victoria Knight-McDowell, the former schoolteacher who invented Airborne, and her husband Thomas John McDowell. If the settlement is approved by the court, it will prohibit the defendants from making false and unsubstantiated cold prevention, germ-fighting, and efficacy claims.
The monetary judgment will be satisfied by the defendants' adding $6.5 million to the funds they have already agreed to pay to settle a related private class-action lawsuit, bringing the total settlement fund to $30 million.
The FTC complaint and agreed-upon final order follow settlement last November of a class-action lawsuit, Wilson v. Airborne, Inc. et al., which is pending in federal court in the Central District of California. In that case, the defendants have agreed to pay up to $23.51 million, which will be used for consumer refunds and attorneys' fees. If the class action suit funds are exhausted, up to $6.5 million in additional funds for consumer redress will become available as a result of the FTC order. One redress administrator will manage both pools of funds and consumers will receive a single refund check.
The Wilson class action settlement provides refunds for purchases of Airborne-branded products made between May 1, 2001 and November 29, 2007. More information on the Wilson settlement, eligibility requirements, and procedures for filing a claim online or by mail can be found at www.airbornehealthsettlement.com. Consumers have until September 15, 2008 to apply for a refund for up to six product purchases.
The defendants have marketed Airborne Original Effervescent Formula as a dietary supplement containing 17 ingredients, including vitamins A, C, E, zinc, and selenium. Airborne products have been advertised nationally in print media and on radio and television. They have been sold by grocery stores, drug stores, and mass merchandisers.
According to the FTC's complaint, there is no competent and reliable scientific evidence to support the claims made by the defendants that Airborne tablets can prevent or reduce the risk of colds, sickness, or infection; protect against or help fight germs; reduce the severity or duration of a cold; and protect against colds, sickness, or infection in crowded places such as airplanes, offices, or schools. The FTC complaint also states that Victoria Knight-McDowell and Thomas John McDowell made false claims that Airborne products are clinically proven to treat colds.
If consumer refund claims are not paid on time in the Wilson lawsuit, or if the defendants have not paid at least $23.5 million to settle any other similar class-action lawsuit by December 31, 2009, the defendants must pay the entire $30 million to the FTC, which will administer its own consumer redress program.
In addition to prohibiting the defendants from making claims that are false, misleading, or unsubstantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence, and providing additional funds for consumer redress, the order authorizes the Commission to monitor the defendants' compliance with the order.
Bush Signs Consumer Safety Bill
Sweeping legislation provides for safer toys, more effective recalls, stronger enforcement08/14/2008ConsumerAffairs
New consumer legislation intended to make toys and common consumer products safer, make recalls more effective and give more authority to federal and state...
By Joseph S. Enoch
August 14, 2008
President Bush today signed sweeping new consumer legislation intended to make toys and common consumer products safer, make recalls more effective and give more authority to federal and state enforcement agencies.
"With the stroke of a pen, President Bush today signed my legislation allowing for sweeping reforms to begin taking place that will keep toxic toys and other dangerous products out of our homes," said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), the bill's primary sponsor.
"First and foremost, this new law hands back the reigns to the CPSC, our consumer watchdog agency, by giving it the necessary authority and resources to patrol todays global marketplace. We also require more responsibility from manufacturers and retailers, and stiffen the penalties if they fail to meet higher safety standards," Pryor said. "From the factory floor to the store shelves, there are dozens more new safeguards that weve built in place to prevent unnecessary injuries and fatalities. I truly believe this is a great bill for the American consumer."
The measure gives the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) far more funding, staff and authority but does not appropriate any more money to carry out the new mandates. Congress is expected to act on that when it returns from its summer recess.
Consumer groups rushed to applaud Bush's action.
This new product safety law is responsive to the mounting evidence and dire consequences of our broken product safety net. This bill patches up our current system by giving the CPSC the resources, regulatory authority and enforcement tools it needs to protect consumer from hazards posed by unsafe products, stated Rachel Weintraub, Director of Product Safety and Senior Counsel with Consumer Federation of America. We applaud Congress and the President for supporting this critical reform and urge the CPSC to implement this law effectively.
"This is a huge victory for consumers over big business," said David Arkush, Director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division. "This law puts safety first by making new and important changes, like requiring that toys be tested for safety before they are sold and creating an Internet database where consumers can share information about dangerous products."
The measure — officially known as the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 — passed the House on July 30, 2008 by a vote of 424-1 and the Senate on July 31, 2008 by a vote of 89-3.
It requires that toys and infant products be tested before they are sold, and by banning lead and phthalates in toys. The bill also will create the first comprehensive publicly accessible consumer complaint database, give the CPSC new resources to protect the public, increase civil penalties that CPSC can assess against violators of CPSC laws, and protect whistleblowers who report product safety defects.
Six types of phthalates, chemicals linked to genital defects in males, have been banned from toys along with lead. Also, toys will be required to follow a complex list of rules intended to make them safer.
The phthalate provision makes three phthalates permanently illegal and three others temporarily illegal until the CPSC can determine whether the chemicals are safe or dangerous. More details on the complex legislation can be found here.
The bill boosts the beleaguered CPSC, which many blamed for failing consumers during 2007, a year that had a record number of recalls. The agency's funding will double by 2014 and state attorneys general will be empowered to enforce safety laws in their states.
This long-overdue law gives the CPSC the shot in the arm that it desperately needs, said Ami Gadhia, Policy Counsel with Consumers Union. It is now up to the CPSC to use the tools given to them by this law, and restore the confidence of consumers in the products on store shelves, added Gadhia.
Protecting Americas littlest consumers better was always a good idea, but now its the law, said U.S. PIRG Consumer Program Director Ed Mierzwinski. We look forward to working with a stronger CPSC with more tools at its disposal. U.S. PIRG Public Health Advocate Liz Hitchcock added, We especially appreciate the visionary features of the new law, such as its ban on toxic phthalate chemicals in childrens products and its creation of a revolutionary new publicly-accessible database of potential hazards.
Should You Place A Freeze On Your Credit Report?
Credit freezes provide new protection against identity theft08/13/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Should You Place A Freeze On Your Credit Report?...
Identity theft is a growing problem because it is so easy for a criminal, with just some of your personal information, to open lines of credit in your name. A way to make it harder for identity thieves is freezing your credit report, but should you take that step?
A growing number of states have passed laws allowing consumers to tell the three major credit reporting agencies - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion - to place a "freeze" or block on sharing their credit reports. A credit freeze prevents potential creditors and other third parties from accessing credit reports without your approval.
Even if the thief has your Social Security number, he may not be able to steal your identity if your have a freeze on your credit report. Most businesses will not open credit card or other accounts without checking your credit history at the reporting agencies. If your credit files are frozen, an identity thief probably would not be able to get credit in your name.
While the credit agencies will freeze your account, there is a charge for that service. A credit report freeze costs $10 each to place a freeze with the credit bureaus, or $30 total for the three reporting agencies. The fee is waived in most states if the consumer has already been a victim of identity theft.
But what happens when you want to get a bank loan or apply for a credit card? A freeze on your credit report means you won't be able to do it. The freeze remains in place until you ask to remove it. To lift a credit freeze, consumers must contact each credit reporting agency and pay the required fee. By law, the maximum each company may charge is $12.
Consumer advocacy organizations have been petitioning the credit bureaus to make setting up a credit freeze easier and quicker. They claim that consumers have been slow to sign up for them because the procedure is time-consuming and costly.
While freezing your credit report provides a measure of protection, it's not bulletproof. Identity thieves could still use your existing credit card or other accounts, and some new accounts may not require a credit check such as telephone, wireless, and bank accounts. But a freeze can prevent the vast majority of identity theft that involves opening a new line of credit.
Extends airbag warranty for some models08/13/2008ConsumerAffairs
NHTSA warned that in some of the recalled BMWs it is possible that "the front passenger airbags will not deploy even if a sufficiently severe accident woul...
What Exactly is a "Charley Horse?"
The Healthy Geezer08/12/2008ConsumerAffairs
A cramp is an involuntary contracted muscle that does not relax. The common locations for muscle cramps are the calves, thighs, feet, hands, arms, and the ...
Q. What exactly is a "charley horse" and why do I get them in my legs at night?
According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the term "charley horse" was first used in the 1880s by baseball players to describe a muscle cramp. No one knows the true origin, but the dictionary says: "Among the more likely theories proposed is that it alludes to the name of either a horse or an afflicted ball player who limped like one of the elderly draft horses formerly employed to drag the infield."
Geezers are more likely to get charley horses because of muscle loss that starts in our 40s. And your remaining muscles don't work as efficiently as they used to. Studies show that about 70 percent of adults older than 50 experience nocturnal leg cramps.
A cramp is an involuntary contracted muscle that does not relax. The common locations for muscle cramps are the calves, thighs, feet, hands, arms, and the rib cage. Cramps can be very painful. Muscles can cramp for just seconds, but they can continue for many minutes.
Almost all of us have had muscle cramps, but no one knows for sure why they happen. However, many healthcare professionals attribute cramping to tired muscles and poor stretching. Other suspected causes are dehydration, exerting yourself when it's hot, flat feet, standing on concrete, prolonged sitting, some leg positions while sedentary.
Muscle cramps are usually harmless. However, they can also be symptoms of problems with circulation, nerves, metabolism, hormones. Less common causes of muscle cramps include diabetes, Parkinson's disease, hypoglycemia, anemia, thyroid and endocrine disorders.
The use of some medications can cause muscle cramps. For example, some diuretic medications prescribed for high blood pressure can deplete potassium. Too little potassium, calcium or magnesium in your diet can contribute to cramps.
Here are some pointers for treating a cramp yourself: stop whatever you were doing when you got the cramp, massage the muscle and stretch it slowly, apply a cold pack to relax tense muscles.
To prevent cramps, do stretching exercises especially for those muscles that tend to cramp, and drink water regularly. If you are exerting yourself in heat or sweating for more than an hour, you should drink fruit juice or a sports beverage. For recurrent cramps that disturb your sleep, your doctor may prescribe a medication to relax your muscles.
If you have nocturnal leg cramping, ride a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before bedtime. The following stretching exercise is good, too. You should do it in the morning, before dinner and before going to bed every night:
Stand about 30 inches from a wall. Keep your heels on the floor, lean forward and put your hands on the wall. Then, move your hands slowly up the wall as far as you can reach comfortably. Hold the stretched position for 30 seconds. Release. Repeat twice.
If you experience frequent and severe muscle cramps, see your doctor.
All Rights Reserved © 2008 by Fred Cicetti
Don't Let a Bad Economy Ruin Your Marriage
How to prevent financial problems from causing marital stress08/11/2008ConsumerAffairs
Is the current state of the economy affecting your marriage? Do you find you and your spouse fighting more these days over money? If you do, you're not alo...
Is the current state of the economy affecting your marriage? Do you find you and your spouse fighting more these days over money? If you do, you're not alone. At least 60% of couples argue over money at least once a month, according to a survey sponsored by PayPal.
Despite the "for richer or for poorer" vows couples take, one of the primary reasons marriages fail has to do with conflicts over money. In these difficult economic times, it may be time to start taking some definite positive actions to keep your marriage or relationship from going bankrupt.
Why couples fight about money
Understand that how we feel about money has more to do with your own childhood, background, and values than it does with your spouse or your relationship.
Money is one of life's more emotional triggers. Often it is tied to our feelings of self-worth and the role it plays in how much control we feel we have in living our lives. In this regard, it can be tied to such deep-seated issues as feeling loved, competence, acceptance, safety, and empowerment.
Because these feelings linger beneath the surface, they're not easy to talk about. Conflicts could come out in fights with each other over too much spending, or finding out about secret bank accounts or late payments of bills that erode credit scores.
It's important if one or all of these situations are occurring in your marriage or relationship that you and your partner talk about it.
Try to focus on the behaviors that are getting you into even more problems, such as failing to make even a minimum credit card payment because you're in denial about how big the balance has become. Talk about what's going on. If necessary, suggest taking over bill paying if you are having less of a problem dealing with your reality than your spouse seems to be having.
These conflicts over money including how much to save or spend are issues that are often concealed when times are going well financially.
There's no need to discuss what to spend when you have lots of money. You just spend it. There's no need to discuss how much to save when you have a job that automatically puts a portion of your salary into a retirement fund.
These issues only come up when the money is disappearing faster than you're earning it or you've lost that full-time job with benefits and now you're working part-time or for a company that is not automatically contributing into a savings plan.
Here are some warning signs that you or your spouse have a money problem that. without addressing it and working on it together, with or without the help of a trained counselor, could eat away at your marriage:
• Are you discovering large expenses on your spouse's credit card bill that he or she has been hiding from you?
• Have you or your spouse started paying only the minimum on your credit cards, piling more and more debt, while still continuing to charge new purchases to those cards?
• Are you or your spouse opening up multiple credit card accounts to keep up your spending beyond your means rather than deal with the necessary cutbacks that you have to start making during tough times?
• Do you or your spouse buy yourself or each other lavish gifts that you can't afford because you equate material items with love?
• Have you or your spouse had an increase in insomnia, over-eating, losing your appetite, or are either of you stressed out over money related issues?
• Have you or your spouse found yourself avoiding going out at all because you feel you can't afford it?
• Have you or your spouse said "no" to romantic intimacy more than once recently because one or both of you were too upset over financial matters?
• If you answered "yes" to one or more of these questions, you have to take a serious and hard look at how money is negatively impacting not only your marriage but on your mental health.
Dealing with issues
There is no one way to deal with the money crisis that couples are facing today. Of course every situation is unique and different. But there are some general principles that will help you regardless of the specifics of your situation.
For starters, the key is communication with each other and having an open attitude that you are both going to work together to resolve this money challenge. Here are some possible steps you could take:
• See the current economic crisis as a gift. That may be hard to believe when you think you may lose your house or have your car repossessed. But look at it as an opportunity to discuss with your partner how you're going to handle it. Ask for some suggestions since your partner might have ideas about solving your dilemma that you have not even considered.
• Stop hiding how much you owe and how much you're spending despite your economic problems. Take all your credit card bills out and make a list of what you currently owe on each card, the interest on each card, and then come with a plan to pay each one off.
• If you or your partner have a problem with debt, have a card cutting party. Join Debtors Anonymous and stop using credit cards altogether. Then pay off the debts in as timely a manner as possible. Keep in mind that money is often a metaphor in marital conflicts so talking about with a therapist may be helpful. That will enable both of you to talk about what money means to you and how you can try to make the present and future better.
• As a couple, agree on what you realistically can spend each month and create a budget that you try to really stick to. Make sure you include in your budget at least some funds for going out and having fun even if it's not going to be extravagant or expensive.
• Communicate with each other about what you're spending money on if it's a big ticket item. Don't start over-spending and hiding that from each other. Those secrets can start to eat away at your trust and intimacy as much as the excess spending in these lean times can set you back financially.
• Decide together on any major purchases to make sure you both agree that this is the right time to make that investment. Through your discussion you might decide it's better to wait a while or maybe you will agree it's something to put off indefinitely.
• Don't play the blame game. The economic downturn is hitting everyone so the economic down turn youre going through isn't because of something either you or your spouse has done. Use this tough situation to recommit to each other on a deeper, non-materialistic level. Since you probably can't buy each other big ticket items for a while, use your imagination and creativity to find inexpensive but memorable ways to express your love and appreciation for each other.
• And finally, if you still can't come to an agreement over money, see a financial advisor or a credit counselor to get some help. It's a positive step that could help you avoid the emotional angst or the financial toll of having to hire a divorce lawyer.
Maybe you can't afford to fly off for the weekend to Madrid, but you can afford to go out to a local free music event that your community is sponsoring, take a walk on the beach, or around your cul de sac.
If you have several cars and you have to give up one, look at it as an opportunity to spend more time with your partner as you car pool to work or the train together. And if you have children, get them involved with the joys of spending less money as well.
Remember the expression "The best things in life are free?" Say that to yourself and to your spouse and say it often.
Unless you're an heiress or a prince, you probably started out as a couple without a lot of money. Many couples will say that those days when they were struggling financially were the best times in their relationship as they worked together to build their future together. During those lean times, you had to find ways just to enjoy being with each other.
Even though you're older now, you can put that joy of working together for your future into your relationship again as you together recover from the economic downturn that is having such a dramatic impact on so many today.
United Pilots Want CEO Fired
Union launches Web site detailing exec's bad performance08/11/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Things are bad at United Airlines, according to the people who fly the planes, and they say it won't get better until the company fires its CEO....
Things are bad at United Airlines, according to the people who fly the planes, and they say it won't get better until the company fires its CEO.
The United Chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association has issued a statement, calling for the resignation of Glenn Tilton as CEO of the airline, stressing the need for new leadership and direction at the helm of the air carrier.
The pilots say United now ranks at the bottom of nearly every performance and customer satisfaction category, and its financial performance is steadily deteriorating. In an effort to bring public pressure, the United pilots have launched a Web site, www.GlennTilton.com, that highlights what they see as the failures of Tilton's management.
"Under Glenn Tilton's tenure, United has gone from being the finest airline in the world, with the best route structure and safety record, to a shell of its former self," said Captain Steve Wallach, chairman of the United Master Executive Council. "He has had every opportunity to turn this company around, and tap the abilities of its first-class employees, but instead he has run it into the ground. We believe that with the intense challenges facing our industry, United Airlines will not be able to thrive as long as Glenn Tilton, with his proven record of incompetence, continues as CEO. It is time for Glenn Tilton to go."
The pilots' union issued a list of reasons it says makes clear the airline needs a change in the executive suite:
• In performance, United ranks 18th of 19 for on-time arrivals; 17th of 19 in customer complaints and tenth of 19 for misplaced baggage, according to the latest Department of Transportation data.
• In customers' willingness to pay for the product, despite capacity reductions, load factors in the first 6 months of 2008 are down 2.6 percent, compared with a similar period in 2007.
• In stock performance, UAUA is down 73 percent since United exited bankruptcy on February 1, 2006.
• In profitability, United has lost more money in 2008 than it has made since exiting bankruptcy.
• In overall reputation, United is rated "below the rest" and tied for last place on the latest J.D. Powers satisfaction study.
• A recent "Employee Climate Survey" conducted by United revealed that only 38 percent of United employees take pride in United, down 15 percentage points from 2006. Average Fortune 500 companies find that 84 percent of their employees express pride in the company for which they work. Sixty-two percent of United's employees are not proud of their company, 70 percent are dissatisfied with their jobs, 73 percent are looking for new jobs and 77 percent do not think United is a great place to work.
"This is not a personal attack on Glenn Tilton," said Wallach. "These dismal numbers speak for themselves. They are a reflection of his inability to lead, his incompetence as a manager and his failure in virtually every category that can be measured. We have tried every conceivable way to convince him to invest in, and maximize the goodwill of, his employees. He has failed miserably."
United, as well as most other major airlines, has suffered steep losses and has been forced to cut operating expenses in the face of skyrocketing fuel costs.
Looks can be deceiving when it comes to your health.08/11/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Obese individuals do not appear to have an increased risk for heart disease, while some normal-weight individuals experience a cluster of heart risks....
Mars Petcare Recalls Some Pedigree Dog Food
Company also makes Nutro, blamed for problems by scores of pet owners08/10/2008ConsumerAffairs
Mars said a "component" that tested positive for salmonella was inadvertently shipped to its Tracy, California, plant and used in the production of 100 bag...
A salmonella scare has forced Mars Petcare US to recall 100 of its 20-pound bags of PEDIGREE Complete Nutrition Small Crunchy Bites sold at some Albertsons in Southern California and Las Vegas, Nevada.
The company also makes Nutro pet food, which scores of consumers nationwide blame for the recent illnesses — and even deaths — of their dog and cats.
Nutro products, however, are not included in this recall.
Mars said a "component" that tested positive for salmonella was inadvertently shipped to its Tracy, California, plant and used in the production of 100 bags of PEDIGREE pet food.
The affected bags have the "best by" dates of July 7, 2009.
"Our primary concern is the safety and welfare of our pet owners and their pets," the company said in a statement. "Although the finished product tested negative and we have received no reports of illness of pets or their owners, out of an abundance of caution we are issuing a voluntary recall of the limited number of bags of Pedigree Complete Nutrition Small Crunchy Bites containing the component in question."
Mars said it is working with Albertsons to retrieve any of the affected bags still on store shelves or in distribution centers. Consumers who bought the food should return it to Albertsons for a full refund.
Mars also said it is cooperating with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on this recall.
Salmonella can cause infections in dogs and cats. It can also be transferred from pets to people who ingest or handle contaminated products. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk.
To prevent the spread of salmonella contamination, the FDA said consumers should wash their hands for 20 seconds with hot water and soap before and after handling pet foods and treats.
Consumers should also:
Wash pet food bowls, dishes, and scooping utensils with soap and hot water after each use;
Not use their pets' feeding bowl as a scooping utensil. Pet owners should use a clean scoop or spoon;
Dispose of old or spoiled pet food products in securely tied plastic bags and put them in a covered trash cans.
The FDA's Web site has additional tips on how to safely handle pet food.
Whole Foods Recalls Fresh Ground Beef
Meat came from troubled Nebraska Beef plant08/10/2008ConsumerAffairs
Whole Foods Recalls Fresh Ground Beef...
Upscale grocery Whole Foods has recalled fresh ground beef from all its stores after learning the meat could be tainted by E. coli.
The meat was purchased from Coleman Natural Foods, but was processed at Nebraska Beef, which recalled more than five million pounds of ground beef in May and June.
Nebraska beef recalled an additional 1.2 million pounds of beef produced in June and July, and that beef is included in the meat that found its way to Whole Foods.
Last week Massachusetts health officials reported six people had gotten sick with the particularly virulent E. coli O157:H7strain. By the end of last week, that outbreak had been traced to meat purchased from Whole Foods stores.
Whole foods began an investigation and contacted its meat supplier, Coleman Natural Foods. It was only then, the company says, that it learned the meat had originated at Nebraska Beef. The plant was already under close scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"We will continue to investigate to see what is happening at the plant to see what they have to do to get a handle on their food-safety issues," said USDA spokeswoman Laura Reiser.
In early July USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service took the unusual step of publicly criticizing Nebraska Beef's operation. The agency said the company uses production practices that "are insufficient to effectively control E. coli O157:H7 in their beef products that are intended for grinding. The beef that was ultimately recalled may have been produced under unsanitary conditions, the agency said.
In a statement, Whole Foods said no beef secured from Coleman Natural Foods and sold between June 2 and August 6 is currently in any of its stores. It said its supplier had previously assured it than none of the recalled Nebraska Beef products were among the products it supplied to Whole Foods.
"While Coleman Natural Beef is a relatively small supplier for Whole Foods Market, we are extremely disappointed that we must now question Coleman's assurances," said Edmund Lamacchia, global vice president of procurement.
Whole Foods Market says customers who may have ground beef purchased beef from June 2 to August 6 to dispose of the product and return to the store with the packaging or receipt for a full refund.
"At Whole Foods Market, one of our top priorities is consumer safety, and we go to great lengths to ensure the safety and quality of our meats," said Lamacchia. "We are currently cooperating with the USDA, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Montgomery County Health Department in Pennsylvania as part of a routine multi-state investigation into these confirmed cases of E. coli 0157:H7 infection."
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health issued warnings about the targeted beef. Whole Foods Market said it will continue to work with state and federal authorities as this investigation progresses.
Graphic Card Problem May Affect Millions of Computers
Nvidia admits problem but doesn't alert consumers08/08/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Graphic Card Problem May Affect Millions of Computers...
Pajin of Madison, Wisconsin, is flaming mad at Dell because of problems with the LCD display on his laptop.
"The lines are so bad that I cannot read the text on the screen. I will have to throw this laptop away," Pajin complained. "This is crazy. I hate Dell. I'm never going to buy one again."
But Pajin's anger may be at least partly misdirected. The problem potentially affects millions of laptop computers — including Dell and many other brand names — equipped with an Nvidia GeForce 8M Series graphics processing unit.
Nvidia has conceded the widely-used chip has serious problems. Last month, Nvidia said it would take a $150 to $200 million charge against revenue to cover anticipated customer warranty, repair, return, replacement and other consequential costs and expenses arising from a weak die/packaging material set" in certain versions the chips used in notebooks.
While the accounting charge has clearly created a headache for Nvidia, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company's graphics boards are also causing headaches for consumers whose laptops are equipped with one of the units.
Although Nvidia has admitted that these graphics boards are failing in the field at higher than normal rates, and that testing suggests a weak material set of die/package combination ... are contributing factors for these failures, the company has not yet identified the actual number of graphics cards — or laptops — that are plagued by this problem.
How many laptops are equipped with these Nvidia boards? Good question.
Although Nvidia has been mum on this question thus far, other industry sources estimate that there may be as many as 18 million laptops equipped with the troublesome Nvidia boards — and judging by the size of the charge that Nvidia is taking, that estimate may not be far off the mark.
While Nvidia has admitted that these graphics boards are failing at higher than normal rates, the company has not acted to rectify the problem. Instead of recalling the GeForce 8M Series GPUs at Nvidias expense, Nvidia has thus far been content to sit and wait while the products keep failing.
While this may make business sense for Nvidia, it exposes millions of consumers to the possibility that their computer graphic display will fail without warning — possibly just as they're starting a critically important business presentation or rushing to complete a complex assignment.
What are the symptoms that you should look for and how can you tell if you own a laptop computer equipped with one of these Nvidia graphics boards?
As for symptoms, laptop users have indicated that the problem typically manifests itself by the video screen on the computer either being unable to display anything — or displaying a number of colored lines across the screen.
Because Nvidia is the self-described world leader in visual computing technologies," the faulty video boards can be found in virtually every brand of laptop computer, including top-selling Dell and HP laptops.
Determining whether you own a laptop that is equipped with one of the affected boards is relatively easy. On most Windows laptops, all you need to do is:
(i) click on the Start button on your screen;
(ii) click on the Settings button;
(iii) click on the Control Panel button;
(iv) click on the System button;
(v) click on the Hardware button;
(vi) click on the Device Manager button; and then
(vii) click on the Display adapters button and read the identifying information concerning the specific video graphics card in your laptop.
What if you find that you have the Nvidia GeForce 8M Series card in your laptop? Unfortunately, there's no easy fix and no sure way to prevent problems from occurring. For most consumers, a watch-and-wait strategy is probably the most realistic option.
Consumers who find the card in their laptop can report it using the ConsumerAffairs.com complaint form.
Lowe's Recalls Perfect Flame Gas Grills08/07/2008ConsumerAffairs
Lowe's Recalls Perfect Flame Gas Grills...
August 7, 2008
Lowe's Home Centers is recalling about 24,000 Perfect Flame Double-Lid Four-Burner Gas Grills. The cooking chamber of the grill can melt and/or ignite, posing a risk of fires and burn injuries to consumers.
There have been 175 reports of grill fires and 25 reports of grills melting, some of which resulted in minor property damage. No injuries have been reported.
This recall involves Perfect Flame brand grills, Model GAC3615 four burner LP gas grills. The grill has two lids. "Perfect Flame" is printed on the larger lid. The model number, serial number, and date code are printed on a label on the right side cart frame panel. The following serial numbers and date codes are included in this recall.
|Model Number||Date Code||Serial Number|
The grills were sold at Lowes stores nationwide from October 2007 through July 2008 for about $300. They were made in China.
Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled grills, disconnect the propane tanks, and return the grills without the propane tanks to any Lowes store to receive a full refund.
For additional information, contact Lucas Innovation toll-free at (877) 385-8226 between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit www.gac3615grillrecall.com
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Expert Finds Unexplained Pet Deaths 'Not Consistent'
But S.C. police dogs taken off Nutro food; pet owners still suspicious08/06/2008ConsumerAffairs
Expert Finds Unexplained Pet Deaths 'Not Consistent'...
There's still no definitive explanation for the health problems that scores of dogs and cats across the country have recently experienced after eating Nutro pet food. One expert says the illnesses are "not consistent" and not likely caused by the food. But others are not so sure.
Dr. Steven Hansen, a veterinary toxicologist who manages the Animal Poison Control Center for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), agreed to review the complaints ConsumerAffairs.com has received about Nutro pet food.
We gave Dr. Hansen unprecedented access to our complaint files in an effort to find out why so many pets have become sick — or even died — after eating Nutro food.
"Unfortunately the cases are not consistent and appear to be anecdotal with no real definitive diagnostic findings," Dr. Hansen told us. "Without any consistent trends in findings we can not do anything any further. This does appear to us to be a situation where bad things happen, but they are not likely food-related."
But another veterinarian, this one in South Carolina, suspects Nutro's food may have played a role in the May 22nd death of a dog that was under her care.
She is trying to find an independent lab to test the food and confirm her suspicions.
As a precaution, this veterinarian has told her local police chief to stop feeding Nutro to the dogs on the city's K-9 Unit.
In other developments:
• ConsumerAffairs.com continues to receive complaints about Nutro food and its possible connection to the illnesses and death dogs and cats nationwide. In the past three months, we have received more than 150 complaints from worried pet owners, many of them longtime Nutro customers;
• ConsumerAffairs.com has asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for all the complaints the agency has received in recent months about Nutro food. Despite a Freedom of Information request, the FDA has not yet produced the complaints, which were gathered by public employees at taxpayers' expense and are a matter of public record ;
• Nutro Products Inc. is closing down and laying off a total of 118 employees in City of Industry, California, according to a story posted on CoStar.com.
• A pet safety organization recently tested the Nutro food that two puppies in North Carolina ate before they died in June. The group, Pet Food Products Safety Alliance, tested the food for salmonella and e-coli. The samples were negative for those specific toxins.
Nutro has posted a statement on its Web site claiming a recent ConsumerAffairs.com story falsely reported that its food had caused some pets to become sick. "Every NUTRO product that was analyzed in relation to the June 23 posting on ConsumerAffairs.com has been shown to be safe," the company wrote in response to our story.
In fact, the story in question said, "A series of mysterious illness and death dogs Nutro pet food. Scores of pet owners report their animals became ill while eating Nutro products, then recovered when they were switched to another brand." It did not directly attribute the reports to Nutro products.
As we've reported, scores of healthy pets across the country — and even some in Hawaii and Italy — have recently experienced sudden and recurring bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, and other digestive problems.
One common link among these dogs and cats is the brand of food they've eaten: Nutro.
Many pet owners who've written to us report that their pets' conditions immediately improved once they stopped eating Nutro.
An analysis of our complaints also revealed that at least seven healthy dogs have died after eating Nutro food. The owners suspect — but cannot prove — that Nutro's food played a role in their pets' deaths.
Former Nutro employees confirm that they have heard similar complaints about the company's food.
Several pet owners, they said, told them their dogs and cats had experienced the same types of health problems: diarrhea, vomiting, and lethargy.
The former employees reported their concerns to their supervisors, but said they were ignored. That's why they resigned.
Nutro, however, has repeatedly defended its food, saying it's "100 percent safe."
Cause still unknown
But if nothing is wrong with the food, why are so many pets getting sick after eating Nutro's products?
That's the mystery we hoped Dr. Hansen could help us solve.
He reviewed more than 50 complaints about Nutro, focusing on the cases in which pet owners had taken their dogs or cats to a vet. But those complaints, he said, revealed a myriad of illnesses.
"Right now, it looks like a mixture of reported clinical signs that reflect normal illnesses in the dog population," he said. "They don't speak to something consistently wrong with the pet food.
"Honestly, it is entirely possible that what we're seeing here (in these complaints) is a raised awareness of reporting illnesses."
In other words, pet owners are more aware of possible illnesses in their dogs and cats — probably because of the pet food recall.
What's Dr. Hansen's advice to worried pet owners?
"Speak to Nutro and your vet about your pets' illnesses. But based on what we see in these complaints, we don't suspect the food is related to these cases."
He added: "I appreciate you looking into these complaints. If we don't look at them, then we don't know what's going on. It's a good thing to ask questions and keep an eye out. And if there is a consistent pattern, then we need to keep looking. I'd rather have us be a little cautious than miss something serious."
Meanwhile, a veterinarian in South Carolina is trying to solve her own mystery regarding Nutro.
Dr. Calley Hille suspects that food may have played a role in the recent death of one of her client's dogs — a 13-year-old German Shepherd named Elvis.
That healthy dog, she said, died one week after his owner switched him to Nutro's food with glucosamine. And he showed worrisome symptoms immediately after he ate the food.
"Within 20 minutes after eating the food, he started vomiting," Dr. Hille said.
A couple hours later, Elvis started having violent seizures.
"The next morning, his owners brought him in and we drew blood," she said. "The blood work indicated he had some type of food poisoning. He was vomiting, had diarrhea, and elevated pancreatic enzymes."
Dr. Hille immediately took Elvis off Nutro. A few days later, his owners found him in a puddle of water. They rushed him to Dr. Hille's office.
"I initiated CPR and also did a cardiac massage. I tried to pump his heart with my hands."
Despite her efforts, Elvis died.
"He was a healthy older dog," Dr. Hille said. "He was a beautiful 13-year-old German Shepherd. I wanted to know exactly what happened to Elvis. I wanted to know why he died."
That's why — with the owner's permission — she had the state vet do an autopsy on Elvis.
"I expected the necropsy to maybe show that he had a brain tumor, but he didn't have any neurological signs associated with that," Dr. Hille said.
Autopsy raises questions
The autopsy revealed that Elvis died of internal bleeding — apparently from a hematoma on his spleen. The findings surprised Dr. Hille — and raised more questions.
"The state vet couldn't give me any reason for Elvis to have a hematoma on his spleen," she said. "He also said there was no biological reason for Elvis to have had the seizures."
Dr. Hille, however, has a theory.
"In my opinion, the seizures caused the hematoma. It takes a blunt force for those to happen and Elvis had violent seizures. At one point, he was throwing himself against a wall. The seizures are what made the spleen start to bleed."
But what caused Elvis' sudden seizures? Could his pet food be a factor?
"It's most certainly possible that food poisoning could cause seizures," Dr. Hille said. "I'm not laying my credentials on the line and saying that Nutro caused them, but it makes sense."
She added: "Could it be a coincidence that Elvis died a week after he started eating the food? Yes. But no one can show me what that coincidence is. I asked the state vet why Elvis had the hematoma. He said he didn't know. I asked him why he had the seizures. He said he didn't know."
The state vet did not test for any toxins in Elvis' system. "I don't know why," Dr. Hille said.
But it makes her even more determined to test the food — and hopefully solve this mystery.
"We highly suspect there's a connection between the Nutro food and Elvis' seizures, which ultimately caused his death," she said. "His blood work showed signs of reaction to food. I think we can prove that if we test the food.
"But the state of South Carolina will not test it. They don't do that anymore. My problem is I don't know what to test for. I need to look into what toxins cause seizures."
There may be another culprit involved in this mystery — one that should also be tested.
"It's certainly possible that there is something in the (pet food) bags, especially if they're sitting in storage," Dr. Hille said. "If something is in the bag, the food is going to absorb it."
If those tests come back negative, is it possible that Elvis' age played a role in his death? That's not likely, Dr. Hille said.
"If it was an age thing, the state vet should have found it. And he didn't."
Baffled by Elvis' death, Dr. Hille has taken precautionary measures with other dogs she knows are eating Nutro food — specifically, members of K-9 Unit for the city of North Charleston, South Carolina.
Her husband is a handler for the dogs on that unit.
"I ran blood tests on all seven dogs in the K-9 unit," Dr. Hille said. "Three of the seven showed signs that they needed to get on better food. We have taken all the dogs off Nutro and put them on another food. "I ran those tests because of Elvis' case."
Elvis' owner applauds Dr. Hille's efforts to save her family's beloved German Shepherd. And she's just as committed to finding out what caused his sudden death.
"I don't want this to happen to someone else again," says Tracy H. of. North Charleston. "I am so distraught after having to watch my three kids see our wonderful dog die my 13-year-old son gave him CPR to try and keep him alive"
Tracy has searched for a lab — or state or federal agency — to test Elvis' food. But she's hit several roadblocks.
"I can't find anyone to test it. The Department of Agriculture (in S.C.) no longer does testing for toxicology. I called the FDA, but I got a recording. I did leave a message three times, but I never got a return call."
She's not giving up, though.
"It may cost me a great deal of money to pay for testing, but I will make sure that no one ever has to go through what my family has gone through. My sweet, sweet German Shepherd is gone forever and nothing will ever bring him back. But I will make sure that Nutro never does this to a dog again."
ConsumerAffairs.com contacted Nutro about these concerns and Dr. Hansen's findings.
A company spokeswoman said all Nutro products undergo rigorous testing — beginning with the raw ingredients and ending with the finished products. And she said consumers should not worry about feeding their pets Nutro's foods.
"Nutro products are safe and conform to the standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)," Debra Fair, public relations manager for Mars Petcare, USA, said in a written statement. Mars acquired Nutro in May, 2007. "We are committed to working with these agencies and all stakeholders who share our goal of ensuring the safety of pet food products."
What about the concerns raised by Dr. Hille regarding Elvis' death?
Fair said it would be "irresponsible for us to speculate about the cause of the pet's illness" based on the limited information the company received from ConsumerAffairs.com.
"We encourage the attending veterinarian to contact us so that we can carefully review the details of the case," she said.
Fair also encouraged all consumers with concerns about Nutro to contact the company.
"While consumer concerns about Nutro product quality are rare, we take every complaint seriously. When we learn of an issue, we work with consumers to obtain information and request that samples of any product in question be submitted for testing at an independent facility."
She added: "An in-depth review is performed to determine if an issue does exist. All tested samples of product to date have been shown to be safe and conform to FDA, USDA and AAFCO standards."
She did not, however, state what toxins the company tested for or provide copies of any lab results.
Fair said that many consumers who have contacted ConsumerAffairs.com about Nutro have not shared their concerns with the company.
"A comprehensive review of our call center database shows that the vast majority of individuals posting on your site have not contacted Nutro or provided samples for testing."
Fair also said her company has made repeated efforts to contact all the consumers mentioned in a June 23 ConsumerAffairs.com story about the mysterious deaths of six dogs that had eaten Nutro. The story also focused on the sudden illnesses that pets nationwide and in Italy had experienced after eating the company's food.
"We've either spoken with or left multiple messages for all of the consumers cited in the June 23 posting," Fair said. "There is nothing that indicates that these pet health issues were caused by Nutro pet foods."
But pet owner Sharon A. of Cheektowaga, New York — who was included in our June 23 story — said no one from Nutro has contacted her.
"I've not heard from anyone at Nutro," she told us. Some of the other consumers in our June 23 story had already contacted Nutro.
But others would be hard for Nutro to find because we only identify consumers by their first names and last initials when their complaints are published. Nutro has never contacted ConsumerAffairs.com about those pet owners or asked how they could reach them, although a company spokesman said the information would be "immediately" provided.
"Whenever health and safety are involved, we are happy to immediately share consumer contact information with responsible company researchers, provided the companies agree that they will not take legal action against consumers making comments they object to," said ConsumerAffairs.com President James R. Hood. "No one from Nutro has ever bothered to contact us."
Meanwhile, Fair said her company concurred with Dr. Hansen's findings — and his suggestions to worried pet owners.
"We agree with his recommendation that it is important that consumers with concerns contact Nutro and their veterinarian."
Fair also addressed another issue we've raised before — the shortage of some Nutro products.
"The temporary availability issues that Nutro has experienced with certain products are operational in nature, not quality-related. Shortages of Nutro(tm) Natural Choice Lamb Meal and Rice products at some retail locations are due to the high demand for our products at a time of global shortages in lamb meal We have already secured additional, high-quality supply sources of most raw materials, and are currently working with suppliers in New Zealand and in the U.S. to establish an additional supply of lamb meal."
Some online bloggers have claimed that Nutro may recall some of its food. Fair denied that.
"We have no plans to recall Nutro products," she said.
What about the recent story about lay-offs by the company?
Fair declined to elaborate, stating: "As for the news item you shared regarding our locations in the City of Industry, we have no additional detail to add."
Fair said consumers or veterinarians with concerns or questions about Nutro can contact the company's Consumer Services Department at 1-800-833-5330.
Pet owners' experience
But grieving pet owners like Tracy say that doesn't do any good.
"I called Nutro and they said they have not had complaints of this nature and nor do they have any recalls on the dry food."
Worried pet owners can also contact their local FDA office to report their concerns about Nutro.
They can also call the ASPCA's Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435.
Texas Attorney General Sues Olympic Ticket Scammers
Company accused of taking money and not providing tickets08/06/2008ConsumerAffairs
The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games haven't even started, but an unscrupulous ticket broker is already going for the "gold" in consumers' wallets. That's...
The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games haven't even started, but an unscrupulous ticket broker is already going for the "gold" in consumers' wallets. That's the allegation Texas authorities today made in a lawsuit filed against an Austin-based ticket broker that reportedly deceived consumers who purchased tickets to the Olympic Games.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott took legal action against a company called Ticket City Inc., which sold tickets to the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games for $1,250 each. The company also promised consumers a 200 percent refund if it failed to deliver the pre-purchased tickets.
According to the lawsuit, the company told consumers they would receive their tickets before the start of the Olympic Games.Relying on that information, consumers made hotel reservations and purchased airline tickets to Beijing.
But Ticket City did not have the tickets it was selling online, the attorney general alleged. In March 2008, the company told customers they would not receive their tickets -- or their promised 200 percent refunds.
At the same time, however, authorities learned that Ticket City continued to sell tickets to the opening ceremony at dramatically higher prices. An undercover investigation revealed the company's representatives offered to sell those tickets for $7,000 to $8,668 each.
Abbott's office said the Chinese Government has imposed strict restrictions on how tickets to the Olympic games can be transferred. Specifically, tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies can only be transferred one time after they are sold by a ticket vendor, Abbott said. That means the original buyers can sell their tickets, but the second buyers cannot.
The Chinese government also requires the final buyers to have proper identification, including a photo, embedded into the ticket, along with Chinese the authorities' written approval.
The final day for transferring opening ceremony tickets was July 14, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhuanet. But Ticket City continued to offer tickets for sale as late as July 16, Abbott said.
ConsumerAffairs.com contacted Ticket City today about the lawsuit. "We haven't seen the lawsuit and have no comment," Zach Anderson, the company's vice-president of marketing, told us.
When asked if the company was still selling tickets to the Beijing games, Anderson said "no comment."
We checked the company's Web site today and discovered we could still buy some tickets to the Olympic games. For example, we could get three tickets to the Olympic tennis match on August 12. Those tickets cost $325 each. The Web site, however, also indicated that tickets to many other Olympic events were not available -- including the opening and closing ceremonies.
In the action filed today, Attorney General Abbott seeks a temporary and permanent injunction against the company. It also asks for court-ordered civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act and awards in actual damages to consumers who were financially harmed.
Texans taken by this or other fraudulent businesses can contact the Attorney General's hotline at (800) 252-8011 or file a complaint online at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.
The action taken by Abbot follows a warning released by Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers against other bogus websites claiming to sell Olympic tickets.
Ring Charged with Hacking Major U.S. Retailers
Scheme believed to be the largest identity theft case ever prosecuted08/06/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Ring Charged with Hacking Major U.S. Retailers...
Eleven people accused of hacking nine major U.S. retailers and stealing more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers have been charged with numerous crimes, including conspiracy, computer intrusion, fraud and identity theft, according to federal officials.
The scheme is believed to constitute the largest hacking and identity theft case ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.
Three of those charged are U.S. citizens, one is from Estonia, three are from Ukraine, two are from the People's Republic of China and one is from Belarus. One individual is only known by an alias online, and his place of origin is unknown.
The indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Boston charges Albert "Segvec" Gonzalez, of Miami with computer fraud, wire fraud, access device fraud, aggravated identity theft and conspiracy for his role in the scheme. Criminal information also was released on related charges against Christopher Scott and Damon Patrick Toey, both of Miami.
The Boston indictment alleges that during the course of the sophisticated conspiracy, Gonzalez and his co-conspirators obtained the credit and debit card numbers by "wardriving" and hacking into the wireless computer networks of major retailers. They are alleged to be responsible for the TJX Companies data breach, as well as BJ's Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Forever 21 and DSW.
Once inside the networks, they installed "sniffer" programs that would capture card numbers, as well as password and account information, as they moved through the retailers' credit and debit processing networks.
The indictment maintains that after they collected the data, the conspirators concealed the data in encrypted computer servers that they controlled in Eastern Europe and the United States. They allegedly sold some of the credit and debit card numbers, via the Internet, to other criminals in the United States and Eastern Europe. The stolen numbers were "cashed out" by encoding card numbers on the magnetic strips of blank cards.
The defendants then used these cards to withdraw tens of thousands of dollars at a time from ATMs. Gonzalez and others were allegedly able to conceal and launder their fraud proceeds by using anonymous Internet-based currencies both within the United States and abroad, and by channeling funds through bank accounts in Eastern Europe.
Gonzalez was previously arrested by the Secret Service in 2003 for access device fraud. During the course of this investigation, the Secret Service discovered that Gonzalez, who was working as a confidential informant for the agency, was criminally involved in the case.
Because of the size and scope of his criminal activity, Gonzalez faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if he is convicted of all charges.
"So far as we know, this is the single largest and most complex identity theft case ever charged in this country," said U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey. "It highlights the efforts of the Justice Department to fight this pernicious crime and shows that, with the cooperation of our law enforcement partners around the world, we can identify, charge and apprehend even the most sophisticated international computer hackers."
How Are You at Managing Your Credit Score?
Know your scores and how to improve them08/06/2008ConsumerAffairs
How Are You at Managing Your Credit Score?...
With credit markets still in turmoil, and lenders getting stingier by the day, keeping your credit score as high as possible is becoming more and more important. It impacts on your ability to get a mortgage and even on your chance to get any kind of loan or credit at reasonable rates.
Some wireless providers are checking your credit rating to determine what kind of agreement they will offer you. Meanwhile, more and more employers are starting to look at your credit scores as part of the hiring process. It's just as important these days to manage what you owe as it is to manage what you own.
What is your credit score?
According to a recent survey sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and Washington Mutual, more than two-thirds of all Americans don't even understand what a credit score means. Basically, your credit score measures the probability that you'll repay a loan. The higher your score, the more likely it is that you will repay your lenders.
The most popular credit rating is the FICO score. FICO stands for Fair Isaac Credit Organizations and it was one of the first firms to institute a credit rating system. FICO scores range from 300 for the worst score to 850 for the best with the median score for consumers at 723.
Your credit score is based on five categories:
• Repayment history, including whether or not you have been late on any payments
• Total amount of debt
• Length of credit history
• Type of credit such as secured debt like mortgages or unsecured like credit cards
• How frequently you borrow
With FICO, the first three categories make up 80 percent of your score. That means if you have a short credit history, even one late payment on a credit card will impact your score greater than if you have a long credit account.
How do I manage my credit card debt?
Like anything else, it helps to have a plan. Create a chart showing the total balance on your credit cards and the minimum monthly payments for each card. Now you may want to pay off the smallest balance first just to give yourself a feeling of accomplishment. But it may make more sense to pay off the cards with the highest interest rates first. Each time you pay off a credit card, add the amount you had been paying to the monthly payments on the remaining cards and continue this until all accounts are paid off in full.
Although each credit card requires a minimum monthly payment, you should pay more, otherwise it will take years and years to pay off the debt and your interest charges will more than double what you paid for your original purchase. Also, try to stop making any new charges until you have paid off all your accumulated debt. If you can't stop totally, reduce it as much as possible.
It's also a good credit management strategy to avoid getting too close to your credit card limit. In fact, most experts suggest keeping your balances less than 30 percent of your credit limit. There are two things you can do if you go over that 30 percent. Pay down your balance or call your issuer and ask for a higher credit limit. But be careful that you don't see that as an open invitation to charge more just because you have a higher credit limit.
Should I apply for new credit cards?
There are situations in which taking on new credit cards could be a good idea. For example, if the cards you had that were once zero interest cards have now popped up into double digit interest rates, it's time to find a better rate. Or if you have several credit cards, you can consolidate these into one low-rate card. Some of the more competitive deals include the Virgin Credit Card, which has a 15-month introductory interest-free balance transfer period, with a debt transfer fee of 2.98 percent. Barclays has a range of cards offering 14 months interest free with a 2.9 percent transfer charge.
Taking on new borrowing - and managing it well - can actually improve your credit score, especially if your credit history includes late payments. But there's a catch. The rate you are offered will depend on your credit score and these good rates are for those with high credit scores. So if you are unlikely to be accepted for these low rates, don't even apply. If you make a number of applications for credit within a short space of time, it will have a negative impact on your credit score.
How do I fix bad credit scores?
Before you can begin repairing a low credit score, you have to get a copy of your credit report just to see what you have to do to improve it. You can do this online by contacting one of three major credit bureau such as Experian, Equifax, or Trans Union. You can also get credit reports for free once a year by visiting the AnnualCreditReport.com Web site. Checking your own reports has no impact on your credit score, and you should check your reports at least once a year to look over your credit usage.
Experts agree that the best way to increase a credit score is to consistently pay bills on time. Late payments can haunt your credit file for up to seven years. One way to make sure this doesn't happen is to set up direct debits.
If you've fallen into that unfortunate category of borrowers who have failed to keep up with with their bills and debt repayments to the point that lenders will have nothing more to do with you, thus denying you the chance to even repair your credit score, you may want to consider a "secured" credit card. This gives you a chance to build up a payment history by borrowing up to the amount you paid into the account. Just make sure the company offering the secured card reports to the credit bureaus, because if it doesn't then it will have no impact on your report. A secured credit card means that you're basically borrowing against your own money because you have put into an account the money that you are borrowing against. It's something in between a debit card and a credit card but it could be a way to demonstrate that you can manage your credit more responsibly.
Improving a poor credit score may take some time, but it is definitely time well spent. Better credit scores will get you better rates on everything from a mortgage to car loans or credit cards, on your existing debt or on any credit you wish to apply for in the future.
TSA Suspends "Clear" Program After Laptop Theft
Computer containing passenger data stolen from airport08/05/2008ConsumerAffairs
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has suspended its "Clear" registered airline traveler program after a laptop containing personal data on 3...
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has suspended its "Clear" registered airline traveler program after a laptop containing personal data on 33,000 pre-enrolled members of the program was stolen from San Francisco International Airport.
The laptop was discovered missing from a locked office at the airport on July 26. The computer, which was password-protected but not encrypted, contained data such as names, addresses, dates of birth, driver's license numbers, and other information.
The data included on the laptop was for new members of the "Clear" program who had not completed the registration procedure.
Verified Identity Pass, Inc (VIP)., the company running the "Clear" program, minimized the risk of identity theft from the stolen data. "There is no reason to believe this is anything other than the simple burglary of a laptop, which the local police are investigating," said (VIP) founder CEO Steven Brill. "For it to be more than that, the thief would have to hack into two different passwordsand even then would not get what identity thieves want mosta Social Security number and/or credit card information."
TSA has ordered VIP to update its security procedures, including encryption for all of its laptops, and to submit to an independent audit to ensure it is in line with TSA's standards before allowing it to resume registrations.
TSA said current "Clear" members would not be affected.
There are several "Registered Traveler" programs in operation around the country, enabling passengers to cut ahead in boarding lines by providing extensive personal data to the TSA and its contractor companies, and by paying regular fees per year. VIP's "Clear" program, with over 48,000 members and service in thirteen airports, is the largest of the programs.
VIP head Brill had previously made news for challenging the TSA's plans to increase fees for the Registered Traveler program to pay for screener salaries. Brill insisted that additional personnel were not needed to handle the "Clear" express boarding lines. The TSA eventually agreed to rescind the proposed rate hike.
Brill also supported the addition of a "ShoeScanner" tool to scan customers' feet without forcing them to remove their shoes during boarding. TSA chief Kip Hawley opposed the new technology, and the program was eventually dropped.
The laptop theft is the latest in a long string of embarrassing gaffes and privacy violations for the TSA, including the creation of a Web site designed to help passengers remove their names from terrorist watch lists that was so insecure it put them at risk for identity theft.
The "Clear" program in particular has been criticized for providing a quick way for wealthier passengers -- or criminals willing to pay-- to board flights without providing any real security benefit.
Writing about "Clear" in 2007, security analyst Bruce Schneier said, "The truth is that whenever you create two paths through security -- a high-security path and a low-security path -- you have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to exploit the low-security path."
Diving Injuries On The Increase
10-to-14-year-olds are group at highest risk08/05/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
"Every year in this country, approximately 6,500 children are treated in emergency departments for diving related injury," said Gary Smith, MD at Nationwid...
Whether it's at the Olympics or at the neighborhood pool, diving is one of the fastest growing sports in this country.
Every day millions of people do it and every four years during the Olympics, billions of people watch it. So it might surprise you that researchers are just now delving into the dangers of diving boards.
Chelsea Davis will tell you that competing at the highest levels of diving takes persistence. Day after day, dive after dive. No matter how hard she works to get it right even an experienced diver like Chelsea knows how quickly it can all go wrong. At the World Championships in 2005, she hit her head on the diving board and landed in the glare of the media.
"My nose was broken in about ten places, and I fractured my cheek bone and I sprained my neck," she said.
It was one terrifying example of something that happens every day, more often than many of us might think.
"Every year in this country, approximately 6,500 children are treated in emergency departments for diving related injury," said Gary Smith, MD at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
On average that's an injury an hour in the U.S., every hour of every day that most pools are open. According to a study just published in the journal Pediatrics, kids between the ages of 10 and 14 are the most likely to get hurt diving, and boys are taken to the hospital twice as often as girls. Experts say it's not the high risk, high dives that are to blame.
"More than 80 percent of the dive injuries were from a dive height of less than or equal to one meter. So, that is not the highest dive, that's not a platform dive, this is the lowest dive height available at the pool," said Lara McKenzie, PhD, Nationwide Children' Hospital.
A new study conducted by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy (CIRP) of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital found that the most common injuries while diving were to the head, neck, and face.
Findings revealed that an estimated 111,000 diving-related injuries to persons under the age of 19 were treated in emergency departments from 1990 through 2006. Lacerations and soft tissue injuries were the most common diagnoses, representing more than 58 percent of all injuries.
Collision with the diving board or platform was the leading cause of injury -- the likelihood of collision with the diving board dramatically increased when a diver attempted a flip, handstand or backward dive.
"There is a need for increased prevention efforts to lower the risks of diving-related injuries among children and adolescents," said study co-author Lara McKenzie, PhD, MA, principal investigator in CIRP at Nationwide Children's Hospital. "The recent growth of the sport of diving, coupled with the increasing complexity and difficulty of dives, has resulted in a greater potential for both competitive and recreational diving-related injuries."
"Based on our findings, the largest age group of injured divers was 10- to 14 year-olds," said. "Although this group made up the largest number of injured divers, 10- to 19-years-olds were more at risk for an injury to the extremities. Boys were two times more likely to experience a head or neck injury or a fracture."
Recommended strategies for preventing diving-related injuries include educating divers about jumping into shallow water from the pool edge; placing visible depth indicators around the pool; constructing soft bottom pools; and removing obstacles from lakes, rivers and oceans. The presence of a lifeguard or trainer, as well as teaching proper diving techniques, could reduce the overall number of diving-related injuries.
"Parents, pediatricians, coaches, lifeguards and trainers need to be aware of the types of injuries seen during recreational and competitive diving, as well as the risk factors," said McKenzie.
Companies Agree To Cut Cancer-Causing Chemicals In Potato Chips
Fast food makers pay thousands in settlement with California08/04/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
The state of California has settled lawsuits against Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance Inc. after the companies agreed to slash levels of the cancer...
The state of California has settled lawsuits against Heinz, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods and Lance Inc. after the companies agreed to slash levels of the cancer-causing chemical acrylamide in their potato chips and French fries.
"The companies agreed to reduce this carcinogenic chemical in fried potatoes -- a victory for public health and safety in California," said Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. "Other companies should follow this lead and take steps to reduce acrylamide in french fries and potato chips."
In 2005, the attorney general sued McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, KFC, Frito-Lay, Kettle Foods, Lance, Procter & Gamble and Heinz, for selling potato chips and French fries containing high levels of acrylamide, a chemical known to the state to cause cancer.
Acrylamide is a by-product of frying, roasting and baking foods -- particularly potatoes -- that contain certain amino acids. In 2002, Swedish scientists discovered high levels of cancer-causing acrylamide in fried potato products.
The suit was filed against the French fry and potato chip companies under Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, which requires companies to post warnings of any cancer-causing chemicals in their products unless they can prove that the levels do not pose a significant health risk.
Last year, restaurant chains including KFC, McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King agreed to post acrylamide warnings at their restaurants and to pay civil penalties and costs. In January, Procter & Gamble agreed to reduce acrylamide in Pringles potato chips by 50 percent so that no warning would be required.
Under these latest settlements, Frito-Lay, Inc., which sells most of the potato chips sold in California, Kettle Foods, Inc., maker of Kettle Chips, and Lance, Inc., maker of Cape Cod Chips will reduce acrylamide over a period of three years to 275 parts per billion.
For Frito Lay, this is about a 20 percent reduction, while for Kettle Chips, which contain far more acrylamide; this is an 87 percent reduction in acrylamide. Most Cape Cod chips are already near the compliance level, but one product, Cape Cod Robust Russets, contains over 7,000 parts per billion of acrylamide, and immediately will either carry a warning label on the package or will be removed from the market.
Frito-Lay will pay $1.5 million in penalties and costs, $550,000 will be forgiven if it can reduce acrylamide in its products in half the time required by the settlement. It will pay an additional $2 million if it fails to reduce acrylamide in the required time. Kettle Foods will pay $350,000 in penalties and costs, while the much smaller Lance, Inc., will pay $95,000 in fees and costs.
The state also reached agreement with Heinz, Inc., the manufacturer of Ore-Ida frozen French fries and tater tots, which will pay $600,000 in penalties and costs and will change its fried potatoes to contain 50 percent less acrylamide.
The U.S. FDA is studying the problem of acrylamide in fried potatoes but has not taken formal action. The FDA's website advises consumers that acrylamide can be reduced by not over-browning potatoes during cooking.
Brown said he will work with the companies to find a way to effectively give consumers information about the acrylamide in their products, while at the same time preventing undue public alarm and unnecessary warning signs concerning foods that contain insignificant amounts of the chemical.
Most Kids' Meals Exceed Suggested Daily Intake
Restaurants lobby to keep nutritional facts secret08/04/2008ConsumerAffairs
Nearly all kids meals at national restaurant chains exceed the recommended daily intake for a child's meal, according to a report released today by a consu...
Nearly all kids meals at national restaurant chains exceed the recommended daily intake for a child's meal, according to a report released today by a consumer advocacy organization.
"When you take a kid out to a restaurant, virtually every meal aimed at kids is above their suggested caloric intake,"said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the not-for-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
93 percent of 1,474 kids meal combos at 13 chains exceed the limit of 430 calories that experts recommend for 4-8-year-olds for one meal, according to the report from the CSPI. Topping the list were two items from Chili's kids menu that each offered just over 1,000 calories while many others contained 700 or more.
The report also found there are usually few, if any, healthy items that can be substituted for french fries and other fatty dishes that are often the default sides that come with kids meals.
Obesity rates among children have tripled over the past 20 years and part of the blame lies with restaurants, said Dr. Margot Wootan, a nutritional health expert with CSPI.
"A very large number of children already have the warning signs of heart disease,"Wootan said.
Every kids meal combo at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Sonic, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box and Chick-fil-A exceed the recommended calorie count, according to the report. Subway has the healthiest kids menu with only 33 percent of the meals exceeding 430 calories.
Wootan suggested restaurants post the caloric information on menus, offer more healthy options and that the default side dishes be swapped for healthier items.
"There needs to be more options so parents can find something healthy their kids will eat," Wootan said.
Kids meals offered at Disney resorts automatically come with healthy sides such as fruit and salads. The healthy sides can be exchanged for fries and other less healthy dishes, but 70 percent of the time, patrons keep the meal as it is offered on the menu, Wootan said.
"Kids love grapes and lots of different foods," Wootan said. "Instead, there's usually only french fries."
While some restaurants refuse to share nutritional information, many others only have it available on their Web sites, according to the report.
New York City currently requires chain restaurants to label the calorie contents on the menu in the same size font as the price and name of the item, although the New York State Restaurant Association has a pending lawsuit against the city's decision.
It's the first place in the U.S. to enact such a rule, but similar laws are pending in California and Portland, Ore. Restaurant associations are also lobbying hard in California and Portland, said Cathy Nonas, director of Physical Activity and Nutritional Programs for the New York City Health Department.
"They're spending a lot of money to hide the nutritional information," Nonas said.
Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, said the city's law violates the first amendment and is preempted by a Federal law that exempts restaurants from sharing nutritional information.
He said they are fighting the law because of the city's "inflexible" procedure when creating it.
The California Restaurant Association supports mandating that restaurants offer brochures with nutritional information at the point of sale, but not that they put the calorie count on the menu, said the association's spokesman, Daniel Conway.
"I think every time someone wants to go to a restaurant, they may not want to have this information," Conway said. "It doesn't give the customer a choice."
New York City's law follows a study of 7,000 people that found that restaurant patrons chose on average 52 less calories when given the calorie contents before they purchased their meal.
If restaurants are forced to display the calorie content on the menu, they will be forced to reformulate their menu so that is healthier, Nonas said. She compared it to the law that required processed food manufacturers to disclose whether their food contains trans fats. Since then, trans fats have nearly disappeared from that market, she said.
MIT Researcher Reports Solar Power Breakthrough
Discovery could mean a cheap new energy source08/03/2008ConsumerAffairs
MIT Researcher Reports Solar Power Breakthrough...
By Mark Huffman
August 3, 2008
Solar power, which some hold out as a promising form of alternative energy, may have just become a lot more practical.
A researcher at MIT has developed a catalyst that he says can generate oxygen from a glass of water by splitting water molecules. His colleagues say that one simple step could lead to an efficient — and cheap — method of storing energy from the sun.
No one disputes that solar cells can generate significant amounts of energy. The problem is, they can't do it for very long each day. The sun provides abundant energy for just a few hours each day, and none at night, requiring supplemental energy sources or a big bank of batteries.
Dr. Daniel Nocera and his research team have in effect created an artificial form of photosynthesis, which is the way plants use sunlight to turn water into usable energy. Using a cheap and easy to make catalyst, they produce a reaction that in turn produces a hydrogen gas. The hydrogen becomes a fuel, which can be burned or used to power a fuel cell to generate electricity on demand.
How big is this breakthrough?
Karsten Meyer, a professor of chemistry at Friedrich Alexander University, in Germany, calls it "probably the most important single discovery of the century." True, the century is only eight years old, but still, that's saying something.
Scientists say the most significant aspect of the breakthrough is the use of an inexpensive and easy to make catalyst. That, they say, would allow the energy produced from the process to be done at a lower cost that previously believed possible.
Obviously, consumers won't see the benefits of this breakthrough in the short run. Its one thing to make it work in a laboratory, it's quite another to produce it on a scale that it can make a significant contribution to the power grid.
But because of its simplicity and the low cost of the materials involved, other researchers are expected to begin their own experiments, perhaps leading to a commercially viable hydrogen fuel system, powered by the sun.
EPPICard Scam Pops Up In Indiana
Payment system used to trick cardholders into revealing information08/01/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
More scammers appear to be using the EPPICard as a pretense to trick consumers into revealing sensitive information. Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter ...
More scammers appear to be using the EPPICard as a pretense to trick consumers into revealing sensitive information. Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter has issued a consumer alert about bogus text, voice and e-mail messages, claiming to come from EPPICard.
At least one state agency, the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, uses the EPPICard system to administer unemployment insurance benefits, Carter said.
EPPICard is an electronic funds transfer card, used by a number of states to make payments to citizens for a variety of purposes. Instead of mailing a benefits check, for example, the state might simply deposit funds in the citizen's EPPICard account. The card can be used like a credit card at retail locations, and at ATMs.
The attorney general's office said it has received several complaints about the messages, which falsely inform recipients that their EPPICard account is closed. It instructs recipients to call a telephone number and to provide personal and/or card information.
Example Text Message:
MSG: Your EPPICard account is closed due to unusual activity, call us now at 7573200489.
"If you have received a message, purportedly from EPPICard, do not respond," said Carter. "It's nothing more than a scam designed to drain your account and steal your personal information."
An alert on the EPPICard Web site indicates that the company will never request social security numbers, card numbers or personal identification numbers (PIN) through text, voice or e-mail messages. The company urges people who believe their account has been compromised to call the telephone number on the back of the card.
Sellers should appraise value objectively and protect their assets08/01/2008ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Getting Top Dollar For Jewelry Requires Knowledge, Patience...
FCC Votes To Punish Comcast For Content Blocking
Majority of commissioners say cable giant violated federal policy08/01/2008ConsumerAffairs
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officially voted 3-2 on Friday to penalize Comcast for its blocking of customer access to file-sharing engine B...
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officially voted 3-2 on Friday to penalize Comcast for its blocking of customer access to file-sharing engine BitTorrent. Although the FCC voted not to fine Comcast for its actions, the decision would set precedent against Internet service providers (ISPs) that attempt to block or shape their customers' Internet traffic.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, and commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, both Democrats, all stated that Comcast violated the FCC's "Internet Principles" through its shaping of customers' Internet traffic. The Policy Statement, adopted in 2005 under previous chairman Michael Powell, principles include the rights of consumers to have lawful access to the Internet, to attach devices and run applications that are legal and cause no harm, and to enjoy competition among service providers.
"We begin by affirming that the Commission can and will enforce the Internet Principles," Martin said. "This should come as no surprise. Three years ago the Commission declared that it would not hesitate to act if faced with evidence that a provider was violating the principles."
"In an age when traditional media markets are dominated by a handful of giant conglomerates, there is optimism about the rise of broadband as an outlet for creative expression and democracy," Adelstein said. "The Internet can restore decentralized and entrepreneurial voices to the media landscape that are reflective of the best aspects of the American tradition. This Order is a vital step towards maintaining the potential and promise that the Internet holds for enriching our economic, cultural and social well-being."
"Let's be clear about what todays Order does and does not accomplish," said Copps. "We do recognize that unreasonably impeding the performance of an Internet applicationand not just outright blocking a particular website or programviolates the FCC's Internet policies. We do not, however, prohibit carriers from reasonably managing their networks. And we do not prevent engineerseither now or in the futurefrom coming up with new and better ways to serve their customers."
Republican commissioners Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate dissented, with McDowell claiming that the ruling would cause regulatory and technological uncertainty among Internet providers.
"Under the new regulatory rubric of the undefined term 'reasonable network management,' engineers do not know if they are allowed to manage your Internet experience so you can watch online video without distortion, pops, and hisses," McDowell said. "Similarly, they now do not know what the government will allow them to do, or not do, to manage the growing flood of peer-to-peer applications."
Supporters of net neutrality, the principle that all Internet content should be accessed equally, cheered the ruling. Josh Silver, executive director of media reform group Free Press, said that "The FCC's bipartisan decision to punish Comcast is a major victory."
"Defying every ounce of conventional wisdom in Washington, everyday people have taken on a major corporation and won an historic precedent for an open Internet," Silver said." In a conference call discussing the ruling, Free Press' general counsel Marvin Ammori thanked the "1.6 million Americans who knocked on doors" and drew attention to the issue, both online and off.
Comcast senior vice-president Sena Fitzmaurice said in a statement to Ars Technica that the company was grateful not to be fined, but "we are disappointed in the Commission's divided conclusion because we believe that our network management choices were reasonable, wholly consistent with the industry practices and that we did not block access to Web sites or online applications, including peer-to-peer applications."
Comcast's Hard Road
The discovery in November 2007 that Comcast was blocking users' access to BitTorrent reignited the debate over net neutrality, with supporters pointing to Comcast's actions as clear evidence that ISPs were ready and willing to block users' ability to surf the Web freely. Comcast claimed that its actions were only at peak user traffic times, and represented only a small portion of its traffic, the majority of which continued to flow freely.
But further research found that both Comcast and Cox Communications blocked access to BitTorrent at all times of the day, regardless of customer usage and traffic.
FCC chair Martin announced in January that the Commission would investigate Comcast's actions, while the company scrambled to polish its image through cutting deals with BitTorrent and Vonage to work with them on new network management practices.
Net neutrality has been a divisive issue at the FCC, with the Democratic commissioners urging strong penalties for ISPs that block customers' access to Web sites and codified principles protecting the right to an open Internet. The Republican commissioners have generally preferred a more laissez-faire approach, advocating that any problems should be dealt with using existing law, rather than creating new laws before the problem can be fully examined.
But Martin has also distinguished himself as being exceptionally friendly to telecom companies such as AT&T; and Verizon, who have challenged the cable industry by offering their own combinations of high-speed Internet, phone, and television services. Martin has aggressively pursued new regulations against the cable industry and in favor of the telecom sector, ostensibly to lower prices and offer more choices for consumers. The benefits have largely been yet to materialize.
Supporters of the ruling defended Martin's decision. "I think it's unfair to say Martin is anti-consumer," said Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge on the Free Press conference call. "He's unpredictable. Some things he's with us on, others he's against us, which is good, coming from this administration."
Sohn noted the significance of an official of the Bush administration ruling against Comcast, given its historically anti-regulatory stances. "I've been in telecommunications and business policy for over twenty years," Sohn said, "and this is the most significant decision I've seen in twenty years."
"[Martin's] decision is very pro-business," Ammori said. "The decision favors innovation, whereas a decision that would enable companies like Comcast to block content is very anti-business and anti-innovation."
Both supporters and opponents of the ruling said the door was now open for possible legislation that would codify the principles of net neutrality into law. Lawrence Spiwak of the Phoenix Center said that the ruling demonstrated that "the FCC was the appropriate agency to handle these issues, and additional legislation would be unnecessary."
Ammori said that Congressional legislation would help solidify the decision and grant it the advantage of incumbency. Several bills are pending in both the Senate and House that would use various means to prevent companies from blocking users' access to content and investigating cases when it does occur.
The issue of Internet providers increasingly using "metered" or "pay-as-you-go" broadband as an alternative to shaping traffic was brought up in the wake of the ruling, with opponents saying that without the ability to control Internet users' access, more companies would switch to metered plans in order to prevent congestion.
Sohn said that was "a false choice," and not the case in countries with more advanced and pervasive broadband penetration than the U.S. has. "Today's bandwith hog is tomorrow's normal bandwith user," Sohn said. "Companies that say they'll be using metered broadband need to stop making excuses and build out their networks to prevent congestion."