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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!"

    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

    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!"...
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    FDA Blocks Chinese Products Over Melamine Fears

    Agency issues import alert warning of possible contamination

    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.

    FDA Blocks Chinese Products Over Melamine Fears...
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      Getting A Small Business Loan in Bad Economic Times

      Alternatives are available, even with tight credit

      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.


      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.

      Getting A Small Business Loan in Bad Economic Times...
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      Web Search "Optimizers" Sued

      Washington state accuses Redmond firm of consumer protection violations

      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.

      Web Search 'Optimizers' Sued...
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      Survey Finds State Insurance Websites Lacking

      Only 6 states have excellent sites, 18 inadequate

      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.

      Survey Finds State Insurance Websites Lacking...
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      Too Little Sleep May Raise Heart Disease Risk

      Less than 7.5 hours per night may cause problems

      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."

      Too Little Sleep May Raise Heart Disease Risk...
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      Schwan's Stuffed Chickens Recalled

      Gives new meaning to "rubber chicken"

      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.

      Schwan's Stuffed Chickens Recalled...
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      Zeigler Wieners Recalled in South

      USDA warns of possible Listeria contamination

      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.

      Zeigler Wieners Recalled in South...
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      Gasoline Prices Down 19 Cents in a Week

      National average down to $2.31

      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.

      Gasoline Prices Down 19 Cents in a Week...
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      What Causes Gallstones?

      The Healthy Geezer

      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

      What Causes Gallstones?...
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      Mayo Clinic Cautions On Non-Prescription Diet Pills

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

      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.

      Mayo Clinic Cautions On Non-Prescription Diet Pills...
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      Finding The Best Digital Camera

      Lower prices, more choices means more selective shopping

      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.

      Finding The Best Digital Camera...
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      Consumer Issues Could Get Early Focus in Obama Administration

      Health care, energy conservation, food protection get spotlight

      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.

      Consumer Issues Could Get Early Focus in Obama Administration...
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      California Busts Foreclosure Scam Ring

      Fake "mortgage rescuers" wanted upfront fees for nonexistent services

      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.

      California Busts Foreclosure Scam Ring...
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      Feds Probe Yamaha Rhino ATV

      Thirty deaths, hundreds of lawsuits plague popular off-roader

      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.

      Feds Probe Yamaha Rhino ATV...
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      Shop Safely When You Shop Online

      Keep records of everything and read the fine print

      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.

      With the current economic situation, and aggressive pricing offered on-line, it is likely that more people will use online shopping this holiday season....
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      Circuit City Closing 155 Stores

      Last measure before possible bankruptcy, analysts say

      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."

      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...
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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 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.

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