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    Obama Promises to "Renew Information Superhighway"

    Broadband expansion included as part of public works program

    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."

    Obama Promises to ...
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    Know Your Needs to Choose the Right Laptop

    Not all laptops are alike, a veteran reviewer notes

    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 ...


    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.

    Know Your Needs to Choose the Right Laptop...
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    Gas Prices at 2005 Levels

    National average drops to $1.77 a gallon

    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.

    Gas Prices at 2005 Levels...
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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 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."

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

      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....
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      Toxic Toy Tests Show High Chemical Contamination

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

      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."

      Toxic Toy Tests Show High Chemical Contamination...
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      $140 Million Settlement in Asbestos Insulation Class Action

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

      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.

      $140 Million Settlement in Asbestos Insulation Class Action...
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      Capital One Buys Cash-Rich Chevy Chase Bank

      Deal gives Cap One branches, ATMs and hordes of cash

      Capital One Financial Corp. is buying Chevy Chase Bank for $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."

      More about ...

      Capital One

      "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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      Lawsuit Seeks Immediate Ban on Toxic Toys

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

      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."

      Lawsuit Seeks Immediate Ban on Toxic Toys...
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      FTC Stiffens Requirements For Telemarketers

      New rules give consumers more power to opt out

      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.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      FTC Stiffens Requirements For Telemarketers...
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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...

      Grant Scheme Targets Iowa College Students

      Attorney General goes after counterfeit check scammers

      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."

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Grant Scheme Targets Iowa College Students...
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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.

      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.

      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....
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      Delta Cuts Flights in Slowing Economy

      Airline struggling to fill passenger cabins

      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.

      Delta Cuts Flights in Slowing Economy...
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      Chinese Infant Death Toll from Tainted Formula Rises

      Six infants dead, thousands sick from melamine

      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.

      Chinese Infant Death Toll from Tainted Formula Rises...
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      Some Melamine in Infant Formula is OK, FDA Says

      Agency reverses course after declaring chemical unsafe

      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.

      Some Melamine in Infant Formula is OK, FDA Says...
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      Travel Operator Accused Of Selling Phony Trips

      Company sold $900,000 worth of trips never booked

      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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      Travel Operator Accused Of Selling Phony Trips...
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      Industry May Cut $2 Trillion in Credit Card Lines

      Bad economy, risk aversion causes banks to pull back

      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.

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