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Ford Plans Car That Parks Itself

New technology guides cars into parking spots

Ford Plans Car That Parks Itself...



At a time when U.S. carmakers are fighting for their very lives, Ford is introducing a technology that it apparently believes will give it a competitive edge — a car that parks itself.

"The often stressful and frustrating task of parallel parking soon will be as easy as pressing a button for owners of the Lincoln MKS flagship sedan and all-new Lincoln MKT seven-passenger luxury crossover, thanks to an exclusive new technology from Ford Motor Company called Active Park Assist," Ford said in a press release.

Available in mid-2009 as an option on the 2010 Lincoln MKS sedan and new Lincoln MKT crossover, Ford says Active Park Assist uses an ultrasonic-based sensing system and Electric Power Assisted Steering to position the vehicle for parallel parking, calculate the optimal steering angle and quickly steer the vehicle into a parking spot.

"With the touch of a button, Lincoln MKS and MKT drivers can parallel park quickly, easily and safely without ever touching the steering wheel," said Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group vice president of Global Product Development. "This is another example of exclusive Ford smart technology, such as Ford SYNC, that makes the driving experience easier and more enjoyable for our customers."

Ford said the new technology uses sensors on the front and rear of the vehicle to guide the vehicle into a parking space. It says the technology is "a major leap forward" in speed and ease of use compared with the camera-reliant systems offered by competitors, including a video camera-based system offered by Lexus. Ford says its system requires less driver interface and reduces the risk of selecting a parking spot that is too tight. Ford's Active Park Assist also works in downhill parking situations, unlike competing systems, the automaker said.

Active Park Assist begins when the driver activates the system by pressing an instrument panel button, which activates the ultrasonic sensors to measure and identify a feasible parallel parking space. The system then prompts the driver to accept the system assistance to park.

The steering system then takes over and steers the car into the parking space hands-free. The driver still shifts the transmission and operates the gas and brake pedals. A visual and/or audible driver interface advises the driver about the proximity of other cars, objects and people and provides instructions.

While the steering is all done automatically, the driver remains responsible for safe parking and can interrupt the system by grasping the steering wheel.

Ford said the technology also improves fuel economy up to five percent, while reducing CO2 emissions, and enhancing steering performance compared with traditional hydraulic powered-assisted steering systems.

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Over-the-Counter Contraceptive Pill May Not Work

British researchers claim irregular usage hinders effectiveness

Though there has been an effort in recent years to make it available over the counter, British medical researchers suggest doing so will not reduce unwante...

Since the introduction of the birth control pill, it has been available only with a doctor's prescription. Though there has been an effort in recent years to make it available over the counter, British medical researchers suggest doing so will not reduce unwanted pregnancies.

Their research is published online at bmj.com, the Web service of the British Medical Journal.

Sarah Jarvis from the Royal College of Physicians argues that it is a lack of daily compliance with taking oral contraceptives that is partly responsible for the high rates of unintended teenage pregnancies in the UK.

Studies have shown that nearly half of all women taking the oral contraceptive pill miss one or more pills in each cycle, and nearly a quarter missed two or more. These women are three times more likely to get pregnant unintentionally than those who take the pill consistently.

She points out that the availability of emergency contraception without prescription has done little to change the rate of teenage pregnancies.

Jarvis believes that the solution lies in long acting reversible contraceptives such as the coil, or those that can be placed under the skin or injected. They last between three months and three years, and because they are not dependent on patients taking them correctly, are much more reliable than oral contraceptives, she adds.

"Increased uptake of reliable, non user-dependent methods, rather than making a potentially unreliable method of contraception more easily available, has to be the key," she concludes.

But Dr. Daniel Grossman of Ibis Reproductive Health argues that the requirement for a prescription is a barrier to oral contraceptive use in some women.

He says if governments are committed to reducing rates of unintended pregnancies and maternal deaths in the developing world, increased access to safe oral contraceptives for all women at low or no cost is vital.

 



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Top 10 Scams Of 2008

Financial meltdown creates opportunities for scammers

The year 2008 has been marked by economic turmoil, first with high gas prices, followed by the subprime mortgage crisis, which in turn triggered a full-sca...

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Coke Gets FDA Warning Letter About Coke Plus

Agency says soda label claims false nutritional value

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned the Coca-Cola Company that its label for Diet Coke Plus is misleading. At issue, the agency says, are the...

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned the Coca-Cola Company that its label for Diet Coke Plus is misleading. At issue, the agency says, are the label's nutritional claims.

In a warning letter to Coke's CEO Muhtar Kent, the FDA said it has reviewed the label and has concluded the product is in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. It has further found the product is "misbranded," because it makes a nutrient content claim but does not meet the criteria to make the claim.

The FDA says Diet Coke Plus bears the term "Plus" as part of its name, and the principal display panel of the product label also includes the language, "Diet Coke with Vitamins & Minerals." The ingredient list includes the following added vitamins and minerals: magnesium sulfate (declared at 10% of the Daily Value (DV) for magnesium in the Nutrition Facts panel), zinc gluconate (declared at 10% of the DV for zinc), niacinamide (declared at 15% of the DV for niacin), pyridoxine hydrochloride (declared at 15% of the DV for vitamin B6), and cyanocobalamine (declared at 15% of the DV for vitamin B12).

"The term 'plus' in Diet Coke Plus, read in conjunction with the language Diet Coke with Vitamins & Minerals, meets the definition of a nutrient content claim because it characterizes the product's level of vitamins and minerals, which are nutrients of the type required to be in nutrition labeling," the FDA said. "Based on our review, we have concluded that this product is in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act."

The FDA said it does not consider it appropriate to fortify snack foods such as carbonated beverages, with vitamins and minerals, and then to try and promote the snack food's nutritional value.

"It is your responsibility to ensure that all of your products are in compliance with the laws and regulations enforced by FDA," the agency warned. "You should take prompt action to correct the violations. Failure to promptly correct these violations may result in regulatory actions without further notice, such as seizure and/or injunction."

 



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"Brain Starvation" May Trigger Alzheimer's

Restricted blood flow in arteries may lead to degeneration

A slow, chronic starvation of the brain as we age appears to be one of the major triggers of a biochemical process that causes some forms of Alzheimer's di...

A slow, chronic starvation of the brain as we age appears to be one of the major triggers of a biochemical process that causes some forms of Alzheimer's disease.

A new study from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, published in the December 26 issue of the journal Neuron, has found when the brain doesn't get enough sugar glucose — as might occur when cardiovascular disease restricts blood flow in arteries to the brain — a process is launched that ultimately produces the sticky clumps of protein that appear to be a cause of Alzheimer's.

Robert Vassar, lead author, discovered a key brain protein is altered when the brain has a deficient supply of energy. The altered protein, called elF2alpha, increases the production of an enzyme that, in turn, flips a switch to produce the sticky protein clumps. Vassar worked with human and mice brains in his research.

"This finding is significant because it suggests that improving blood flow to the brain might be an effective therapeutic approach to prevent or treat Alzheimer's," said Vassar, a professor of cell and molecular biology at the Feinberg School.

A simple preventive strategy people can follow to improve blood flow to the brain is getting exercise, reducing cholesterol and managing hypertension.

"If people start early enough, maybe they can dodge the bullet," Vassar said. For people who already have symptoms, vasodilators, which increase blood flow, may help the delivery of oxygen and glucose to the brain, he added.

Vassar said it also is possible that drugs could be designed to block the elF2alpha protein that begins the formation of the protein clumps, known as amyloid plaques.

An estimated 10 million baby boomers will develop Alzheimer's in their lifetime, according to the Alzheimer's Association. The disease usually begins after age 60, and risk rises with age. The direct and indirect cost of Alzheimer's and other dementias is about $148 billion a year.

The initial trigger of Alzheimer's has long been a mystery.

Ten years ago, it was Vassar who discovered the enzyme, BACE1, which was responsible for making the sticky, fiber-like clumps of protein that form outside neurons and disrupt their ability to send messages.

But the cause of the high levels of the protein in people with the disease has been unknown. Vassar's study now shows that energy deprivation in the brain might be the trigger starting the process that forms plaques in Alzheimer's.

Vassar said his work suggests that Alzheimer's disease may result from a less severe type of energy deprivation than occurs in a stroke. Rather than dying, the brain cells react by increasing BACE1, which may be a protective response in the short term, but harmful in the long term.

"A stroke is a blockage that prevents blood flow and produces cell death in an acute, dramatic event," Vassar said. "What we are talking about here is a slow, insidious process over many years where people have a low level of cardiovascular disease or atherosclerosis in the brain. It's so mild, they don't even notice it, but it has an effect over time because it's producing a chronic reduction in the blood flow."

Vassar said when people reach a certain age, some may get increased levels of the enzymes that cause a build-up of the plaques. "Then they start falling off the cliff," he said.

 



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Navigating the Mortgage Modification Maze

Getting a home loan altered is no easy task

Navigating the Mortgage Modification Maze...

Home loan modifications are designed to save homeownership, but they've also created another mortgage maze pitted with "buyer bewares."

Both government-sanctioned counseling agencies and local community service agencies concede they have been swamped by demand for loan modifications. The demand has opened the floodgates of loan modification services now offered by real estate agents, mortgage brokers, attorneys, government agencies, lenders, and other professionals.

The demand stems from a proliferation of federal, state and local foreclosure relief and bailout efforts from both government and the lending industry. Mortgage modifications have been around for years, but those recent efforts have raised the profile of the mortgage workouts as an alternative to foreclosures, short sales, auctions, and bankruptcy.

However, homeowners seeking mortgage modifications are at the mercy of lenders, because the workouts are voluntary and often without regulatory standards.

Caught in the lurch, homeowners are finding it tough to know when a modification will work and how to best obtain one.

What is a mortgage modification?

A home loan modification, granted only upon the existing lender's approval, permanently reworks some of the terms of an existing mortgage in order to make the loan more affordable to the homeowner.

The strategy is typically designed for homeowners struggling to pay their mortgage, not for those who can pay their mortgage or are eligible for a refinanced loan.

Modifications are generally lender fee-free and involve the lender or loan holder lowering the interest rate and or changing an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) to a fixed rate mortgage (FRM) with a 30-year term. Some form of mandated homeownership counseling generally comes with the deal.

Less common loan modifications include adding missed payments to the loan balance and extending the term of the loan. Least common is getting the lender to reduce the principal or wipe out any second mortgages.

A mortgage modification is not a refinanced mortgage — a brand new loan written to pay off the old home loan.

"A mortgage is one of the most complex transactions there is. A loan modification is also a gray area for a lot of people. So of course people need someone to walk them through the process to tell them this is what you need and this is what you don't need," said Ginna Green, spokeswoman for the California office of the Center for Responsible Lending in Oakland.

Is a loan modification for you?

Greg Pennington, a San Francisco-based mortgage banking consultant and counselor with Parker-Pennington Enterprises, says a loan modification isn't for everyone.

A loan modification may not be viable if:

• The modified loan comes with payments you still can't afford.

• Your current interest rate is already low and there's no room for the lender to lower it further.

• You can make the new payments, but the mortgage balance is greater than the value of your home and you don't plan on staying put long enough to reverse the loan-to-value imbalance.

• You have not already missed payments on your mortgage or can't show financial hardship due, say, to job loss, pay decrease, illness or interest rate increase.

• You have other properties, investments or assets that could be liquidated to cover your mortgage debt.

• A short sale (The lender forgives a portion of the debt owed if you can find a buyer), bankruptcy, auction sale, refinance or other approach, short of a foreclosure, is a better option.

"You can do a loan modification and not be aware of where you stand. You can get a loan modification for a home you don't want to be in," said Pennington.

A financial, housing or credit counselor can help you determine your best option. Just be prepared to hold down the fort for the 60 to 90 days or more it could take to complete the modification, due to potential complications and document processing times.

There are three basic ways to approach a mortgage modification, according to advice from consumer advocates.

The HUD-approved counseling method

Consumer advocates widely advise homeowners to contact the lender at the first sign of mortgage trouble, and that remains true. However, when it comes to specifically seeking a loan modification, they further advise getting to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) non-profit counseling agency before approaching a lender about a modification.

Counseling agencies are generally hardwired to lenders and know what documents you'll need to both determine the viability of a loan modification and to be in sync with a given lender's underwriting requirements. They can also help you prepare your loan modification appeal so it reveals you are in financial trouble and can't afford the current mortgage, but can afford the terms of a modified loan that fits.

"We have direct links to lenders, can save them hours on the phone with the lender, and protect borrower information from unscrupulous people. And nonprofits receiving money from Congress must provide the work free. Others generally charge a fee," said Marcia Griffin, president of the non-profit HUD-approved HomeFree-USA.

The private loan modification route

Because both nonprofits and lenders have been inundated with calls for aid, it may be prudent to hire a private loan modification service to get a foot in the lender's door. Consider the following useful tips if you hire a private loan modifier:

Shop around. A growing number of real estate agents, mortgage brokers, real estate attorneys and other real estate professionals are offering loan services. Comparison shop for the best deal and the most competent service. Get referrals to private or for-profit loan modification services from family members, friends, co-workers, professionals and others you trust.

Make sure your choice has a clean record. Consider legal and real estate professionals offering loan modification services only if they have current, unblemished licenses. Also check their record with the Better Business Bureau and their respective trade or professional group.

Avoid paying advance fees. Get performance-related service instead. Never pay an advance fee if your lender has already recorded a notice of default. You could be throwing good money after bad. It's illegal in California for "foreclosure consultants" or any real estate licensee to collect a fee after a notice of default has been recorded.

Check your state for similar regulations. Make sure to familiarize yourself with any other rules governing private loan modification services and state rules specific to lenders granting modifications. You won't know if the modification service is adhering to the law if you don't know the law.

Carefully examine any contract or terms of service before proceeding. If you don't understand the terms or aren't satisfied with what's promised, don't sign. Get help. That could mean reconsidering waiting for a HUD-certified counselor.

"Work with a local company that isn't outsourcing work that you'll never see to Florida, Los Angeles, Texas or Mexico," says Robert Aldana, a San Jose real estate agent who is also president of San Jose-based Home Resolution & Credit Services Inc.

The do-it-yourself way

A do-it-yourself loan modification is not for most homeowners. Attempt it only if you have a sufficient mortgage or consumer financing background, or if you understand that only the lender can give final approval, and if you exercise great caution in choosing the educational materials.

"Can you do it yourself? Sure you can. You can also sell your own home, fix your own roof or replace the engine in your car. But should you?" asks Aldana.

If you choose to go the do-it-yourself route, the following resources may help.

The FDIC offers for free its IndyMac program "FDIC Loan Modification Program Guide — 'Mod in a Box'." The program information specifically targets lenders, but contains a homeowner sample agreement, instructions, frequently asked consumer questions and other useful materials.

The PMI Group, Inc. recently launched an the free Mortgage Options Assessment Tool on its HomeSafePMI web site. According to PMI, the tool "enables homeowners to organize, calculate, and produce reports on their current financial situations prior to meeting their lenders or counselors to discuss solutions to foreclosure."

Otherwise, a plethora of good, bad and ugly do-it-yourself loan modification kits, manuals, guides and courses have cropped up, often with Internet marketing. They represent an unregulated, untested and unstandardized compendium of loan modification information and advice.

Some of it is free for the asking, some requires payment for books, manuals, software and other materials. Many services request your personal information. Whenever any offer requires you to provide personal or private information, be aware of the offer's privacy policy and any terms of service.

Pay particular attention to what the service will or won't do with your information, especially when it comes to sharing it with third parties. When information is shared with affiliates and third parties it's also crucial to learn those affiliates' privacy policies and terms of service.

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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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Boomers Facing Tough Social Security Choices

Many stuck between reduced payouts now or gambling for later

Even in good times, deciding when to apply for Social Security benefits is one of the most important decisions facing anyone over the age of 62....

A key question facing millions of baby boomers who turned 62 this year and became eligible for Social Security benefits is: "Should they take a reduced Social Security monthly payment now, or wait a few more years when that monthly payout could be more than double, depending on how long they wait?"

In these difficult financial times, especially for a large number of pre-retirees who have seen their life savings sliced in half by a hungry bear market, receiving a monthly check from the government could be a necessity.

Even in good times, deciding when to apply for Social Security benefits is one of the most important decisions facing anyone over the age of 62. This supposedly is guaranteed lifetime inflation-adjusted income, that when totaled, could become one of your most significant assets. For many, if all the checks over ones life span were added together, it might match or even exceed the amount they've put away in their 401(k) plans or individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

A new survey has found that many baby boomers plan to sign up for their Social Security checks as soon as they're eligible. The Fidelity Investment Survey shows that 45 percent of a group of 300 people who were 61-years-old expected to begin receiving Social Security when they turn 62. The first reason cited was "financial necessity." They need the money now to pay for basic living expenses such as food, utilities and mortgage payments.

Other reasons include health and worries about longevity, as well as a desire to collect as much as possible from a system that some believe may run out of money, and that the government will then not be able to pay anything to those who were once promised lifetime benefits.

The Fidelity Investment Survey also found that only 10 percent of those surveyed plan to wait until their full retirement age to claim their benefits. Nine percent said they'll file claims between the ages 67 and 70.

Three choices

Basically, we have three primary choices when it comes to applying for Social Security:

• Applying at age 62 and receiving a reduced benefit for life, about 25 percent less than full benefits

• Applying at full retirement age, around 66, and receiving full benefits for life

• Applying at age 70 and receiving additional credits for life, which could be as much as 76 percent more a month than what you would have received if you began getting payments at age 62.

The optimum age for when you should dip into the Social Security well is different for everyone and is determined by a number of factors such as health, life expectancy, your financial situation, your marital status, and taxes.

Financial advisors are typically divided on this subject. Some recommend waiting until age 70 because you will receive a bigger payment each month. But you will have also given up eight years of monthly smaller payments.

Others say that you should take the benefits as soon as possible. Even if you don't need it,so you can invest that money and possibly earn returns on that investment that beat what the government would give you in the future. But to do that, you would have to get a nine to 10 percent return on your investment just to match the annual cost of living adjustments and tax preferences you get from Social Security.

With the market nearly 40 percent off its high from a year ago, and still testing its bottom, that isn't likely to happen any time soon.

Break-even age

Social Security has actually determined a break-even age that you can calculate to help you decide what to do. The break-even age is that age where taking a smaller payment for a longer period of time matches the amount you would have received by taking the larger payment for a shorter span of time.

To put it another way, this is the age you have to live beyond in order for delayed benefits to provide a higher lifetime income. For example, if you take payments at 62 instead of 66, your break-even age is 76 years and 5 months. If you wait until you're 70 years old, the break-even age is 79. If you want to compare benefits of ages 66 versus 70, you have to live beyond 80 years and 9 months to make it more beneficial to wait until you're 70 to claim Social Security benefits.

For married couples, the timing gets even more complicated. When the spouse earning the most dies, the surviving spouse can get a benefit based on the deceased's work history. The larger that is, the more money the widow or widower will get in his or her remaining years. Therefore, the spouse earning the larger pay check should delay taking benefits as long as possible, leaving the other to take an early payout.

Cost of living adjustments

Most break-even analyses ignore the impact of cost of living adjustments (COLAs). COLAs are designed to help retirees keep up with inflation. When COLAs are applied to the higher benefit available at age 70, the breakeven age gets younger. The longer a retiree lives, the higher the lifetime benefit will be due to the impact of COLAs on the higher starting amount. Next year, COLA jumps from 2.3 percent in 2008 to 5.8 percent for 2009, which is the largest percent increase since 1982. With the magic of annual compounding, COLAs add up over your retirement years.

Taxes

There are also some tax considerations that could influence your timing. If you retire at age 62, you have a choice of applying for early Social Security benefits, or delaying them and taking income from your IRA rollover during the "bridge period" (the years between retirement and age 70). Some advisors recommend leaving the IRA rollover alone so it can continue to grow tax-deferred, and take the reduced Social Security benefits to meet current spending needs.

When to apply

If, like many baby boomers burned by the bear market, you have no choice, start collecting Social Security as soon as you can. That means if you are laid off, and are forced into early retirement, or have health problems, and your nest egg isn't enough to live on, a monthly Social Security check may be your only option.

On the other hand, if you are in good shape, financially and health-wise, putting off applying for Social Security could boost and even more double the amount of your monthly check, plus you could pass on a larger payment to your spouse, if he or she receives a survivor benefit based on your work record.

 

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Credit "Repair" Company Agrees to Settle FTC Charges

Agency handcuffs company for making deceptive claims

Credit ...

A company that lured consumers with false claims for credit repair services and required advance payment ranging from $500 to as much as $2,500 has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated federal law.

The agency filed the charges in July as part of "Operation Clean Sweep," a crackdown on credit repair operations.

The proposed settlement bars Payneless Credit Repair, LLC, and its owner, Lesley L. Payne, both located in Richardson, Texas, from making deceptive claims when marketing any product or service, including credit repair services.

It also prohibits them from violating the Credit Repair Organizations Act and specifically prohibits the defendants from:

• Claiming that a credit repair organization can permanently remove negative information from consumers' credit reports, even when the information is accurate and not obsolete;

• Requiring advance payment for credit repair services;

• Failing to provide a written statement of "Consumer Credit File Rights Under State and Federal Law" before any agreement is signed;

• Failing to include in their contract conspicuous statements about the consumer's right to cancel without penalty or obligation within three business days; and

• Failing to provide a written "Notice of Cancellation" for consumers to use when exercising their cancellation rights.

In addition, the settlement bars the defendants from collecting money from consumers who purchased services before July 10, 2008, and from disclosing or benefiting from customers' personally identifiable or financial information.

They also are prohibited from violating the Fair Credit Practices Act and the FTC's Disposal Rule by failing to take reasonable measures to protect consumers' personally identifiable information during its disposal.

The settlement imposes a judgment for consumer redress of $210,000, which is suspended due to the defendants' inability to pay.

The FTC advises that only time, effort, and a personal debt repayment plan can improve your credit report. The first step is to learn what information is in your credit report. If you find errors or mistakes, federal law gives you the right to have them corrected — free of charge.

Federal law requires that the nationwide consumer reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — provide you with a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months, if you ask for it.

To order your free report, visit annualcreditreport.com, or call 1-877-322-8228.

 

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Teknion Recalls Contessa Office Chairs

Teknion Recalls Contessa Office Chairs...

December 23, 2008
Teknion is recalling about 60,000 Contessa office chairs. The bolts holding the seat to the frame can loosen and separate, posing a fall hazard to consumers.

The company has received two reports of separation of the chairs seat from the frame. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves all Contessa chairs shipped prior to June 30, 2008. Each Contessa chair has a label indicating the date of shipment which is located on the bottom of the chair seat.

The chairs, made in Japan, were sold by authorized Teknion dealers nationwide from January 2004 through June 2008 for between $1,470 and $1,625.

Consumers should inspect the chair by checking the four bolts that attach the seat bottom to the chair frame. If any of the four bolts are loose or missing, consumers should stop using the chair immediately and contact a Teknion dealer for a free repair.

For more information, contact Teknion toll-free at (866) 943-8550 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or email Contessainquiries@teknion.com.

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

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Mortgage Modification Meltdown

The bailout program still isn't reaching homeowners

Mortgage Modification Meltdown...

Loan modifications aren't reaching struggling homeowners in need of creative financing and foreclosure prevention. And in many cases, the mortgage bailouts backfire on homeowners they do reach.

In a scathing indictment of loan modifications efforts, the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) says:

• When loan modifications are written, fewer than one in 10 of them result in a reduced principal loan balance.

• More than half of loan modifications roll unpaid interest and fees into larger, more drawn-out debt on the back end of the mortgage.

• Only 35 percent of mortgage modifications reduce monthly payment burdens for homeowners.

• A full 45 percent of loan modifications are packaged with increased payments.

The NACBA says that given the failure of loan modifications to put a dent in the number of foreclosures, nothing short of legal intervention will reverse a trend that recently prompted Credit Suisse to forecast 8.1 million U.S. mortgage foreclosures in the next four years. That forecast was up sharply from the 2 to 6 million foreclosures previously forecast by a variety of industry experts.

"Court-supervised loan modification is urgently needed to deal with this problem. Despite a proliferation of voluntary programs, we are not seeing evidence of a meaningful number of sustainable loan modifications," said Henry Sommer, NACBA president.

In its first report in February, the State Foreclosure Prevention Working Group, comprised of attorneys general and state banking departments, reported that the vast majority, 70 percent of seriously delinquent borrowers were not on track for any loss mitigation option. By September that had risen to 80 percent.

"The number of homeowners working toward a loan modification has declined by 28 percent between January and May, falling to a level not seen since late in 2007," the group reported.

What it is

A home loan modification, granted only upon the existing lender's approval, permanently reworks some of the terms of an existing mortgage in order to lower monthly payments and make the loan more affordable to the homeowner.

The strategy is typically designed for homeowners struggling to pay their mortgage, not for those who can pay their mortgage or are eligible for a refinanced loan.

The mortgage modification method of relief is at the top of the list of weapons used in the fight to stop foreclosures because struggling homeowners typically can't qualify for a refinanced mortgage — a brand new loan written to pay off the old home loan. Other options — a short sale (the lender forgives a portion of the debt owed if the owner can find a buyer), bankruptcy or auction sale — all cost consumers their home.

Modifications are generally lender fee-free and involve the lender or loan holder lowering the interest rate and or changing an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) to a fixed rate mortgage (FRM) with a 30-year term. Some form of mandated homeownership counseling generally comes with the deal.

Complex transaction

"A mortgage is one of the most complex transactions there is. A loan modification is also a gray area for a lot of people. So of course people need someone to walk them through the process to tell them this is what you need and this is what you don't need," said Ginna Green, spokeswoman for the California office of the Center for Responsible Lending in Oakland.

In addition to lowering and locking in the interest rate, less common loan modifications include adding missed payments to the loan balance and extending the term of the loan. The least common, but most sought-after feature, is a reduction in the principal, whereby the lender actually lowers the mortgage balance, to further enhance affordability.

Reduced principal, along with deep interest cuts is, however, at the core of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's (FDIC) more liberal loan modification program "Loan Modification Program Guide -- 'Mod in a Box' " modeled after the agency's mortgage adjusting efforts used on the home loans of IndyMac Bank of Pasadena. FDIC took control of the failed bank earlier this year.

"If they (lenders) reduce the first or wipe out the second, let me know. I haven't heard of lenders doing this. They are staying away from this," said Glenda Queensbury, a mortgage adviser and real estate agent at Referral Realty in San Jose, CA.

No relief in sight

Little relief is expected from the recently announced Federal Housing Finance Agency's "Streamlined Modification Program" designed for loans held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The program is the first major effort to help set standards for loan modification programs. It creates a three-month mortgage modification trial period that includes the modification terms that will take effect if the borrower makes the new payments as prescribed during the trial period.

However, the SMP continues some of the ills NACBA says has prevented loan modification from becoming more widespread and successful. SMP loans are voluntary, they allow tacking on accrued interest, they can come with ARM rate-like terms with both rising and balloon payments, they only apply to the first mortgage, not second loans, and borrowers must have loan-to-value ratio of 90 percent or more.

Consumers seeking loan modifications have also been thwarted by the fear of fraud from a largely unregulated cottage industry of private loan modification services that can charge thousands of dollars in upfront fees.

California's Department of Real Estate has issued several "desist-and-refrain" orders against companies offering loan modification services. California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. recently announced arrests of suspects in a fraud ring preying on struggling Southern California homeowners. Modesto, CA-based Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents recently announced a task force to zero in on mortgage-related frauds.

"A racket"

"It's become a racket," says Greg Pennington, a San Francisco-based mortgage banking consultant and counselor with Parker-Pennington Enterprises.

The NACBA blamed a host of factors for the failure of mortgage modifications to catch on.

• Borrowers and servicers are often unable to locate multiple mortgage holders all of whom have to agree to the modification.

"The loans have been sliced and diced so many times that all of the owners cannot be found and brought into the process," the NACBA reports.

• Loan servicers fear investor lawsuits. Servicers have a fiduciary responsibility to investors who purchased mortgage-backed securities comprised, in part, of loans up for modification. Servicers are hesitant to modify numerous loans if it will cause the security to lose income and the investors to sue.

• Voluntary modifications typically don't include second mortgages. Second mortgages were heavily in vogue during the housing boom as equity gains allowed homeowners to buy larger homes than they could truly afford and use their home like an ATM.

NACBA also says in 2006, a third to a half of all 2006 subprime borrowers took out piggyback second mortgages on their homes at the same time they took out their first mortgages.

Unfortunately, first mortgage holders don't have any incentive to write modifications to give borrowers money to make payments on second mortgages. Just as risk-averse as first mortgage holders, second mortgage holders, rather than waive their rights in a loan modification that could cost them a 100 percent loss, they'd rather take their chances on collecting a few more payments before the borrower goes into foreclosure.

• NACBA also says overwhelmed servicers are not set up for the case-by-case negotiation process necessary for modifications, but more practiced in the automated foreclosure process -- which comes with financial incentives.

"Many also have monetary incentives to foreclose rather than modify," NACBA reports.

---
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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Got The Shakes? Botox Can Help!

The Healthy Geezer

"Shaky hands" is a symptom of "essential tremor," which is the most common movement disorder. The medical community calls it "essential," because it isn't ...

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FDA Warns of Tainted Diet Pills

25 products could lead to heart problems, depression, and worse

FDA Warns of Tainted Diet Pills...

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday warned consumers not to buy more than 25 products marketed for weight loss because they pose serious health risks.

The agency said it is trying to recall the products, which contain ingredients not approved for use in the United States or pose such health risks as high blood pressure, seizures, or strokes.

The weight loss products — tainted with what the FDA calls "undeclared active pharmaceutical ingredients" — are: Fatloss Slimming, Japan Lingzhi 24 Hours Diet, 2 Day Diet, 3x Slimming Power, 5x Imelda Perfect Slimming, 3 Day Diet, 7 Day Herbal Slim, 8 Factor Diet, 7 Diet Day/Night Formula, 999 Fitness Essence, Extrim Plus, GMP, Imelda Perfect Slim, Lida DaiDaihua, Miaozi Slim Capsules, Perfect Slim, Perfect Slim 5x, Phyto Shape, ProSlim Plus, Royal Slimming Formula, Slim 3 in 1, Slim Express 360, Slimtech, Somotrim, Superslim, TripleSlim, Zhen de Shou, and Venom Hyperdrive 3.0.

These products are sometimes marketed as "dietary supplements," and sold on various Web sites and in retail stores. Some of the products claim to be "natural" or contain only "herbal" ingredients.

An FDA analysis found that the undeclared active pharmaceutical ingredients in some of these products include sibutramine, a controlled substance; rimonabant, a drug not approved for marketing in the United States; phenytoin, an anti-seizure medication; and phenolphthalein, a solution used in chemical experiments and a suspected cancer causing agent.

The amount of some of these ingredients far exceeds the levels recommended by the FDA — and puts consumers' health at risk.

Sibutramine, for example, can cause high blood pressure, seizures, tachycardia, palpitations, heart attack, or stroke. This drug, which was found in many of the products, can also interact with other medications and increase patients' risk of adverse drug reactions, the FDA said.

Rimbonant, which is approved in Europe, has been associated with increased risk of depression and suicidal thoughts. It is also linked to five deaths and 720 adverse reactions in Europe over the last two years, the FDA said.

The FDA warned consumers who use any of these products to immediately stop taking them and contact their physician.

"These tainted weight loss products pose a great risk to public health because they contain undeclared ingredients and, in some cases, contain prescription drugs in amounts that greatly exceed their maximum recommended dosages," said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, FDA. "Consumers have no way of knowing that these products contain powerful drugs that could cause serious health consequences. Therefore FDA is taking this action to protect the health of the American public."

The FDA, which has inspected several companies that sell these products, is now trying to pull them off the market.

"Based on the FDA's inspections and the companies' inadequate responses to recall requests, the FDA may take additional enforcement steps, such as issuing warning letters or initiating seizures, injunctions, or criminal charges," the FDA said.

The agency encouraged health care professionals and consumers to report any serious side effects or other problems associated with these products to the FDA's MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program.

They can also call the FDA at (800) FDA-1088 or send a letter to MedWatch, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20852-9787. The agency offers a postage-paid form for contact by mail.

 

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Sour Economy May Affect Eating Habits

Bigger emphasis on nutrition, value for dollars

Sour Economy May Affect Eating Habits...

As the year comes to a close, many consumers look ahead and make "resolutions" for the new year. As 2008 ends, with its economic devastation, consumers can be expected to make even more dramatic changes in the months ahead, and people who haven't been serious about health and weight control may be more serious now.

"With the continued rise in obesity, weight gain prevention has become just as important as weight loss," said Beth Hubrich, MS, RD, of the Calorie Control Council. "This, coupled with a decline in the economy, has many consumers searching for quality nutrition on a budget."

As the economy continues to slow, consumers will be looking for more nutrition for their buck, which means they will be expecting foods providing added benefits. There will also be a greater reliance on tools already at their fingertips, such as online dieting and nutrition sites.

With increased workplace tensions, greater workloads and perhaps the need for an additional job, people will look for fitness activities that can be done in the workplace.

The Calorie Control Council, an international association representing the low-calorie and reduced-fat food and beverage industry, predicts the following five trends when it comes to dieting, weight loss and physical activity in 2009:

1. Consumers will "budget" calories in the strapped economy. Although times are tough, consumers seem to understand that "calories still count." In a nationally projectable Calorie Control Council survey, respondents stated some of the primary reasons for using low and reduced calorie products are, "to stay in better overall health," "to eat and drink healthier foods and beverages" and "to reduce calories." By incorporating low-calorie foods such as diet sodas, light juices, and light yogurts, consumers can control calories while still enjoying their favorite foods on a reasonable budget. According to the Council's survey, 194 million Americans reported consuming low and reduced calorie products in 2007, an increase from 180 million in 2004.

2. Increased consumption of foods and beverages with added benefits. Heightened consumer awareness of the relationship between diet and health has increased the demand for "functional" foods. Leading health organizations have defined functional foods as foods or dietary components that can provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. Sales of foods and beverages with added benefits and health claims that also fit into a reasonable budget are becoming more popular as consumers spend more time "weighing" food and beverage options for both price and nutrition. As consumers have driven the food and beverage market toward preventive health and wellness, there will likely be an increased demand for these "functional" foods and beverages in the coming year.

3. Greater reliance on personalized online dieting tools for weight management. A recent study by Kaiser Permanente found that recording food and beverage intake can double a person's weight loss, so having access to online options that allow people to record their calories is important. With the trend away from fad diets and toward science based nutrition, consumers will find solace in recording food and beverage intake in their laptop, PDA, or blackberry, or traditional excel file.

4. Emergence of "functional fitness" programs that simulate real life activities. Traditional weight lifting has taken a back seat to these, "fitness that functions like you do," programs. The focus of these programs is building a body capable of doing real-life activities in real-life positions. Functional fitness is designed to ease activities of daily living using workouts tailored to actual activities, such as a new mom repeatedly lifting a stroller instead of a weight set or a flight attendant bench pressing their luggage. Coupled with the aging population and the flailing economy, functional fitness will also serve as a means to maintain daily activities such as stair climbing and carrying grocery bags for aging baby boomers who may have limited funds for a traditional exercise program.

5. Natural nutrition. Although there is no clear definition of "natural," some consumers prefer foods and beverages they perceive as natural. New products with natural claims such as stevia sweeteners have been hitting the marketplace fast and furiously. For consumers looking for natural options, there are more choices now than ever to choose from.

The trends for 2009 will focus on foods with "added value" while consumers look for ways to budget calories and dollars, the group says.

 



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Topaz Wafer Rolls Recalled on Melamine Fears

Industrial chemical contaminates more food products

Topaz Wafer Rolls Recalled on Melamine Fears...

Melamine contamination continues to trigger recalls of food products. In the latest melamine scare, National Brands Inc. has recalled all its 4.76-ounce and 12.3-ounce cans of Topaz Wafer Rolls.

The wafer rolls involved in this action were sold in four flavors and distributed at retail stores nationwide. The Spring Valley, New York, company said it has not received any reports of illnesses linked to the products. Customers with questions about this action can call the company at 866-238-5201.

This is the second melamine-contamination issue the company has faced in recent weeks.

In late November, the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection warned consumers not to eat National Brand's Topaz Wafer Rolls with Hazlenut Chocolate-Flavored Cream Filling because of melamine contamination.

A sample of those products — tested by the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station Laboratory — revealed the wafer contained 5 parts per million (ppm) of melamine and the cream filling had more than 7 ppm.

That is well above the 2.5 ppm standard for melamine set by the Food and Drug Administration,

The Chinese-made wafers were sold at Ocean State Job Lot stores in Connecticut and identified as Lot # L821 99D.

Melamine is a chemical used to make plastic and fertilizers. It is not approved for use in human or animal food marketed in the United States — and manufacturers are not allowed to deliberately add it to any food for U.S. consumers.

Concerns about melamine — and its intentional adulteration in imported foods — have repeatedly surfaced in the past year.

In September, Chinese officials discovered melamine in powered infant formula made in that country. Officials learned some dairy plants purposely added the chemical to milk products to make them appear to have higher protein levels.

That contamination is blamed for the deaths of at least six babies in China and the illnesses of thousands of other infants.

Doctors say melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.

China's melamine-tainted milk scandal has since spread from infant formula to dozens of other food products sold around the world, including candy, coffee, and pretzels.

Melamine is also blamed for the deaths and illnesses of thousands of dogs and cats in the United States in 2007.

FDA officials discovered the chemical in imported wheat gluten from China used to make dog and cat food. Those findings triggered the largest pet food recall in U.S. history.

Although melamine is not supposed to be in animal or human food, the FDA recently concluded that levels below 2.5 parts per million (ppm) do not raise health concerns.

The only exception is infant formula. The FDA now says melamine levels of 1 ppm in infant formula are safe. That is a reversal of the zero tolerance policy for melamine the agency adopted in October.

At that time, the FDA said it was "unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns."

 

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Melamine Triggers Recall of Cocoa from Canada

Products were sold at Big Lots, Shopko stores

Melamine Triggers Recall of Cocoa from Canada...



Yet another company has recalled some food products because of possible melamine contamination. This time it's gourmet cocoa products imported from Canada and distributed nationwide to Big Lots and Shopko stores.

 

On Friday, Dorsey Marketing Inc. (DMI) of Ville St. Laurent, Quebec, Canada, recalled three G&J Gourmet Market cocoa products because they may contain melamine.

One of the potentially tainted products was even marketed as a stocking stuffer.

Specifically, the products involved in this action are:

• G&J Hot Cocoa Stuffer Item 120144 (UPC 061361201444). This product was sold in small green and blue boxes with a backer card, candy cane, and marshmallows;
• G&J French Vanilla Cocoa (UPC 061361201260). This product was sold in a small green bag with a whisk attached;
• G&J Double Chocolate Cocoa (UPC 061361201260). This product was sold in a small pink bag with a whisk attached.

The products were distributed nationwide to Big Lots during the weeks of September 22, 2008 and September 29, 2008 and to Shopko during the week of October 10, 2008, according to the www.fda.gov Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Dorsey Marketing, which manufacturers candy and confectionery products, said it had not received any reports of illnesses linked to the products. The company said only a few samples tested positive for melamine, a chemical used to make plastic and fertilizers.

The FDA, however, said the company recalled the cocoa "in the interest of public health and safety of American consumers."

Consumers who purchased these products should return them to the store for a full refund. For more information, customers can contact Tim Acheson of DMI Monday through Friday, excluding holidays, at 1-888-645-1053 or at recall@dmi-global.com.

This is the second time this week melamine contamination has triggered a recall. Just a few days ago, Interfood Shareholding Company of Vietnam recalled four varieties of Wonderfarm biscuits because they were tainted with melamine.

Melamine is not approved for use in human or animal food marketed in the United States and manufacturers are not allowed to deliberately add it to any food for U.S. consumers.

Concerns about melamine — and its intentional adulteration in imported foods — have repeatedly surfaced in the past year.

In September, Chinese officials discovered melamine in powered infant formula made in that country. Officials learned some dairy plants purposely added the chemical to milk products to make them appear to have higher protein levels.

That contamination is blamed for the deaths of at least six babies in China and the illnesses of thousands of other infants. Doctors say melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.

China's melamine-tainted milk scandal has since spread from infant formula to dozens of other food products sold around the world, including candy, coffee, and pretzels.

Melamine is also blamed for the deaths and illnesses of thousands of dogs and cats in the United States in 2007.

FDA officials discovered the chemical in imported wheat gluten from China used to make dog and cat food. Those findings triggered the largest pet food recall in U.S. history.

Although melamine is not supposed to be in animal or human food, the FDA recently concluded that levels below 2.5 parts per million (ppm) do not raise health concerns. The only exception is infant formula. The FDA now says melamine levels of 1 ppm in infant formula are safe. That is a reversal of the zero tolerance policy for melamine the agency adopted in October.

At that time, the FDA said it was "unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns."

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Pet Owners Warned about Chicken Jerky Products

Small dogs at particular risk from jerky strips

Pet Owners Warned about Chicken Jerky Products...


Pet owners continue to complain about illnesses their dogs have experienced after eating chicken jerky products imported from China, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned on Friday.

That's why FDA officials again cautioned consumers to be wary of feeding their dogs these products, which include chicken tenders, strips, or treats.

This warning comes less than two weeks after an Australian company recalled some of its Chinese-made chicken strips because the treats may cause illnesses in small dogs.

And those illnesses sound similar to the ones dogs and cats have experienced after eating Nutro food, according to a regular ConsumerAffairs.com reader.

15 cases

Earlier this month, The KraMar Pet Company of Australia said it had received 15 reported cases of illnesses since it launched its Supa Naturals chicken breast strips 15 months ago. Those cases triggered the company's recall.

KraMar acknowledged a possible linked between the treats and instances of Fanconi-Like Syndrome in small dogs. Symptoms of that illness include:

• Decreased food consumption, although some may continue to consume the treats to the exclusion of other foods
• Decreased activity or lethargy
• Vomiting
• Diarrhea, sometimes with blood
• Increased water consumption and/or increased urination

In severe cases, blood tests may indicate kidney failure and glucose in the urine may indicate Fanconi-Like Syndrome, the company said.

A veterinarian at the University of Sydney is now investigating the recent illnesses in the dogs that ate the chicken treats, Australian news organizations have reported. KraMar officials, however, say there is no scientific evidence linking its chicken strips to Fanconi-Like Syndrome.

The company's recall came a little more than a year after the FDA warned pet owners to be leery of feeding their dogs chicken jerky products.

"There is a potential association between illness in dogs and these products," the FDA warned last September. "(The) FDA has received over 70 complaints involving more than 95 dogs experiencing illness that their owners associated with eating chicken jerky products."

On Friday, the FDA echoed that warning and said it continues to receive complaints about chicken jerky products.

Limit consumption

"FDA believes the continued trend of consumer complaints, coupled with the information obtained from Australia, warrants an additional reminder and animal health notification," the agency said in a written statement. "Chicken jerky products should not be substituted for a balanced diet and are intended to be used occasionally and in small quantities. Owners of small dogs must be especially careful to limit the amount of these products."

The FDA said it is working with several veterinary diagnostic laboratories to see if there is a link between the products and illnesses in dogs.

"To date, scientists have not been able to determine a definitive cause for the reported illnesses," the FDA said. "FDA has conducted extensive chemical and microbial testing, but has not identified any contaminant."

The FDA said consumers who feed their dogs chicken jerky products should watch for such symptoms as decreased appetite — although some dogs may continue to eat the treats instead of other foods — lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, sometimes with blood, and increased water consumption and/ or urination.

Pet owners who notice any of these symptoms should immediately stop feeding their dogs the chicken jerky products. They should also contact their veterinarians if the problems are severe or persist for more than 24 hours, the FDA said.

"Blood tests may indicate kidney failure (increased urea nitrogen and creatinine)," the FDA said. "Urine tests may indicate Fanconi syndrome (increased glucose). Although most dogs appear to recover, some reports to the FDA have involved dogs that have died."

The FDA said it would continue to "actively investigate" this problem.

The agency encouraged pet owners and veterinarians to report any illnesses possibly linked to these products — or any pet foods — to the the agency's Consumer Complaint Coordinator in their state.

Sounds familiar

Meanwhile, a regular ConsumerAffairs.com reader noticed the illnesses among the dogs that have eaten the chicken jerky products sounded eerily familiar.

"I can't help but wonder if this is related to the dogs in the US with these types of symptoms (unrelated to the Menu Foods incident)," Carol V. of Rhode Island told us when KraMar recalled the chicken treats.

She was referring to the growing number of dogs and cats that have experienced similar digestive problems after eating Nutro pet food.

Some pet owners, like Ashley H. of Manteca, California, told us their dogs even died after eating that brand of food.

"Our chocolate lab, Lucy, has been eating Nutro food since she was a puppy," Ashley said. "About two months ago, we switched her to Nutro large breed Weight Management because she started getting too heavy. On December 14 she had loose stools and was throwing up. She was very lethargic and wouldn't eat. The next day she seemed to be getting better and started eating, so we canceled the appointment with the vet."

Three days later, Lucy's health took a turn for the worse.

"We took her to the vet to find that she had something wrong with her liver," Ashley said. "We had an appointment for December 18th to have the excess fluid removed and see what else needed to be done. She didn't make it through the night."

Nutro has repeatedly defended its products, saying its food is 100 percent safe and meets standards set by the FDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

More about pets ...



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Vietnam Company Recalls Biscuits Due to Melamine

Latest product to be tainted with dangerous chemical

Vietnam Company Recalls Biscuits Due to Melamine...



Melamine contamination has triggered another recall — this one involving several varieties of imported biscuits. Interfood Shareholding Company of Vietnam is recalling four varieties of Wonderfarm biscuits because of possible melamine contamination.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said the recalled biscuits are sold in red metal cans. The specific products involved in this action are:

• Wonderfarm "Successful" Assorted Biscuits (UPC:8935001262091);

• Wonderfarm "Royal Flavour" Assorted Biscuits (UPC:8935001263098);

• Wonderfarm "Lovely Melody" Assorted Biscuits (UPC: 8935001263296);

• Wonderfarm "Daily Life" Assorted Biscuits (UPC: 8935001264200)

Interfood recalled the products after learning that samples of Wonderfarm's "Successful" Assorted biscuits — collected by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture — tested positive for melamine. The company expanded its recall after the "Royal Flavour," "Lovely Melody," and "Daily Life" biscuits also tested positive for melamine.

Interfood said it distributed the biscuits to several states. Wholesale distributors then sold the products to retail stores.

No reports of illnesses are linked to the tainted biscuits, the company said.

Consumers who purchased these products can return them to the store for a full refund.

For more information about this recall, customers can contact the company at Anthony.ma@jaimporters.com, or call 323-780-3998

Melamine is a chemical used to make plastics and fertilizers. It is not approved for use in human or animal foods marketed in the United States — and manufacturers are not allowed to deliberately add it to any food for U.S. consumers.

Concerns about melamine — and its intentionally adulteration in imported foods — have repeatedly surfaced in the past year.

Just a few months ago, Chinese officials discovered melamine in powered infant formula made in that country. Officials learned some dairy plants purposely added the chemical to milk products to make them appear to have higher protein levels.

That contamination is blamed for the deaths of at least six babies in China and the illnesses of thousands of other infants.

Doctors say melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.

China's melamine-tainted milk scandal has since spread from infant formula to dozens of other food products sold around the world, including candy, coffee, and pretzels.

Melamine is also blamed for the deaths and illnesses of thousands of dogs and cats in the United States in 2007.

FDA officials discovered the chemical in imported wheat gluten from China used to make dog and cat food. Those findings triggered the largest pet food recall in U.S. history.

Although melamine is not supposed to be in animal or human food, the FDA recently concluded that levels below 2.5 parts per million (ppm) do not raise health concerns. The only exception is infant formula.

The FDA now says melamine levels of 1 ppm in infant formula are safe. That is a reversal of the zero tolerance policy for melamine the agency adopted in October.

At that time, the FDA said it was "unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns."

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States on High Alert for Investment Fraud

Madoff Ponzi scheme rattles securities officials

States on High Alert for Investment Fraud...


With all of the attention focused on the $50 billion Ponzi scam allegedly run by Wall Street money manager Bernard L. Madoff, the North American Securities Administrators Association is offering investors a series of tips to avoid dishonest investment services providers.

"While the vast majority of investment services providers are honest professionals, the potential for fraud should concern us all," said NASAA President and Colorado Securities Commissioner Fred Joseph.

With more people in charge of their own investment portfolios than ever before, state securities officials are warning investors of the increasing sophistication of investment professionals who steal money from unsuspecting clients.

"Anyone, regardless of income, education, or profession, can become a victim when unscrupulous individuals use the growing field of financial advice to line their own pockets," Joseph said. "The risk of fraud is magnified as investors seek higher returns in today's troubled markets."

Joseph noted that the title "investment adviser" is a legal term that describes a wide range of people who provide advice about securities. These individuals also are referred to as wealth managers, investment counsel, and asset or portfolio managers. Joseph recommended investors consider the following five tips to help protect themselves from dishonest advisers:

• Investigate the investment adviser and salesperson thoroughly.

• Make sure the investment opportunity is registered for sale in the state in which you live.

• Always stay in charge of your money.

• Insist on a full explanation of investment recommendations and don't invest in something you don't understand.

• Keep notes about conversations and meetings.

Of the 25,857 investment adviser firms in the United States as of December 1, 2008, 14,500 were registered with and regulated by the states, 11,162 with the SEC and 195 both by the SEC and the states.

There are approximately 260,350 investment adviser representatives. Adviser firms with less than $25 million of assets under management generally are regulated by state securities regulators while firms with more than $30 million under management or that do business in 30 states or more states must register with the SEC.

Firms with assets between $25 and $30 million are allowed to register with either the SEC or applicable states at their discretion.

Most states require investment adviser representatives to pass an examination, undergo background checks, renew their registration annually and report changes in their businesses or addresses promptly.

States also review an applicant's disciplinary history and financial stability prior to allowing the investment adviser to conduct business in a given jurisdiction. More than 30 states require that investment adviser representatives be licensed while the SEC does not.

States also protect investors by actively pursuing a program of on-site examinations — some unannounced — of small investment advisers and careful screening of promotional materials. A 2007 nationwide series of coordinated examinations of investment advisers by 43 state and provincial securities examiners revealed a significant number of problem areas.

These exams revealed 2,135 deficiencies in 13 compliance areas. The top five categories with the greatest number of deficiencies identified in the examinations involved registration, unethical business practices, books and records, supervisory/compliance, and privacy.

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Chrysler Closing Car Plants for 30 Days

Ford, GM to follow suit while waiting for bailout

Chrysler Closing Car Plants for 30 Days...

Embattled carmaker Chrysler is cutting its losses, closing its auto assembly plants for at least 30 days, and hopes the U.S. government throws it a lifeline.

The company had already scheduled a two week furlough for assembly line employees. This move simply extends it for at least another two weeks. Of course, what happens after that is far from certain.

"If I were a Chrysler worker, I'd be worried that the plant won't reopen," said Brian Johnson, an industry analyst at Barclays Capital told the Washington Post.

As many as 46,000 Chrysler employees are affected by the move, which begins Friday. The affected plants will not resume production before January 19. If production resumes at all depends on what happens with negotiations between Congress and the White House.

Chrysler says it needs at least $7 billion to get through the month of December. After Congress deadlocked over a plan to rescue all three U.S. carmakers, the Bush Administration signaled its intention to step in with some sort of emergency loans, supporting the companies until President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress take office.

Obama has said he is unwilling to let the Big 3 fail. Democrats, who generally support a Detroit bailout, will have additional votes in the new Congress.

Chrysler isn't the only automaker to idle workers at the end of the year. Ford says it will halt production in January for an extra week and General Motors reported last week that it will temporarily close 20 of its factories.

All the carmakers cite dramatically lower consumer demand as the reason for curtailing production. Sales of all vehicles, both foreign and domestic, have fallen dramatically since September, when the U.S. economy seemed to suddenly grind to a halt.

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Foreclosures Rising Despite Prevention Programs

Voluntary industry guidelines a failure, bankruptcy lawyers charge

Foreclosures Rising Despite Prevention Programs...

Much-hyped foreclosure prevention programs relying on voluntary loan modifications are failing to reach a significant number of troubled homeowners and are often backfiring when they do so, according to newly updated research released today by the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA).

That puts pressure on President-elect Obama and Congress to clear the way for court-supervised loan modifications that will prove more beneficial for homeowners, the lawyers group asserted.

The findings released today by NACBA come on the heels of a dire new projection from Credit Suisse that over 8 million foreclosures (are now) expected over the next four years in the U.S. That level accounts for 16 percent of all mortgages — including 59 percent of all subprime mortgages and more than 11 percent of all other mortgages, including Alt-A, options ARMS and even those in the prime category. The new forecast from Credit Suisse is up sharply from the two to six million foreclosure range cited in previous estimates from industry sources.

The new data presented today from a study by Professor Alan White, Valparaiso University School of Law, found that:

• Less than 10 percent of the time do the voluntary programs result in a reduced principal loan balance with more than half of modifications capitalizing unpaid interest and fees into larger and more drawn out debt on the back end of the mortgage; and

• Only about a third (35 percent) of voluntary mortgage modifications reduce monthly payment burdens for homeowners, with nearly half (45 percent) actually saddling distressed homeowners with increased payments under the modifications.

In one case cited by the lawyers group — the Hope for Homeowners Act FHA refinancing program passed by Congress with much fanfare earlier this year on the strength of forecasts that 400,000 homeowners would be aided — there have been only 312 applications to date and no mortgage modifications whatsoever have taken place.

This is consistent with the most recent estimates from the National Association of Attorneys General that "nearly 8 out of 10 seriously delinquent homeowners are not on track for any loss mitigation outcome ... up from 7 in 10 in previous reports.

Court-supervised loan modification is urgently needed to deal with this problem. We call on the incoming Obama administration and the new Congress to adopt this solution without delay. The American home mortgage foreclosure crisis has gone from the danger zone to the full-blown crisis stage," said Henry Sommer, NACBA president.

"The number of foreclosures is growing rapidly and is reaching well beyond the subprime world to the American middle class. Despite a proliferation of voluntary programs, we are not seeing evidence of a meaningful number of sustainable loan modifications, Sommer said.

Professor White said that American homeowners are carrying $10.5 trillion in mortgage debt, a number that has risen by 250 percent in the past decade.

"While banks have written down more than half a trillion in mortgages and mortgage-related securities, homeowners have gotten little or no relief," White said. "Empirical evidence from mortgage servicer reports to investors shows that for the most part, the necessary deleveraging of homeowners is not happening."

When NACBA, NCLC, Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) called on Congress in April 2007 to move aggressively to stem the growing flood of home foreclosures, it was estimated that some 2 million homeowners were at risk of foreclosure. And, at the time, the financial services industry accused the organizations of being overly pessimistic about the likely toll of foreclosures. However, it turns out we were low-balling quite significantly the number of foreclosures, Sommer said.

As of September 2008, a full 1.2 million homeowners with subprime loans already had lost their homes to foreclosure. Another 1.7 million families with subprime loans are seriously delinquent and at risk of losing their homes in the very near future, NACB said. Credit Suisse now estimates that 8.1 million mortgages will be in foreclosure over the next four years, representing 16 percent of all mortgages. Credit Suisse finds that the problem has spread from subprime loans to Alt-A, option ARMs, and even prime loans.

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Airborne Agrees to Stop 'Cold Remedy' Claims

Company will pay $7 million to 33 states

The makers of a widely-advertised dietary supplement have agreed to pay $7 million to 33 states and to stop promoting their product as a cure for the commo...


The makers of a widely-advertised dietary supplement have agreed to pay $7 million to 33 states and to stop promoting their product as a cure for the common cold. It's the second big penalty for Airborne. In August, the company agreed to paythe Federal Trade Commission $30 million.

Airborne dramatically misrepresented its products as cold remedies without any scientific evidence to back up its claims, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. said. Under this agreement, the company will stop advertisements that suggest that its products are a cure for the common cold.

Airborne began selling its products as a cold remedy on the Internet around July 2000 and on television in 2004. In its advertisements, Airborne featured people suffering from cold and flu symptoms and made unsupported statements suggesting its products were a cure for the common cold. These included:

• Airborne Cold Remedy
• A Miracle Cold Buster!
• Sick of Catching Colds?
• Take at the first sign of a cold symptom.

The company also requested that retailers sell Airborne products in the cold/cough aisle.

To substantiate their claims, Airborne relied upon studies that claimed the major ingredients in their products — Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, and Zinc — prevent colds. However, subsequent definitive studies found that these ingredients do not have any discernable effect to prevent colds. Despite the information, Airborne continued to market its products as cold remedies.

Investigators raised concerns about the levels of Vitamin A in Airborne products. In older formulations, Airborne contained 5,000 International Units of Vitamin A. If the product was taken as instructed, consumers would ingest up to 15,000 International Units of Vitamin A daily.

This amount of Vitamin A poses potential health risks to vulnerable populations, including children and pregnant women. During the negotiation process, Airborne reformulated its product to contain only 2,000 International Units of Vitamin A.

Under todays agreement with 33 states, Airborne Inc. agreed:

• Not to make any claim concerning the health benefit, performance, efficacy or safety of its dietary supplements.
• Not to make any claims that imply that Airborne can diagnose, mitigate, prevent, treat, or cure colds, coughs, the flu, an upper respiratory infection or allergies.
• Not to require, demand, or otherwise influence where a retailer places Airborne, Inc. products, such as in the cold and cough aisle.
• Not to market any product that contains directions for use that would, if followed, result in an individual ingesting 15,000 International Units of Vitamin A per day.
• Pay a total of $7 million to the states.

Todays settlement covers all Airborne products including:

• Airborne- Original
• Airborne- Pink Grapefruit
• Airborne- Lemon Lime
• Airborne- Nighttime
• Airborne- Jr. On-The-Go
• Airborne- Seasonal Relief
• Airborne- Sore Throat Gummi Lozenges
• Airborne- Soothing Throat Gummi Lozenges
• Airborne- Power Pixies

The states involved in todays settlement include Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, The District of Columbia, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.

 

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Internet Explorer Has Serious Security Flaw

Exploit enables hackers to steal users' passwords

Internet Explorer Has Serious Security Flaw...

If you're browsing the Internet with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, you could be vulnerable to hackers. That's the warning from computer experts, who say the browser has a security flaw that allows criminals to take control of consumers' computers and steal passwords.

Until Microsoft fixes the problem, experts suggest using another browser.

The technology security firm Trend Micro said its engineers detected a malicious JavaScript called JS_DLOAD.MD on several Web sites that exploits a zero-day vulnerability in Internet Explorer 7 through a heap spray on SDHTML.

After a successful exploit, it triggers a series of redirections to multiple URLs, then finally connects to one of several different domains.

"Unfortunately, since Microsoft's security updates failed to provide protection against this vulnerability, users of Internet Explorer are at risk even while surfing the Web on fully patched Windows XP and Windows 2003 systems," Trend Micro said in an advisory.

Microsoft says seven versions of Internet Explorer, which is used by most of the world's computers, are vulnerable to this security flaw. Microsoft is now at work trying to find a security patch.

"Microsoft is continuing its investigation of public reports of attacks against a new vulnerability in Internet Explorer," the company said.

Security experts say those still using Internet Explorer should be very careful about which Web sites they visit, since compromised Web sites can download the Trojan. They say the rule about never clicking on a link in a spam email is especially important to follow in this case, since hackers may be using spam to direct victims to compromised sites.

Once a hacker gains access to your computer, the keylogger software can capture your key strokes, stealing user names and passwords to your bank and other secure online accounts.

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Ohio Settles with Companies over Student Credit Cards

Attorney General accused firms of deceptive advertising

Ohio Settles with Companies over Student Credit Cards...


The state of Ohio has settled with two companies it accused of using deceptive advertising in an attempt to persuade OSU students to apply for credit cards.

Lawyers from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law filed the lawsuit in September, 2007 against Campus Dimensions Inc., a marketing and advertising firm; and OSU La Bamba Inc., a restaurant chain. The suit, filed in Franklin County, charged the companies with violating Ohio's Consumer Sales Practices Act.

Faculty and third-year law students in the Civil Law Practicum at Moritz had been monitoring credit card solicitation practices in the Columbus university area for more than a year.

According to the suit against La Bamba and Campus Dimensions, a credit card marketing event was held at the La Bamba restaurant, 1956 North High Street, in Columbus. Fliers for the event were posted around the OSU campus advertising a "Free Sandwich and Drink" for OSU students.

The original complaint stated violations occurred because the promotional fliers for the event advertised free burritos but did not disclose the offer's requirement that students apply for a credit card.

The settlement states that in the future, the companies will not participate in any credit card marketing plan which includes the violations alleged in the original suit. Those violations include:

• Failing to clearly state the conditions of an offer

• Using bait advertising

• Using "free" without clearly setting forth all terms and obligations of the offer

• Notifying prospective consumers about a prize or something of value without disclosing any and all conditions necessary to get it

The court also ordered La Bamba and Campus Dimensions to disgorge their profits from the marketing event, and to pay the Attorney General's Office money to be distributed to a nonprofit organization to promote the financial literacy of college students to improve their understanding and use of credit cards.

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Cooper Tire Recall

Cooper Tire Recall...

December 15, 2008
Cooper Tire is recalling Cooper CS4 Touring (VR) tires, size 215/55R17, produced between September 7 and October 11, 2008.

The tires may have been cured for an inadequate amount of time. This condition can lead to tread separation, possibly resulting in loss of vehicle control and a crash.

Cooper Tire will notify owners and replace, mount, and balance any defective tires free of charge. Dealers will examine suspect tires to see if they fall in the recall population. The recall is expected to begin on or about December 18, 2008.

Owners may contact Cooper Tire Consumer Relations toll-free at 1-800-854-6288.

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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USDA Will Test Meat Products for Melamine

Agency determines that testing is "prudent"

USDA Will Test Meat Products for Melamine...

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will now test certain meat and poultry products — including baby food, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets — for the chemical melamine.

The action by the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) comes amid concerns that melamine contamination in some imported foods--specifically those that contain milk products imported from China--may have spread to meat and poultry.

"In light of recent disclosures of melamine being found in certain imported food products, FSIS has determined that it is prudent to do a small amount of sampling to see if there is any reason to be concerned about the presence of this chemical in meat and poultry products," the agency wrote.

As ConsumerAffairs.com has reported, Chinese officials in September discovered melamine in the powered infant formula made it that country. Officials later learned that some dairy plants intentionally added the chemical to milk products to make them appear to have higher protein levels.

China's melamine-tainted milk scandal is blamed for the deaths of at least six infants in that country and the illnesses of thousands of other babies.

The tentacles of that contamination spread around the world to such products as candies, yogurt, cookies, and coffees.

FSIS officials say federal investigators will, over the next 12 weeks, collect meat and poultry products that contain such milk-derived ingredients as non-fat dried milk, casein, whey, evaporated milk, and milk powder, and test them for melamine. The agency will collect 45 samples a week from retail stores for these tests.

FSIS officials will test the following products for melamine contamination:

• Baby food (containing a significant amount of meat or poultry products);

• Cooked sausages (including hot dogs or frankfurters with and without cheese products);

• Breaded chicken (bite sized morsels or nuggets with and without cheese products);

• Meatballs;

• Meat and poultry wrapped in dough and pizza (including calzones)

Melamine is used make plastic and fertilizers. Doctors say it can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.

For years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not allow melamine in any human or pet food.

FDA officials, however, recently reversed that position, saying levels of melamine below 2.5 parts per million (ppm) in food did not pose a health risk.

The only exception to this new standard is infant formula. The FDA said the levels of melamine--or one of its analogues alone-- that did not pose a health concern in infant formula was below 1.0 ppm.

Melamine is blamed for the illnesses and deaths of thousands of dogs and cats in the United States last year.The presence of that chemical in the imported wheat gluten from China triggered the largest pet food recall in U.S. history.

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Britax Recalls Frontier Child Restraints

Britax Recalls Frontier Child Restraints...

December 12, 2008
Britax is recalling certain Frontier child restraint systems because of a problem with the harness straps.

The recall affects Models E9L54E7 (Frontier Red Rock), E9L54H6 (Frontier Rushmore), E9L54H7 (Frontier Pink Sky), E9L54M6 (Frontier Canyon), and E9L5490 (Frontier Sahara), manufactured between April 1 and September 18, 2008.

If the harness straps are loosened using one strap at a time, the harness straps may become detached from the metal yoke located on the back of the child seat. Should the harness straps become detached, the child will not be properly restrained, possibly resulting in an increased risk of injury in the event of a vehicle crash.

Britax will mail the consumer notice and remedy kits to all registered owners free of charge. Owners who have not registered their seats with Britax must call Britax at 1-704-409-1700 and request a kit. The recall is expected to begin on or about January 7, 2009.

Information and instructions related to the campaign will be posted on the Britax website at www.britaxusa.com no later than December 17, 2008. Owners with other questions can contact Britax at 1-704-409-1700.

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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New York Financier Allegedly Ran 'Giant Ponzi Scheme'

Losses may reach $50 billion; many prominent families affected

New York Financier Allegedly Ran 'Giant Ponzi Scheme'...

 


Bernard Madoff

The latest cataclysm to rock Wall Street is the news that prominent financier Bernard Madoff has been arrested for running what he allegedly called "a giant Ponzi scheme." Losses to investors may run as high as $50 billion, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged in a civil complaint.

It's potentially the largest such schemes ever uncovered -- nearly five times larger than the fraud that drove WorldCom into bankruptcy in 2002.

Madoff, a former chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market, allegedly deceived wealthy investors who thought they were reliably earning 2% or more per month on their money even when financial markets were performing poorly.

Madoff, 70, for decades has headed Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC, a Wall Street firm that "makes a market" in securities, meaning that it puts buyers and sellers of privately-traded equities together. That firm's operations were separate from the money management services Madoff provided for high-net-worth individuals, many of whom now fear they have been wiped out.

FBI agents arrested Madoff yesterday, acting on a criminal complaint that alleged Madoff had used funds paid in by new investors to pay existing investors what they thought were earnings on their investments.

Madoff told agents who went to his apartment to arrest him that there was "no innocent explanation" for his activities, The Wall Street Journal reported. Madoff told the agents he was "broke" and had decided his scheme "could not go on" and said he expected to go to jail, the newspaper reported.

Madoff reportedly broke the news to his sons earlier this week, telling them he had "absolutely nothing" and "it's all just one big lie."

Individuals who had entrusted their wealth to Madoff were in shock. "This is going to kill so many people," said a current investor quoted by the Journal. "It's absolutely awful."

A New Jersey man said he was "in a state of panic." He said his family had about $1 million invested in Madoff's firm. His 86-year-old mother-in-law depended on the fund for her living expenses, he said.

The securities fraud charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000,000, according to Lev Dassin, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

 

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Bankrupt KB Toys Closing All Stores

Weak sales push venerable toy seller into the red

In yet another sign of a collapse in consumer spending, KB Toys Inc., a staple of shopping malls coast to coast, says it's bankrupt again and will close al...

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Alternative Medicine Use on the Rise

Survey studies usage among adults, children

Alternative Medicine Use on the Rise...

Approximately 38 percent of adults in the United States and nearly 12 percent of U.S. children aged 17 years and under use some form of complementary and alternative medicine, according to a new nationwide government survey.

This survey marks the first time questions were included on children's use of CAM, which is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products such as herbal supplements, meditation, chiropractic, and acupuncture that are not generally considered to be part of conventional medicine.

The survey, conducted as part of the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, included questions on 36 types of CAM therapies commonly used in the United States — 10 types of provider-based therapies, such as acupuncture and chiropractic, and 26 other therapies that do not require a provider, such as herbal supplements and meditation.

"The 2007 NHIS provides the most current, comprehensive, and reliable source of information on Americans' use of CAM," said Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

"These statistics confirm that CAM practices are a frequently used component of Americans' health care regimens, and reinforce the need for rigorous research to study the safety and effectiveness of these therapies. The data also point out the need for patients and health care providers to openly discuss CAM use to ensure safe and coordinated care," she added.

CAM use among adults

Comparison of the data from the 2002 and 2007 surveys suggests that overall use of CAM among adults has remained relatively steady — 36 percent in 2002 and 38 percent in 2007. However, there has been substantial variation in the use of some specific CAM therapies, such as deep breathing, meditation, massage therapy, and yoga, which all showed significant increases.

The most commonly used CAM therapies among U.S. adults were:

• Nonvitamin, nonmineral, natural products (17.7 percent) Most common: fish oil/omega 3/DHA, glucosamine, echinacea, flaxseed oil or pills, and ginseng

• Deep breathing exercises (12.7 percent)

• Meditation (9.4 percent)

• Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation (8.6 percent)

• Massage (8.3 percent)

• Yoga (6.1 percent).

Adults used CAM most often to treat pain including back pain or problems, neck pain or problems, joint pain or stiffness/other joint condition, arthritis, and other musculoskeletal conditions. Adult use of CAM therapies for head or chest colds showed a marked decrease from 2002 to 2007 (9.5 percent in 2002 to 2.0 percent in 2007).

Consistent with results from the 2002 data, in 2007 CAM use among adults was greater among:

• Women (42.8 percent, compared to men 33.5 percent)

• Those aged 30-69 (30-39 years: 39.6 percent, 40-49 years: 40.1 percent, 50-59 years: 44.1 percent, 60-69 years: 41.0 percent)

• Those with higher levels of education (Masters, doctorate or professional: 55.4 percent)

• Those who were not poor (poor: 28.9 percent, near poor: 30.9 percent, not poor: 43.3 percent)

• Those living in the West (44.6 percent)

• Those who have quit smoking (48.1 percent)

CAM use among children

Overall, CAM use among children is nearly 12 percent, or about 1 in 9 children. Children are five times more likely to use CAM if a parent or other relative uses CAM. Other characteristics of adult and child CAM users are similar — factors such as socioeconomic status, geographic region, the number of health conditions, the number of doctor visits in the last 12 months, and delaying or not receiving conventional care because of cost are all associated with CAM use.

Among children who used CAM in the past 12 months, CAM therapies were used most often for back or neck pain, head or chest colds, anxiety or stress, other musculoskeletal problems, and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD).

The most commonly used CAM therapies among children were:

• Nonvitamin, nonmineral, natural products (3.9 percent) Most common: echinacea, fish oil/omega 3/DHA, combination herb pill, flaxseed oil or pills, and prebiotics or probiotics

• Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation (2.8 percent)

• Deep breathing exercises (2.2 percent)

• Yoga (2.1 percent).

"The survey results provide information on trends and a rich set of data for investigating who in America is using CAM, the practices they use, and why," said Richard L. Nahin, Ph.D., MPH, acting director of NCCAM's Division of Extramural Research and co-author of the National Health Statistics Report. "Future analyses of these data may help explain some of the observed variation in the use of individual CAM therapies and provide greater insights into CAM use patterns among Americans."

 

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Feds Quash 'Scareware' Scheme

Bogus 'scans' tricked more than 1 million consumers

Feds Quash 'Scareware' Scheme...

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court has issued a temporary halt to a massive scareware scheme, which falsely claimed that scans had detected viruses, spyware, and illegal pornography on consumers computers.

According to the FTC, the scheme has tricked more than one million consumers into buying computer security products such as WinFixer, WinAntivirus, DriveCleaner, ErrorSafe, and XP Antivirus. The court also froze the assets of those responsible for the scheme, to preserve the possibility of providing consumers with monetary redress.

According to the FTCs complaint, the defendants used an elaborate ruse that duped Internet advertising networks and popular Web sites into carrying their advertisements. The defendants falsely claimed that they were placing Internet advertisements on behalf of legitimate companies and organizations. But due to hidden programming code that the defendants inserted into the advertisements, consumers who visited Web sites where these ads were placed did not receive them.

Instead, consumers received exploitive advertisements that took them to one of the defendants Web sites. These sites would then claim to scan the consumers computers for security and privacy issues. The scans would find a host of purported problems with the consumers computers and urge them to buy the defendants computer security products for $39.95 or more. However, the scans were entirely false.

According to the complaint, the two companies charged in the case Innovative Marketing, Inc. and ByteHosting Internet Services, LLC operate using a variety of aliases and maintain offices in various countries. Innovative Marketing is a company incorporated in Belize that maintains offices in Kiev, Ukraine. ByteHosting Internet Services is based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The complaint alleges that these two companies, along with individuals Daniel Sundin, Sam Jain, Marc DSouza, Kristy Ross, and James Reno, violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting that they conducted scans of consumers computers and detected a variety of security or privacy issues, including viruses, spyware, system errors, and pornography. The complaint also names a sixth individual, Maurice DSouza, as a relief defendant who received proceeds from the scheme.

On December 2, 2008 the FTC requested and received a temporary restraining order from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. Under its terms, the defendants are barred from falsely representing that they have run any type of computer analysis, or that they have detected security or privacy problems on a consumers computer.

They also are barred from using domain names obtained with false or incomplete information, placing advertisements purportedly on behalf of a third party without that partys consent, or otherwise attempting to conceal their own identities. The order also mandates that companies hosting the defendants Web sites and providing domain-registration services take the necessary steps to keep consumers from accessing these Web sites.

The FTC seeks to permanently bar the defendants from engaging in scareware marketing. The FTC also asks the court to order the defendants to provide monetary redress to consumers or otherwise give up their ill-gotten gains.

As part of an ongoing effort to warn the public about the risks posed by scareware and other types of Internet fraud, the FTC has produced a new alert for consumers. To learn more, see the alert Free Security Scan Could Cost Time and Money .

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Americans' Net Worth Plunges Nearly $3 Trillion

Economics predict the recession will begin to ease in June 2009

Americans' Net Worth Plunges Nearly $3 Trillion...

Just about the time government statistics found that American families' net worth had plunged $2.8 trillion, a group of economists predicted that the current recession may turn out to be the longest and most painful downturn since the Great Depression.

The decrease in net worth during this year's third quarter was fueled largely by plunging real estate values. The U.S. Federal Reserve reported that real assets lost $646.9 billion as home values plummeted in a wave of foreclosures. Nationwide, the average price of a single family home is now back to what it was in 2004.

And look out — the fourth quarter is likely to be even worse, the Fed said. Job layoffs increased sharply in October following the sudden Wall Street credit crises in mid September. So far this year, nearly two million U.S. jobs have disappeared.

The findings coincided with the release of the Wall Street Journal's latest economic-forecasting survey, which found economists expect the downturn to conclude in June 2009, marking an 18-month duration, the longest postwar period of decline.

The economists on average said the unemployment rate will peak at 8.4% in response to this recession, as pain in the labor market extends into 2010.

"For the household sector, this will be the worst event we've had in the post-World War II period," said Bruce Kasman of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.

But at least the economists surveyed by the Journal said the situation could be worse.

"The downturn would be deeper still, in our view, were it not for an ultra-aggressive combination of monetary and fiscal stimulus that will soon move into high gear," Morgan Stanley economists Richard Berner and David Greenlaw said in a research note. "Authorities are pulling out all the stops: Quantitative easing by the Fed and the largest-ever fiscal stimulus package likely will promote stability in the economy late in 2009 and a moderate recovery in 2010."

On the employment front, the situation is still deteriorating. The U.S. Labor Department reported today that the number of Americans filing for first time unemployment benefits surged to 573,000. That's a 26-year high and the number of workers now receiving benefits is at its highest level since 1982.

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Credit Unions Come to Aid of Troubled Automakers

Buyers of U.S. vehicles could get low-cost loans, cash discounts

Credit Unions Come to Aid of Troubled Automakers...

It's not only Congress and the American taxpayer coming to the aid of ailing U.S. automakers. A group of Midwest credit unions are pledging $10 billion in low-cost financing for the purchase of General Motors vehicles.

The plan is called Invest in America, according to a news release posted on the Michigan Credit Union League's Web site. The release said the credit union league is talking to Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC about similar programs.

The league claims a membership of aboutg 12 million consumers. The program will be tested in the four states, possibly going nationwide early next year, the release said.

The program is effective immediately and will run through June 30. It offers eligible vehicles at a price discount to credit union members and their households. Members who buy cars under the program also are eligible to get an additional $250 bonus cash between now and Jan. 5.

"This new arrangement with Midwest credit unions creates a tremendous value for GM and for thousands of credit union members," said Mark LaNeve, GM vice president of vehicle sales, service and marketing. "We appreciate the credit unions' promotional support and are pleased to make this offer."

"Credit unions have a long history of helping hard-working Americans in troubled times," said Daniel Mica, CEO of the Credit Union National Association.

Credit union members can find details on the discounts at www.lovemycreditunion.org and obtain an authorization number to take to any GM dealership. The price discount applies to purchases of eligible new Buick, Cadillac, Hummer, Saab, Chevrolet, GMC, Saturn and Pontiac vehicles.

In Washington, Congress and the White House have tentatively agreed on a plan to pump $15 billion into the U.S. auto industry. An industry czar appointed by President Bush would oversee the companies' use of the funds.

The House has scheduled a test vote on the measure.

 

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Dill Tire Valve Stems Recalled

Dill Tire Valve Stems Recalled...

December 10, 2008
Dill Air Control Products is recalling snap-in rubber tire valve stems sold between November 2006 and July 2007.

If you purchased tires between November 2006 and July 2007, and if the valve stems in your wheel contain the unique Dill cap (shown below), you should have the valve stems inspected for cracks in the rubber.

These valves may lack the required additive to protect the rubber against deterioration from ozone exposure. As a result, affected valve stems, when subject to high levels of ozone, may weather and crack earlier than normal for this product. Over time, such a crack could progress to the point that it leaks air resulting in a loss of tire pressure. Loss of tire pressure can result in a flat tire and/or loss of vehicle control, which could cause a crash without warning.

The recall is for models APC TR413, TR414, and TR418.

Tire dealers will inspect your Dill ACP valve stems and replace them if cracked at no charge to the consumer. The tire dealer will then file a claim with Dill.

For more information, see www.tirevalverecall.net or call 1-888-364-2982.

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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Fraudsters Masquerading as Well-Known Companies

Kansas Attorney General takes on impersonators

Fraudsters Masquerading as Well-Known Companies...

If you received a letter saying you'd won a big prize in the Acme Lottery, you might be more likely to ignore the letter, correctly thinking that it was a scam. But if you got a letter saying you'd won the Reader's Digest Lottery, you might be more likely to bite.

Scammers, it seems, have figured that out. More and more, they are using the names of well known and trusted companies in their fraudulent schemes, according to Kansas Attorney General Steve Six.

Six says consumers in central Kansas have received notifications of prizes accompanied by documents that appear to be checks. The consumer is asked to deposit the check in their bank account, then wire money using Western Union or MoneyGram back to the issuer of the check to pay "clearance or processing fees."

The consumer is directed to call a number from an area code in Quebec, Canada to "release winnings and validate [the] check" that was enclosed. The letter also contains a seal similar to the official seal for the United States Department of Justice, and claims it is "Approved by the Attorney General."

In reality, those rare legitimate sweepstakes winnings do not require advance payment of fees or taxes. Taxes are collected by government agencies, not by a company that provides the sweepstakes winnings.

Many scam artists will issue a check to a consumer, then ask the recipient to deposit the check, and before the check has time to clear the issuing bank request the consumer wire money from their account back the scam artist. These requests are usually accompanied with a sense of urgency, that the prize must be claimed by a certain date, and waiting for the check to clear the issuing bank would allow the prize to expire.

A similar type of scam includes information that the consumer has won a foreign lottery, but that certain fees must be paid before the check can be issued. Six says U.S. consumers are ineligible for foreign lottery winnings.

 

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House Committee Slams FCC Chairman for "Deception and Distrust"

110-page investigative report exposes "broken" agency culture, process

House Committee Slams FCC Chairman for ...

In a blistering 110-page reportreleased today, the House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce took Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Kevin Martin to task for what they called "a number of troubling allegations."

The report, entitled "Deception and Distrust: The Federal Communications Commission Under Chairman Kevin J. Martin," was the result of a year-long investigation of the agency's rulemaking and procedures under Martin's chairmanship. According to Bart Stupak (D-MI), chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, "Our investigation confirmed a number of troubling allegations raised by individuals in and outside the FCC."

"The Committee staff report details some of the most egregious abuses of power, suppression of information and manipulation of data under Chairman Martin's leadership," Stupak said.

"[T]he findings suggest that, in recent years, the FCC has operated in a dysfunctional manner and Commission business has suffered as a result," said Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-MI). "It is my hope that the new FCC Chairman will find this report instructive and that it will prove useful in helping the Commission avoid making the same mistakes."

"A continuous backlog of matters"

The Committee investigators investigated thousands of records, documents, and e-mails, and conducted 73 interviews with current and former FCC employees as well as insiders in the telecommunications industry. Their findings included:

• Martin allegedly deliberately interfered with reports on providing cable television service "a la carte," going so far as to order a report commissioned by his predecessor Michael Powell to be revised and republished, without soliciting additional public comment. Where the first report said that a la carte programming would not offer substantial benefits to consumers, the second report made the opposite conclusion, which Martin — a staunch advocate of a la carte service —favored.

• Under Martin's direction, the FCC allegedly manipulated or withheld data on broadband over powerlines (BPL technology) from the public, in an effort to push it as an alternative to regular cable or telecom Internet service. Although BPL technology has improved since the time of the report, it is still not considered advanced enough to be an effective means to deliver Internet access.

• FCC employees described a culture of extreme micromanagement at the agency under Martin, where every decision, no matter how trivial, had to go through his office for approval, causing a "continuous backlog of matters waiting for [the Chairman's] review." The employees alleged that Martin demoted senior staffers to junior-level duties, forbade them from communicating with employees of other Federal agencies, and withdrew authorization for ongoing projects without explanation. "Projects that were authorized in the past are not necessarily considered to be authorized at this time," the agency said.

• When the FCC's Enforcement Bureau attempted to levy a $1.3 million fine against T-Mobile for violations of the Do Not Call Act, the action was leaked to T-Mobile prior to full adoption by the Commission. Martin's staff then stepped in to help T-Mobile reduce the fine to $100,000.

"Climate of fear"

Martin was previously grilled by the Commerce Committee for his alleged favoritism towards telecommunication companies such as AT&T; and Verizon, while aggressively pursuing new regulations against their rivals in the cable industry.

Martin and his fellow Commissioners were also criticized by the House's Subcommittee on Telecommunications for the failure of the recent wireless spectrum auction to net any bidders for creating a public safety network for first responders to use.

And a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the FCC was failing to effectively follow through and resolve many of the thousands of consumer complaints it receives. The GAO said that the agency used multiple separate, incompatible systems and relied too heavily on paper documents for noting and tracking complaints.

The Commerce Committee investigators said in the report that the normal next step would be to call for a hearing on their findings, but "due to the climate of fear that currently pervades the FCC," many of the witnesses were too afraid to come forward. Martin, many members of his staff, and other FCC officials were offered opportunities to discuss the investigation, but all of them either declined the invitation or ignored it.

The report is available as a free download from the Commerce Committee's Web site.

 

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Graco Recalls Comfortsport Convertible Car Seats

Graco Recalls Comfortsport Convertible Car Seats...

December 9, 2008
photo of cribs Graco is recalling nearly 44,000 Comfortsport convertible car seats, in the Frazier Fashion line.

These seats were equipped with a large sized, supplemental pad or "body pillow" that partially obscures the child airbag warning label which is on the seat pad, a violation of federal safety standards. Serious injury could occur to the child should the seat be improperly placed in the vehicle.

Graco will notify owners and instruct them to discard the supplemental pillows. The pillows are provided for comfort only and do not affect the seat's ability to protect your child in the event of a crash. The recall is expected to begin during December 2008.

Owners may contact Graco at 1-800-345-4109 or by e-mail at consumerservices@gracobaby.com.

The recalled seats were manufactured from November 1, 2006 through October 8, 2007.

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Get Your Mortgage Rate Lock Ready

Solidify your loan terms when you have the chance

Get Your Mortgage Rate Lock Ready...

Mortgage interest rates are down to their lowest level in nearly a year, likely to get lower, but just as likely to reverse course at any time.

However, with a rate lock, you could freeze out higher rates or take a gamble on a lower, even more affordable rate.

Here's the scoop.

Just a week after the Federal Reserve unveiled a $600 billion plan to reduce mortgage interest rates to 4.5 percent for home buyers, the federal gambit appeared to be paying off.

Fixed interest rates (FRMs) on 30-year conforming mortgages dropped nearly a half percentage point to 5.53 percent by Dec. 4, according to Freddie Mac's weekly survey. The 30-year FRM has not been lower since Jan. 24, 2008, when it was 5.48 percent. The FRM rate last week was also down more than a full percentage point from the 2008 high of 6.63 percent in July.

Even if the Fed's effort peters out, squeezed by an economy that appears to be resisting jump starts, rates could get lower because the U.S. Treasury Department is weighing in with its own efforts to push rates even lower than 4.5 percent. Unlike the Fed's program, which targets only homebuyers, the Treasury's program would include lower interest rates for homeowners who want to refinance.

Still more downward pressure on rates comes from President-elect Barack Obama who has repeated his desire to see more of the existing $700 billion bailout and other funds funneled directly to struggling homeowners.

Lower interest rates can make housing or a refinance more affordable.

A 6 percent interest rate on a $250,000 mortgage costs about $1,500 month in principal and interest; about $1,400 at 5.5 percent and $1,270 at 4.5 percent.

When rates get as low as you need them to go, they could just as quickly reverse course and leave you twisting in the wind -- unless you've got a contracted mortgage rate lock in your pocket.

Rate locks avoid higher costs

A written and signed mortgage rate lock contract can be your ticket to ride.

Rate locks are typically designed to protect homebuyers from rising rates, but those refinancing for lower rates can also benefit.

A traditional mortgage rate lock is a lender's guarantee that your mortgage will come with a specific interest rate, points, other costs and terms.

A rate lock's terms also include a specified period for the lock. The benefits of the lock are only good for as long as the term of the rate lock.

If you fail to complete your home purchase or don't refinance before the clock runs out, and interest rates rise, you could have to pay any higher costs.

Higher costs can include a higher mortgage rate, more points, and even more up front cash down. More cash down may be necessary to keep the actual amount financed low enough so your monthly payments remain in line with what you can afford or what the lender will allow.

Likewise, if you are refinancing to stave off foreclosure and miss the deadline, you could lose your home if the lender won't approve you for a higher rate.

In a refinance where your home is not at stake, you've got some wiggle room. You can take out less cash, wait out the market or otherwise cope.

Locks can also push costs down

You can also benefit from a rate lock when interest rates are falling.

If interest rates fall during the lock period, you can't take advantage of the lower rate unless you rewrite the lock at additional cost or initially include a "float down" provision in the original lock.

The "float down" option grants you a lower rate if rates fall within a given window of time. Again, unless otherwise contracted, float down rate locks stick you with the higher rate if rates rise during the lock period.

You may be able to negotiate for a float down that also has a specific rate lock so you don't pay a higher rate, but you'll pay through the nose for the lock because the lender is taking on greater risk.

Solid contract necessary to lock or float

Myriad rate lock variations underscore the importance of being sure the language of the lock contract gives you the specific options you need for a sufficient term.

Getting it in all writing removes the potential of trying to enforce a verbal agreement should a dispute arise.

The contract should lock in the interest rate, points and other costs, whenever possible. The agreement should include your name; the lock's effective date; lock cost; what terms are locked; the lock's expiration date and time; and any post-lock options.

Lock as soon as you see the desired rate or "on application" -- when you first apply for the mortgage -- so that your rate is locked as you spend time getting the application approved. That's particularly important if you barely qualify at today's rates, and an increase would make buying unaffordable.

Of course, you can choose to set the lock "on approval," especially in markets where loan application checks are prolonged due to heavy demand for housing or in markets like today's market of heavily scrutinized applications.

In any event, the lock period should be long enough to allow for settlement, contingencies, and other potential delays. Locks average 30 days, but can range from 15 to 60 days. Obviously, the longer the better, but the longer the more expensive the lock can be.

Devil in the details

• Locks can cost money. Shop around for both the terms of the lock contract and its cost, which varies from lender to lender. Some lenders want up-front lock fees. Others take them at settlement. There are non-refundable fees, flat fees, and fees based on a percentage of the mortgage, and a host of variations.

• Before settling on a lock-in period, determine the average time for loan processing in your market. Ask your lender to estimate the time necessary to process your loan. Verify the information with other realty and mortgage professionals. If the loan doesn't close on time, lenders can extend your lock for free or charge more.

• Once you lock-in a rate, if you haven't already, quickly submit the application and other required documents. You should have previously checked your credit report, prepared income, job, debt, asset and other documents to back up your application information. You should also stay in close contact with the lender to be sure the application is progressing quickly.

• Verify the rate lock is from the bank, mortgage lender, credit union or other entity actually writing the loan, not a broker, loan officer or go between. A broker can obtain a rate lock from the lender, but he or she can't actually write the lock.

• If you have a floater, keep an eye on the market to determine when to grab a rate.

• The Federal Reserve's"A Consumer's Guide To Mortgage Lock Ins" offers extensive rate lock information and your local or state mortgage regulatory agency may offer specific rules lenders must follow when granting rate locks.

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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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Obama Promises to "Renew Information Superhighway"

Broadband expansion included as part of public works program

Obama Promises to ...

President-elect Barack Obama pledged to expand Americans' access to broadband Internet as part of a massive new public works program designed to generate jobs and improve the economy, he said in his weekly video/radio address.

"As we renew our schools and highways, we'll also renew our information superhighway," Obama said. "It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they'll get that chance when I'm President — because that's how we'll strengthen America's competitiveness in the world."

Obama said that broadband investment could also help modernize health care systems, through sharing and storing medical information and health records online, enabling doctors to offer care more efficiently.

"We will make sure that every doctor's office and hospital in this country is using cutting edge technology and electronic medical records so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes, and help save billions of dollars each year," Obama said.

Media action groups such as Free Press commended Obama's proposals, but said more work needed to be done to bridge "the digital divide."

"In our 21st-century society, having a connection to a fast and affordable Internet is no longer a luxury — it's a public necessity," said Free Press' executive director Josh Silver. "Obama's broadband stimulus must deliver Americans the infrastructure they need for economic growth and social opportunity."

Advocates have been pushing broadband investment not only as an economic driver in its own right, but as a means to aiding other crises. App-Rising.com's Geoff Daily urged the Obama administration to pursue an aggressive strategy of broadband investment and expansion, especially for rural communities that lack high-speed Internet access.

"If we don't step up and do something big, we may not have a rural America in 10 or 20 years," Daily said. "If we take the initiative to wire them for the 21st century infrastructure, they can not only survive, they can thrive."

Many groups have been offering policy papers and plans for how best to implement a nationwide broadband investment program. Free Press' "2009 Media & Tech Priorities" plan emphasizes reform of the government agencies tasked to handle Internet issues, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunication & Information Administration (NTIA).

Free Press also recommended reforming the Universal Service Fund to subsidize broadband access in rural areas.

The Benton Foundation offered "A Broadband Action Plan for America" on December 1. The Foundation advocates implementing plans to get every American access to "affordable, robust broadband" by 2010, through tactics such as funding or co-funding state and local initiatives, better broadband data mapping, and opening unused wireless spectrum for use by communications companies to create new paths to Internet access.

"Unless our nation quickly answers this serious challenge, America will continue to export economic growth and good-paying 'knowledge worker' jobs overseas to its better-connected, lower-wage competitors," said foundation head Charles Benton. "Our citizens will continue to be denied the benefits of broadband already being enjoyed by citizens of other nations in job creation and economic development, in health care and education, in public safety and security, energy conservation and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and more."

Obama did not specify the cost of the public works program, but various analysts' costs estimates place it from $400 to $700 billion, and possibly higher.

But broadband advocates such as Daily say plans such as his "Rural Fiber Fund" would enable expansion of broadband Internet access for a small fraction of the total cost.

"$30 billion should get the whole job done," Daily said. "But $10 billion is enough to be a game-changer and set the wheels in motion."

 

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"Mystery Shopper" Scammers Settle with FTC

Defendants accused of luring job seekers with fake offers

An operation that lured consumers with promises that they could earn big money as trained and certified "mystery shoppers " has agreed to pay $850,000...


An operation that lured consumers with promises that they could earn big money as trained and certified "mystery shoppers " has agreed to pay $850,000 to settle charges of deceptive marketing and contempt.

 

Mystery shoppers are paid to shop or dine out and then provide reports about the experience. In March 2007, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Feds Charge Mystery Shopping Promoters — the three companies Mystery Shop Link, LLC; Tangent Group, LLC; Harp Marketing Services, Inc.; and five individuals — with violating the FTC Act in connection with a nationwide mystery shopping employment scam.

According to the FTC, the defendants claimed that MysteryShopLink.com was hiring mystery shoppers in local areas nationwide. The company ran help wanted ads in newspapers, and on radio and TV.

Consumers who responded to the ads reached the defendants' telemarketers, who represented that MysteryShopLink.com had large numbers of available jobs and not enough shoppers to fill them. In exchange for a $99 fee, consumers were promised enough work to earn a steady full-time or part-time income as mystery shoppers.

Instead, consumers received a worthless certification and access to postings for mystery shopping jobs controlled by other companies. Consumers had to apply for these mostly low-paying jobs, and had no advantage over anyone else who found the postings elsewhere on the Internet for free. Most consumers got no jobs and earned no money.

The FTC also charged five of the eight defendants — Mystery Shop Link, LLC, Tangent Group, LLC, and Robin Larry Murphy, Andrew Holman, and Kenneth Johnson — with contempt. That charge contended that Murphy violated the terms of a consent judgment in a prior telemarketing fraud case involving false promises of government jobs. The 1997 consent judgment barred Murphy from making material misrepresentations of fact while telemarketing, and required him to post a $100,000 bond.

In addition to seeking coempt sanctions against Murphy, the FTC also claimed that Mystery Shop Link, LLC, Tangent Group, LLC, Andrew Holman, and Kenneth Johnson were in contempt of the previous order because they all participated in running MysteryShopLink.com despite knowing about the prior consent judgment against Murphy.

The settlements were reached with two separate groups of defendants. The first includes defendants Mystery Shop Link, LLC, Tangent Group, LLC, and their principals, Robin Larry Murphy, Andrew Holman, and Kenneth Johnson. It resolves both the new case filed in 2007 and the contempt action.

Under the settlement, the FTC will collect the proceeds of Murphy's $100,000 bond. The settlement also includes a $17.8 million judgment, which is suspended based on the defendants' inability to pay. The settlement prohibits all the defendants from making misrepresentations in the future. As a repeat offender, Murphy is permanently banned from telemarketing, except for non-deceptive sales to businesses of telecommunications equipment.

The second settlement includes defendants Harp Marketing Services, Inc., and its principals, Aiden Reddin and Marc Gurney. Harp Marketing was the primary outside telemarketing firm that handled consumer calls, and thus sales, for Mystery Shop Link.

This settlement requires Harp and its owners to pay $750,000 in redress and prohibits them from making misrepresentations in the future. The Harp settlement also includes a suspended judgment of $6.8 million, the total amount of Mystery Shop Link sales made by Harp's telemarketers.

Both settlements prohibit the defendants from collecting payments from Mystery Shop Link customers, and from transferring or benefiting from information about those customers. Both also contain record-keeping and reporting provisions to assist the FTC in monitoring the defendants' compliance.

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What Would a Washington-Designed Car Industry Look Like?

As bailout takes shape, Congress, White House, Obama weigh in

What Would a Washington-Designed Car Industry Look Like?...

U.S. automakers, reeling from the credit crisis and sudden drop in sales, appears likely to get some help from the U.S. government to stave off bankruptcy. After initially declining to offer help to Detroit in its last two months on duty, the Bush Administration now appears willing to go along with a $15 billion bridge loan.

But as two days of hearings before the House and Senate made clear last week, Washington will not be writing a check without attaching some hefty strings. As a result, cars produced by a "bailed out" Detroit are likely to be a different breed than what's being offered today.

The incoming Obama administration supports federal help for the automakers, but has made clear that it expects a major restructuring in the way the companies do business and in the kinds of cars they made and sell.

"What we can't give is a blank check for an industry that isn't prepared to reform itself, to rationalize itself, and to retool for the markets of today and tomorrow," said David Axelrod, who as Obama's senior advisor has the president-elect's ear.

Obama, appearing on NBC's Meet The Press Sunday, suggested some auto executives should lose their jobs and also said government aid to the automakers would be contingent of big changes in Detroit.

"They're going to have to restructure," the president-elect said. "If they expect taxpayers to help in that adjustment process, they can't keep putting off the kinds of changes that they, frankly, should have made 20 or 30 years ago."

Part of that restructuring could potentially turn the "big three" automakers into the big two. Some members of Congress — in particular Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) pressed executives for GM and Chrysler to renew merger talks.

"Our country can't really deal with three separate automakers," Corker told the executives.

The Chrysler brand might survive a merger with GM, but it's likely many current models would not. Congress appears likely to press the carmakers to get rid of the least-profitable lines.

There will be changes to GM as well. In its recovery plan delivered to Congress last week, the nation's most cash-strapped automaker said it would reduce name plates and slash dealerships by 1,750 within three years. It said it would concentrate on core brands like Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC, and might spin off or close down its Saab, Hummer, Saturn and Pontiac brands.

One plan being floated in Congress late last week included the creation of a special government "oversight board" made up of five U.S. cabinet secretaries and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The board would be led by a "car czar" appointed by the president. Presumably, this board could have a large saw in the kinds of products Detroit produces.

With Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress next year, an automotive bailout might also require U.S. carmakers to turn out fewer trucks and SUVs and more fuel efficient vehicles. And U.S. carmakers might not balk at that.

James Malackowski, president and CEO of Ocean Tomo LLC, a Chicago bank, says Detroit automakers are already well ahead of their international counterparts in that regard. Writing in the Detroit News, Malackowski says Ford and GM hold about one-third of all "green technology" patents.

So, even with gasoline prices at 2005 levels, carmakers are still on course to phase out gas guzzlers and produce vehicles that will dramatically reduce U.S. energy demand in the future.

In fact, Malackowski argues that allowing the car makers to fail could serve as a significant setback for future development of green technologies. Even though polls show Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to spending more tax dollars to "bail out" another industry, Congress — led by the Ohio and Michigan delegations — appears determined not to let that happen.

"I think it's a good investment because it's not taxpayer money for the automobile industry, it's taxpayer money for America, it's for the working families," said Rep. Charles Wilson (D-OH).

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Know Your Needs to Choose the Right Laptop

Not all laptops are alike, a veteran reviewer notes

Know Your Needs to Choose the Right Laptop...


The price of laptops has come down a lot in the last few years, and with the advent of mini-notebooks (also known as netbooks) a notebook computer has never been more affordable. Unfortunately, many people who do not know a lot about computers still end up paying more than they need to for a laptop, or else pay good money for a notebook that will not satisfy their needs.

 

When purchasing a laptop there are a few things you should consider to make sure you get the optimal bang for your buck.

Know what your needs are

This might be the hardest part for some people, but it is also the most important. You need to know what youre going to be using the laptop for and if you find you cant answer the question, you probably shouldnt be getting a laptop at all. Do you need something portable, or will something more stationary do? Do you want to play games on it? Do you want to watch movies on it? Do you only want it for simple tasks like word processing or checking your email?

Answering these and other questions will help you make sure you get a laptop thats right for you, minimizing frustration down the road.

Focus on a form factor

Form factor is a fancy term for size, and it is a key component determining the usability and just as importantly, the price of a notebook. Laptops with large screens and heavy weights are considered desktop replacements. On the other extreme, laptops with moderate-sized screens and minimal weights are considered ultra-thin or thin and light. Then there are the netbooks, with small screens, light weights, and low prices, and also standard laptops, with moderate marks all around.

Based on your assessments of your needs, determine which form factor is right for you. This will narrow down your search and help you focus on picking the perfect fit within the size category.

Choose an operating system

The operating system, or OS, is the interface which greets you as you run your computer every day, and is also extremely important in determining both usability and price. There are three major OSs and each has its pros and cons. The most expensive is Mac OSX, the most recent version of which is called Leopard.

OSX has been praised for its intuitive interface and has many fans, but youll only find it on Apple notebooks and it is invariably more expensive than an equivalent machine with a different OS. On the other extreme is Linux, which is free, and you may have heard of the popular version called Ubuntu. Linux has a very simple interface but sometimes it can be hard to navigate if youre not savvy with Linux or computers in general.

Spanning the gap is Microsoft, makers of Windows XP and Windows Vista. Windows is the most common OS on the planet, and its usability as well as price falls somewhere in between OSX and Linux.

All of these OSs work and will run your laptop just fine, but determining which OS suits your style and capabilities (and budget) is important. If youre buying at a store, be sure to ask someone if you can try out a computer with each OS if youre not familiar with the differences.

Decide what hardware you really need

Now that youve got a form factor and your OS, its time to get into the nitty gritty of the laptop, which is the hardware. Hardware is a physical component that makes your computer run, such as the processor or the memory. Different hardware can result in vastly different computer performance, so its important to purchase hardware that will meet your needs.

If battery life is important, spring for the more expensive but more energy efficient processor. If graphical performance is important, make sure you have a dedicated graphics card and plenty of RAM. If youre planning on storing a lot of files, make sure you have a large enough hard drive.

Alternatively, if something isnt important to you, make sure youre not paying for hardware that isnt necessary to do the things youre going to be doing. For example, dont shell out for that Blu-ray drive if you only plan to own DVDs. Choosing the right hardware means youre only paying for the power that you specifically need, maximizing the cost effectiveness of your notebook.

Make sure youre not paying for software you dont want

Many laptops will come bundled with software packages, advertised at large discounts off their retail price. Sometimes this will be the perfect combination of software for you, but most of the time you end up paying for things you will either uninstall or simply forget about as they bog down your computer in the background. Take care to make sure youre not paying an extra couple hundred dollars for software that you never asked for.

Its also important to understand that much of the discounted software can be matched for free via open source solutions, as long as you are willing to take the time to download and install them yourself. One example is Open Office, which performs the same tasks as Microsoft Office but can be downloaded for free online. If you understand your own needs from the get-go, you wont be fooled by a salesman into buying a package you dont need.

Shop around, including online

Where you buy your laptop is important, and in many cases deals can be found online that are a better value than the deals at a retail store. Its important to look around in as many places as you can to make sure you get the best deal that matches your needs. If youre not comfortable buying from an unknown source online or are simply lost without a salesman to help you, try going to the store first and talking to someone. Once youre convinced which laptop is for you, return home and look at other sources.

Often there are online only deals for the brick and mortar store you were just shopping at, and you can find a better deal just buy going home and buying it there instead. Some stores also offer to match any competitors price, meaning that if you find a deal online but would prefer to deal with people you can see, you can still get your price. Shopping around makes sure youre not paying more for your laptop than you have to.

Get something upgradeable

Upgrading a laptop is a cheap and effective way to add years onto your laptops life. Initially laptops were nearly impossible to upgrade, but now many notebooks come with extra slots for additional RAM or convenient access to the hard drive, allowing you to replace it with a larger drive down the road. While certain components are still difficult to upgrade, changing just these components can convert a notebook from obsolete to something quite usable again.

If you plan on using your laptop for a long time, make sure you buy one that is convenient to upgrade and that you understand how to do it.

There is a lot that goes into a computer, and most people end up spending at least some time in front of their computer every day. And although prices have come down over the years, it is still an expensive investment. When buying a laptop, it is important to consider as many aspects as possible to ensure that you meet all your needs while still getting bang for your buck. If you dont you may end up frustrated trying to play games on a netbook, or wasting money when you idly surf the web on your top-of-the-line gaming notebook. Understanding your own needs and how they relate to the above categories will help you get just the laptop youre looking for.

More about computers ...

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Daniel Shain reviews laptops for LaptopLogic.com, an established laptop resource with an extensive library of laptop reviews, news and articles for both beginners and experts.

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DOE Cracks Down on Energy Star Label Display

LG settles with agency over misuse of certification

Consumers buying electric appliances have gotten used to looking for the Energy Star label, to be assured that the appliance makes efficient use of energy....

Consumers buying electric appliances have gotten used to looking for the Energy Star label, to be assured that the appliance makes efficient use of energy. Such concerns have only increased in the midst of the recession.

But what does the designation actually mean, and who enforces its standards?

Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), who have set standards for energy usage. Products that meet those standards are allowed to display the Energy Star label.

Computers and monitors were the first labeled products when the program was introduced in 1992. Through 1995, EPA expanded the label to additional office equipment products and residential heating and cooling equipment. It now even includes homes.

Last month DOE reached a settlement with appliance manufacturer LG, which it said was displaying the Energy Star label on refrigerators that did not meet Energy Star requirements. Those standards for refrigerator-freezers require all qualified refrigerator-freezers to use at least 20 percent less energy than the Federal government energy consumption standard.

DOE said LG's models LFX25950, LFX25960, LFX25971, LFX23961, LFX21960, LFX21971, LFX21980, LFX25980, LMX21981, LMX25981 as well as comparable Kenmore-brand "TRIO" models designed and manufactured by LG, displayed the Energy Star Label but did not meet the standard.

Under the settlement, LG voluntarily suspended these products from the Energy Star program and will offer consumers a free in-home modification of the affected refrigerator models to make them more energy efficient. Consumers will also receive a payment covering the energy cost difference between the new measured energy usage of the product and the amount stated on the original Energy Guide label.

Consumers who purchased the affected models should contact LG for more information at 1-888-848-1266 or through their website.

Where did LG go astray? DOE said it misinterpreted the government's test procedure.

The procedure, which has been used for decades and is based on a well-recognized and industry-wide adopted procedure, requires, among other things, that the ice maker be disabled but that all temperature controllable compartments, including ice storage bins, be set at their coldest temperature. LG's testing did not account for this latter condition but the company agreed to make changes to its testing to account for this aspect of the procedure to all models.

Energy usage measurements serve as the basis for information provided to consumers through the federal government's Energy Guide label affixed to these and other appliances as well as for determining qualification for the DOE Energy Star criteria. The Energy Guide labels are administered by the Federal Trade Commission.

 



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Gas Prices at 2005 Levels

National average drops to $1.77 a gallon

Gas Prices at 2005 Levels...

Pulling up to the gasoline pump isn't nearly as painful as it once was. Fuel prices continued their downward trend this week, hitting a nationwide average price Friday of $1.773 a gallon for unleaded regular.

That's down from $2.365 30 days ago. One year ago this week motorists were paying $3.034 a gallon to fill up their vehicles.

Gasoline prices continue to fall, in part, because world oil prices continue their collapse. Crude oil dropped to its lowest level in almost four years Thursday, hitting $42 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Analysts said they expected no upward movement in prices until world economies show some sign of improving.

Diesel fuel remains almost a dollar a gallon more expensive than regular gas, but at a national average $2.704 a gallon, is much less than the $4.845 a gallon diesel users paid on July 17, when prices peaked.

Once again the cheapest regular gas is found in Missouri, with a statewide average of $1.566 a gallon. Oklahoma is next with an average price of $1.629, followed by Kansas, at $1.631 a gallon.

The most expensive regular gasoline is once again in Alaska, at $2.763 a gallon.

Amazingly, only three states — Alaska, Hawaii and New York, now have average prices over $2 a gallon. Even in California, the statewide average has dropped to 1.875, down from $4.61, where it topped out on June 19.

The cheapest unleaded regular in California is found in the Stockton-Lodi metro, with an average price of $1.712 a gallon. The most expensive California metro is San Francisco, at $1.992.

New York drivers are paying a statewide average of $2.128 a gallon for unleaded regular, with the cheapest price in the Syracuse metro, at $1.986 and the most expensive in New York City metro, at $2.244 a gallon.

 

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Payday Loans Can Lead to Bankruptcy

Quick financial fix can cause more problems than it solves

Some 10 million American households borrow money through payday loans each year, and payday lenders now have more storefronts than McDonald's and Starbucks...

Some 10 million American households borrow money through payday loans each year, and payday lenders now have more storefronts than McDonald's and Starbucks combined. But those turned down by payday lenders may be better off than those who get a loan.

New research by Vanderbilt Law School Assistant Professor Paige Marta Skiba found that payday loan applicants who received the quick cash after their first application were significantly more likely to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy than those whose initial application was denied.

The researchers found that first-time applicants who received a payday loan were almost twice as likely to file for bankruptcy within two years as those denied the first time. The interest from payday and pawn loans amounted to about 11 percent of the total liquid debt interest burden at the time of the bankruptcy filing.

"Our research finds that payday loans and their interest payments may be sufficient to tip the balance into bankruptcy for a population that is already severely financially stressed," said Skiba.

Skiba and her co-author, Jeremy Tobacman, looked at four years of data for the state of Texas from a prominent payday loan company. From 2000 to 2004, the company received more than a million applications. The average loan request was around $300. The median annual income on the applications was $20,000 with a median checking account balance of $66.

"Payday loans seem to be the straw that breaks the borrower's back because the loans are normally due every week or every other week, so other debts, like credit cards or mortgages tend to be ignored," said Skiba.

First-time borrowers tended to continue borrowing. The researchers found that first-time applicants who were approved applied for about five more loans within a year than rejected first-time applicants.

"Access to payday loan credit predicts roughly $2,300 of additional payday borrowing within two years," said Skiba. As for those who were denied their initial payday loan request, the researchers said their probability of taking out a pawn loan doubled."

 

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Toxic Toy Tests Show High Chemical Contamination

Ecology Center's research show one in three toys are potential threats

Toxic Toy Tests Show High Chemical Contamination...


Tests on more than 1,500 popular toys reveal one in three contain "medium" or "high" levels of chemicals that could pose a threat to children.

And at least 20 percent of the toys tested by the Michigan-based Ecology Center contained lead — some with levels well about the 600 parts-per-million (ppm) federal recall standard used for lead paint.

Researchers at the non-profit Ecology Center tested the toys for such chemicals as lead, arsenic, and other harmful chemicals just in time for this year's holiday shopping season.

This is the second year in a row the center has tested toys for toxins that are associated with developmental and learning disabilities, reproductive problems, and cancer.

While these latest results may frighten parents — who haven't forgotten the millions of lead-tainted toys recalled last year — the tests actually show some signs of improvement.

"This is a good news, bad news story," the center's Jeff Gearhart told us today. "We did find 50 percent fewer toys (this year) with lead of over 600 ppm. Overall, we saw a reduction in the number of products of high concern.

"It's also good news that two-thirds of the products tested had lower or no detectable levels of chemicals," he added. "So we're trending in the right direction. But we're not ready to declare victory. There are still far too many toys out there with chemicals in them and this is still a significant issue."

Consider some of the center's findings:

Lead is still a problem: Twenty-percent of the toys tested contained lead, including 54 products (3.5 percent) that exceeded the current 600 ppm recall threshold for lead-based paint. Disney's Hannah Montana "2 Hearts and HM graphic Necklace," for example, contained 406,510 ppm of lead. Lead level above 600 (ppm) will exceed the new legal limit set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which take effect in February. That means some of the toys on the shelf this holiday season would be illegal to sell two months from now, the center said. Health experts say lead can cause irreversible developmental and nervous system problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 40 ppm of lead as the maximum allowed in children's products;

China's not the only problem: The center's tests did not find a consistent link between the country where a toy was manufactured and the presence of toxic chemicals. Its tests revealed 21 percent of toys from China and 16 percent of toys from all other countries had detectable levels of lead. Seventeen toys made in the U.S. were tested and 35 percent of those had detectable levels of lead. Two of those toys had levels above 600 ppm. A US-made Halloween pumpkin pin contained 190,943 ppm of lead;

Lead isn't the only chemical: A significant number of toys contained other chemicals, including cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and bromine. Forty-five (2.9 percent) products contained bromine at concentrations of 1,000 ppm or higher. "This indicates the likely use of brominated flame retardants — chemicals that may pose hazards to children's health," the center said. Tests also found arsenic at levels greater than 100 ppm in 22 (1.4 percent) toys; 289 (18.9 percent) toys contained detectable levels of arsenic. Cadmium was also detected in levels above 100ppm in 30 (1.9 percent) toys; 38 (2.4 percent) contained detectable levels of cadmium. And mercury was found in levels higher than 100 ppm in 14 (1 percent) toys; 62 (4.2%) contained detectable levels of mercury;

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC / Vinyl) in toys: Twenty-seven percent of the toys tested (excluding jewelry) were made with PVC. The center says PVC may contain additives, including phthalates, that may pose hazards;

Jewelry Problems: Jewelry remains the most contaminated product category tested and tops the center's "worst" list. Children's jewelry is five-times more likely to contain lead above 600 ppm than other products, the center found. Fifteen percent of the jewelry tested (compared to 3 percent of other products) had lead levels above 600 ppm. "Overall, jewelry is twice as likely to contain detectable levels of lead as other products," the center said. "Numerous Hannah Montana brand jewelry items tested high for lead." The center now recommends that consumers avoid buying low cost children's jewelry.

Despite these grim findings, there is still some positive news for consumers.

The Center's tests, for example, found 62 percent (954) of the toys contained low levels of chemicals.

And 21 percent (324) of all products contained no chemicals of concern. Some of the center's "best toys" include the Autobot Classic Series: Red Alert and Hot Shot Transformers and Hasbro's Luke Skywalker & R2-D2 Star Wars figures.

"These products look and feel no different than other children's products on the shelf," the center said. "These findings show that manufacturers can and should make toys free of unnecessary toxic chemicals."

The Center used a portable X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer to test the toys. This identifies the elemental composition of materials on or near the surface of the toys.

The Center's started testing toys last year in response to parents' overwhelming demand for information about toxic chemicals in toys.

Parents can now go to the center's Web site and find the test results on any of the toys tested.

"Our Web site is designed as a tool to get more information to parents who are looking at toys," said Gearhart, who spearheaded the project. "It's a way to give them a snapshot of what's in a product they're buying."

Besides educating parents, Gearhart said his organization also hopes to "fire up" consumers and get them interested in changing how these products are regulated.

"What consumers are finding out is that the regulatory structure now in place isn't adequate to assure that our products are safe."

"There is simply no place for toxic chemicals in children's toys," he added. Our hope is that by empowering consumers with this information, manufacturers and lawmakers will feel the pressure to start phasing out the most harmful substances immediately, and to change the nation's laws to protect children from highly toxic chemicals."



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Capital One Buys Cash-Rich Chevy Chase Bank

Deal gives Cap One branches, ATMs and hordes of cash

"Chevy Chase provides an opportunity to acquire a well-run retail bank with local scale in one of the best local banking markets in the U.S."...


Capital One Financial Corp. is buying Chevy Chase Bankfor $520 million, gaining the No. 1 position in the Washington, D.C., market and — not coincidentally — giving it control of Chevy Chase's $11 billion in deposits.

Capital One said Chevy Chase's cash cache will help it ride out the deepening recession, along with the $3.6 billion Capital One expects to get from the taxpayer-financed bank rescue program. CitiGroup had also been bidding on Chevy Chase.

While it's not the Washington Monument, Chevy Chase is regarded as a monument in the Washington area. Founded 39 years ago by B.F. Saul, Chevy Chase is still controlled by Saul's family. The Saul family has turned aside would-be buyers for years but the bank now faces massive losses on its portfolio of risky home loans made to borrowers during the housing bubble, making Capital One's offer hard to pass up.

Chevy Chase is based in — no, not Chevy Chase — Bethesda, Md. It has been one of the leading mortgage lenders in the always-hot Washington area real estate market, pumping billions of dollars into suburbs that have spread their tentacles through the rolling hills of Virginia and Maryland, fueled by the growth of the federal government and its high-tech contractors.

In 1994, the federal government accused Chevy Chase of redlining inner-city D.C. neighborhoods. The bank denied any wrongdoing but paid $11 million to settle the charges.

Chevy Chase has nearly identical white-columned bank branches in just about every shopping center in D.C. and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs and in many supermarkets in the region. Newcomers complain they can't find their way around because every corner has a Chevy Chase bank or two, making it look like every other corner.

The acquisition gives Capital One, based in McLean, Va., the largest network of branches and ATMs in the Washington area. Most of its current branches are in New York, New Jersey, Texas and Louisiana.

"Chevy Chase is a great strategic fit for Capital One, and the combination of our two banks is economically compelling," Richard D. Fairbank, chairman and chief executive of Capital One, said in a statement. "Chevy Chase provides an opportunity to acquire a well-run retail bank with local scale in one of the best local banking markets in the U.S."

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$140 Million Settlement in Asbestos Insulation Class Action

Zonolite installed in up to 35 million U.S. homes

$140 Million Settlement in Asbestos Insulation Class Action...

Got asbestos in your attic? Many homes do and, in a class action lawsuit tentative settlement, W.R. Grace & Co. has agreed to establish a $140 million fund to compensate homeowners who have been unknowingly exposed to the potentially deadly substance.

The settlement involves Zonolite, asbestos-based insulation that was sold as a "do-it-yourself" product over a 60-year period. During that time, Zonolite was installed in thousands and thousands of American homes, potentially putting the installer and the residents at risk.

One estimate has put the number of homes containing Zonolite at 35 million.

W.R. Grace had prepared a warning label for Zonolite in the 1970s, cautioning that it could cause including asbestosis, lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma. Those who are exposed to asbestos, even on just one occasion, incur a greater risk of developing one of the diseases. But the warning label was never released. The company stopped selling Zonolite in 1984.

The settlement provides that those who used the product can be paid 55 percent of the amount of damages that they claimed in the suit. However, no one filing a claim will be eligible to receive more than $4,125.

Asbestos is a naturally-occuring but highly toxic substance. It was widely used as building insulation and as a fire retardant for decades researchers established the dangers associated with its use.

Facing a staggering number of claims, W.R. Grace filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001 over hundreds of thousands of asbestos-related claims. In April 2008, the company announced a settlement that could be worth $3 billion, which would likely place an end to thousands of lawsuits by those affected with asbestos exposure.

In addition to the Zonolite settlement, Grace has agreed to pay $250 million to clean up contamination in Libby, Montana, former site of an asbestos mine that supplied most of the asbestos used in Zonolite. Residents there have experienced an epidemic of lung disease.

Criminal charges are pending against some current and former Grace executives allegedly involved in the Libby operation.

A Delaware bankruptcy court must give final approval to the settlement.

About abestos

Asbestos has been used in a wide variety of building materials, including insulation products, siding, cements, flooring, and roofing. Once installed, it is generally regarded as safe unless it is damaged or disturbed, which can release asbestos fibers into the air. Inhaling the microscopic fibers can cause several types of cancer and lung disease.

The Environmental Working Group reports that an estimated 10,000 Americans pass away each year from an asbestos-related cancer. Those most at risk include plumbers, joiners, electricians, construction workers, and other maintenance workers.

Mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, heart, or abdomen, is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. But because of an exceptionally long latency period, symptoms may not appear for 20 years or more, delaying diagnosis and severely reducing the chance of survival.

 



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Lawsuit Seeks Immediate Ban on Toxic Toys

Safety agency looks other way as phthalate-laden toys remain on shelves

Lawsuit Seeks Immediate Ban on Toxic Toys...


The Natural Resources Defense Council and Public Citizen today sued the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to keep unsafe childrens toys and childcare products, laden with harmful chemicals called phthalates, off store shelves this winter.

This lawsuit follows a recent decision by the CPSC to create a loophole in the congressionally mandated ban that is effective Feb. 10, 2009. The loophole allows retailers to stockpile and continue selling dangerous products as long as they were manufactured before the ban date. NRDC and Public Citizen filed the suit against the CPSC in federal court in New York.

"The Consumer Product Safety Commission is ignoring the will of Congress and threatening our childrens health," said Dr. Sarah Janssen, NRDC scientist. "Overwhelming evidence led Congress to ban these toys, a ban that some retailers have already started to adopt. The CPSC decision completely undermines those efforts by allowing banned toys to sit on the same shelves as the safe ones."

"Parents want to know that the toys theyre purchasing are safe - its not too much to ask," Janssen said. "We cant allow CPSC to continue this confusion at the checkout aisle."

Phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastics in many common consumer products, including childrens toys. The chemicals are known to interfere with production of the hormone testosterone, and have been associated with reproductive abnormalities. Numerous animal studies have linked prenatal exposure to certain phthalates with decreases in testosterone, malformations of the genitalia, and reduced sperm production.

In response to heightened concern about risks to children from certain harmful phthalates and other chemicals in childrens products, Congress, by an overwhelming majority, passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which was signed into law by President Bush on August 14, 2008. This Act permanently bans the sale, after February 10, 2009, of toys and child care products that contain certain phthalates and lead. The final Senate vote for this ban was 89-3, and the final House vote was 424-1.

The law passed in the U.S. bans the same six phthalates that have been banned in European toys for nearly 10 years. Other countries, including Argentina, Japan, Israel and Mexico have also banned phthalates from childrens toys. Several major retailers have previously announced that, by the end of 2008, they would remove phthalate-containing toys from their stores.

Fast action

In a letter dated November 13, 2008, the law firm Arent Fox, on behalf of unidentified clients, asked the CPSC to only apply the U.S. ban to the production — and not the sale — of toys with phthalates.

In a legal opinion published only two business days later, on November 17, 2008, the CPSC General Counsel agreed. As a result, manufacturers can stockpile toys and child care products with the banned phthalates right up to the date of the ban, and then sell them to consumers long after the ban was supposed to go into effect.

"Selling millions of toxic toys to kids is not the way to dispose of them, as the law clearly states," said David Arkush, director of Public Citizens Congress Watch division which, along with NRDC, was heavily involved in lobbying Congress for stronger product safety rules. "Its not only immoral - its illegal. It is horrifying that the federal agency charged with protecting consumers is telling the industry it can dump chemical waste on toy-store shelves."

"Its the job of the CPSC to protect us from harmful products, yet they have done the exact opposite in this case - creating legal loopholes where they did not exist," said Aaron Colangelo, NRDC attorney. "Theyve strayed from their basic mandate to protect consumers."



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Class-Action Scam Threatens Consumers

Supposed lawsuit settlement is bogus

Consumer protection agencies in South Carolina are warning of a new under-handed scheme to separate you from your money. It's called the class-action scam....

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FTC Stiffens Requirements For Telemarketers

New rules give consumers more power to opt out

FTC Stiffens Requirements For Telemarketers...

The Do Not Call list has been effective in blocking most annoying telemarketing calls, but charitable groups are exempted. Now, new rules give consumers an option of opting out of future calls, even when they're recorded and placed by a machine.

The new federal rule requires that the opt-out must work both for consumers who answer these calls in person and for those whose answering machines or voicemail services receive the calls.

Under Do Not Call amendments adopted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)in August, any permitted recorded message must provide the called consumer with an interactive means to opt out of receiving future calls from the seller or fundraiser using the message. Moreover, the consumer must be able to opt out at any time while the message is playing by pressing a particular number or speaking a particular word.

Once the consumer has opted out, his or her phone number must be automatically added to the in-house Do Not Call list of the calling seller or fundraiser. Then the call immediately must be disconnected so that the consumer's line is cleared.

If the recorded telemarketing message is left on an answering machine or voicemail service, it must include a toll-free opt-out number that, when called, also connects to an automated voice or key-press opt-out mechanism. This will let consumers opt out at any hour of the day or night when they retrieve the message, without having to wait until the next business day to call.

All recorded telemarketing calls subject to the Commission's Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) must comply with the new requirements, including calls to solicit sales of goods or services and calls placed by telemarketers to solicit charitable donations.

Some calls delivering recorded messages, such as political calls, bona fide market survey calls, and calls made in-house by banks or telephone companies, are not covered by the new requirement, however, because the Commission lacks the legal authority to regulate them. Recorded healthcare messages covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 also are exempt from the new requirement.

The automated opt-out requirement is the first of two measures provided by the recent TSR amendment to protect consumers' privacy at home. The second measure prohibits telemarketing calls that deliver recorded messages to anyone who has not agreed in advance to receive such calls.

But until September 1, 2009, sellers may continue to use recorded messages in calling consumers with whom they have an established business relationship. After that date, sellers may use these messages only in calls to consumers who have expressly agreed in advance to receive them.

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Grant Scheme Targets Iowa College Students

Attorney General goes after counterfeit check scammers

Grant Scheme Targets Iowa College Students...

There are many variations of the counterfeit check scam, as criminals continually use trends and fads to trick victims into cashing phony checks.

As the economy has contracted and education expenses have soared, a new counterfeit check scam is targeting college students and their parents.

"We just received a copy of a letter and a check sent to an Iowa college student in a scam that could have cheated the student out of more than four thousand dollars," said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller.

The letter claimed to be from "Grant Prospect, Inc.," of Orlando, Florida, and it said the student had been approved for a grant of $50,000. "This Grant is not a loan and you are not expected to pay it back," the letter said, indicating the grant could be used "to pay tuition fees" or other expenses such as a down-payment on a home or medical expenses.

The letter also enclosed a check for $4,420.62 to be cashed and used "to pay for your Federal and State processing fees." The letter said a $40,000 certified check would be delivered to the student one to two days after the required fees had been paid.

"It's a very nasty scam," Miller said. "The student goes to the bank and cashes the check. The bank accepts the check and provides the cash, since it's such a good counterfeit. The student wires the money to the scammer. The counterfeit check bounces in a few days, but the money is already gone -- and the student is liable for it. And the scammer disappears," Miller said.

And, of course, the student gets no grant worth tens of thousands of dollars.

The counterfeit check scam is fairly common. Its purpose is to trick victims into cashing a counterfeit cashier's or corporate check, and wiring thousands of dollars to scammers -- never to be recovered.

Thousands of people have received counterfeit bank cashier's checks, corporate checks and even U.S. Postal money orders with some explanation for them receiving the check and needing to wire the money -- phony sweepstakes schemes, people selling products on-line, even an photographer being 'paid in advance' for doing wedding photography.

The "grant" letter to an Iowa student actually came from Montreal, Canada, according to its envelope, even though the letter itself said it was from Florida. Miller said scores of telemarketing and counterfeit check schemes have migrated to Canada; con-artists located there work their schemes in the U.S. The purported check was made to appear to be issued by Old World Industries, Inc., of Northbrook, IL.

The letter explained that the grants are sponsored by various corporate companies. The sponsors undertake to pay processing fees for winners in return for advertising space.

"There is always a story as to why they are sending you a check -- and asking you to wire money back to them," Miller said. "Wiring money is extremely dangerous. It usually can't be traced, perpetrators can't be caught, and victims are held liable for the money they received and sent away."

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Delta Cuts Flights in Slowing Economy

Airline struggling to fill passenger cabins

Delta Cuts Flights in Slowing Economy...

The economic downturn may be providing a break from high gasoline prices, but consumers are not benefiting in another transportation area -- air travel.

After being buffeted by sky-high fuel prices earlier this year, airlines are now struggling to fill passenger cabins because of a declining economy. As a result, Delta Airlines is making dramatic cuts in service.

Delta President Ed Bastian outlined the reductions in capacity in a memo to Delta employees Tuesday.

"System-wide 2009 capacity will be down six to eight percent year over year, Bastian said. "Domestic capacity will be down eight to ten percent and international capacity will be down approximately three to five percent. These numbers include the full impact of previously announced 2008 capacity reductions."

Speaking later at a conference in New York, Bastian noted that Delta is already cutting domestic flights by 12 percent this year. That means, over a two year period Delta will have reduced its domestic capacity by 20 percent.

Even with the economic recession, Bastian said Delta is achieving significant benefits from its recent merger with Northwest Airlines. Among those benefits is Northwest's large number of international routes, which are more profitable for airlines than domestic flights. Bastian says Delta must "take the necessary steps" to adjust to shifting demand in a harsh business climate.

"These economic hurdles are difficult, and we remain committed to building our company on a durable financial foundation with industry-leading liquidity," Bastian said.

 



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FBI Warns Holiday Shoppers to Avoid Online Crooks

Keep yourself safe from scammers while hunting bargains

If you're shopping online instead of at the malls this holiday season, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warns you to be wary of cybercriminals....

If you're shopping online instead of at the malls this holiday season, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warns you to be wary of cybercriminals.

FBI officials say these online crooks will aggressively try to steal your money and personal information during this busy shopping season.

Cybercriminals use several methods to dupe consumers, including sending electronic greeting cards that contain malware (malicious software), setting up spoof Web sites that look like legitimate ones, and unleashing phishing and vishing attacks where unsuspecting shoppers receive e-mails that ask for personal data.

"These cyber scammers will do whatever they can to steal your money and personal information this holiday season and are trying many different ways to commit these crimes," said Shawn Henry, Assistant Director, FBI Cyber Division in Washington, D.C. "The best way to protect yourself is to report these scams to law enforcement or the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)."

Here's how the various schemes work:

The Greeting Card Scam -- Consumers receive an e-mail about a card from a friend or family member. In most cases, the e-mail directs consumers to click on a link to view the e-card. Once consumers do that, they are unknowingly taken to a malicious Web page;

Spoofing Scams -- In these schemes, criminals create a false or shadow copy of a real Web site or e-mail that misleads consumers. All network traffic between the consumer's browser and the shadow page are sent through the spoofer's machine. This gives the spoofer access to the consumer's personal information, such as passwords, credit card numbers, and account numbers. FBI officials warn these e-mails look authentic. So do the spoof Web sites. In some instances, spoofers direct consumers to authentic Web sites and then pop up a window over the site that captures personal information. That information will likely be sold to criminals, who will use it to ruin consumers' credit and drain their accounts;

Phishing and Vishing Attacks -- In these scams, consumers often receive e-mails or text messages about a problem with their account. They are told to follow the link in the message and update their account. But that link takes unsuspecting consumers to a fraudulent Web site that looks legitimate. Consumers' personal information, such as account number and PIN, is then compromised. Some consumers say they have also received e-mails asking them to take an online survey. Once they finish, consumers are asked for personal account information supposedly so they can receive money for taking the survey. But sharing that information gives criminals access to their accounts.

Consumers can protect themselves from getting taken by cybercriminals by:

• Not responding to unsolicited (spam) e-mail;

• Not clicking on links in unsolicited e-mail;

• Being cautious of e-mails that contain pictures in attached files. Those files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders;

• Using caution when filling out forms in e-mail messages that ask for personal information;

• Always comparing the link in the e-mail to the one you are directed to;

• Logging on to the official Web site instead of "linking" to it from an unsolicited e-mail;

• Contacting the business that supposedly sent the e-mail. This way you can verify if the e-mail is legitimate.

Consumers who've lost money in a cyber scam--or received a suspicious e-mail--can file a complaint on the Internet Crime Complaint Center's Web site.

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Chinese Infant Death Toll from Tainted Formula Rises

Six infants dead, thousands sick from melamine

Chinese Infant Death Toll from Tainted Formula Rises...

The number of infants in China who have died from melamine-tainted milk powder has now climbed to six, according to news reports.

China's Health Ministry is also reporting that nearly 300,000 infants in the country have battled urinary problems after drinking tainted milk formula -- a nearly six-fold increase from figures Chinese officials quoted when the milk scandal broke in September.

Previously, officials said the contaminated formula has sickened 50,000 infants in that country.

"Most of the sickened children received outpatient treatment only for small amounts of sand-like kidney stones found in their urinary systems, while some patients had to be hospitalized for the illness," China's Health Ministry said in a written statement.

Four of the six infants who died after drinking the tainted formula lived in the providences of Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Guizhou and Shaanxi, officials said. The other two infants lived in the Gansu providence.

Officials say 861 infants continue to receive treatment for the kidney problems caused by melamine-tainted formula.

China's milk scandal is the worst food safety crisis the country has faced in years. It surfaced three months ago when officials discovered melamine -- a chemical used to make plastic and fertilizer -- in the powdered infant formula made in that country.

Authorities learned some Chinese dairy plants intentionally added melamine to milk products to make them appear to have higher protein levels.

Since then, scores of other dairy products sold around the world -- and in the U.S. -- have tested positive for melamine. Those products include eggs, chocolates, yogurt, and liquid milk.

Just a few days ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed it found traces of melamine in Good Start Supreme Infant Formula and traces of cyanuric acid in Enfamil LIPIL with iron.

The FDA, however, said the formulas were safe because of the low levels of those chemicals.

That announcement reversed the position the agency took less than two months ago when it said it would not allow any melamine in infant formula.

The FDA now says it will not allow both melamine and cyanuric acid--used to chlorinate pools--in infant formula.

Melamine and cyanuric acid became feared household words last year after the FDA discovered them in the Chinese-imported wheat gluten used to make pet food.

Thousands of pets in the United States became sick or died after eating the tainted pet food. Veterinarians say those chemicals can combine and form crystals in the animals' bodies, and those crystals can impair the animals' kidney function.

Doctors say melamine in humans can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney failure.

 

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FDA Warns Consumers Not to Buy Pet Turtles

Yellow-bellied sliders, map turtles may contain Salmonella risk

Turtles often carry Salmonella on their outer skin and shell surfaces, and people can get Salmonella infection by coming in contact with turtles or their h...

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Industry May Cut $2 Trillion in Credit Card Lines

Bad economy, risk aversion causes banks to pull back

Industry May Cut $2 Trillion in Credit Card Lines...

Credit cards have become as synonymous with America as baseball and apple pie--but those days may be coming to an end. According to one industry analyst, the financial industry may cut as much as $2 trillion in credit card account lines over the next 18 months in order to reduce risk of damage from increasing delinquencies and defaults.

"[W]e expect available consumer liquidity in the form of credit-card lines to decline by 45 percent," Oppenheimer & Co analyst Meredith Whitney told Reuters news service.

Whitney reported that all three of the remaining major banks--Bank of America, Citigroup, and JP Morgan Chase were planning or considering reducing credit lines across the board.

Whitney said that credit cards were the second source of liquidity available to consumers, behind wages from work. She criticized the banking industry for offering ever fewer choices at a time when consumers would need credit more than ever.

"Pulling credit when job losses are increasing by over 50 percent year-over-year in most key states is a dangerous and unprecedented combination, in our view," Whitney said.

A contraction in available consumer credit has been predicted for several months since the scope of the economic crisis became apparent. Banks and lenders, exposed to enormous potential defaults from the slumping housing market, began cutting back on credit card account lines while simultaneously raising interest rates, even for the best customers who paid on time and exhibited no risky behavior.

Banks and lenders' ability to change the terms of credit card agreements for any reason has shocked many cardholders, who saw their interest rates double or even triple in recent months despite good payment behavior.

Although the credit pullback has had the welcome side effect of reducing the number of credit card solicitations people get in their mailboxes, it still represents a potentially dangerous economic shock that could rival--or surpass--the slump born from the housing market.

Several studies have confirmed that Americans are cutting back on buying luxuries with credit cards, using them to buy necessities instead--and that more cardholders are having trouble keeping up with their payments.

Whitney recommended several solutions for the lending crisis, including a return to local lending and knowing customers' business histories, rather than relying on automated credit scoring systems.

The House of Representatives also passed a "Credit Cardholder's Bill of Rights" that would restrict particularly egregious billing and penalty traps last year in the waning days of Congress. The bill was put aside to focus on negotiations for the financial industry bailout, and no word has emerged as to when it will be taken up again.

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FDA Rolls Out Food Safety Plan

Agency touts accomplishments, sidesteps criticism for melamine response

FDA Rolls Out Food Safety Plan...

Under increasing criticism for its oversight of the nation's food supply, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a plan to better protect from accidental and intentional contamination.

The Food Protection Plan, which outlines strategies for prevention, intervention and response, is designed to address food safety and food defense for both domestic and imported products and covers the full lifecycle of food, by encouraging the building of safety into every step of the food supply chain, the agency said.

"Science and 21st century technologies help drive the FDA's efforts to transform our food safety efforts from the Food Protection Plan into a reality," said Commissioner of Food and Drugs Andrew C. von Eschenbach, M.D. "Every day, the FDA is working with foreign countries, state and local governments, regulated industry and consumer groups to ensure the safety of the food supply. We also continue to work with members of Congress to achieve new authorities requested in the Food Protection Plan."

The plan is designed to reassure the public and Congress that the FDA can reform itself to provide needed protections. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn), a frequent FDA critic, said she is trying to keep an open mind, but remains skeptical about the agency.

"It's got to be so totally redone," DeLauro told the New York Times. "It needs resources; it needs better management; it needs less influence from the industry and more influence on the science."

In addition to revealing its plan, the FDA also listed what it called the agency's accomplishments in implementing the Food Protection Plan's three core strategies: prevention, intervention, and response.

Among the accomplishments the agency cited in its report:

Establishing offices in China, India, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East -- all regions that export food and other FDA-regulated products to the United States. The FDA has hired staff in China and India and its officials were part of a U.S. delegation to China to address food safety issues, including the melamine contamination of dairy products in China;

• Releasing its CARVER self-assessment tool to minimize the risk of intentional contamination of food;

• Meeting with more than 200 federal, state, local, tribal and territorial partners to address ways to protect the nation's food supply;

• Hiring an International Notification Coordinator to manage information exchanges between the FDA and its foreign counterparts;

• Approving the use of irradiation of iceberg lettuce and spinach to control pathogens, such as E-coli;

• Developing methods to detect melamine and cyanuric acid in feed and feed ingredients;

• Using genetic analysis to identify hundreds of Salmonella strains from seafood imports;

• Inspecting 5,930 high-risk domestic food establishments;

• Developing a rapid detection method to identify E. coli and Salmonella in food. This is now used in poultry-processing facilities to detect and prevent bacterial contamination during food processing;

• Expanding its database to include adverse feed events. This means the FDA can respond faster to outbreaks of feedborne disease in animals, contamination episodes, and/or product defects;

• Working with industry and the public to identify ways to trace fresh produce throughout the supply chain;

• Hiring two emergency /complaint-response coordinators to improve its response to emergencies that involve animal feed, including pet food;

• Working with state and local officials to inspect more than 2,100 stores for Chinese infant formula contaminated with melamine;

"Continued dysfunction"

After reports from China of melamine-contaminated infant formula, the FDA worked with its state and local counterparts to quickly canvas over 2,100 Asian markets to remove any infant formula from China that might be available and to sample milk-derived products to check for melamine contamination.

Many U.S. consumers are fearful about melamine and cyanuric acid contamination in products imported from China.

Just a few days ago, the FDA confirmed it found traces of melamine in Good Start Supreme Infant Formula and traces of cyanuric acid in Enfamil LIPIL with iron.

The FDA, however, said the formulas were safe because of the low levels of those chemicals.

That announcement reversed the position the agency took less than two months ago when it said it would not allow any melamine in infant formula.

This latest discovery comes just months after Chinese officials blamed melamine-tainted infant formula for the deaths of four babies in that country and the illnesses of 53,000 others.

Melamine and cyanuric acid are also the chemicals blamed for the 2007 pet food recall -- the largest in U.S. history.Thousands of dogs and cats became sick or died after eating pet food made with tainted wheat gluten imported from China.

But FDA officials say they have--since the agency first outlined its Food Protection Plan in November 2007--made significant strides to protect the country's food supply.

Today's report, however, doesn't appease all the FDA's critics.

"I've tried to be open about when they come in and say they are doing this and doing that," DeLauro said. "But at every step, they fail on just such a large scale."

DeLauro said the FDA's position on melamine in infant formula--first stating it would allow none and then saying trace amounts were not harmful--illustrates what she calls the agency's "continued dysfunction."

"Reactive, not proactive"

Today's report also did little to change consumer Carol V.'s opinion of the FDA. This Rhode Island woman has been leery of the agency since her two cats became gravely ill last year after eating Special Kitty food tainted with acetaminophen. Last December, she made the tough decision to euthanize one of her beloved cats.

"My lack of confidence in the FDA that first happened in March 2007 due to the pet food crisis has not been alleviated by reading this report and also by the absence of the implementation of the FDAAA," Carol told us today. "I see where the FDA has held meetings and set up offices, yet we are still seeing problems as recent as this month with the again expanded salmonella recall with Mars Pet Foods to the discovery of melamine and cyanuric acid in US made baby formula.

"I still see a reactive FDA, not a proactive FDA," she added. "I see nothing in this article making it a greater risk than benefit to adulterate foodstuffs. I see no immediate ability to track our food supply in the US or abroad. The few offices being set up abroad can not possibly control the foodstuffs coming into our country."

Carol said she is still worried about the safety of the U.S. food supply.

"I am afraid. Because I was affected by the importing of a contaminant I am especially concerned that I do not see any increase in inspections of imports or detention of suspected imports. I truly see a lot of words but little true action. I do not see the hugely ambitious plan that I was hoping to see."

 


 

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Travel Operator Accused Of Selling Phony Trips

Company sold $900,000 worth of trips never booked

Travel Operator Accused Of Selling Phony Trips...

A Western New York travel company owner is under arrest for allegedly selling more than $90,000 in cruise packages to non-profits and other organizations and then never booking their trips.

Joseph Ehrenreich, owner of Destination Management Group of Buffalo, allegedly stole more than $90,000 in payments from more than 20 consumers, businesses and non-profits for cruises he never booked.

He was arrested and charged with one count of scheme to defraud in the first degree, 10 counts of grand larceny in the third degree and 10 counts of grand larceny in the fourth degree. The top charge carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.

Many of the victims of Ehrenreich's alleged scam were volunteers, employees, and supporters of area non-profits, including the Hospice and Palliative Care Group of Niagara County, the Meals on Wheels Foundation of Western New York and the Beechwood/Blocher Foundation.

"Non-profit organizations that provide essential services to our communities have to scrape for every dollar -- especially in these tough economic times," said New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. "This individual allegedly preyed upon these organizations and their generous donors with fraudulent offers -- any such conduct would be an affront to the unsparing manner in which kind-hearted individuals give to worthwhile causes every day."

According to the felony complaint, Destination Management Group offered businesses and other organizations a program where they could pay to have unlimited access to cruise vouchers. The client organizations- many of them cash-strapped non-profits -- would then distribute the vouchers as fundraising tools, marketing incentives or employee rewards.

Ehrenreich allegedly claimed he would handle all the travel arrangements for the vouchers, citing his extensive relationships with major cruise lines and his memberships with the International Airlines Travel Agents Network and the Cruise Lines International Association. In fact, he was not affiliated with ether association.

Popular cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Holland and Carnival, all deny having any relationship with DMG or Ehrenreich and indicated that the invoice confirmation numbers he used were fictitious. IATAN also confirmed that neither Ehrenreich nor DMG were accredited by them.

According to the complaint, those who received the vouchers from the client organizations would contact and/or meet with Ehrenreich to discuss the logistics of the cruise of choice. He often persuaded the consumers to upgrade their vouchers, costing thousands of dollars more in additional charges. Ehrenreich would allegedly require consumers to make immediate payment by check or cash to "hold" the reservation -- he would not accept credit card payments. After receiving payment, Ehrenreich would issue an invoice with phony cruise line confirmation and IATAN accreditation codes.

However, the complaint alleges that consumers who called the cruise lines to confirm their reservations or check the status of the cruises then found out that Ehrenreich never booked any of the cruises and kept the payments. Cuomo said many learned that their cruises were never booked when Ehrenreich filed for bankruptcy. In some cases, when consumers became suspicious, Ehrenreich attempted to conceal his theft by obtaining their credit card information and then using it to purchase trips for which they had already paid.

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Some Melamine in Infant Formula is OK, FDA Says

Agency reverses course after declaring chemical unsafe

Some Melamine in Infant Formula is OK, FDA Says...

Within days of disclosing that it had found the chemical melamine in some U.S. infant formula, the Food and Drug Administration said trace amounts of the substance in baby food is acceptable.

That's at odds with the agency's declaration less than two months ago that it would allow no melamine in infant formula. All other food, it said, could have up to 2.5 parts per million of the substance without causing harm.

The FDA now says it has concluded that "levels of melamine alone, or cyanuric acid alone, at or below one part per million in infant formula, do not raise public health concerns."

Last week the agency said it had found trace amounts of the substance in Good Start Supreme Infant Formula with iron, made by Nestle. Trace amounts of cyanuric acid were found in Infant Formula Powder, Enfamil LIPIL with Iron, from Mead Johnson Nutritionals, a subsidiary of Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Melamine is a chemical approved for use in production of some plastics in the U.S., but is not approved for use in food. It has shown up in food products imported from China with some frequency, causing numerous pet injuries and deaths in 2007, and prompting recalls of some milk products this year. Over the summer a number of Chinese babies were killed or injured after drinking infant formula containing melamine, but the affected brands were not imported into the U.S.

The FDA's Stephen Sundlof, head of the food safety division, says the agency draws a distinction between food products containing trace amounts of melamine and products containing trace amounts of cyanuric acid, a melamine by-product.

Separately, he says, trace amounts of the chemicals cause no harm. However, when the two chemicals are combined they cause crystals that can lead to kidney damage. No amounts of the two chemicals together, he said, will be allowed in infant formula.

 

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