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Mars Extends Pet Food Recall

Salmonella found in more pet food samples

Mars Extends Pet Food Recall...


Mars Petcare US is extending a recall of dry pet food after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported finding Salmonella in additional samples of the company's SPECIAL KITTY Gourmet Blend cat food.

The earlier recall, issued October 27, was for cat food produced at Mars' Allenton, Pa., plant on August 11, 2008. The recall is now being extended to cover all dry pet food produced at the plant with a "best by" date between August 11, 2009 and October 3, 2009.

The recall affects only products sold at BJ's Wholesale Club, ShopRite Supermarkets, and Wal-Mart locations in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, and West Virginia. No other customers and no other states are affected.

Retailers have been notified of the recall and asked to remove the products from their shelves. The recalled pet food should not be fed to pets and should be handled carefully by consumers. Consumers should wear disposable gloves and wash their hands carefully when handling any food product thought to carry Salmonella.

Mars makes a variety of pet foods, including Nutro dog food, which has been the target of hundreds of complaints from angry pet ownes who have written to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Eric of Lowell, Mass., said his dog became ill when he switched to Nutro.

"We rushed him to the vet who initially thought it might be leptospirosis, but those tests came back negative," Eric said. "After four days at the vet, with IV's, a negative Lepto test, and multiple medications, he was sent home and seems to be doing much better."

"Bottom line? He became sick after eating Nutro. He got better after stopping eating Nutro," Eric said.

Salmonella

Salmonella can cause serious infections in dogs and cats, experts say. People can also be infected if they handle the tainted food. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable.

Symptoms of Salmonella infection in humans include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever. Salmonella can, in rare cases, cause such serious illnesses as arterial infections, arthritis, muscle pain, and urinary tract symptoms.

Pets infected with Salmonella may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets, however, may only have decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain.

Pet owners whose cats ate the recalled food and have these symptoms should contact their veterinarian.

Mars said it was trying to get ahead of the problem.

"We are continuously monitoring and updating our processes to be at the forefront of product quality, innovation, customer responsiveness, and manufacturing efficiency. In recent months, we have invested tens of millions of dollars in plant upgrades, new testing protocols, advanced associate training, and a new state of the art testing facility that will open in mid-2009," the company said in a statement.

For more information about the recall, pet owners can contact the company at 1-877-568-4463.

More about pets ...



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IIHS Picks Safest Vehicles for 2009

Ford, Volvo, Honda lead winners' circle

Top Safety Pick recognizes vehicles that do the best job of protecting people in front, side, and rear crashes based on good ratings in Institute tests....

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FDA Finds Melamine in U.S. Infant Formula

Agency insists amounts were "minute" and do not pose an immediate danger

FDA Finds Melamine in U.S. Infant Formula...



Melamine -- the chemical blamed for the deaths of four infants in China and countless pets in the United States -- has been found in infant formula, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper quoted FDA official Stephen Sundlof as saying the finding is "no cause for concern." He said the chemical was at very low levels and was probably the result of contact with melamine during processing or packaging. Sundlof said the agency also found minute amounts of melamine in products such as nutritional and medical supplements made by five U.S. manufacturers of infant formula.

Melamine is a chemical used to make plastic and fertilizers. It is not allowed in human or pet food, although in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the FDA approved melamine as a "food contact substance," Sundlof said.

Sundlof said the discovery was part of a testing program that went into high gear after melamine in Chinese infant formula sickened tens of thousands of Chinese infants and killed four. Samples tested by FDA came not only from ethnic markets but also from products produced by the five major U.S. infant formula manufacturers.

Animal tests are now being conducted to determine melamine safety levels, he said.

Imports detained

Earlier this month, the FDA announced that it was detaining scores of products imported from China, including some pet food, because of possible melamine contamination.

Under this action, dozens of Chinese-imported items that contain milk products will be held at the border -- and not allowed to enter the U.S. -- until the importers can prove the items are not tainted with melamine or are not made with milk or milk-derived ingredients.

The products listed in the import alert -- a precautionary measure designed to keep food tainted with melamine from entering the country -- include candy, cereals, snack foods, cheese, ice cream, soft drinks and baby food products.

"We've continued to get information from others in the international community, and reports from China, about (melamine contamination) moving into different commodities," Steve Solomon, a senior FDA enforcement official, told The Associated Press. "Most of the products we are talking about are finished products like cookies, cakes and candies. The impact will be for various ethnic communities looking for specific products."

"The (infants') illnesses involved the formation of kidney stones and crystals and related complications," the FDA wrote in the import alert. It added that some 13,000 infants were hospitalized after drinking the tainted formula.

"The milk used in the infant formula has been implicated as the source of the melamine contamination." The FDA learned that melamine was added to the infant formula to increase the nitrogen content and falsely inflate the protein content.

The melamine contamination, however, isn't limited to infant formula.

"FDA analyses have detected melamine and cyanuric acid in a number of products that contain milk or milk-derived ingredients, including candy and beverages," the agency wrote.

And those products were shipped to consumers around the world.

More than 13 countries -- including Asia, Europe and Australia--have discovered melamine in a variety of products made with the tainted milk ingredients from China, the FDA said. Those products include candy, yogurt, frozen desserts, biscuits, instant coffee, milk tea products, and other beverages.

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Texas Sues Online Retailers

Companies hoodwinked customers into expensive new deals

Texas Sues Online Retailers...

Two online digital camera and electronic retailers used deceptive tactics to dupe consumers into buying overpriced and, in some cases, used products, according to a lawsuit filed today by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Abbott's office charged Broadway Photo, L.L.C. and Starlight Camera & Video Inc., both of Brooklyn, N.Y, with conducting unlawful bait-and-switch sales schemes.

According to state investigators, those companies hoodwinked consumers by offering the lowest retail prices on price-comparison Web sites.

Once consumers bought merchandise and made credit card purchases on the companies' Web sites, they were told their orders had been processed. Despite those notifications, consumers were later told to call and confirm their orders.

"Rather than use the calls to confirm customers orders, the defendants instead initiated aggressive, high-pressure sales pitches promoting over-priced accessories, including memory cards and batteries," Abbott's office said in a written statement. "The defendants' telemarketers insisted these upgraded accessories were needed in order for the customers' confirmed merchandise to function normally."

When consumers refused those offers, the companies told them their merchandise was "substandard and lacked warranties," Abbott said.

"The defendants' telemarketers encouraged customers to purchase different, more expensive products," Abbott said. "If customers refused, the defendants canceled the orders, claiming the products were indefinitely back-ordered. When the defendants actually did ship orders, customers who intended to purchase new merchandise often received used or refurbished products."

Abbott's office is seeking restitution for consumers, injunctions to stop the companies' action, and civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

Texas consumers taken by the companies' schemes can file complaints on the Attorney General's Web site.

More Scam Alerts ...

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Honda Recalls 2001 Accord, Civic to Fix Air Bag Inflator

Honda Recalls 2001 Accord, Civic to Fix Air Bag Inflator...

November 24, 2008
Honda is recalling about 4,000 model year 2001 Accord and Civic vehicles. The driver's air bag inflator could produce excessive internal pressure, possibly causing it to rupture upon deployment.

The rupture could permit metal fragments to pass through the air bag cushio material, possibly causing injury.

Dealers will replace the inflator free of charge when the recall begins in late December.

Owners may contact Honda at 1-800-999-1009.

Consumers may contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY: 1-800-424-9153) or at www.safercar.gov.

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BMW Recalls 2008-09 M3s with Double Clutch Option

BMW Recalls 2008-09 M3s with Double Clutch Option...

November 24, 2008
BMW is recalling about 2,500 M3 vehicles from the 2008-2009 model years with an optional double clutch transmission.

The problem involves the double clutch gearbox. In a situation of rapid deceleration, the transmission software may perform a multistage downshift. At low speeds, it is possible that the engine could stall, increasing the risk of a crash.

Dealers will reprogram the engine and transmission electronic control unit free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in November.

Owners may contact BMW at 1-800-831-1117.

Consumers may contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY: 1-800-424-9153) or at www.safercar.gov.

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Mississippi Still Dealing with Katrina Repair Fraud

Three years later, victims still being taken advantage of

Mississippi Still Dealing with Katrina Repair Fraud...

Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the state is still investigating home repair fraud complaints and making arrests.

In the last few weeks Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says his office has made three more arrests for home repair fraud in cases being worked by its Consumer Protection Division. The arrests are the Attorney General's 95th, 96th and 97th since Hurricane Katrina.

Randy Lee Davis, age 36, living in Stone County, turned himself into the Consumer Protection Division on Tuesday November 18, 2008 on a charge of felony home repair fraud. Davis, who had been living in Saucier, is accused by a Saucier resident of failing to build a new home in Saucier after the homeowner lost a home in Pass Christian to Hurricane Katrina.

Edward William Callison, age 62, of Fort Worth Texas, was arrested on November 17, 2008. Callison had moved to South Mississippi in late 2005 and opened a model home/modular home sales lot on Highway 49 in Gulfport, under the name Becky Sue's Gallery of Homes. He then moved back to Texas, closing the business after July of 2007. In late 2007 and early 2008, the Consumer Protection Division began to receive complaints.

In one complaint, a Hancock County resident paid for a home that was never delivered. In two other complaints, homes were delivered but the homeowner's had numerous problems with the installation not being completed.

Edward Callison's wife, Becky Sue Callison, age 51, of Fort Worth Texas, was arrested on November 6, 2008 and charged Felony Home Repair Fraud and Felony Embezzlement.

"We are nearing 100 arrests for home repair fraud since Katrina," said Hood. "We will keep at it as long as the cons continue to operate."

 

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An Upside to the Down Market: A Lower Tax Bill

Investors use tax loss harvesting to their advantage

An Upside to the Down Market: A Lower Tax Bill...

Did you know there was actually an upside to this down market? Just as the pilgrims gave thanks for their harvest, it may be fitting this Thanksgiving to give thanks to something called "tax loss harvesting." It's a little known strategy that some investors plan to use this year to take advantage of losses in the stock market to offset any capital gains and even some ordinary income tax liability.

All you have to do is sell those losers in your investment portfolio by the end of the year and you can use any losses to cash in on an equal amount of investment gains tax-free. You can even use those losses to offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income and carry over excess losses into future years.

Although you need to check with your accountant before you try to apply this strategy to your own situation, here is a short general course in a legal tax loophole that the rich have been using for years.

Tax loss harvesting

Before you can understand tax loss harvesting, you have to try to understand our complex tax laws. As written, the current tax laws allow you to "realize" losses to offset gains "realized" with other investments. Realize is just a short hand way of saying that when you sold your stock you either "made or lost" money depending on whether the sale price was higher or lower than what you paid for it. Using financial lingo, "realize" stands for that gain or loss.

In better times, logic would often dictate that when a stock price is lower than what you paid for it, you would want to hold on to it until the price goes up and then sell it so you actually make money. Granted you have to pay taxes on what you make (which is called a capital gains tax) but you still gained and thats usually better than a loss.

But these are unusual times, when stock prices are more likely to continue going down instead of up, and when taking a loss might prove to be a gain around tax time. And taking or "harvesting" a loss becomes a prudent way of offsetting not only capital gains but up to $3,000 in ordinary income.

Short and long-term gains

To make things even more complicated, the IRS divides capital gains and losses between short-term and long-term and taxes each one differently. Short-term capital gains and losses occur when you sell a security you've owned for less than one year. Short-term gains are taxed at the same rate as your ordinary income, which means whatever tax bracket you're in, and the maximum rate is now 35 percent, that's the rate you'll pay for short term gains.

On the other hand, long-term capital gains and losses, those held for longer than one year, are currently taxed at just 15 percent.

If you sold securities, stocks, bonds or mutual funds that resulted in a long or short term capital (which means money) gain earlier in the year, you can now sell those securities and take losses in order to offset any previous gain. Long-term losses will offset long-term gains. Short-term losses will offset short-term gains. And net losses in either category will then offset gains in the other category.

If the net result is an overall loss in capital, the excess loss can be used to offset ordinary income dollar-for-dollar up to a maximum $3,000. Any excess capital losses can be carried forward indefinitely to reduce capital gains liability and ordinary income in future years. As an investment strategy, this process is known as tax loss harvesting.

"Wash Sale" rule

There, however, are some rules and restrictions. For example, the IRS will not let you take a tax loss deduction from the sale of a stock or security, if the same or a substantially identical stock or security (I'll explain this later) was purchased within 30 days before or after the sale, which adds up to a total of 60 days. This is known as the "wash sale" rule. However, any loss could be added to the cost of any new securities purchased so that when youve finally moved outside of the wash-sale window period of 61 days, that loss would be calculated into the selling price of the security.

Substantially identical securities

The Wash-Sale rule doesn't really spell out or define what it means by the term "substantially identical." When it comes to stocks, this term doesn't really apply since stocks are shares in a particular company and each one is different. Bonds on the other hand tell a different story. Financial experts say bonds that have different issuers or there are substantial differences in either maturity or coupon rate would not be considered substantially identical. But, if an investor finds a replacement bond with a similar coupon, duration and maturity and credit rating, yet with a different issuer, the actual composition of the portfolio would be virtually unchanged.

Preparing for future higher tax rates

Under current tax law, the maximum tax rate for long-term capital gains is 15percent, and the maximum tax rate on income for individuals is 35 percent. According to the Tax Policy Center, these rates are expected to move higher under the new Obama administration. For those in the top two income brackets, a new maximum capital gains rate of 20 percent may be created. For ordinary income, the top two income brackets may return to their 1990's levels of 36 percent and 39.6 percent.

Consult your tax advisor

You should consult with your tax advisors as to whether there are potential benefits of harvesting tax losses now versus what can be carried forward for use in the future when capital gains and ordinary income is expected to be taxed at higher rates for some individuals. Keep in mind that the administration's tax proposals must be approved by Congress. There may be state and local taxes that have to be considered. Then there also all those transaction costs, such as brokerage fees, that may apply if you are buying and selling securities. So make sure youve considered the complete field of pros and cons of tax-loss harvesting before reaping this crop.

---
Fred Yager, a veteran AP and CBS News journalist, was formerly president of Merrill-Lynch Broadcasting.

 

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Industry Troubles Cloud LA Car Show

Attendees burdened by failing economy, weak sales

Industry Troubles Cloud LA Car Show...

The Los Angeles Car Show is normally a time of back slapping, smooth sales pitches and wide smiles. It seems a little different this year, according to attendees who have wandered the exhibit hall filled with shiny chrome.

"October was the worst month for U.S. auto sales in 25 years," said Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renalt. "Nothing is moving. The decline is not confined to the U.S. market; most of the mature auto markets, including Europe, Japan, are also down significantly, with slowdowns in the emerging markets as well."

If the Japanese carmakers are gloomy, who can just imagine how the contingent from Detroit feels. GM canceled its events but still has cars on display. It scratched plans to showcase a new Buick LaCross sedan and a new Cadillac model. Instead, it will lift the veil on those models in Detroit in January.

Chrysler has only a minimal presence at the show as well. Ford, on the other hand, is showing off a new Mustang model, as well as a restyled Fusion hybrid.

With hybrids in demand for much of the year, when gas prices were north of $3 a gallon, you might expect every carmaker to be going green. There were plenty of gasoline-electric hybrids to see, but not that many all-electric cars, the next-generation of green transportation. Honda is displaying the FC Sport, which is powered by a fuel cell, and BMW is displaying the Mini E, a battery-electric model.

Many of the hybrids on display have improved fuel economy and more power.

There's power to spare in the Mazda Kann, winner of the Los Angeles Auto Show's 2008 Design Challenge. The Mazda Kann is an electric race car that has a patented electronic tire system to reach 250 mph with no harmful emissions. It was chosen for how well it integrated a high level of innovation and technology into the design.

The Los Angeles Auto Show opened Friday and runs through November 30.

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Humane Society Accuses Petland of Supporting Puppy Mills

Retail pet store denies claims, insists it treats animals well

Humane Society Accuses Petland of Supporting Puppy Mills...


An eight-month investigation by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) claims that Petland stores nationwide sell puppies they obtain from puppy mills--despite statements by the company that its dogs come from reliable breeders.

HSUS officials announced those and other findings from its largest puppy mill investigation during a press conference on Thursday.

The HSUS's findings come just days after Petland assured ConsumerAffairs.com that it buys its puppies from expert breeders licensed professional pet distributors, "who have years of experience in raising quality pets."

Petland reiterated those comments today and called the HSUS's investigation "sensationalism at its best."

But HSUS officials said their investigation uncovered evidence that shows Petland's main sources of puppies are puppy mills -- mass commercial breeding operations that churn out two to four million puppies each year.

Those puppies are raised in deplorable conditions and often have health problems, genetic defects, and behavioral issues, according to the HSUS.

During its investigation, HSUS investigators visited 21 Petland stores nationwide. At each of those stores, employees told HSUS investigators that its puppies came from reliable, USDA breeders.

HSUS investigators also tracked the sale of nearly 17,000 puppies sold at Petland stores across the country and found nearly every one of those dogs was shipped hundreds of miles from puppy mills in the Midwest.

Most of those breeding operations had numerous violations with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency charged with inspecting dog breeders.

"Petland is perpetuating the abusive puppy mill industry, where dogs are treated not like pets, but like a cash crop," said Stephanie Shain, the HSUS's puppy mill expert and director of its Stop Puppy Mills Campaign. "They know that consumers won't stand for the cruelty inherent in mass-breeding facilities, so they make outrageous claims to hide the reality that the dogs came from puppy mills. People have a right to know exactly what they are buying, but the real victims are the breeding dogs who are confined to life in a cage for as long as people are duped into buying their puppies."

The HSUS made the following claims from its investigation:

• Many Petland puppies come from massive commercial breeders in Missouri and other Midwestern states, where hundreds of breeding dogs are packed into cramped, cages--often for their entire lives -- with no socialization, exercise, or human interaction. But Petland's employees--and even its corporate Web site-- claim the company knows its breeders and deals only with those who have "the highest standards of pet care."

• 35 of the large-scale breeding operations linked to Petland stores that HSUS officials visited were puppy mills. "At many, investigators saw appalling conditions: puppies living in filthy, barren cages reeking of urine, with inadequate care and socialization," HSUS officials said.

• Petland buys many of its puppies from "middle men" -- large-scale pet distributors that are often called brokers. "The company may not even know who the breeders are or what their standards of care may be like," HSUS officials said. Investigators also learned that some of Petland's brokers also buy from puppy mills.

• Petland buys some of its puppies from an online pet auction Web site. "Many Petland stores are not screening breeders as the company's Web site claims," HSUS officials said. "In fact, in some cases it may not even know the breeder's name until after purchase."

• Petland often tells consumers that it uses "USDA licensed" breeders -- and use that claim as a shield to hide the truth. But HSUS investigators reviewed the publicly available USDA inspection reports and state reports for more than 100 Petland breeders. They found more than 60 percent of those reports listed serious violations of basic animal care regulations. "Many USDA breeders exhibit a long history of substandard care and yet remained licensed," HSUS officials said. "While USDA regulations are minimal, some of the Petland breeders are not even complying with these basic animal welfare standards."

• Some of Petland's breeders and suppliers had numerous USDA violations. For example, they were dirty, had unkempt enclosures, inadequate shelter from the cold, poor veterinary care, and housed many dogs in cages that were too small. Some breeders also had sick or dead dogs in their cages.

"We are nation of dog lovers," said Michael Markarian, executive vice-president of the HSUS. "And people are going to be shocked by what we foundthey won't stand for this."

Markarian called on Petland--a company HSUS officials describe as the No.1 retail supporter of puppy mills -- to stop selling puppies in its stores.

He also urged the company to join other pet retailers, like PETCO and PetSmart, which let animal shelters hold animal adoptions in their stores.

"As we lead into the holiday season, when many people think about getting a puppy, we wanted to let them know about the dark side of this (pet) industry," Markarian said. "And we are calling on Petland to be socially responsible."

"Sensationalism at its best"

Petland spokesperson Lacey Clever defended the company's practices.

"At Petland, healthy, happy, well-socialized pets within our care are our number one priority as they have been for 41 years," Clever said. "We do not support substandard breeding facilities and we provide each Petland store with "Humane Care Guidelines," that were developed in conjunction with the USDA to assist with breeder facility inspections as it pertains to pet selection."

Clever also criticized the HSUS's investigation, and the timing of its release.

"Reports such as those posted on the HSUS Web site surface every year around the holiday season in conjunction with their annual fundraising efforts," she wrote. "Unfortunately, we were not interviewed or consulted nor were we a part of any of the editing process.

"This is sensationalism at its best," Clever added. "HSUS has a history of publicizing false information in an effort to raise money. They do not operate a single pet shelter or pet adoption facility anywhere in the U.S. To the contrary, over the last 10 years, Petland has adopted out more than 270,000 homeless puppies and kittens nationwide."

During an interview earlier this week with ConsumerAffairs.com, Clever echoed many of those sentiments.

She also told us that Petland representatives inspect their distributors' and breeders' facilities.

"In addition, these facilities are licensed and inspected by the federal government (USDA)," she said. "We require that our franchisees buy only from Petland, Inc. associated facilities. We even encourage our franchisees to visit facilities for themselves."

Petland, she said, even has a "Do Not Buy List" of breeders that operate substandard facilities.

And the company encourages its customers to adopt from local animal shelters. "We have an Adopt-A-Pet program that enables our stores to partner with local shelters and rescue groups on whatever level works for them," Clever said. "Some stores have fundraisers and donation drives for their local shelters while others have a more intense partnership, providing kennel space for shelter animals."

Petland, she said, is also taking action to put substandard breeding operations out of business.

"(We) want to be part of the solution in regards to substandard facilities, which is why we are out there inspecting facilities and making sure that our puppies come from happy, loving environments," Clever said. "As an industry leader, we hope that others follow this example and soon these facilities will no longer be in business."

"Don't be fooled"

"We're calling on consumers to not be fooled by the assurances they hear from Petland," said the HSUS's Markarian. "If they tell you that they only get their dogs from the best breeders, don't be fooled. We found that in many cases they are buying puppies from middleman and brokers -- and they may not even know who the breeder is."

HSUS officials said they will continue their investigation and determine in any charges can be filed in connection with their findings.

Consumers can learn more about the HSUS's Petland investigation -- and view a video about its findings -- on the organization's Web site.

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Researchers Suggest Fast Food Ad Ban to Attack Obesity

Study suggests removing TV ads would cut down on bad messaging

Researchers Suggest Fast Food Ad Ban to Attack Obesity...

Three decades ago the government banned cigarette ads from the airwaves in a bid to reduce smoking-related illness. Now, some health experts say its time to take similar action against ads for fast food restaurants.

Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research say such a ban could reduce the number of obese children in the U.S. by as much as 18 percent. Economist Shin-Yi Chou of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania says the study is the first empirical research to make the connection.

The research team used data from the 1979 Child-Young Adult National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, commissioned by the U.S. Labor Department. They measured the rate of child obesity against the number of hours of fast food restaurant ads viewed in a given week.

"Our results indicate that a ban on these advertisements would reduce the number of overweight children ages 3-11 in a fixed population by 18 percent and would reduce the number of overweight adolescents ages 12-18 by 14 percent," the authors write.

Approximately 30.3 percent of U.S. children, age 6 to 11, are overweight and 15.3 percent are obese. Among adolescents, ages 12 to 19, 30.4 percent are overweight and 15.5 percent are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These numbers are even more dramatic when compared to Mexican American children of whom 39.3 percent are overweight and 23.7 percent are obese, the agency notes.

In speculating on the possible reasons for the explosion in childhood obesity, the CDC says "there has been a surge in the amount of time children are spending watching TV and playing video games instead of playing outside."

The Institute of Medicine reported in 2006 that there was compelling evidence linking food advertising on television and increased childhood obesity.

TV can be a negative influence on children's health, whether the message is in English or Spanish, according to research led by pediatricians from the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

Latino children, who make up one-fifth of the U.S. child population, also have the highest obesity and overweight rates of all ethnic groups. A report on the study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was released earlier this year.

"While we cannot blame overweight and obesity solely on TV commercials, there is solid evidence that children exposed to such messages tend to have unhealthy diets and to be overweight," said study lead investigator Darcy Thompson, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatrician at John Hopkins Children's Center.

Past research among English-speaking children has shown that TV ads influence food preferences, particularly among the more impressionable young viewers.



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Bankruptcy "Reform" Fails to Deliver

Tough new laws don't prevent rich or poor from filing

Bankruptcy...

When Congress passed bankruptcy law reform in 2005, it was supposed to provide greater protection for the poor, while forcing the more well-off to pay their debts. It's done neither, according to a new study co-authored by University of Iowa Law School professor Katherine Porter.

Porter and her co-researchers documented that the incomes of bankruptcy debtors in 2007 were statistically indistinguishable from those who filed bankruptcy before the change in the laws, in part because there were so few high-income debtors to begin with.

The findings are the result of a study by Porter and six co-authors from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, who collected and compared nationwide data on families who filed bankruptcy in 2007 with similar data collected from families filing before the laws were changed. Their newly released study suggests that bankruptcy reform did not deliver its intended effect.

The new bankruptcy law used an income-based screen called a "means test" to push "abusers" out of bankruptcy altogether or to force them to repay their debts in chapter 13 repayment bankruptcy cases. But the researchers suggest that the complications and costs associated with the means test may have discouraged hundreds of thousands of people from bankruptcy even when they needed help.

At the same time, the researchers found little evidence that people who could afford to pay their bills - a group specifically targeted by the reforms in an effort to combat abuse of the protection - actually filed for bankruptcy.

The researchers also discovered that families filing for bankruptcy were more deeply in debt than their counterparts who filed before the laws changed. In 1981, the typical household in bankruptcy owed debts that equaled about 17 months of their income. By 2001, that figure had risen to more than 30 months of income.

By 2007, the typical bankrupt household faced debt obligations that would require them to use all their income for 39 months to pay their creditors. Much of this growth has been in credit-card debt.

"Over the past 25 years, household debt loads have been rising, but families now wait until they are in much more trouble before they file bankruptcy," Porter said.

Researchers also found that debt collectors may not be providing accurate information and appear to be telling people that bankruptcy may not be available as an option when in fact it is. Nearly a quarter of those who filed said that debt collectors discussed bankruptcy with consumers and warned the debtor that they would not qualify, or that the IRS would audit them if they declared bankruptcy.

The study, "Did Bankruptcy Reform Fail?" will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Bankruptcy Law Journal. It's the first major paper from Phase IV of the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, a joint effort of legal scholars, sociologists and medical school professors. It reports on the first nationwide random sample of people filing for bankruptcy, collecting data from interviews, surveys, and court records of people who filed bankruptcy in the first part of 2007.

 

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Target Misses Price Target, Backs Out of Sale

Britax car seats mispriced on Target site, store refuses to complete sales

Target Misses Price Target, Backs Out of Sale: Britax car seats mispriced on Target site, store refuses to complete sales....

Bargain-hunting parents were thrilled when Internet chat boards lit up with news of a big sale on Britax car seats at Target.com -- just $43 instead of the usual $280.

Hannah Abbott of Seattle rushed to order three of the seats, getting one for her still-unborn third child and ordering two more as holiday presents. Even the shipping was reduced. Hannah was thrilled but cautious. Then she received her email confirmation and started to relax.

But jubilation soon turned to disappointment, when Target abruptly canceled the order. No money was taken from her account and no explanation was offered.

"They just kind of sent me on my way and said sorry," Hannah said.

But it doesn't work that way anymore. Consumers don't just meekly go away when they're told to. Hannah complained to Seattle's KING 5 News, which got on the phone to Target.

Target at least found it in its heart to talk to KING 5 but it wouldn't budge on the price. It was all a mistake, said Target. The giant retailer said its Web site had a "pricing feed malfunction" and displayed the wrong price. (See KING 5's story).

Accidents do happen and, although state laws vary, most states allow occasional flubs. But stores or Web sites that make a habit of it could find themselves in trouble eventually.

Not the only incident

The Britax case is far from the first pricing incident involving Target. Its errors and omissions have generated numerous complaints from consumers in recent years.

Last month, a Long Island consumer complained that Target was advertising Hanes sweat shirts for $4.66 -- a price it said was the "lowest price of the season." But the consumer said she had purchased the same shirt at the story a few weeks earlier for $4.50.

"I cannot believe any of their advertisements again. I am a senior citizen and my time and gas consumption were thoroughly wasted by their LIE!" the consumer said.

In September, Casilda of Brooklyn, N.Y., bought a girls jacket from a rack that had a $19.99 price posted.

"When I got to the register the jactet rang up at the original price of $44.99. I went to customer service and the very nice young man was willing to help me but needed a manager to override the difference in the amount," she said.

"We spoke with two managers and eventually had to speak with Jeremy who was rude, impertinent, and told me that he didn't care what the sign said he was not giving me the jacket for the sale price. He further went on to explain that he didn't care if I called the bureau of consumer affairs or anybody else he was not honoring the sign which was posted above the merchandise," she said.

Casilda said the manager eventually told her she could have a 10% discount on the jacket.

In Michigan, Anthony of Grand Rapids bought a Zune car audio product marked with the price $39.99 but at the register, it scanned for $79.99, he said.

"Store refused to sell the product for the price indicated on the sticker indicating they have the right to refuse sales to anyone," he complained.

 

 

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Budget Holiday Shopping Without Being a "Scrooge"

Tips for gift-buying without breaking the bank

Unemployment is up and consumer confidence is down heading into the holiday shopping season, so many consumers will be trying to stay on a budget this year...


Unemployment is up and consumer confidence is down heading into the holiday shopping season, so many consumers will be trying to stay on a budget this year. It's possible to celebrate on a budget, experts say, but it requires some thought and planning.

Jan Brakefield, assistant professor of consumer sciences at the University of Alabama, says one of the most important rules is to make a spending plan and stick to it. She also says how you pay for gifts is important, too.

"Pay cash. Credit card users typically spend twice as much money as others," Brakefield said. "Use the 'envelope method.' Prepare one envelope per person, placing money in each envelope. When the envelope is empty, you are finished buying for that person."

When you shop is also important. For example, don't shop when you're tired, as that may effect your resolve to stay on a budget.

"Holiday spending will put a big dent in most people's budgets because when they budget annually for such gifts, they usually don't reserve enough for the December timeframe," said Caroline Fulmer, who is also an assistant professor of consumer sciences at The University of Alabama. "For most of us, unless we set aside a special Christmas savings account, holiday spending causes us to tighten our belts on other expenses."

Fulmer suggests cutting back on the extras like dining out, entertainment, and extra clothing, then spreading that money among holiday purchases.

"Getting great gifts for your loved ones doesn't have to cost you your next paycheck," said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief, ShopSmart, a publication from Consumers Union. "To save this season, follow our advice to uncover deals, avoid lousy merchandise and get great buys on everything from earmuffs to electronics."

Freeman offers these tips for saving money and staying on a holiday budget:

1. Start online.

Try on shoes and clothes for size in the store, and then look for them to go on clearance online. Check eBay first. Even if you skip the auctions and only buy items that have the "buy it now" option, you can save tons off retail.

2. Dodge hidden charges and unwanted merchandise.

Always check return costs and see if items bought online can be returned to a local store, especially for large purchases. If it's a bargain, grab it, but think twice about final-sale items.

3. Don't pay full price.

Before you check out online, Google "promotion code" and the name of the product to find additional savings. When planning a trip to the outlets, find printable coupons online for preferred stores. Request a price adjustment after you have made a purchase if you find a lower price in sale circulars or on sites like PriceProtectr.com that can track prices for you.

4. Shop when you're at your best.

Don't shop when you're exhausted: You'll be less likely to shop around and you won't pay attention to prices. Get dressed up when you go shopping. You will feel less desperate for a makeover and avoid blowing big bucks.

5. It never hurts to ask.

Don't underestimate your bargaining power, even at the doctor's office. Ask sales associates for advance notice of sales. Then shop the night before the sale and ask to have full price items put on hold until the sale starts.

6. Get the biggest bang for your buck.

Ask for freebies. For example, if you buy a TV ask for free delivery. If a salesperson won't budge on a price, see if you can negotiate an upgrade.

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eHarmony Agrees to Launch Same-Sex Dating Site

Online dating site promises to treat all match-seekers fairly

To settle a suit brought by a New Jersey gay man, eHarmony.com says it will launch a Web site that will begin providing same-sex matching services in 2009....

To settle a suit brought by a New Jersey gay man, eHarmony.com says it will launch a Web site that will begin providing same-sex matching services in 2009.

The company also agrees to ensure that same-sex users are matched via the same or equivalent technology as that used for heterosexual match-seekers, agrees to charge same-sex users the same fees, and agrees to offer the same service quality and terms of service as heterosexuals.

"I applaud the decision of eHarmony to settle this case and extend its matching services to those seeking same-sex relationships," said New Jersey Division on Civil Rights Director J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo.

eHarmony, Inc. entered into the settlement agreement after a discrimination complaint was filed by McKinley against the on-line matchmaker in 2005, triggering a Division on Civil Rights Investigation and Finding of Probable Cause in 2007. Under terms of the agreement, the complaint is dismissed, and neither the company nor its founder, Dr. Neil Clark Warren, admits to any liability. Under the settlement agreement, eHarmony, Inc. can create a new or differently-named Web site to provide same-sex matching services, but the new Web site's home page must identify it as an affiliate of, or a site provided by, eHarmony, Inc.

The company does, however, reserve the right to post a disclaimer noting that eHarmony's compatibility-based matching system was developed solely on the basis of research focused on married heterosexual couples.

As part of the settlement, eHarmony, Inc. will provide a free, one-year membership to Eric McKinley, whose sexual-orientation-based discrimination complaint against the company led to the Division on Civil Rights investigation. In addition, the settlement calls for eHarmony, Inc. to pay McKinley $5,000, and to pay the Division on Civil Rights $50,000 to cover investigation-related administrative costs.

Additional terms of the settlement include:

• eHarmony, Inc. will post photos of same-sex couples in the "Diversity" section of its Web site as successful relationships are created using the company's same-sex matching service. In addition, eHarmony, Inc. will include photos of same-sex couples, as well as individual same-sex users, in advertising materials used to promote its same-sex matching services.

• eHarmony, Inc. will revise anti-discrimination statements placed on company Web sites, in company handbooks and other company publications to make plain that it does not discriminate on the basis of "sexual orientation."

• the company has committed to advertising and public relations/ marketing dedicated to its same-sex matching service, and will retain a media consultant experienced in promoting the "fair, accurate and inclusive" representation of gay and lesbian people in the media to determine the most effective way of reaching the gay and lesbian communities.

It's not just gays and lesbians that have had complaints about eHarmony's strict screening process in the past. In fact, dating site Chemistry.com features in its ad campaign singles who had previously been rejected by eHarmony.

More about online dating ...

 

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GE Recalls Wall Ovens

GE Recalls Wall Ovens...

November 18, 2008    
GE is recalling about 244,000 GE Profile, Monogram and Kenmore wall ovens to inspect and repair defective units which could post a fire and burn risk.

The extreme heat used in the self-clean cycle can escape, if the wall oven door is removed and incorrectly re-attached by the installer or the consumer. This can pose a fire and burn hazard to consumers.

GE said it is aware of 28 incidents of minor property damage in which adjacent kitchen cabinets have been damaged. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves GE wall ovens sold under the following brand names: GE®, GE Profile™, Monogram® and Kenmore®. The wall ovens were sold in white, black, bisque and stainless steel. The following model and serial numbers can be found inside the oven on the left interior wall. For microwave combination ovens, the serial number can be found on the left interior wall of the microwave.


BrandModelSerial Number Begins With
GE/ProfileJCT915, JT912, JT915,
JT952, JT955, JT965,
JT980*, JTP20, JTP25,
JTP28, JTP48, JTP50,
JTP86
TD, VD, ZD

AF, DF, FF, GF, HF, LF, MF, RF, SF, TF, VF, ZF
MonogramZET3058, ZET938,
ZET958
Kenmore (All model
numbers start with 911)
4771, 4775, 4781, 4904,
4905, 4923*
2T, 2V, 2Z

3A, 3D, 3F, 3G, 3H, 3L, 3M, 3R, 3S, 3T, 3V, 3Z
* Lower oven only

The ovens, made in the U.S., were sold by home builders and appliance stores nationwide from October 2002 through December 2004 for between $900 and $3,600.

Consumers should immediately inspect the oven to make sure they do not have an incorrectly re-attached wall oven door, which will not open into the flat position. If the wall oven door is incorrectly re-attached, consumers should not use the self-clean cycle and call GE for a free repair. Consumers can continue to use normal baking or broiling function in the oven until the oven is repaired.

For additional information, contact GE toll-free at (888) 569-1588 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday ET, or visit the firm's Web site at www.GEAppliances.com

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

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Buyers' Beware Market

Get to know yourself as a homebuyer before committing to any deal

Buyers' Beware Market...

Lower prices and potential housing market deals alone shouldn't be enough to commit you to buying a home. Get to know your home-buying self first.

More home buyers have a better chance now than at any other time in nearly a half decade to negotiate a home-buying deal that costs less and comes with some concessions thrown in.

In many locations, buyers will find a glut of new homes, more motivated sellers, foreclosures, auctions, short sales and other market conditions that can make it a really good time to buy.

That doesn't mean throw caution to the wind.

The same conditions that lure buyers to market also lure misfits looking to cash in on your unfettered haste and the waste left from a boom market gone bust.

No matter what the market conditions, it's also always a buyers' beware market, now perhaps more than ever.

Here's how to begin to navigate today's housing market, step-by-step, and make a good deal without getting taken.

Begin with making a personal "right-time-to-buy" decision

If you stretch financially beyond your means to go after lower-priced homes, foreclosures or short sales, you could be setting yourself up for failure. Today's housing market is littered with home owners who borrowed more than they could afford.

On the other hand, if you wait for prices to fall further you could miss out on a good deal. No one knows when the market hits bottom until it begins a sustained upward turn and you can look back and actually see bottom.

Buy now because it's the right thing to do for you, because you need a roof over your head, because it's more affordable than renting and because you plan on sticking with the home long enough to make the deal pay off. Buy because homeownership is integral to your budget, your lifestyle and your goals.

Get to know the many facets of home buying

You've got a lot to learn, but obtaining a broad base of knowledge about the home-buying process is a relatively easy task, requiring only your time and attention. A glut of information is available on the Internet, from real estate industry-sponsored seminars and workshops and through a vast library of real estate guide books.

You can also sit down with real estate agents (including exclusive buyers' agents, who never represent sellers), mortgage brokers, loan officers and accredited home ownership counselors. Post-secondary education at colleges and universities is also available.

Get to know your local market

Accept national news for what it is, a broad brush stroke of current events. You want housing news and information that really hits home. Get your housing market information from credible publications and broadcasts covering your market.

Part of your homework should include learning the boundaries of your buyer's market. Your market can be designated by a ZIP code, a small neighborhood, a greater community or some larger region.

Learn your property's true value

Whether it's a new home, resale property, foreclosure or short sale, learn the true value of any property you are considering. Uneducated buyers tend to lowball sellers and ask for too many concessions. That can alienate the seller, especially those less motivated with top-value homes. Likewise, knowledge helps prevent you from spending too much.

In both cases, use a real estate agent schooled in the history of local market trends and statistics. See comparables, track sale prices in your shopping area, use the local newspaper, online listing and for sale sites and other sources, to keep tabs on asking prices. Also visit open houses.

Check your credit

Your credit report is free from AnnualCreditReport.com, the only federally regulated source. You may have to pay a nominal fee for your credit score (a numerical scoring of your creditworthiness) depending upon your state law and other factors. But see both your score and your report. You may need to request corrections or adjust your credit habits to generate the best report and score -- before you start home loan shopping.

Get your cash in the pipeline

Get approved -- in writing -- for a mortgage. Use your newly gained knowledge to shop around -- a lot -- for a home loan. Shop online and off. Shop mortgage brokers, loan officers, credit unions and other lenders. Shop where you bank, shop where you don't. The key is exhaustive comparison shipping to get the most money at the cheapest rate.

---
Broderick Perkins parlayed 30 years of old-school journalism into a digital real estate news service, the DeadlineNews Group, offering "News that really hits home!"™. The Silicon Valley bootstrap includes the Web site DeadlineNews.Com and the back shop Deadline Newsroom. Contact him at news@deadlinenews.com.

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Dealing with Disasters: Financial Preparation is Vital

CPAs offer advice on how to be ready for the unexpected

Dealing with Disasters: Financial Preparation is Vital...

A wind-whipped fire that destroyed at least 100 homes and a college dormitory in the celebrity hideaway of Montecito, Calif., is a reminder that disaster can strike anywhere, anytime. At least four people were injured in the Montecito fires and thousands of homeowners and college students had to flee as flames and smoke approached.

Would you be ready if a sudden disaster threatened your home and family?

Dan Thomas of the California Society of CPAs says there are relatively simple steps you can take now to ensure that you will be ready if misfortune comes your way. His group, which represents more than 33,000 CPAs in California, has partnered with the Red Cross and IRS on disaster issues.

Before disaster strikes

1.) Protect your property.Think about ways you can avoid or reduce property damage if a disaster were to strike again. A few ideas:

  • Know where to turn off water, gas, and electric lines. Install smoke detectors.
  • Clear surrounding brush to protect your home against wildfires, install hurricane shutters on windows, use wind-resistant shingles on your roof, and secure objects that could fall and cause damage.
  • If youre not sure where to start, contact your local fire department for recommendations.

 

2.) Conduct a household inventory.Make a list of your possessions so you can estimate their value for insurance or tax purposes.

  • Include model and serial numbers. Computer software programs are available to help with this task.
  • If possible, take photos or your possessions or videotape them. Dont forget to photograph your propertys exterior, your vehicles, and contents of your garage, closets, and attic.
  • Save receipts for valuable items and get professional appraisals of jewelry, collectibles, and artwork. These expensive items need to be listed individually in your insurance policy.
  • Store this list in a safe place away from your home, such as a safe deposit box at a bank located away from disaster prone areas.
  • Update your inventory annually.

 

3.) Have adequate insurance.If necessary, seek special or additional coverage for fires, earthquakes, or other losses not covered by standard insurance.

  • If you own a home, buy at a minimum, full replacement or replacement cost coverage. This means the structure can be replaced up to the limits specified in the policy. Even better protection, although not always available, is guaranteed replacement cost coverage. This means the policy will pay to rebuild your house at todays prices, regardless of the limits of the policy. However, you must make an effort to keep the policy coverage amount current.
  • Check to see if the policy covers building-code changes, and look for a policy that covers the replacement cost of your possessions, not just the actual cash value.
  • If you rent, buy renters insurance, which pays for damaged, destroyed, or stolen personal property. You also may need special insurance if you live in an area prone to floods or earth movement. Ask your insurance agent.
  • Finally, dont overlook the importance of wind and hail, health, disability, long-term care, umbrella liability, life insurance and flood insurance. Standard home-insurance policies don't cover flooding, but the federal government does through the National Flood Insurance Program. You may need to draw on benefits from one or all of these policies if you are ever faced with another disaster.

 

4.) Keep cash available.

  • Stash a small amount of cash or travelers checks at home in a place where you can get at the money quickly in case of a sudden evacuation, or if a disaster shuts down local ATMs and banks.
  • Set aside extra money in an emergency fund in a bank savings account, and keep your credit cards paid off so you will have enough credit to get you through a disaster.

 

5.) Use an evacuation box and safe deposit box.

  • Put important papers in a box that you can grab in the event of an emergency. Some items to put in the box: travelers checks, a few rolls of quarters, negatives of important personal photographs, a list of emergency contacts, copies of prescriptions and medical records, copies of insurance policies, backup disks of critical computerized information, copies of other important family and financial records, and your safe deposit box key.
  • Store original documents, property deeds and birth certificates, in a bank safe deposit box.

 

6.) Make an evacuation plan. Imagine that you could take only one suitcase or pack a single carload in the event of a disaster. What would you take, how would you leave your home, where would you rejoin your family, and who would you call if you became separated?

After disaster strikes

Step 1: Contact your insurer, stat.

Call your insurance company as soon as possible. Some insurance policies place a time limit on filing claims. The time limit does vary from state to state. For example, in New York you have two years to file a claim, according to the insurance department.

Let the company know about the severity of the damage. Insurance cases can be prioritized. If your home was completely destroyed, you will get more attention than a home that had minor damage.

Make sure you give the insurance company all of your contact information. Make it as easy as possible for the company to contact you.

The amount of time it takes for the claims process varies widely, depending on the amount of damage and the size of the storm. It could happen immediately or take up to 6 months if it's a complicated claim.

If you can't stay in your house and you have to set up camp for a while at a motel or you need to bunk with some friends, you have the right to some cash. Insurance companies will reimburse you for additional cost of living expenses. This reimbursement will even cover restaurant meals within reason. In certain circumstances, insurance companies may distribute cash or ATM cards to policyholders in an emergency.

Step 2: Document, document, document.

It's up to you to substantiate your loss. Think about photographing the damage. Make an inventory of damaged items, and don't forget that your car is also covered under comprehensive insurance. Keep any records and lists of people you speak to.

The better organized you are, the fewer problems you'll have. If you don't remember the value of some items, you can call your credit card company and ask them to send you a list of your purchases.

It's also a good idea to take advantage of the Insurance Institute's home inventory software. This is a free program that lets you scan receipts, take pictures and take inventory of what you have in the house. If you have the luxury of time, this is a great way to be prepared for catastrophes. For more information, go to their Web site at www.iii.org.

If you're not happy with the way the claim is settled, go back to the agent, and document your side to the head of the claims department. If you're still not satisfied, you can file a complaint with your state insurance department and of course, you can always hire an attorney.

There's also the option of using your own adjustor. A public insurance adjuster assesses the damage to your home and can organize your claim. A public adjustor then works with your insurance company to maximize the return on your policy. You typically pay them a percentage of your claim.

Because public insurance adjusters are regulated by the states, fees will vary. For more information on public insurance adjusters, go to the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters Web site at www.Napia.com or call (703) 433-9217. It's a good idea to call your state government's insurance commission for a background check on any public adjuster you're considering.

Step 3: Live with it -- for now.

Just make temporary repairs before the insurance adjustor has a chance to come in and access the damage. Of course you should not compromise your safety. But if you have a leaky roof, just put some pots and pans around instead of having the damage fixed by a professional.

This is a good way to make sure that you are reimbursed for any repair. If you are currently underinsured or you have a sizable unreinbursed property loss, you may be able to deduct this from your taxes. Talk to your local CPA about certain tax benefits that are available to you especially in president-declared disaster areas.

First, subtract any insurance you anticipate receiving. Then subtract $100. The loss must be further reduced by 10 percent of your adjusted gross income. The balance remaining is what you can deduct from your taxes.

If you think you might qualify for this deduction, collect your receipts, insurance statements, and other documentation and present it to your CPA.

Those who prepare their own taxes, should review the "Nonbusiness Casualty and Theft Losses" on the IRS Web site and contact their state income tax bureau to learn more about both the federal and state guidelines for this deduction.

Step 4: Watch out for scammers.

If your home was destroyed by a hurricane, be cautious. There are dishonest service providers that prey on disaster victims.

Don't be rushed into signing a contract with any roofing or building company. Instead, collect business cards and get written estimates for the proposed job. Beware of building contractors that encourage you to spend a lot of money on temporary repairs.

Investigate the track record of any roofer, builder or contractor that you consider hiring. Look for professionals and get references. You can also call the Better Business Bureau for help. Never give anyone a deposit until you have done your homework.

Step 5: Help for the doubly-unlucky.

People who are still unable to go back home because of a previous hurricane should try to extend their additional living expenses. Usually you can utilize your additional living expense for a maximum of 12 months. But there may be some flexibility with your insurance company.

People who have exhausted their insurance can go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get financial assistance. Their Web site is www.fema.gov.



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FDA Blocks Chinese Products Over Melamine Fears

Agency issues import alert warning of possible contamination

FDA Blocks Chinese Products Over Melamine Fears...

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)will now detain scores of products-- imported from China--because of melamine contamination.

Pet food is included in the import alert issued this week by the FDA.

Under this action, dozens of Chinese-imported items that contain milk products will be held at the border--and not allowed to enter the U.S.--until the importers can prove the items are not tainted with melamine or are not made with milk or milk-derived ingredients.

Melamine is a chemical used to make plastic and fertilizers. It is not allowed in human or pet food.

The products listed in this import alert--a precautionary measure designed to keep food tainted with melamine from entering the country--include candy, cereals, snack foods, cheese, ice cream, soft drinks and baby food products.

"We've continued to get information from others in the international community, and reports from China, about (melamine contamination) moving into different commodities," Steve Solomon, a senior FDA enforcement official, told The Associated Press. "Most of the products we are talking about are finished products like cookies, cakes and candies. The impact will be for various ethnic communities looking for specific products."

This federal action comes on the heels of reports that four infants in China recently died--and more than 53,000 other in that country became sick--after drinking melamine-tainted infant formula.

"The illnesses involved the formation of kidney stones and crystals and related complications," the FDA wrote in the import alert. It added that some 13,000 infants were hospitalized after drinking the tainted formula.

"The milk used in the infant formula has been implicated as the source of the melamine contamination."

The FDA learned that melamine was added to the infant formula to increase the nitrogen content and falsely inflate the protein content.

The melamine contamination, however, isn't limited to infant formula.

"FDA analyses have detected melamine and cyanuric acid in a number of products that contain milk or milk-derived ingredients, including candy and beverages," the agency wrote.

And those products were shipped to consumers around the world.

More than 13 countries--including Asia, Europe and Australia--have discovered melamine in a variety of products made with the tainted milk ingredients from China, the FDA said.

Those products include candy, yogurt, frozen desserts, biscuits, instant coffee, milk tea products, and other beverages.

"Additional products from various manufacturers continue to be found to be contaminated with melamine," the FDA wrote.

Before the FDA will release any products included in this latest import alert, importers must provide:

• The results of a third-party laboratory analysis that verifies the products do not contain melamine or cyanuric acid;

• Documentation supplied in English that shows there are no milk or milk-derived ingredients in the product

Recurring problem

This isn't the first time officials have found melamine in food products imported from China.

FDA officials described this melamine contamination problem as a "recurring one."

In 2007, the FDA discovered melamine in the wheat gluten imported from China and used to make dog and cat food.

The contamination triggered the largest pet food recall in U.S. history.

Thousands of dogs and cats in North America suffered kidney disease after eating the tainted food. Many pets died.

 

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Class Action Names Classmates.com

Surprise! Nobody's looking for you

Here's a pitch we've all seen more times than we'd like to remember: "Your former classmates are trying to contact you! Upgrade now to see their messages!"...

Here's a pitch we've all seen more times than we'd like to remember: "Your former classmates are trying to contact you! Upgrade now to see their messages!"

Yep, it's the familiar refrain of Classmates.com, trying to get us to sign up for a subscription so we can hook up with all those old classmates we've just been dying to see. Never mind that if there was anyone we really wanted to see, we would probably already be in touch with them, this pick-up line seems to work almost as well as its ancient real-world counterpart: "Come here often?"

Most jaded net denizens give about as much time to this plea as to the fellow on the corner trying to cadge $4.75 for a grande cinnamon latte, but those who do fall ... well, let's say they fall hard.

None harder than Anthony Michaels of San Diego. He had been free-loading along, enjoying his free Classmates.com membership when Classmates.com told him others had been looking -- longingly, one presumes -- at his profile and just couldn't wait to get in touch.

Of course, to actually contact those who've viewed one's profile, one must abandon the free tier and move up to a paid -- or "Gold" -- membership.

Anthony fell for it, and who can blame him? Wouldn't you give anything -- well, a few bucks anyway -- to hook up with the old gang from Biology 101? Think of all those fond memories you could share -- the fetal pigs, those frogs.

So Anthony paid his money and he took his chances. And you know who was waiting for him? Nobody, that's who. There wasn't a single message in his inbox and all the creeps who'd been looking at his profile were strangers and who wants to get to know a bunch of strangers?

Now Anthony is not one to be trifled with, so he did what any red-blooded American male would do. He sued. His class action suit accuses Classmates.com of intentional misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, negligence, and fraudulent concealment. He also says that the site is in violation of the California Business and Professions Code.

Classmates.com "knew at all times that the individuals, members, and/or users who were making attempts to contact Plaintiff and the Class were not former classmates when they... made false representations regarding the attempted contacts," his complaint allges. "The Defendants... intended to deceive, and did deceive Plaintiff and the Class by concealing and failing to disclose the fact that the individuals, members, and/or users who were making attempts to contact Plaintiff and the Class were not former classmates."

Automatic renewal

While Anthony's complaint is certainly far from rare, it's not the most common of the more than 600 ConsumerAffairs.com has received. Most consumers writing to us have complained that their initial three-month subscription renews automatically despite their best efforts.

"I had their trial service for $15.00 for three monthhs and at the end of the trial period, they charged my credit card for another $15.00," said Jennie of Columbia, S.C. "I called them and they said that they would remove it. I also contacted my bank and they took a report. I am waiting for a response."

Cindy of Elk Grove Village, Ill., has the same problem: "They continue to charge my credit card even though I have not authorized continued use. I have not used there website in over a year. Unable to make contact & my credit card has started harrassing me and threating collection."

Read more Classmates.com complaints

 

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Massachusetts Blocks H&R; Block, Option One Foreclosures

Attorney General wants relief for endangered homeowners

Massachusetts Blocks H&R Block, Option One Foreclosures...

The State of Massachusetts has obtained a preliminary injunction against Option One Mortgage Corp. and H&R; Block Mortgage Corp. subprime lenders that originated thousands of loans in the state.

The order prohibits Option One and American Home Mortgage Servicing, Inc., which currently services 9,700 active Massachusetts Option One loans, from initiating or advancing foreclosures on mortgage loans that are considered "presumptively unfair" under the court order.

Under the order, AHMSI must give the Attorney General's Office at least 30 days notice before it intends to foreclose on any such loan, and if the attorney general objects, obtain approval from the Court before foreclosing on a loan.

"We are pleased by the Court's decision and the relief it will afford, both to homeowners and to the communities suffering from the effects of Option One's loans," said Massachusetts Attorney General Coakley. "The economic crisis continues to worsen, and predatory subprime lending is at the core of the problem. This decision is further support that some subprime lenders engaged in irresponsible and unlawful lending practices. We intend to hold accountable those who engaged in such unlawful lending conduct."

The attorney general filed suit against Option One and its parent company, H&R; Block, Inc., in June 2008, alleging that they originated thousands of risky subprime loans in Massachusetts, with reckless disregard as to whether borrowers would be able to afford their loan payments a practice that has contributed significantly to the foreclosure crisis in Massachusetts.

According to the complaint Option One and H&R; Block engaged in unfair and deceptive conduct on a broad scale by selling extremely risky loan products to Massachusetts consumers that the companies knew or should have known were destined to fail.

The complaint also alleges that the companies discriminated against black and Latino borrowers in Massachusetts by charging them higher points and fees to close their loans than similarly situated white borrowers and by targeting black and Latino consumers with marketing that pushed the sale of predatory loan products.

Under the terms of the injunction, if mortgages meet certain characteristics which make them "presumptively unfair," Option One must direct AHMSI not to foreclose upon such loans without giving the Attorney General's Office 45-days to object.

During that time, the Attorney General's Office can object to the foreclosure going forward if it is determined that the loans were so risky as to be unfair, or was originated using unfair or deceptive acts or practices. If the Attorney General's Office objects, the parties have 15 days to resolve their differences and discuss alternatives, such as an affordable loan modification.

If they cannot reach a mutually agreeable resolution in this time period, then AHMSI may only proceed with a foreclosure if it receives Court approval. In considering whether to approve a foreclosure, the Court will consider whether the loan was unfair, whether the lender took reasonable steps to work out the loan and avoid foreclosure, and whether a fair and reasonable alternative to foreclosure exists.

"Presumptively unfair"

Under the order, a loan is "presumptively unfair" if it possesses the following characteristics:

• The loan is an adjustable rate mortgage with an introductory period of three years or less;

• The borrower has a debt-to-income ratio (the ratio between the borrower's monthly debt payments, including the monthly mortgage payment, and the borrower's monthly income) that would have exceeded 50 percent if Option One had measured the debt, not by the debt due under the teaser rate, but by the debt due under the fully-indexed rate, except whenthe borrower had a student loan in which payment had been deferred at least six months from the date of submission of the mortgage loan application, in which case debt-to-income ratio need exceed only 45 percent;

• The loan has an introductory or "teaser" rate for the initial period that is at least 2 percent lower than the fully indexed rate, (unless the debt-to-income ratio is 55 percent or above, in which case the difference between the teaser rate and fully indexed rate is not relevant);

• The loan-to-value ratio of the loan is 97 percent or the loan carries a substantial prepayment penalty or a prepayment penalty that lasts beyond the introductory period.

If AHMSI intends to foreclose on a loan which it believes does not meet the standards for presumptive unfairness, it must still give the Attorney General's Office 30 days' notice, during which time the Attorney General's Office can object if it believes that the loan does possess those characteristics.

In granting the preliminary injunction, the Court found that the Attorney General's Office had established a substantial likelihood that it will prevail in proving that Option One and H&R; Block Mortgage acted unfairly by issuing mortgage loans with reckless disregard of the risk of foreclosure.

 

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Getting A Small Business Loan in Bad Economic Times

Alternatives are available, even with tight credit

Getting A Small Business Loan in Bad Economic Times...

Despite the $700 billion dollar government bailout plan for financial institutions which was supposed to encourage commercial banks to start lending again, and recent news stories about a so-called thaw in the frozen credit markets, getting a loan these days is still difficult, even for those with pristine credit ratings.

If you're a small business owner who depends on access to credit to keep a steady cash-flow just to stay in business, you're probably scrambling to find alternative sources of capital.

Any new funding resource should be cost-effective, and borrowers must watch out for unscrupulous lenders looking for an inexpensive way to buy a business through a devious strategy known as "loan to own."

"Loan to own" means that they loan you money hoping that you will default on the loan, because when you do, they gain ownership of your company, even though the amount that was loaned may be a fraction of what the company is actually worth.

According to the Web site receivablesexchange.com, a new site set up for companies to trade accounts receivable, 42 percent of small business owners reported a cash-flow problem during the past three months.

With commercial bank credit still restricted, here are some possible alternatives. Each comes with its own set of conditions that may make a particular option either more expensive or more trouble than its worth. Always make sure to look at the whole list of terms--not just the cost of the loan--when making a decision.

Securities-Based Lending

Perhaps the least expensive form of borrowing is Securities-Based Lending. It's inexpensive because you're primarily borrowing money from yourself, or from your partners. Let's say you've been fairly successful and have socked away a tidy sum in an investment account. There are financial services companies that will let you borrow money using those securities as collateral, and you don't even have to reassign them or put them in a different account. They remain in your name in your account and continue to grow and appreciate, and your small business gets access to much needed capital.

For example, at Merrill Lynch, this is called a Loan Management Account. It allows you to use multiple pools of collateral against the same loan, such as your investment account, your wife's account, or even a trust account. (Full disclosure: I'm a Merrill Lynch client--soon to be a Bank of America client.)

Friendly Capital

Other sources of inexpensive funding include something called "friendly capital," which basically is borrowing money from friends and family members who believe in you and your business. If you decide to go the "friendly capital route," make sure that your friends or family know that it might be a long time before you can repay them, if ever. You may also discuss if it's better to have the loan formalized in a letter agreement or if a more informal approach is acceptable to all parties concerned.

Trade Credit

There's also the option of relying on "trade credit." This is where one company agrees to provide goods or services to another company on credit with an agreement to be paid later. Experts say there are some well-capitalized companies whose priority is grabbing market share and are offering more relaxed more credit terms just to win more customers. If you're in that position, you may be able to buy yourself a few extra days on your accounts payable, which amounts to free credit.

Royalty Financing

A more expensive alternative is "royalty financing." This type of credit is often seen with franchises. It's tied to the amount of revenue your business generates, which means you have to have a fairly high margin business to be able to afford it. Businesses that typically use royalty financing include those with intellectual property, mining, commodities, or resource-based businesses.

Royalty financing is also used by early stage start ups where an idea has been developed, you're ready to go and you've built up significant client demand, yet you still don't have any collateral because revenues haven't been generated yet. With royalty financing, you give up a percentage of future sales in exchange for financing now. Just be aware that these deals can last for a very long period of time, even into perpetuity.

Factoring

Another option is "factoring," which is sometimes called accounts receivable financing. With factoring, you get cash for your accounts receivable. On the plus side, factoring doesn't create any more debt and therefore has fewer restrictions and covenants than debt financing. On the downside, it can be expensive. Some factors have been charging as high as 20 to 30 percent interest.

Factors are usually privately funded financiers with lots of cash. They buy your accounts receivable and give you an advancing that amounts to a percentage of the account's cash value. Once the factor receives payment on the account, they reimburse themselves first for the original amount advanced, take out a fee, and return the rest to you.

Peer-to-Peer Lending

Another possibility, which may be slightly less expensive that factoring, is a relatively new financing option known as online peer-to-peer (P2P). Lending sites, such as prosper.com, lendingclub.com and circlelending.com, arrange borrowing between people who are needing money with those who have cash but want better returns on their money than a money market or savings account. Interest rates on peer-to-peer lending programs range from more than seven percent to more than 19 percent, depending on the quality of the borrower's credit.

Hedge Funds

If any kind of credit is out of reach, you may find yourself forced to offer equity in your business in exchange for funds. This is where things can really get dicey. Experts warn that there are many deals out there that are onerously expensive and have very restrictive terms, particularly with hedge funds. Even worse, there are hedge funds that are looking for a loan to own scenario. This is where they make you a loan with the belief that you're going to default. Then once the default occurs, they take ownership in your property. It's a way for them to buy property at a steep discount. But there are some legitimate and positive hedge fund lending options that might be suitable and beneficial for your company. Just be very cautious if you explore this option and read the fine print very carefully about what you're getting and especially what you're promising in return.

Community Banks

A safer choice may be your local community bank. Some local banks are still making loans and offering lines of credit. Unlike the megabanks which took on debt that they shouldn't have, local banks have largely avoided taking on potentially bad loans. You have to have pretty good credit rating and a lot of collateral because they maintain a conservative approach to lending.

Credit Cards

Finally, there's that old stand-by--the credit card. Entrepreneurs have been funding start ups with credit cards for years. But you have to be careful to only use them if you can pay them back and on time. Interest rates on credit cards go up quickly if you're late or miss just one monthly payment. If you are considering the credit card route, find the card with the longest lead time for that zero-percent introductory rate.

If you plan to also buy goods with a particular card, seek out the card that offers the most attractive rewards program, plus the zero-percent interest, but sometimes you have to go for one benefit over the other. Since your primary reason for the new credit card is to get a cash advance at zero percent you might want to consider a non-rewards card.

Only you will know which funding option best fits your needs, your time horizon and your future plans. As a business owner, it's important for you to maintain your energy and your passion for your business, while also remaining practical, open, and flexible. You have to be realistic about alternative and potentially appropriate lending solutions for where your business is today. These are challenging times and you shouldn't make these kinds of decision in a vacuum. Talk to your accountant, financial advisor or lawyer about what you need and what options you plan to explore.

Before considering any funding options, make sure the terms match up well with your expectations as well as your needs. Gather the information you need about what kind of funding is available and at what cost. That will minimize the possibility of any unpleasant surprises down the road.

---
Fred Yager, a veteran AP and CBS News journalist, was formerly president of Merrill-Lynch Broadcasting.

 

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Web Search "Optimizers" Sued

Washington state accuses Redmond firm of consumer protection violations

Web Search 'Optimizers' Sued...

The Washington State Attorney Generals Office is suing a Redmond-based seller of e-commerce services whose failed promises to rev up Web traffic for small businesses drove many customers to file complaints.

When it comes to Internet search results, every small business wants to pull rank, Attorney General Rob McKenna said. Merchants hoping to increase their online sales paid thousands of dollars to Visible.net and Captures.com but didnt always receive the top listings and other services they were promised.

The lawsuit was filed late Wednesday in King County Superior Court. It accuses Visible.net, Captures.com and their owner, Gilbert Walker, of violating state consumer protection and telemarketing laws.

The defendants also do business as WebMarketingSource.com and sell Web site design, search-optimization and other Internet marketing services, along with providing e-commerce services to process online purchases for merchant customers. They promote their services through their Web sites and by telemarketing. Packages include an initial startup fee of $3,749.99 up to $9,749.99 plus a monthly fee of $39.99 to $99.99.

Senior Counsel Paula Selis, an assistant attorney general who heads up the Attorney Generals Consumer Protection High-Tech Unit, said the Attorney Generals Office and Better Business Bureau have received nearly 90 complaints about the defendants, showing a pattern of recurring problems since at least 2005.

The suit accuses the defendants of the following violations, among others:

• Failing to register with the Department of Licensing as a commercial telephone solicitor and failing to provide written confirmation of a consumers rights under the Commercial Telephone Solicitation Act.

• Misrepresenting the ability to significantly increase traffic to customer Web sites by achieving top search-engine rankings and failing to deliver other promised services.

• Falsely claiming an affiliation with other marketers including Specialty Merchandise Company, a so-called drop-ship wholesaler.

• Claiming that its customer service representatives can be reached at any time when, in fact, customers are often unable to reach representatives and sometimes do not receive return calls.

• Failing to provide refunds or honor cancellation requests.

• Continuing to bill the credit cards of some consumers who have attempted to cancel and submitting alleged debts to collection agencies.

The state is seeking civil penalties and consumer restitution in addition to a court order halting the deceptive practices.

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Survey Finds State Insurance Websites Lacking

Only 6 states have excellent sites, 18 inadequate

Survey Finds State Insurance Websites Lacking...

When it comes to selecting the right insurance policy, consumers need as much clear, concise information as possible. A study released by the Consumer Federation of America suggests they aren't getting it from their states.

The study also found that state insurance department websites in six states were "excellent" while those in 18 states were deemed to be "inadequate."

CFA is sending the report to all state insurance departments with a personal letter urging the 45 states whose websites are not yet excellent to make improvements.

"At a time when consumers are under increasing financial pressure, state insurance departments can do their part by making available current information about the rates, solvency, and complaints of individual insurers as well as tips for consumers to use to secure fairer and faster claims settlements," said J. Robert Hunter, CFA's Director of Insurance and a former Texas Insurance Commissioner. "And it's essential that insurance departments widely publicize the availability of their websites and related information."

By using information on the best state websites, consumers purchasing home and auto insurance can potentially save hundreds of dollars a year in lower premiums and avoid serious problems settling claims.

"The best state websites contain far and away the most objective and useful information available to consumers," said Stephen Brobeck, CFA's Executive Director. "Only state insurance departments have the expertise and resources to provide up-to-date information about individual insurers," he added.

Best sites

The report found that California, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah have "excellent" websites with complete, up-to-date information that is easy for consumers to use.

Consumers accessing these websites could easily find current price, complaint and solvency information to make well informed purchase decisions and could find key information on how to get the best claim settlements as well.

But the report also concluded that 18 states -- listed below -- have websites that are inadequate. These websites lacked important aspects of information about purchase and claims settlement decisions in auto and home insurance.

"States with inadequate websites do not have to reinvent the wheel," said Hunter. "They need only use the excellent sites already in use by other states as a guide for improving their own sites," he added.

Report Card

Excellent (6 states): California, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.

Good (12 states): Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Maine Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

Fair (15 states): District of Columbia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington.

Inadequate (18 states): Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

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Too Little Sleep May Raise Heart Disease Risk

Less than 7.5 hours per night may cause problems

Too Little Sleep May Raise Heart Disease Risk...

There may be greater consequences to short-changing yourself on sleep than falling asleep at meetings.

According to a report in the November 10 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, sleeping less than seven and a half hours per day may be associated with future risk of heart disease. In addition, a combination of little sleep and overnight-elevated blood pressure appears to be linked to an increased risk of the disease.

Getting enough sleep is essential to preventing health conditions such as obesity and diabetes as well as several risk factors for cardiovascular disease including sleep-disordered breathing and nighttime high blood pressure.

Researchers at Jichi Medical University, Tochigi, Japan, monitored the sleep of 1,255 individuals with high blood pressure (average age 70.4) and followed them for an average of 50 months.

Researchers noted patients' sleep duration, daytime and nighttime blood pressure and cardiovascular disease events such as stroke, heart attack and sudden cardiac death.

During follow-up, 99 cardiovascular disease events occurred, and there was evidence that sleep duration of less than 7.5 hours was associated.

"The incidence of cardiovascular disease was 2.4 per 100 person-years in subjects with less than 7.5 hours of sleep and 1.8 per 100 person-years in subjects with longer sleep duration," the authors write.

Patients with shorter sleep duration plus an overnight increase in blood pressure had a higher incidence of heart disease than those who got more sleep and had no overnight increase in blood pressure.

However, the occurrence of cardiovascular disease in those with a longer sleep duration vs. those with a shorter sleep duration was similar in those who did not experience an overnight elevation in blood pressure.

"In conclusion, shorter duration of sleep is a predictor of incident cardiovascular disease in elderly individuals with hypertension," particularly when it occurs with elevated nighttime blood pressure, the authors note. "Physicians should inquire about sleep duration in the risk assessment of patients with hypertension."



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Zeigler Wieners Recalled in South

USDA warns of possible Listeria contamination

Zeigler Wieners Recalled in South...


R. L. Zeigler Co., Inc., a Selma, Ala., firm, is recalling approximately 28,000 pounds of hot dog products that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced today.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 12-ounce packages of "ZEIGLER WIENERS MADE WITH CHICKEN AND PORK, ARTIFICIALLY COLORED." Each package bears the use-by date of "Nov. 26, 2008" and the establishment number "P-9156S" inside the USDA mark of inspection.
  • 12-ounce packages of "VACUUM PACKED PAR-TI PUPS." Each package bears the use-by date of "Nov. 26, 2008" and the establishment number "P-9156S" inside the USDA mark of inspection.
  • 12-ounce packages of "ZEIGLER Original Recipe WIENERS, artificially colored." Each package bears the use-by date of "Nov. 26, 2008" and the establishment number "EST. 9156S" inside the USDA mark of inspection.
  • 16-ounce packages of "Zeigler Jumbo Franks." Each package bears the use-by date of "Nov. 21, 2008" and the establishment number "P-9156S" inside the USDA mark of inspection.
  • 12-ounce packages of "Zeigler Hot Dogs." Each package bears the use-by date of "Nov. 26, 2008" and the establishment number "P-9156S" inside the USDA mark of inspection.
  • 10-pound bulk boxes of "SKINLESS WIENERS, 8 WIENERS PER LB." Each box bears the package code "PK 092208A" and the establishment number "EST. 9156S" inside the USDA mark of inspection.
  • 10-pound bulk boxes of "SKINLESS WIENERS, ARTIFICIALLY COLORED, 10 WIENERS PER LB." Each box bears the package code "PK 092208A" and the establishment number "EST. 9156S" inside the USDA mark of inspection.
  • 10-pound bulk boxes of "SKINLESS WIENERS, 10 WIENERS PER LB." Each box bears the package code "PK 092208A" and the establishment number "EST. 9156S" inside the USDA mark of inspection.
  • 10-pound bulk boxes of "SKINLESS WIENERS, 12 WIENERS PER LB." Each box bears the package code "PK 092208A" and establishment number "EST. 9156S" inside the USDA mark of inspection.
  • The hot dog products were produced on Sept. 22, and were sent to food service institutions and retail establishments in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

    The problem was discovered by the Georgia State Department of Agriculture through microbiological testing. FSIS has received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of this product.

    Consumption of food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes can cause listeriosis, an uncommon but potentially fatal disease. Healthy people rarely contract listeriosis. However, listeriosis can cause miscarriages and stillbirths, and can also cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in those with weak immune systems, such as infants, the elderly, and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy. Infection can spread to the nervous system, resulting in high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, nausea, confusion and convulsions.



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    Schwan's Stuffed Chickens Recalled

    Gives new meaning to "rubber chicken"

    Schwan's Stuffed Chickens Recalled...


    Barber Foods Company, of Portland, Maine, is recalling approximately 41,415 pounds of frozen stuffed chicken products that may contain foreign materials, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced today.

    The following products are subject to recall:

  • 20-ounce, cartons of "#584 SCHWAN'S STUFFED CHICKEN KIEV." Each carton contains 4 individually wrapped boneless breast units. Ink-jetted on the side of each carton is a product identification code of "T282171000," as well as a code of "21781" on each wrapper. Each carton bears the USDA mark of inspection.
  • 20-ounce, cartons of "#584 SCHWAN'S STUFFED CHICKEN KIEV." Each carton contains 4 individually wrapped boneless breast units. Ink-jetted on the side of each carton is a product identification code of "T281382000," as well as a code of "13882" on each wrapper. Each carton bears the USDA mark of inspection.
  • 20-ounce, cartons of "#584 SCHWAN'S STUFFED CHICKEN KIEV." Each carton contains 4 individually wrapped boneless breast units. Ink-jetted on the side of each carton is a product identification code of "T281541000," as well as a code of "15481" on each wrapper. Each carton bears the USDA mark of inspection.
  • The products were produced on May 17, June 2 and August 4, and were made available for catalog or internet purchase from the Schwan's Home Service, Inc. by consumers nationwide.

    The problem was discovered after the Schwan's Home Service, Inc. received consumer complaints of finding pieces of rubber in the product. FSIS has not received any reports of injury at this time. Anyone concerned about an injury from consumption of the products should contact a physician.

    Media with questions about the recall should contact company Barber Foods Company Chief Financial Officer Vicki Mann at (207) 482-5503. Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Schwan's Home Service, Inc. at (888) 724-9267.



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    What Causes Gallstones?

    The Healthy Geezer

    What Causes Gallstones?...

    Q. I'm from an Italian-American family and we seem to have a predisposition for gallstones. Is this something people of my ethnic background get more often?

    I could find no evidence that people with an Italian background get more gallstones than others. However, Native Americans have an inclination for this malady; they have the highest rate of gallstones in the United States.

    There are many other risk factors. People over age 60 are more likely to develop gallstones than younger people. Women between 20 and 60 years of age are twice as likely to develop gallstones as men. Other factors include obesity, excess estrogen, cholesterol-lowering drugs, diabetes, rapid weight loss, and fasting.

    The gallbladder is a blue-green organ, about three inches long on the underside of the liver. The liver produces bile in a dilute form, which is then stored and concentrated in the gallbladder. The bile is then secreted from the gallbladder into the small intestine where it aids digestion.

    You can live without a gallbladder. After it is removed, bile flows out of the liver through ducts into the small intestine. However, because the bile isn't stored in the gallbladder, it flows into the small intestine more frequently.

    Bile is made up of fatty substances such as cholesterol. When excessive amounts of fat are present, stones can form. The stones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. About 90% of gallstones are composed of cholesterol.

    Gallstones can block the normal flow of bile. A blockage can cause inflammation. If the blockage persists, it can damage organs and be fatal.

    Symptoms of gallstones often present themselves suddenly. If you have a gallstone "attack," you can suffer pain in the upper abdomen, between the shoulder blades, and under the right shoulder. An attack, which often comes after a fatty meal, can last from a half-hour to several hours.

    Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, indigestion, abdominal bloating, and recurring intolerance of fatty foods.

    You should get to a doctor immediately if you have an attack with chills, fever, yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, and clay-colored stools.

    About 80 percent of people with gallstones have no symptoms. They have what are called "silent stones" that don't need treatment.

    Gallstones are usually treated by removing the gallbladder. This surgery is called a "cholecystectomy." In traditional surgery, the gallbladder is removed through an abdominal incision up to eight inches long. However, the most common method today employs a laparoscope, a thin tube with a scope on the end of it.

    The laparoscope is inserted through a small incision below the navel. The surgeon can see inside with the scope. The other surgical tools are inserted in three other small incisions in your abdomen. The gallbladder is removed through one of these cuts.

    Abdominal ultrasound is considered the safest and simplest of the tests for gallstones. Sonar waves from a probe are passed over the abdomen to detect the presence of stones.

    All Rights Reserved © 2008 by Fred Cicetti



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    Gasoline Prices Down 19 Cents in a Week

    National average down to $2.31

    Gasoline Prices Down 19 Cents in a Week...

    U.S. motorists will continue to find lower gasoline prices this weekend, as the nationwide price of a gallon of unleaded gas fell to an average of $2.314 Friday. That's down from $2.504 seven days ago.

    Motorists in many Mid-western states will find prices fell below the national average. In fact, the average price of unleaded regular has fallen below $2 a gallon in Missouri, hitting $1.99. It's only slightly more expensive in Oklahoma, at 2.023 a gallon, and in Kansas, at $2.078.

    Once again, only Alaska and Hawaii are the only states to have average gas prices over $3 a gallon this week. Alaska's average is $3.391 and Hawaii's is $3.265. But even those prices are below the nationwide average of just 30 days ago, when motorists nationwide were paying $3.447 to fill their tanks.

    The statewide average price in California is $2.641, with the lowest average price in the Stockton area, at $2.346 a gallon. Motorists in the San Francisco are paying the most, an average of $2.806 a gallon.

    Motorists in New York are paying an average of $2.698 statewide, with the highest average price in Buffalo-Niagara Falls area, at $2.857. The lowest average statewide is $2.503, found in the Syracuse area.

    Experts say they expect gas prices' downward trend to continue as the price of oil continues to fall. After an election day spike up to $70, crude oil prices are nearing $60 a barrel. Crude prices are now down nearly 60 percent since peaking at $147.27 a barrel in mid-July.

    Helping to put downward pressure on gasoline prices was a report earlier this week from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In the previous week, gasoline supplies were up by 1.1 million barrels at 196.1 million barrels, according to the report.

    Analysts see a continued decline in gasoline prices, perhaps through the end of the year. Industry analyst Trilby Lundberg, publisher of the Lundberg Letter, says falling oil prices, coupled with a falling demand for gasoline, caused by a dramatically weaker economy, are the main reasons fuel prices are falling instead of rising.

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    Finding The Best Digital Camera

    Lower prices, more choices means more selective shopping

    Finding The Best Digital Camera...

    Like many types of electronics gear, digital cameras have gotten better over the last few years as their prices have come down. Today, there are many different types to choose from, and many have features that were unheard of for a digital camera just a few years ago.

    Best of all, these high performance features in a digital camera do not have to cost a bundle.

    Just in time for the holiday season, Consumer Reports tested 77 digital camera models and took 3,080 images to rate the best cameras on the market. No matter what consumers' needs may be, they will be able to find a good camera at the right price, with subcompact cameras costing less than $250, compacts below $175 and basic SLRs that produced excellent images at $700.

    CR found that paying more does not guarantee fine performance. The $440 superzoom point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot TX1 fell short in several important areas and ranked dead last among its competitors. Tests also showed the same issue in SLRs with the high-priced basic Sigma SD14, costing $880, had the lowest score for image quality.

    "Shoppers need to be conscious of what their needs are when shopping for a digital camera, and with so many models available it is a great time to find a good camera at the right price," said Paul Reynolds, electronics editor at Consumer Reports. "But be wary of fancy features and high price tags, which don't always correlate to a better camera."

    Point-and-Shoots Advance

    Subcompact and compact cameras continue to improve in many areas. Resolution continues to rise, even though most models already offer more than the 7 megapixels most people need for good resolution. Almost half of the tested point-and-shoots have at least 10. More models have a 3-inch or larger LCD or touch-screen controls, and more superzooms offer zoom capability similar to a pricey SLR.

    Consumers who want a pocket-sized camera might consider the Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS ELPH at $200 for its low-light performance, versatility and very short next-shot delay. The Casio Exilim Card EX-S10, $220, also is a good option for its short first-shot delay and manual focus, CR said.

    Another recommendation from the magazine is the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-T70, at $260, which features a 3-inch touch-sensitive LCD, non-telescoping zoom lens and very short next-shot delay. If shoppers are budget conscious and looking to spend under $200, Consumer Reports suggests the Canon PowerShot A590 IS, $160 because of its manual focus, manual controls, and stabilizer. If cost and size are a concern, the Samsung L210, $150 and the Pentax Optio M50, $170 are both small enough to fit in a pocket.

    Digital SLRs Expand

    Digital SLRs are adding many new features including the long awaited video recording capability, which arrived this fall in the 12-megapixel Nikon D90, $1,000. CR did find this particular feature lacking and no substitute for a decent HD camcorder. Another new SLR feature is the full-frame sensor, which is the same size as a frame of 35-mm film and can produce better image quality at high ISO settings while offering more options for wide-angle shooting.

    One of the most interesting recent innovations is Panasonic's hybrid point-and-shoot, the Lumix DMC-G1, $800. Like an SLR, it uses a larger image sensor and removable lenses, but this model has the smaller size and weight of a point-and-shoot.

    The Pentax K200D, $720, and the Cannon EOS Rebel XSi, at $700, are both basic SLRs that stood out in Consumer Reports' testing. The Pentax is better designed than other basic SLRs to keep out moisture and dust. It also has an LCD on top that displays exposure and other settings. The Canon is the only basic SLR with excellent image quality and has a 3-inch LCD with live view.

    For a more advanced SLR, the magazine recommends the Canon EOS-40D Digital, priced at $1,100, for its excellent image quality and dynamic range. It has a live view with autofocus and is very versatile.

    Choosing the Right Camera

    Match performance to needs -- Image quality is a camera's most important feature. If action shots are a priority, look for a higher score for first-shot delay and next-shot delay. For landscapes, look for wide-angle capability and excellent or very good dynamic range.

    Decide on needed features -- For more control over the image, look for manual controls and RAW-file capability. A glass viewfinder is useful because LCDs typically wash out in bright light. Built-in video provides the ability to capture an event on the spur of the moment, but it won't be camcorder quality.

    Size up the design -- Most manufacturers offer cameras in a variety of colors and some brands have other, fairly consistent character traits across product lines. Sony excels in sleek, minimalist designs, while Kodak focuses on ease of use.

    Digital Picture Frames: Display Photos Continuously

    There are more digital frames on the market now than ever before, but Consumer Reports recommends resisting the temptation to go small and cheap due to the frames low display resolution. Shoppers should also think twice about the bells and whistles such as a built-in phone or printer, which tend to be unnecessary.

    CR suggests purchasing the 7-or 8-inch frame that display a 4x6 snapshot and will offer very good performance for a reasonable price. One frame stood out in testing, the HP df800, priced at $150 with its on-board memory, wall-mountable, and comes with extra, detachable frames for various looks.

    What Features Count with Digital Frames

    • Shape. Avoid frames with wide-screen length to height ratio of 16:9; they can distort images. For images from a point-and-shoot camera, the ideal ratio is 4:3 and for SLRs are 3:2.

    • Resolution. For a 7-or 8-inch frame, resolutions of 720x480 and 800x600 pixels are standard and sufficient.

    • Storage and transfer. Most frames work with a memory card filled with shots to display and some models use a USB port to transfer photos directly from a computer or flash drive.

    • Controls. Most models have controls on the back, but some include a remote, while others are touch-screen. Some models let consumers adjust color, contrast, or brightness.

    • Weigh other features. Many frames automatically rotate images and some can play back video taken on a camera or play MP3 files as the photos cycle through.

     

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    Mayo Clinic Cautions On Non-Prescription Diet Pills

    Over-the-counter remedies are no quick fix for dieters

    Mayo Clinic Cautions On Non-Prescription Diet Pills...

    Over-the-counter weight-loss pills are no quick fix to melt away extra pounds, according to a cautionary report in the November issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource.

    Many local drugstores sell diet pills, and even more choices are available on the Internet. But most diet pills haven't been proved safe or effective, and some are downright dangerous, the report warns.

    The report looks at popular weight-loss diets, eating plans and strategies, including diet pills.

    Pills containing ephedra are touted to decrease appetite. But they can cause dangerous side effects, including heart attacks, seizures, strokes and sudden death. Ephedra, although banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, can be purchased online. Herbal supplements that contain the plant-derived chemical ephedrine also are available online and can cause similar health problems.

    Other weight-loss pills can contain a cocktail of ingredients, including herbs, botanicals, vitamins, minerals, caffeine or laxatives. It's too often unknown how these ingredients, individually or in combination, could affect individuals. The risk of adverse reactions increases when diet pills are taken with other medications, the report says.

    The FDA has approved the weight-loss drug Alli, a reduced-strength version of the prescription drug orlistat. Alli is taken with meals and promotes weight loss by decreasing absorption of fat by the intestines. It's intended for use as part of a reduced-calorie, low-fat diet. When individuals don't reduce fat in the diet, diarrhea and gas with oily spotting can be significant side effects.

    While diet pill claims may be tempting, weight loss only happens when more calories are burned than consumed, the report concludes.

     

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    Feds Probe Yamaha Rhino ATV

    Thirty deaths, hundreds of lawsuits plague popular off-roader

    Feds Probe Yamaha Rhino ATV...



    The Yamaha Rhino has been a big hit with off-road enthusiasts but a series of fatal accidents is making it a hit with personal injury lawyers and federal regulators as well.

    At least 30 people have died in Rhino accidents and hundreds have been injured, according to federal statistics. Hundreds of lawsuits are pending as a result.

    The two-seat vehicle resembles a cross between a golf cart and an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). It's a popular design that enthusiasts say makes the Rhino fun to drive but the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is investigating whether stricter regulations are needed to make the Rhino safer, The Wall Street Journal reported.

    Because of its unique design, the Rhino isn't subject to ATV safety standards, which aren't exactly five-star anyway. A recent report found that for the eighth year in a row, serious injuries caused by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) increased in 2007, and children under age 16 continued to suffer a significant portion of those injuries.

    Instead of classifying it as an ATV, the CPSC calls the Rhino a "utility terrain vehicle," or UTV. There are no official standards for UTVs, but that may change as the safety agency continues its probe.

    The Rhino falls into what the CPSC calls the "emerging hazard" category -- a niche sometimes created by crafty manufacturers who find ways to work around existing safety regulations.

    The Rhino, for example, has a steering wheel instead of the handlebars usually found on ATVs. That and other relatively minor differences leave it in category limbo -- neither car nor ATV -- and thus unregulated and unlicensed.

    Since they're not regarded as cars, UTVs don't need licenses and can generally be operated by anyone, including children, which is a large part of the problem as regulators and consumer advocates see it.

    "Every year, more and more families are devastated by deaths and injuries caused by ATVs. This tragic problem continues to be in dire need of an aggressive and immediate solution," said Rachel Weintraub, Director of Product Safety for the Consumer Federation of America.

    Yamaha says the criticism is unwarranted and insists the Rhino is safe. Accidents are caused by careless operation and ill-advised modifcations, such as removing the roll cage and failing to use a helmet and seat belt.

    Unlike ATVs, which are used almost entirely for recreational riding, the Rhino and other UTVs are often used for such utilitarian chores as hauling gardening and maintenance supplies. The first Rhino models were introduced in 2003, offering such new conveniences as bucket seats and a steering wheel. Some even have doors. A base model costs about $11,000.

    ATV dangers

    While the Rhino may not be an ordinary ATV, it's still no toy and parents should not let children or adolescents treat it like one, experts warn. Here's what consumers have told us about ATVs, in their own words:

    tom of jackson, TN August 16, 2009

    My 36 year old son was a victim of the Rhino. He was a passenger traveling at estimared speed of 12-15 mph. My 38 year old son in law was driving. They were making a gradual left turn on absolutely flat terrain. Suddenly the Rhino flipped for no apparent reason. Results; compound fracture to fibula, tibia and broken hand. Now after 2 years and 8 surgeries he is still unable to work. Lost his job; lost health insurance, lost new home, permanently disabled, permanently disfigured, hasn't worked since July of 2007. Now he has a Staph infection.

    Sometimes the collateral damage caused by an accident is worse than the accident. Oh, by the way because of this incident his wife recently filed for divorce. The accident occured in the middle of a hot summer day. No drinking no drugs no horseplay. The rhino is a death trap.

    Joyce of Mccurtain, OK April 13, 2009

    first i want to say these small towns like the one i live in have fines and laws against atvs,they know nothing of rhinos. they town or police just tell the kids to go home and they do nothing. the kids naturally come back out and just try to avoid being caught. there should be stiffer fines and also include the parents in the fines. the parents are just as guilty as the children. how many more injuries or deaths does there have to be?

    Cynthia of Fairview, NC March 1, 2009

    Cynthia of Fairview NC (03/01/09)
    My son, 15, was driving an ATV on someone else's property along with some other boys. He came aroud a corner and a 18 yr ld boy driving a dirt bike hit him head on and he died almost instantly. He was not wearing a helmet and we will always wonder if he would've, if he would stil be here for us. He had been driving for years and didn't realy know the dangers. He owned a helmet and my last words were Where's your Helmet

    A piece of my hisband and my heart are gone along with his brothers and sisters

    Stephanie of East Prairie, MO February 24, 2009

    Stephanie of East Prairie MO (02/24/09)
    I have 3 boy's. zach age 5/Andrew age 10/Christopher age 12.Drew and Chris are 17 months apart, one year differance in school.Drew was pitcher and Chris was catcher in baseball.They played all sports on the same team.

    Feb.27th,2008 Andrew was killed instantly while riding a ATV.Christopher (Drew's brother)found him in a field with the 4-wheeler and his friend that was on the back.

    Christopher got the 4-wheeler off of the boy's. He made sure Drew's friend was ok and told him to stay by the back of the ATV.Chris did not want him to see Drew. Christopher said his brother's lips were blue. He checked to see if Drew was breathing. He was not. Chris took off Drew's helmet and shirt because gas had been leaking on the shirt. He then road his motorcycle home,came in the house and said MOM DREW IS DEAD. THANK GOD uncle Paul had stopped by that day.I told Paul to go with Chris while I called 911 and AIR-VAC.

    I grabbed Zach put him in truck.When I got there all I could see was my dead baby lying there and he was purple.I ask Drew's friend how he was ,his leg was hurting and that was all.I told the boy's to get into the truck with Zach and PRAY for DREW. We tried CPR even though I knew my baby was dead. The result of all this is my family and my self totally heart broken,there are no words to explain.A person would have to go through this tragedy to understand.Christopher can not sleep at night he is very depressed and lost without his brother.Zach lays on Drew's bed yelling I WANT MY OLD LIFE BACK!I WANT MY BROTHER BACK.

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    California Busts Foreclosure Scam Ring

    Fake "mortgage rescuers" wanted upfront fees for nonexistent services

    California Busts Foreclosure Scam Ring...

    jThree members of a fraud ring who preyed on desperate Southern California homeowners by falsely promising to renegotiate their home loans, but instead "ripped them off for thousands of dollars" while their homes fell into foreclosure, have been arrested.

    "It's appalling how these scammers took advantage of desperate homeowners and ripped them off for thousands of dollars," California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. said. "Our campaign against mortgage scams masquerading as foreclosure assistance will continue and even intensify."

    California Department of Justice Special Agents of the Bureau of Investigation and Intelligence arrested Rosa Conrado of San Bernardino, Saul Amador of West Covina, and Jesus Flores of Baldwin Park, believed to be members of the fraud ring.

    In addition, arrest warrants have been issued for Juan Perez of Grand Terrace, and David Giron of Ontario, who are also suspected to be involved in the scheme. The Attorney General's Office filed a 39-count complaint that includes multiple grand theft, money laundering and conspiracy charges against these suspects.

    The arrests came after an investigation into First Gov, also operating as Foreclosure Prevention Services, uncovered that the company was soliciting hundreds of homeowners with mail flyers offering to help them stop the foreclosure process on their homes.

    The scammers falsely told homeowners that they would renegotiate their mortgages, reduce monthly payments, and transfer any delinquent loan amounts to the renegotiated principle. The company demanded an up-front fee, ranging from $1,500 to $5,000, to participate in the loan-modification program.

    The company also told the victims to stop any mortgage payments or communications with their lender, claiming they would interfere with the company's effort to negotiate the loan modification.

    When victims complained that they were still receiving delinquency or foreclosure notices from their lenders, fraud-ring members told the victims that the mortgage loans had been renegotiated, but the lenders needed a "good faith" payment to secure the new accounts.

    Homeowners made payments to accounts under business names such as "Reinstatement Department" or "Resolution Department" that made it appear as if the payment had been applied toward the loan. Bank records indicate that more than $700,000 was stolen from homeowners who fell victim to this scheme.

    Typically, the scam started with a flyer sent to the homeowner. For example, Eleuteria and Arthur Washington of Redlands responded to a flyer she had received that falsely claimed to offer a way to renegotiate their home loan. On May 16, 2007, a representative of First Gov came to their residence. The Washingtons were asked for two cashier's checks totaling $4,046.56, which equaled two times the combined total of the monthly payment on their first and second mortgage.

    Although the checks were deposited that same day into the designated Bank of America account, Mrs. Washington continued to receive letters from her lenders stating that the house would be auctioned. Mrs. Washington's numerous calls to First Gov went unanswered. Finally, she received a call from First Gov claiming her lenders had agreed to the loan modification.

    The next day, she received another call from First Gov saying that the new loan documents would be sent to her to sign. She was told the lender wanted an additional payment and was instructed to make a deposit to Washington Mutual for $2,023.58.

    After Mrs. Washington made the deposit, she never heard from First Gov again. She later learned from her lender that the loan was never renegotiated, and the lender had never heard of First Gov. As a result of the scam, the Washingtons were cheated out of more than $6,000.

    Homeowners should be aware the fraud ring's flyer is still being circulated. It is printed on goldenrod-colored paper in a yellow envelope and occasionally, the contact name and number that appear on the bottom are changed.

    "Loan-modification scams are becoming more and more prevalent across the country, particularly in California," Brown said. "California homeowners should be aware of the warning signs of foreclosure scams, so they don't fall victim to these cynical schemes."

    Homeowners considering paying for foreclosure-assistance services, such as loan modification, should beware of anyone who tells them not to contact their lender or charges an upfront fee. It's unlawful for companies that promise to help consumers in foreclosure to collect any money from them before they've done what was promised. Also, consumers should remember that they may not transfer title on their property to avoid foreclosure without the consent of their lender.

     

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    Consumer Issues Could Get Early Focus in Obama Administration

    Health care, energy conservation, food protection get spotlight

    Consumer Issues Could Get Early Focus in Obama Administration...

    mPresident-elect Barack Obama is getting plenty of free advice as he prepares to address many of the issues of concern to U.S. consumers. The post-election celebrations had barely died down before public and private interest groups were stepping forward with "helpful" proposals.

    With 2008 seeing record gasoline prices, Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, said she is encouraged by Obama's emphasis on energy conservation as a policy.

    "President-elect Obama's New Energy for America plan correctly cites energy efficiency as the cheapest, cleanest, fastest energy source and calls for new energy efficiency policies and substantial federal investment in energy efficiency to help reduce U.S. oil dependence, create new jobs, and curb climate change, Callahan said.

    Besides energy, health care issues are likely to be a major early focus of the Obama Administration.

    "The AMA shares President-elect Obama's focus on expanding health insurance coverage and choice through income-related federal subsidies, and we look forward to continuing to work with him and the new Congress toward reform," said Dr. Nancy Nielsen, president of the American Medical Association. "Bi-partisan efforts will be an essential building block for comprehensive health care reform."

    Obama's approach to health care, as outlined during the campaign, is relatively simple. Those who currently have health coverage they like would keep it. Those who have no insurance, or not enough, could enroll in a government-sponsored health care plan. The government would subsidize premiums for those who meet certain income requirements.

    The AMA said it would like to see consumers have a choice in plans so that they can pick the coverage that's best for them.

    "And we want to create fair insurance rules that include protections for high-risk patients and make insurance more affordable," Nielsen said.

    WellPoint, Inc., the nation's largest health insurer, said it would like to work with the new administration to improve the value and quality of U.S. health care.

    "This can be achieved through an increased focus on the development of consensus-based quality measures and expanded use of quality-based payments; enhanced efforts to promote an advanced medical home model for the delivery of care; continued efforts to provide coordinated care and disease management; and expanding viable public and private coverage options and access," the company said in a statement.

    Consumer activists, meanwhile, will keep a close eye on administration appointments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Product Safety Commission. Both agencies have been under fire in recent months over foodborne illness outbreaks and dangerous products.

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    Shop Safely When You Shop Online

    Keep records of everything and read the fine print

    With the current economic situation, and aggressive pricing offered on-line, it is likely that more people will use online shopping this holiday season....

    The catalogues have already started to fill up your post box and advertisements for "must have" items are cluttering your email inbox. It's holiday time and retailers are going to great lengths to attract your attention.

    With the current economic situation, and aggressive pricing offered on-line, it is likely that more people will use online shopping this holiday season. While online shopping should be as secure as any other type of shopping, it pays to be careful.

    The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) has some safety tips that it recommends all consumers follow when ordering gifts over the Internet or by mail:

    Make sure you are doing business with a legitimate company. Check out companies with the Better Business Bureau and with the Secretary of State where the business is located to check for complaints and to verify they have current business licenses.

    Be proactive. When you order items, the website should be a secure website, indicated by "//https:" beginning the address, and a locked padlock icon on the web browser indicating a secure website. Research the company using the Internet. Make sure it has a legitimate street address and a phone contact number that actually delivers the caller to a person. These will become vital if there is a problem with the order. Search for any complaints on the company that people have posted. Often a simple Google search for "xxx company complaints problems" may influence your purchasing choice. Also, you may want to shop in stores located in the United States. If you choose to shop outside the U.S., know the regulations of the country involved. U.S. companies are more closely regulated than those outside of the U.S.

    Read the fine print. You should know the return policy and the procedure the company uses to process your orders. Read the shipping rules to find out who pays for shipping. They may have different policies for shipping to you versus a returned item. It might be wise to ask if they insure the package when shipping. Ask whether you get a store credit or a full refund if you must return the item. Ask about any restocking charges. Confirm that they do not share your information with other companies. Remember that you can you "opt-out" of further promotional offers if you wish.

    Keep a paper trail. Keep a photocopy of your order, the mailing address and phone number of the company, and the confirmation of your order. Use a credit card that you designate for online shopping only. This means you have a single statement that is easier to check for fraudulent purchases. Do not use debit cards for on-line shopping, as debit cards do not have the same protections as credit cards, and can be used to remove funds immediately from your account. Never send a check to pay for a purchase. Checks can be copied and used in many ways for fraudulent activity.

    Keep your computer safe. Finally, make sure that your computer is safe for Internet shopping. Keep your computer protection programs, such as firewall, anti-virus, and anti-spyware software updated.

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    Circuit City Closing 155 Stores

    Last measure before possible bankruptcy, analysts say

    Struggling retailer Circuit City says it will close 155 stores in the U.S. because it's running low on cash and having a harder time getting credit from it...

    November 4, 2008
    Struggling retailer Circuit City says it will close 155 stores in the U.S. because it's running low on cash and having a harder time getting credit from its supplier.

    Analysts say the closings may be the last stop gap measure before declaring bankruptcy.

    "I think at this point they should be able to get through December," Anthony Chukumba, an analyst with FTN Midwest Securities, told Reuters.

    In a statement, Circuit City said it is also considering all available options and alternatives to restructure its business. It said that over the past several weeks, a number of factors have impacted severely the company's liquidity position. Waning consumer confidence and a significantly weakened retail environment have impacted negatively the company's sales and gross profit margin rate to a greater degree than management had anticipated previously, the statement said.

    Things started to go rapidly downhill following the company's second quarter results announcement, officials said. The company's liquidity position and the sharply worsened overall economic environment led some of Circuit City's vendors to take restrictive actions with respect to payment terms and the credit they make available to the company.

    Additionally, the recent disruption in the financial markets has contributed to certain of the company's vendors experiencing insurmountable challenges with obtaining credit insurance for the company's purchases, it said.

    "As a result of this and other considerations, certain of the company's vendors have set more restrictive payment terms than in previous quarters, including in some cases requiring payment before shipment," Circuit City said in a statement. "Vendors also have limited the credit available to the company for purchases, including in some cases not providing customary increases in credit lines for holiday purchases. While management is working diligently to secure the support of its vendors and believes it has maintained good relationships with these important partners, the current mix of terms and credit availability is becoming unmanageable for the company."

    Making matters worse, Circuit city said it has been unable to collect an income tax refund of approximately $80 million that the company believes it is owed from the federal government. At a time when credit is drying up, Circuit City seems to be another Main Street victim of the credit crunch.

    "Since late September, unprecedented events have occurred in the financial and consumer markets causing macroeconomic trends to worsen sharply," said James A. Marcum, vice chairman and acting president and chief executive officer of Circuit City Stores. "The weakened environment has resulted in a slowdown of consumer spending, further impacting our business as well as the business of our vendors. The combination of these trends has strained severely our working capital and liquidity, and so we are making a number of difficult, but necessary, decisions to address the company's financial situation as quickly as possible."

    Evaluating all options

    As a result of unfavorable macroeconomic conditions and the company's deteriorating liquidity position, the company said it is considering "all available options" and alternatives for the business. Consistent with this evaluation, the company said it will continue to take appropriate actions to conserve cash, reduce expenses and improve liquidity.

    In addition, the company is continuing to evaluate additional near-term cost reduction initiatives that may be necessary to address its financial condition. The company is also in negotiations with its lenders and other third parties regarding various financing alternatives.

    "The company plans to operate its business without interruption while it engages in discussions with its lenders and works with advisors to determine the most appropriate restructuring alternatives," the statement said. "The company can make no assurance that the discussions will result in any agreements or transactions."

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    New Jersey Sues Credit Repair Agencies

    Restraining order filed over deceptive practices and failed promises

    New Jersey officials have won a temporary restraining order against all firms that target consumers with so-called credit repair schemes....

    New Jersey officials have won a temporary restraining order against United Credit Adjusters, Bankruptcy Masters Corp., United Counseling Association, Inc. and Credit Bureau Controls Corp. -- all firms that target consumers with so-called credit repair schemes.

    The judge's order freezes the defendants assets and enjoins and restrains them from:

    • Removing, selling, encumbering, transferring or engaging in any act of disposition of any assets...including but not limited to all deposits or any monies paid by consumers...except as reasonable and necessary for day-to-day business expenses;

    • Destroying, concealing, altering, transferring, disposing or removing in any manner any books or records...that directly or indirectly relate to the advertisement and/or sale of credit repair, credit counseling, debt adjuster and bankruptcy filing services;

    • Failing to make and/or keep any books or records related to these services; and

    • Engaging in or doing any acts or practices in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and the Regulations Governing General Advertising.

    "We're pleased the court has granted our request for temporary restraints. We want consumers protected as our investigation into the alleged violations committed by these defendants moves forward," said New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram.

    In its five-count complaint filed in mid October, the state alleges that the defendants required payment in advance during initial consultations and then, after receiving payment, failed to provide consumers with credit counseling, credit repair and/or bankruptcy services. The defended reportedly promised to raise consumers' credit scores, but failed to deliver on those promises.

    Approximately 188 New Jersey consumers complained either directly to the Better Business Bureau ("BBB") as well as the Monmouth County Consumer Affairs Office, which began the investigation of United Credit Adjusters.

    United Credit Adjusters, which has maintained business and mailing addresses in Lakewood, Howell and North Manasquan, was believed to be in operation even after its New Jersey corporate status was revoked in May 2008 for failure to file annual reports. At present, it is believed that United Credit Adjusters may be operating as United Credit Counseling Association, Inc.

    "We firmly believe that consumers were defrauded by these companies. We're taking action to safeguard consumers and bring these defendants into compliance with our consumer protection laws and regulations," said David Szuchman, New Jersey Consumer Affairs Director.

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    Free Money Is Often Neither

    'Free' online searches may produce little and often aren't free

    In my situation, I decided to use the free detailed search provided by my state and discovered that I was owed $50.00. The money came from an old P.O. Box ...

    With the economy suffering a bad case of the blues, most of us would welcome a few extra dollars that came with no strings attached.

    This makes us prime targets for "free money" enticements and, sure enough, the Internet is crowded with advertisements such as, "Claim Your Missing Money" or "Free Search For Unclaimed Money." One of the older and better-known promoters is FoundMoney.com.

    Founded by Edward Palonek™ -- who, by the way, claims to have trademarked his name -- FoundMoney.com calls itself the "leader in unfound assets" and provides a "FREE national search for lost money."

    I wanted to see if I had unclaimed assets, so I typed in my name and discovered hundreds of results with various amounts of unclaimed funds. However, there was no physical address listed with the names, not even a state. To find out more information I would have to purchase a membership, which sort of negates the value of the "free" search.

    I didn't think I wanted to invest in a membership because according to complaints filed with ConsumerAffairs.com, other consumers have paid for a membership only to discover there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

    "I used the free search and it came up with two accounts in my name," wrote Sharon, of Salisbury, North Carolina. "After paying for the REAL search, guess what? Nothing shows up in my name. I requested a refund and was told you only get a refund if your name shows up and you're unable to get the funds," Sharon said.

    And Michael, of Elko, Nevada, said that he laid out $24.95 for a membership for nothing. "I felt I could trust the site because it said that Oprah (Winfrey) and Maury (Povich) both had the founder on their show," wrote Mike. "I am just like all the rest of the people that spent money and got burnt."

    In response to published complaints, we heard from Kathy at FoundMoney.com.

    "We are committed to client satisfaction and offer a full unconditional 100% money back guarantee on all our services. Clients are NEVER at financial risk of not getting their desired service," Kathy wrote.

    Kathy went on to make the claim that negative consumer reviews are actually the work of disgruntled competitors dazzled by the brilliant success of FoundMoney.com.

    "We hate to brag, but our package of services together with our customer care and satisfaction is so great, that many of our competitors have become extremely jealous of our success and have resorted to a number of unscrupulous online negative marketing tactics," she claimed, citing no supporting evidence.

    "We would ask you to strongly consider, that most if NOT all of the (obviously overboard!) supposed complaints about FoundMoney.com and its online unclaimed property business are unfounded and probably manufactured our less successful competition!"

    OK, we decided that not only would we strongly consider Kathy's claim, we would actually ask the complaining consumers about it. Not surprisingly, they were not amused.

    "I am not nor have I ever been associated with the competition of FoundMoney.com. The allegation is ludicrous," said Lee, of Sacramento. "I was in the legal business for years and I'm currently a sitting member of the county grand jury, so if FoundMoney wants to take me on, come on ahead."

    Michael of Elko, Nevada was livid that FoundMoney would even suggest that he worked for their competition.

    "I'm just a blue-collar worker trying to raise five kids, and for them to suggest that I work for their competition, all I have to say is that they need to back off," Michael huffed.

    Never say never

    However, while FoundMoney.com may arguably not be the best place to invest your spare change, that's not to say that all unclaimed funds claims are scams or hoaxes.

    In fact, Nebraska officials have lately found themselves literally unable to give money away. They've sent letters to Cornhuskers telling them of unclaimed funds in their name, only to have their letters sent to the circular file.

    Now in some states, this might be greeted gleefully but they take these things seriously in Nebraska and state workers have been sent out door-to-door, trying to get Nebraskans to accept what's rightfully theirs.

    The phrase "unclaimed property" refers to numerous things including abandoned savings or checking accounts, stocks, un-cashed payroll checks, insurance payments or refunds, customer overpayments, etc.

    It is currently estimated that state treasurers and various agencies are holding over $32 billion in unclaimed property. While most are not trying as hard as Nebraska to put that money together with its rightful owners, they are at least making the information available, if you know where to look for it.

    "All states provide a way to search for missing money for free, and unlike the sites that charge, the state websites provide identifiable information such as a mailing address," said Steve Larson, Deputy State Treasurer of Iowa and President of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA).

    "People also need to understand that the states have the latest data whereas with non-state sites, it's anyone's guess how often the data is updated," Larson said.

    Where to go

    While many Web sites talk about being the "official" site for unclaimed funds, there is only one destination that is officially endorsed by NAUPA -- MissingMoney.com.

    MissingMoney.com allows you to perform a free detailed search for unclaimed property in over 40 states, all from one centralized location. It also has links to the unclaimed property division of each state that is not a part of the MissingMoney.com database.

    The majority of the states handle everything for free, although there are a handful of states that charge some type of processing fee once it has been confirmed that you are owed money.

    A good example is Ohio. "In 1991, the Ohio General Assembly established a 5% administrative fee to be assessed to each claims account," said Dennis Ginty, Spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Commerce.

    As with the few other states that charge a fee, Ohio won't charge you anything to search. In short, you will not pay a cent unless you know that a check is on the way.

    "For instance, if the consumer has $100.00 in unclaimed funds, the state would keep $5.00 for processing the claim and the consumer would receive a check for $95.00," Ginty said.

    In my situation, I decided to use the free detailed search provided by my state and discovered that I was owed $50.00. The money came from an old P.O. Box that I had in 1999.

    Once I fill out the form and provide my state with the routine identity information, they will be sending me a freshly printed $50.00 check from the state treasurer.

    I guess that proves you really can get something for nothing every now and then.

     

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    At Last: Bailout Trickling Down to Struggling Homeowners

    FDIC chair's plan would rescue homeowners on the brink of default

    At Last: Bailout Trickling Down to Struggling Homeowners...

    The bailout may finally be getting up close and personal. As many as three million struggling homeowners could be in line to get some help from the U.S. government, under a plan put together by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Treasury Department.

    The plan, said to be in the final approval process by the White House Office of Management and Budget, reportedly calls for the feds to spent $40 billion to $50 billion to share lenders' losses in putting together new mortgage packages for homeowners who are on the brink of default. It would most likely be funded through the $700 billion rescue program already authorized by Congress.

    FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair has been pressing for a plan that would help taxpayers stay in their homes as a way of attacking the foreclosure problem. The plan is a response to her demand for a framework for systematically modifying troubled loans, which generally fall into two categories -- adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) that include stiff escalator clauses and loans that exceed the market value of the homeowner's property.

    Designing a one-size-fits-all program isn't easy, since policymakers are essentially dealing with a moving target. With property values still sluggish in most of the country, home values may not yet have hit bottom, so that homeowners who are barely afloat may soon find themselves "underwater," meaning they owe more on their home than it is worth.

    That's not always a crisis but if a homeowner becomes ill, loses his or her job or suffers other financial setbacks, what is essentially a paper loss can quickly become a crisis when the homeowner who is suddenly unable to keep up with mortage payments discovers that his home can't be sold because the market is poor and the loan amount exceeds the likely sale price of the home.

    Moody's Economy, a research firm, estimates that as many as 7.3 million American homeowners are expected to default on their mortgages between 2008 and 2010, with 4.3 million of those losing their homes.

    What to do

    Of course, none of the inside-the-Beltway maneuvering is immediately helpful to homeowners who are in trouble right now. What can a homeowner in trouble do today to stave off foreclosure? There's no single answer that works in every situation, but here are some essentials to consider:

    1. Avoid scams The very same con artists who got us into this mess are working to keep us there. Many are now presenting themselves as "foreclosure rescue" specialists. For a fee, they'll supposedly help you renegotiate your mortgage, lower your payments, stay in your home, get money back and maybe win a free trip to Las Vegas in the bargain. Sound too good to be true? Uh-huh.

    Tracye of Denver was in the midst of a foreclosure when she received a mailer from a company called Brazian Equity Group.

    "I was under the impression that I had a loan with the land contract, an interest-only loan and the funds were placed in a escrow account for the monies to be paid monthy. I did sign my house over with the agreement that I would remain on the title and that I would be co-owner," she told ConsumerAffairs.com.

    But when Tracye went to the Denver City and County Building, she found that she was no longer listed on the deed to her home. "There is something in the contracts stating that I had to pay monthly but only skim through the contract at the closing not really understanding it," she said. Her case is now in court.

    The tip-off that you're being scammed, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says, is when the company offering the "rescue" requires an upfront fee.

    "While consumers are doing all that they can to save their homes from foreclosure, it is unconscionable that con artists would prey on their vulnerabilities with these so-called 'rescue' schemes," Madigan said.

    2. Talk to your lender Lenders supposedly are eager to work with troubled homeowners. An industry group called HOPE NOW has issued guidelines that are supposed to ensure that homeowners quickly receive the help they need and that the assistance process is respectful, understandable, and transparent. The agreement also includes guidance for dealing with second mortgages and short sales. Unfortunately, many consumers report that their lenders are uncooperative or simply unresponsive.

    "Anytime we have ever tried to call American Home Mortgage, they never get back to us. They completely ignore us," said Joseph of Warwick, R.I., who got into trouble when he became disabled after a car accident. "A man showed up at our house today and told me that he was there to take pictures of the property and asked if I knew that this property had been foreclosed on," he said in a recent complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

    "I just don't understand the fact that they would rather take my house back and make no money than work it out with me and get their money. Are they on a mission to ruin people's lives?" he asked. .

    3. Be demanding If your lender doesn't respond, some consumer advocates suggest you withhold your payments, making you a delinquent customer and moving you up the queue as someone who needs more help and attention. There's an obvious downside to this tactic: it will hurt your credit score and it could start a foreclosure spiral that you'll be unable to control.

    3. Be skeptical and flexible HOPE NOW may be helpful but homeowners should also examine other options while considering whatever deal their lender may (or may not) offer. As David Petrovich, the head of a New Jersey non-profit notes, HOPE NOW plans require homeowners to waive their right to sue, thus shutting off the option of going to court if things go sour. Petrovich says that, HOPE NOW rules notwithstanding, lenders put their financial interests first and may not present all the options to homeowners.

    4. Get legal help Many of today's troubled loans were put together with the fiscal equivalent of super glue. Essential steps were skipped, inaccuracies slipped through and outright fraud my be evident to a trained eye. It may be worthwhile to have an attorney pore over your mortgage to see whether your mortgage lender is violating any terms. If so, you can threaten to sue, which may get you a rapid response. Have your lawyer contact the lender; legal threats from laypeople usually go nowhere.

    If you cannot afford a lawyer, Legal Aid (Google "Legal Aid" in your city or state), ACORN or similar organizations may be able to help you. (Forget the campaign trail blather about ACORN. It's what it says it is -- a consumer group that fights for low-income Americans).

    5. Call your insurer Most homeowners never think of getting their mortgage insurer involved in lending workouts but your insurer has a vested interest in your ability to pay off your mortgage and theyre likely to use their pull to work something out with your mortgage company. If you made a down payment of 20% or less, you probably have mortgage insurance. The premium is deducted as part of your monthly escrow, possibly under the heading "PMI."

    A strong advocate

    FDIC Chief Sheila Bair

    FDIC's Bair has emerged as the Bush Administration's strongest advocate for helping homeowners avoid foreclosure.

    While Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have implemented plans to pump billions of dollars into the nation's banking system, Bair has been virtually alone among administration officials in making the case for addressing the nation's credit crisis at its source preventing more mortgages from going bad.

    "We are behind the curve," Bair told the Senate Banking Committee in recent testimony. "We are falling behind. There has been some progress, but it's not been enough, and we need to act and we need to act quickly and we need to act dramatically."

    The plan now said to be in its final approval stages would try to establish a standardized manner in which loans are modified. Part of the problem thus far has been the manner in which these loans have been broken up and securitized. With a number of different entities owning a portion of each mortgage, it has been difficult to get agreement on altering the terms of the loans.

    Realtors have complained that lenders have been uncooperative at times when "short sales" have been proposed as a way to sell a home before it goes into foreclosure. The reluctance, say many experts, is really the inability to get an agreement from all the parties.

    Under the plan reportedly being drafted in Washington, the federal government would guarantee loans that were modified to help homeowners. If the homeowner was still unable to make payments and defaulted on the modified mortgage, the U.S. government would absorb at least a portion of the loss.

    Despite efforts to provide homeowner relief, foreclosures continue to rise at a rapid rate in 2008. Though new foreclosures dipped in September because of moratoriums in a number of states, they were up 71 percent in the third quarter over the same period a year ago.

     

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