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Toshiba Settles TV Lamp Suit

Bulbs failed much sooner than expected

A new bulb typically runs about $300, and with installation costs, consumers can expect to fork over about $500 every time the bulb is replaced....

A final settlement has been approved for a class action lawsuit alleging that the lamps on certain Toshiba television models failed prematurely, leaving consumers with a useless box sitting in their living room and forced to wait months for a replacement lamp whose cost ran into the hundreds of dollars.

Customers who bought Toshiba DLP sets quickly discovered that the rear-mounted bulb kept burning out, no matter how often it was replaced. The lawsuit alleged that the bulbs, which cost hundreds of dollars apiece, suffered from a systemic defect. It also alleges that Toshiba knowingly misrepresented the bulbs expected lifespan to consumers.

The action, originally filed in 2007 by the Mason Law Firm, LLP, alleged counts of breach of express and implied warranties, as well as counts under a consumer protection law.

Under the settlement, class members will be reimbursed for the cost of bulbs that failed during their useful service life, and the six-month warranty on replacement bulbs has been lengthened to twelve months.

DLP televisions utilize one of several new technologies, competing with plasma and liquid crystal (LCD) sets for consumer attention. DLP, which stands for digital light processing, uses a rear-mounted lamp to project the image onto the screen. The technology is less advanced than that used by plasma and LCD TVs; as a result, the sets are typically bulkier and offer somewhat inferior picture quality, but are less expensive and thus a more attractive option for middle-class households.

DLP sets are also theoretically known for their relative longevity, since plasmas and LCD sets degrade over time. However, the bulb issues surprised consumers who thought they were buying a long-term investment for their living rooms.

Toshiba originally estimated the bulb would last 8,000 hours under optimal conditions. As the problem surfaced, however, customers commonly complained that their bulb burned out after 300 hours or only two months of use, on average.

A new bulb typically runs about $300, and with installation costs, consumers can expect to fork over about $500 every time the bulb is replaced. Many customers complained of having to wait months for a replacement lamp to arrive, and several were told that Toshiba was only willing to replace the lamp once.

In a statement, Gary Rosen, the plaintiffs lead attorney, said, This settlement accomplishes precisely what we sought to achieve when filing this litigation. It fully addresses the complaints of class members who reasonably expected their high-end DLP televisions to last several years without the need to purchase costly replacement parts.

While the settlement is no doubt a welcome relief for consumers who have spent hundreds or even thousands to avoid missing the next installment of American Idol, customers may again find themselves out in the cold once the extended warranty runs out, as the settlement makes no mention of a bulb redesign.

Approximately 265,000 Americans are members of the class, and the total settlement is valued at over $1 million. Class members consist of anyone who purchased a 2004 or 2005 Toshiba DLP set between January 1, 2004, and September 18, 2008. Class members warranties will automatically be extended to twelve months, regardless of whether they file a claim form.

However, to receive a refund for previously-purchased bulbs or to receive a free replacement bulb, class members must submit a claim form within 90 days of the final settlement approval. Those who believe that may be entitled to recovery can fill out a claim form at the suits settlement website.

 

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Senate Bill Would Rein in Payday Lenders

Proposed legislation would cap interest rates

Senate Bill Would Rein in Payday Lenders...

While much of Washington is focused on President Obama's hugely ambitious budget, another measure has given hope to opponents of payday lending. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has proposed a cap on consumer interest rates at 36 percent APR.

In 2006, at the urging of the U.S. Defense Department, Congress enacted an almost identical cap on loans made to active members of the military. The Pentagon complained that men and women in uniform were being victimized by payday lenders' debt spiral.

The measure has the support of the Center for Responsible Lending, which says the cap would stop abuses by payday and car-title lenders at a time when keeping as much cash as possible in the hands of borrowers is crucial to restoring health to the U.S. economy. And it says the law would apply to credit products over which states have no jurisdiction.

"A 36 percent cap on annual interest for consumer credit is a quick, common-sense way to restore protections that have been severely compromised in the consumer credit market," said CRL president Michael Calhoun. "It would cost taxpayers nothing and plug a $5 billion hole in the wallets of working families."

The measure would not affect loans with reasonable interest rates and other manageable terms but would eliminate products that rely on extremely high rates — some carry 400 percent annual interest and higher — and trap consumers in debt they cannot afford.

Ohio, Arkansas, New Hampshire, and Arizona are among states that recently revoked legal exemptions from usury caps their lawmakers once gave payday lenders. CRL says state lawmakers reimposed the usury cap after seeing firsthand the harm payday lending inflicts on borrowers, who typically can't escape quickly from such high-cost debt.

But 35 states have yet to pass reforms that stop such practices.

Payday loans are marketed as an advance on a borrower's next paycheck, but critics charge the terms of these small loans are designed to keep borrowers paying high interest payments over long periods of time without paying off the loan or even paying down the principal.

The federal measure would give all citizens an equal measure of protection but also would allow state lawmakers to set even stronger protections if they deemed it necessary. Arkansas limits interest to 17 percent within its state constitution, New York makes interest above 25 percent a criminal offense, and Ohio passed a 28 percent cap last year, which was affirmed by voters in a ballot measure in November. A federal cap would not alter these state protections.

"Recent research links predatory products like payday lending to bankruptcy, closed bank accounts, credit card delinquency and a long list of other financial hardships," said Calhoun. "There is really no excuse for failing to stop these abuses now, for the sake of working families across the nation, and for the sake of our economic stability. We see where lax consumer protections led us in the mortgage market. We should learn from that hard-taught lesson."

 

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Seniors More Vulnerable to Diarrhea

The Healthy Geezer

Rosacea (roh-ZAY-shee-uh) is a chronic skin disease that causes redness and swelling. It usually affects the face. It can also strike the scalp, neck, ears...

By Fred Cicetti

February 27, 2009
Q. I seem to get diarrhea more often now than I used to when I was younger. Any ideas why?

Before I offer you some general information about diarrhea, I urge you to see a doctor for a diagnosis. As I tell everyone who writes to me, I'm a journalist, not a physician.

Diarrhea is caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, certain foods, medicines and diseases. Diarrhea is a common malady that usually lasts a day or two and goes away without treatment.

Here's a question for you. Ever notice how often diarrhea is mentioned as a side effect in the package inserts for medicines?

Seniors often get diarrhea from medicine. This is a complex subject.

The first issue is that seniors take a lot more medicine than younger people. The average older person takes more than four prescription drugs and two over-the-counter drugs daily. The high intake of medicine increases the odds that one or more of these medicines could give you diarrhea.

Older people have more health problems, and these add to the mix of potential causes of diarrhea. Older bodies process drugs slowly so that they tend to stay in our bodies longer. And some drugs work differently on older people.

Then there are the problems of drug-drug interactions and overdoses because we take so much medicine and retain it our systems.

Diarrhea can be much more than an inconvenience. Diarrhea causes dehydration, which can be lethal to older people. With the fluid you lose from diarrhea, you also lose salts that your body needs. Diarrhea can make a victim pass more than a quart of watery stools a day.

Dehydration symptoms include thirst, reduced urination, dark urine, dry skin, fatigue, dizziness, fainting.

You should see a doctor if your diarrhea lasts more than 3 days, or if you have dehydration symptoms, severe abdominal or rectal pain, a fever of 102F or higher, or blood in your stools.

In many cases of diarrhea, the only treatment needed is replacing lost fluid and salts. Adults should consume broth, non-citrus fruit juices, flat ginger ale and ice pops.

As your condition improves, you can start eating bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, cooked carrots. Smaller meals are recommended because they're easier to digest.

When you have diarrhea, avoid dairy products, fat, high-fiber foods, sweets, spicy foods, carbonated beverages, chewing gum, caffeine, and any food or beverage that is hot.

It is common to get diarrhea when visiting a foreign country. It's so common that the medical community has a name for it: traveler's diarrhea.

The following are some tips for avoiding diarrhea away from home.

DON'T...

• Drink tap water

• Use ice cubes made from tap water.

• Drink unpasteurized milk or dairy products made from it.

• Eat raw fruits and vegetables

• Eat meat or fish unless it is well-cooked and served hot

• Eat food sold by street vendors.

All Rights Reserved © 2008 by Fred Cicetti



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Virginia Considers Measure Aimed At Payday Lenders

Lawmakers vote to close loophole enabling high-cost loans

Virginia Considers Measure Aimed At Payday Lenders...

The Virginia General Assembly appears to be ready to take more action against payday lenders in the state.

Lawmakers Wednesday voted to close a loophole, outlawing payday lenders from offering open-ended loans, which can have astronomical interest rates and are currently unregulated. Payday lenders began offering these open-ended loans last year after the legislature placed restrictions on traditional payday loans, which are usually for a term of two to four weeks.

In the Virginia Senate, Republicans joined Democrats to unanimously pass the measure. It would also prevent these lenders from making payday loans for 10 years if they abandon their licenses so that they could offer open-ended loans.

Leaders in the House say they also expect the measure to pass their chamber. Gov. Timothy Kaine is expected to sign it, though a spokesman declined to definitively say he would.

Under the open-ended credit law, payday lenders were able to charge any rate they want as long as they charge nothing for the first 25 days.

Very few payday lenders are expected to give up their licenses for the chance to continue making open-ended loans. Even with the restrictions, most find business to be highly profitable.

A payday loan is a short-term loan obtained when a borrower writes a check dated in the future. To get a loan, a borrower must show the payday lender a pay stub and then write the lender a check for the cash loan. The check is usually made out for a later date — often one month and one day after the date of the loan. The lender gives the borrower cash in return, but for an amount less than the value of the check.

The difference between the amount for which the consumer writes the check and the amount the consumer is paid in cash is the lender's profit, or finance charge. Payday lenders often charge between $15 and $50 for every $90 borrowed, which only covers the few short weeks of the loan term. After that, the consumer must pay the lender back or pay the lender even more in finance charges.

Most of the time, a consumer doesn't have the funds in his or her checking account to cover the post-dated check when it is written, and may not have the funds when it comes time for the check to be cashed. When payment comes due, if consumers cant cover the check, they are often encouraged to roll the overdue loan into a new loan, incurring new fees and increasing the amount of the loan. This loan "flipping" easily can lead to the consumer using most or all of the money borrowed to pay the lender's costly fees.

 

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Congress Takes Up Boomer Retirement Woes

Many boomers having second thoughts about retiring

Congress Takes Up Boomer Retirement Woes...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

February 26, 2009
The Senate Special Committee on Aging is looking into 401(k) target-date funds, with some members calling for new protections for account holders.

At a hearing Wednesday, witnesses offered insight into the myriad factors that are affecting the ability of baby boomers to retire, including the weakened performance of 401(k) funds, the instability of housing values, and the challenges of the labor market for older workers, all of which are contributing to diminished prospects for a secure retirement.

The panel took a particularly close look at 401(k) target-date funds, which are designed to gradually shift to more conservative investments as workers approach retirement. Committee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-WI) also unveiled findings from a Committee investigation of 401(k) funds designed for people planning to retire in 2010, which revealed a wide variety of objectives, portfolio composition and risk within same-year target-date funds.

They heard about the dangers excessive risk can pose for those on the brink of retirement: one 2010 target-date fund lost 41 percent in 2008. In conjunction with the hearing, Kohl sent letters to U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary Schapiro, urging them to immediately begin a review of target date funds and begin work on regulations to protect plan participants.

Despite their growing popularity, there are absolutely no regulations regarding the composition of target date funds, said Kohl. With more and more Americans relying on 401(k)s and other defined contribution plans as their primary source for retirement savings, we need to make sure their savings are well-protected with strong oversight and regulation.

Target-date funds are designed to simplify long-term investing by automatically adjusting to more conservative investments as the fund approaches a set date. By authority of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor has issued regulations allowing target-date funds to be used as a qualified default investment alternative in employer-sponsored retirement plans.

However, under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and DOL guidelines, there are no requirements regarding the composition of target date funds and the appropriate ratio of stocks and bonds as the fund nears its target.

As a result of the decision to allow target-date funds to be used as QDIAs, they are increasingly used as the primary investment option for millions of Americans. Target date funds only made up roughly three percent of defined contribution savings in 2006, but are expected to increase to 20 percent in 2010. By 2015, it is expected that more than one-third of all defined contribution savings will be in target date funds.

A recent study found that more than half of affluent 60-year-olds are revamping their retirement plans.

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Anti-Aging Becomes Top Facial Skincare Seller in 2008

Times may be bad, but that doesn't mean you have to look bad

Anti-Aging Becomes Top Facial Skincare Seller in 2008...

February 26, 2009
A new report from market research firm Mintel finds Americans are pouring more money into the fountain of youth known as anti-aging skincare.

During 2008, sales of anti-aging skincare products rose to over $1.6 billion. In fact, anti-aging sales have surpassed sales of facial cleansers, which garnered nearly $570 million last year.

The market for anti-aging skincare has grown rapidly over the past couple years. US sales rose 13 percent from 2006 to 2008, outpacing general facial skincare sales, which grew less than 11 percent. Mintel expects the market to remain robust over the next five years, growing some 20 percent through 2013.

"Anti-aging won't fall to the recession," said Kat Fay, senior beauty and personal care product analyst at Mintel. "Looking young is extremely important to many women, especially Baby Boomers, and it's not an issue they're willing to compromise on because of tightened budgets. Many women see anti-aging skincare as a reasonably priced investment in their appearance and well-being."

According to Mintel's Global New Products Database, nearly a third of US facial skincare product launches tracked in 2008 boasted anti-aging claims. Globally, one in four included such claims.

"Manufacturers see the growing demand for anti-aging benefits and they're responding accordingly with a constant flow of new products. The latest launches are more detailed and scientific in their claims, ingredients and projected benefits," said Fay.

Mintel Beauty Innovation, which monitors new beauty and personal care product launches globally, has seen recent advancements in the science and marketing of anti-aging skincare.

Sirtuins are a new area of activity: these naturally occurring enzymes are thought to boost cell longevity and therefore, provide anti-aging benefits.

For example, Natura Biss's premium skincare product, The Cure, contains peptides that modulate sirtuins. It claims to prevent premature aging and wrinkles. Este Lauder's new Time Zone Line and Wrinkle Reducing Creme likewise boasts "Sirtuin EX1 Technology" and claims to stimulate proteins for a more youthful look.

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Florida Court Blocks Loan Modification Company's Fees

Order prevents charging of up-front payments to help homeowners

Florida Court Blocks Loan Modification Company's Fees...

A Florida court has issued an order temporarily prohibiting an Orlando loan modification company from charging up-front fees to homeowners for its services.

According to the order issued by the Orange County Circuit Court, FMA Servicing, Inc. is barred from charging homeowners any fee in advance of providing loan modification services. FMA Servicing must comply with written notice requirements contained in the Foreclosure Rescue Fraud Prevention Act.

Attorney General Bill McCollum's Economic Crimes Division opened its investigation into FMA Servicing in December and filed a lawsuit against the company earlier this month.

The investigation revealed FMA Servicing, which does business under the name Financial Management Advisors, charges an up-front fee as high as $2,500 to homeowners seeking loan modification services.

The company subsequently refused to change its business practices even after receiving notification of the Foreclosure Fraud Rescue Prevention Act, which took effect on October 1, 2008.

The lawsuit charges violations of the Foreclosure Fraud Rescue Prevention Act, as well as false and misleading advertising and other deceptive and unfair trade practices. The injunction against FMA Servicing will remain in effect until the resolution of the case. No further hearings are set at this time.

The Foreclosure Fraud Rescue Prevention Act protects homeowners who are in foreclosure or nearing foreclosure from companies offering potentially fraudulent foreclosure "rescue" services.

Specifically, it governs companies providing foreclosure-related rescue services including loan modification and short sale services. These companies are prohibited from charging homeowners an up-front fee for these services and must provide homeowners with a written agreement.

McCollum recommends that homeowners exercise caution when seeking help to prevent mortgage foreclosure. Generally, they should first attempt to negotiate with their lender before turning to outside help.

 

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Source of Salmonella Contamination in Peanut Butter May Be Found

Texas plant sample tests positive for strain that caused nationwide outbreak

Source of Salmonella Contamination in Peanut Butter May Be Found...

A sample of peanut meal from the Peanut Corporation of America's (PCA) Texas plant has tested positive for the same strain of salmonella linked to the nationwide outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people and may have caused the deaths of nine others, state health officials announced Wednesday.

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) said a sample of peanut meal collected on February 12 at PCA's Plainview, Texas plant contained Salmonella Typhimurium.

Texas authorities shut down that plant on February 9 after inspectors found dead rodents, bird feathers, and rodent excrement in a crawl space above the facility's production area. That same day, state officials recalled all peanut products made at the plant since 2005.

This is the second PCA plant where samples of peanut products have tested positive for the strain of salmonella linked to the nationwide outbreak.

In January, an inspection by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the company's Blakely, Georgia, plant revealed internal tests of a sample of peanut paste tested positive for Salmonella Typhimurium. That sample, identified as lot #8278, was made at the plant on September 26, 2008 and later shipped into commerce.

The inspection also revealed the company shipped peanut products from that plant — 12 times since 2007 — that had tested positive for fours strains of salmonella. FDA inspectors also found unsanitary conditions at the plant, including roaches, mold, and a leaking roof.

According to the Associated Press, PCA shipped products between its Georgia and Texas plants. The company mainly shipped "seasoned" products — including honey roasted peanuts and hot and spicy peanuts — from its Georgia plant to its facility in Texas, the wire service said. PCA shipped peanut meal from its Texas plant to the one in Georgia.

FDA officials said they will continue investigating the current salmonella outbreak, but are confident they've found the likely culprit.

"The FDA's investigation is ongoing and the agency is looking at both the PCA Blakely plant and the PCA Plainview (Texas) plant as sources of contamination for the outbreak," Stephanie Kwisnek told the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, PCA remains the focus of a criminal investigation for knowingly shipping products it knew had tested positive for salmonella. It also faces dozens of civil lawsuits.

Damaging evidence has already surface against the company, including e-mails that indicate the company's president, Stewart Parnell, ordered products he knew were tainted with salmonella to be shipped anyway. Some of those potentially-tainted products made their way to poor schoolchildren and victims of recent disasters.

Earlier this month, Parnell refused to answer questions about the salmonella outbreak from the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee. A few days later, the company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal the salmonella outbreak has sickened 666 people in 45 states.

While PCA's products were not sold directly to consumers, food manufacturers used the company's peanut butter and paste to make cookies, crackers, cereal, ice cream, energy bars, and even pet treats.

In recent months, more than 200 companies have pulled nearly 2,700 products off store shelves because they contain potentially tainted PCA products. Many continue to pull products off the market almost every day, making this one of the country's largest food-related recalls.

None of the national brands of peanut butter — including Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan — are included in any recalls. The makers of those products continue to remind consumers their peanut butter is safe to eat.

Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems, health officials say.

Symptoms include fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, it can cause more severe illnesses, including arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis, and arthritis.

FDA officials warn salmonella can be transferred from pets to humans. They advise pet owners to thoroughly wash their hands before and after feeding treats to pets.

Consumers should also discard any products recalled in this salmonella outbreak, officials said.

The FDA now has a database that consumers can search to see if their favorite products are involved in any recalls.

 



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Salsa Bicycles Recalled

CroMoto S.U.L. handlebar stems were also sold individually

Salsa Bicycles Recalled...

February 26, 2009
Salsa Bicycles is recalling about 8,600 bicycles because the handlebar stems can crack or break, posing a fall hazard to the consumer.

Salsa Bicycles has received three reports of handlebar stems breaking. One incident resulted in a rider suffering a broken wrist.

This recall involves all CroMoto S.U.L. stems sold as individual aftermarket units and on these models of complete Salsa bicycles: Ala Carte, El Mariachi, Casseroll Triple, Casseroll Single and La Cruz. The aftermarket stems are black and have the word 'Salsa' painted on the extension. The complete bike stems are painted to match the bike model color and have the word 'Salsa' painted on the extension. The recalled stems range from 75 through 105-degree rise and extension length from 90 to 120mm.

Please visit the firm's web site at www.salsacromotostem.com for a complete list of model numbers and names included in this recall.

The recalled items were sold by specialty bicycle retailers nationwide from November 2007 through December 2008 for between $880 and $1870 for complete bikes. The aftermarket stems were sold at specialty bicycle retailers nationwide and via web sites from March 2008 through December 2008 for between $60 and $65. They were made in Taiwan.

Consumers should stop riding these bicycles immediately and contact an authorized Salsa Bicycles dealer for a free inspection and replacement stem.

For additional information, contact Salsa Bicycles toll-free at (877) 774-6208 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site at www.salsacromotostem.com.

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

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Fortunoff Bankruptcy Gift Card Settlement

$8.5 million in gift cards, credit slips at stake

Fortunoff Bankruptcy Wipes Out Gift Cards...

New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced an agreement with the liquidators of the Fortunoff jewelry and furniture chain to honor consumer gift cards and credit slips through March 8, as the company pursues bankruptcy.

It is estimated that there are approximately $8.5 million worth of unused gift cards and credit slips currently in circulation.

Earlier this month, Fortunoff stopped accepting gift cards even though the stores remained open. After a flood of complaints, Cuomo urged the company, and any liquidation company that takes over the stores going-out-of-business sales, to honor customer gift cards.

An unfortunate side-effect of this ailing economy is the number of stores weve seen abruptly forced to close their doors in the face of bankruptcy, said Attorney General Cuomo. When this happens, however, it should not be at the expense of consumers, who are already over-stretching their budgets to make ends meet. Fortunoffs liquidator is doing the right thing here, which we hope will serve as an industry example.

Cuomo urged consumers with Fortunoff gift cards to use them before the March 8 deadline. While all purchases made during the going-out-of-business sale are final, the liquidators will also honor Fortunoffs return and exchange policy through March 10 for items purchased before February 25.

Fortunoffs going-out-of-business sale will be operated by a group of liquidating companies that will bring in additional goods, including jewelry, to sell alongside Fortunoffs existing inventory.

Consumers should check item tags to determine whether the items were brought in by the liquidator or were part of Fortunoffs inventory, as clear identification of all liquidator-added merchandise is required. Additionally, consumers should do product and brand research and price comparison before making purchases.

Liquidation tips

In light of the current economic crisis, the Attorney Generals Office provides the following tips about going-out-of-business sales:

• Most going-out-of-business sales are operated by liquidation companies that bring in outside goods to sell along with the stores existing stock. It is difficult to know if discounts on these outside goods provide real savings, since the products were never offered in the stores at the listed regular price.

• Discounts offered at the beginning of going-out-of-business sales may be smaller than discounts offered immediately prior to the liquidation sale or discounts offered by competing retailers. Consumers should comparison shop to see if they are indeed getting a good deal.

• Purchases made during going-out-of-business sales are final. Consumers may want to choose products that come with a manufacturers warranty that offers protection against defects and damages. In addition, consumers should also pay by credit card, as many credit card companies offer consumer protections for refunds for defective or damaged products.

• Consumers should research the products and their prices from other retailers ahead of time to see if they are indeed getting a good deal.

• While it may be tempting to wait for the end of a liquidation sale when discounts are greater, often consumers who do so are disappointed by empty shelves. Consumers with gift cards should not wait to use them.

As increasing numbers of retailers shut their doors, more consumers will be holding unusable gift cards. While some stores continue to honor gift cards even after filing for bankruptcy, others, like Fortunoff, stop accepting gift cards or lack the funds or merchandise to honor them.

When stores stop accepting gift cards or shut down altogether, consumers may only be able to receive reimbursement for the value of their unused gift cards if they file a Proof of Claim in the retailers bankruptcy proceeding.

In bankruptcy proceedings, gift card holders are considered unsecured creditors and must stand in line behind secured creditors. By filing a Proof of Claim, gift card holders do have what is referred to as a priority claim and may be able to receive reimbursement for the value of their cards.

While such recoveries are more likely to happen in Chapter 11 reorganization, consumers' chances of receiving value are significantly diminished if there is a liquidation.

However, consumers chances of receiving value are significantly diminished if there is liquidation.

Consumers angry

Besides complaining to Cuomo's office, many New York-area consumers let ConsumerAffairs.com have an earful.

I still had $1,000 left in gift cards but the sales person told me that I still had time before they closed because their court date was not [until Feb. 22]," said Grace of Staten Island. "I returned on Friday to use the rest of my gift card and I got the surprise that they were no longer accepting them. I was sick to hear that because nobody ever warned me.

In addition to alienating longtime customers, Fortunoffs also managed to taint a few otherwise happy nuptials.

Nicole of Verona, NJ told ConsumerAffairs.com she received a $125 gift card given to me by my family member as a gift for my wedding. It [saddens] me to think that beautiful day is tainted due to Fortunoffs. Similarly, S of Milford, CT writes, My husband and I are left with over $200 in gift cards from our wedding. Gift cards should be honored if they were purchased prior to the filing of bankruptcy.

While the loss of a gift card, even a high-priced one, might seem trivial to some, every loss hurts consumers as the economy continues to circle the drain. As Donna of North Caldwell, NJ, put it, I am out about $350. It was a gift for my birthday. Now nothing. In light of all the other disastrous news this really, really hurts.

NRDC

It's just the latest piece of bad news for NRDC, the private equity firm that acquired Fortunoff in February 2008, essentially saving the 85-year-old chain after its first bankruptcy filing. At the time, NRDC announced plans to spend $100 million in an effort to restore Fortunoffs status as a retail leader. Unfortunately, NRDC struggled to revive the chain as bad economic news rolled in throughout 2008.

If things werent bad enough, two years earlier the firm acquired home goods chain Linens n Things, which has also since gone bankrupt. Analysts say that NRDCs poor track record doesnt bode well for the other chains it controls, including Lord & Taylor, another longtime retailer.

GiftCertificates.com, a website that offers gift cards from over 200 retailers, had earlier said it would consider independent relief for consumers if Fortunoff decides not to honor the cards.

 

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Massachusetts Settles Charges Against Chubb

Company was accused of $3 million deal to garner favorable business

Massachusetts Settles Charges Against Chubb...

The Chubb Corporation has reached a settlement with the state of Massachusetts resolving allegations that Chubb's compensation practices offered improper incentives and enabled Boston-based insurance brokerage firm William Gallagher Associates Insurance Brokers, Inc. to direct business to Chubb.

As part of the settlement, Chubb will pay $182,815 to WGA customers and $56,196 to the Commonwealth.

"We are pleased that Chubb cooperated during our investigation of WGA and that it has agreed to pay restitution to customers affected by WGA's alleged abuse of these incentives," said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The Attorney General's Office filed a lawsuit against WGA on December 19, 2007, in Suffolk Superior Court, alleging that WGA defrauded its customers by charging undisclosed fees and deceiving customers concerning its compensation practices.

According to the complaint, Chubb loaned WGA in excess of $3 million, but offered to forgive this loan and any accrued interest if WGA directed enough profitable business to Chubb. Chubb also invited WGA to invest in a Chubb-sponsored reinsurance company through which WGA insured a portion of numerous insurance policies belonging to WGA's clients.

Reinsurance is insurance that companies like Chubb purchase to protect themselves against their policyholders' claims. According to the complaint, WGA's participation in Chubb's reinsurance program turned WGA into a reinsurer with a financial interest in keeping its customers' highly profitable insurance policies with Chubb.

Chubb also provided WGA with a "trust fund" that WGA could utilize to lower Chubb's quoted premiums. Chubb allegedly maintained the trust fund so that WGA could draw against it to offer Chubb's insurance policies at lower prices in situations in which Chubbs premium quotes were higher than the quotes issued by other insurers. The Attorney General's Office said it believes that WGA utilized this trust fund to distort competitive bidding processes.

This isn't the first time WGA has been involved in a settlement with the Massachusetts Attorney Generals Office. In December 2007 the company returned $3,017,003 to its customers, paid $925,000 to the Commonwealth, adopted conduct reforms and submitted to a binding audit. As a result of the audit, which was completed in November, 2008, WGA proffered an additional $330,624 in restitution to customers and paid $80,000 to the Commonwealth.

 



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Capital One Interest Rate Hikes Anger Customers

Even those with high credit scores are affected

Consumers with good credit ratings take a lot of pride in their ranking, and don't take kindly to credit card companies taking actions that could negativel...

Consumers with good credit ratings take a lot of pride in their ranking, and don't take kindly to credit card companies taking actions that could negatively impact those credit scores.

So when credit card companies recently began to change the terms for many card holders, in advance of new government rules that would outlaw some of these changes, consumers have reacted with anger. Capital One is provoking some of the most heated reaction.

"I received a notice from Capital One Bank stating the 4.9 percent APR on the Mastercard I have had for six years will be increasing to 13.9 percent," Helen, of Boca Raton, Florida, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I have always paid my bill in total and on time if not early. I called the customer service line and they very politely read the 'cue cards' stating it was a "business decision due to the current economy."

Helen wanted to know if Capital One could raise her rate for no reason. In fact, they can. After June 2010 they won't be able to do so under new rules adopted by the Federal Reserve, which may explain why they are doing so now.

Theresa of Richmond, Virginia, has a similar story. She said she recently received a "change in terms" notice on the Capital One card she had been using for seven years.

"The notice stated my rate is increasing from 8.9 percent to 17.9 percent with the option of opting out and having my account closed," she said. "I have a 790 FICO score and made large payments of my account every month. My current balance is only $700. I have never, ever been late on this account or any other account. I, like everyone else, was really angry when I received my notice."

Capital One, along with many other credit card companies, are reacting to the economy. Not only have they changed terms for delinquent customers, they are changing terms for some of their best customers who have very low rates.

Analysts say the companies are trying to offset current and anticipated losses from credit card delinquencies. Credit card delinquencies rose to record highs in January, according to Fitch Ratings. It reported payments more than 60 days late rose to 3.75 percent.

Consumers can call and complain to Capital One and other credit card issuers all they want, but the companies are unlikely to budge. They have concluded raising a nine percent rate to 18 percent is worth it, even if they end up losing the customer.

In late 2008, federal agencies announced new credit card rules that would prevent companies from taking some of the actions currently drawing complaints, but gave banks a year and a half to phase in the new rules. While applauding federal banking regulators for finalizing rules to curb some of the most abusive credit card lending practices, the Consumer Federation of America last December expressed concern that the requirements were too slow in taking effect. The group called on Congress to provide additional consumer protections to rein in abuses not addressed by the regulators.

"Federal regulators have taken an important first step to stop credit card companies from using hidden traps and tricks to drive up the amount of debt consumers owe," said Travis B. Plunkett, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America. "However, it is not helpful to consumers struggling to pay off hefty debts in the middle of a recession, to give credit card companies the green light to continue to mislead and overcharge consumers for another year and a half."

Meanwhile, consumers continue to fume about their treatment. Philip, of Phoenix, notes that Capital One, which received government bailout money because of its poor business practices, is cutting him off, even though he has a high credit score and currently carries no balance on his Capital One card.

"This type of behavior from a company begging my government for money is appalling," he said. "They need customers like us to stay, not drive us away."

 

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Ticketmaster Settles Bruce Springsteen Ticket Dust-Up

Ticketmaster agrees to "wall off" TicketsNow.com reseller

Ticketmaster Settles Bruce Springsteen Ticket Dust-Up...

The state of New Jersey has reached a settlement with Ticketmaster to resolve more than 2,000 complaints from consumers who say they were unfairly denied tickets to two concerns by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

The complaints were filed with the State Division of Consumer Affairs in connection with the sale of tickets to concerts scheduled for May at the Izod Center in the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The agreement also mandates reforms to Ticketmaster's business practices.

The settlement creates a random drawing for 1,000 consumers who filed complaints against Ticketmaster with the Division of Consumer Affairs as of February 17th, to purchase two tickets each to one of the two concerts scheduled for May 21st and May 23rd at the Izod Center.

In addition, those consumers who filed complaints with the state but are not chosen in the random drawing for the opportunity to purchase tickets to the May concerts will be given a $100 Ticketmaster gift certificate and will be given the opportunity to purchase two tickets to a future Springsteen concert in New Jersey prior to a general ticket sale.

For those consumers identified by the state and Ticketmaster whose credit cards were charged for ticket purchases but the transactions were never completed because of technical problems, Ticketmaster agreed to complete the transaction and provide consumers with the tickets.

For those consumers identified by the state and Ticketmaster who within the first five hours that tickets went on sale went from the No Tickets Found page of Ticketmaster s primary website to Ticketmaster s wholly-owned subsidiary TicketsNow.Com and purchased tickets at a higher price, Ticketmaster agreed to refund the difference between the purchase price and the face value of the tickets.

TicketsNow.com

The settlement, known formally as an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, places a wall between Ticketmaster and its ticket re-selling subsidiary TicketsNow.com for at least a year for all shows and entertainment events Ticketmaster handles.

After the conclusion of the year, Ticketmaster will need prior approval from the New Jersey Attorney General for any links between its No Tickets Found Internet page to its TicketsNow re-sale website.

The connection between Ticketmaster and TicketsNow has produced a number of consumer complaints. Meleah, of Livington, New Jersey, says she was seeking tickets for the Jersey Boys on Broadway, when Ticketmaster's site referred her to Tickets Now.

I paid top dollar for tickets only to learn when they arrive that I was charged more then double face value, she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I am reporting this only after hearing what ocurred with the Springsteen tickets on CNN News."

Ticketmaster agreed not to engage in paid Internet search advertising that would lead consumers searching for Ticketmaster on Internet search engines to its TicketsNow re-sale site.

In addition, the company confirmed and agreed that all tickets it receives for sale to the general public will be sold on its primary market website. It also agreed not to allow the sale or offer of sale of any tickets on the TicketsNow.com re-selling website until the initial sale begins on its primary website.

Equal chance

This settlement resolves a significant issue for thousands of loyal Springsteen fans in the Garden State who believe that Ticketmaster tilted the playing field against their efforts to purchase tickets to the May concerts, said Attorney General Anne Milgram. Everyone deserves an equal chance to buy tickets on a primary ticket selling website and shouldn t be steered to a re-selling website where the prices can be substantially higher.

The 2,000 tickets -- 1,000 tickets for each show -- are being made available for purchase through the random drawing by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. All Ticketmaster fees and service charges will be waived.

An investigation by the Attorney General and the Division of Consumer Affairs into Ticketmaster s sales practices began with the immediate uproar over the sale of Springsteen tickets when they were made available for sale on Feb. 2.

The Division of Consumer Affairs created a link on its website to receive complaints. As of Tuesday, Feb. 17, approximately 2,200 complaints were filed concerning the Springsteen concerts. Complaints filed by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 17, will be covered by the agreement.

Consumers complained that sales were blocked on the Ticketmaster website and they were re-directed to the ticket re-selling website called TicketsNow.com where tickets were available at substantially higher prices.

 

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Fortunoff Bankruptcy Wipes Out Gift Cards

Little to no warning for New York-area shoppers

Fortunoff Bankruptcy Wipes Out Gift Cards...

As Long Island-based Fortunoff faces bankruptcy for the second time in as many years, angry consumers are left to ponder what theyll do with their now-worthless gift cards.

A weak holiday sale season, along with lingering issues from a separate bankruptcy filing last year, forced the once-mighty jewelry and home goods chain to file for bankruptcy protection earlier this month. As it prepares to liquidate, the company has announced that it will no longer honor customers gift cards, leaving those who have yet to use their holiday presents out in the cold.

Fortunoff originally planned to stop honoring gift cards on Feb. 5, the day it sought protection from creditors. However, due to a miscommunication with stores, the retailer extended the cutoff date to Feb. 17. Lori Rhodes, a spokeswoman for Fortunoffs parent company, NRDC, told Bloomberg News that the corporation is negotiating with creditors to find a way to honor the cards.

In any event, customers arent happy. Given the high price of most Fortunoff items, many consumers had cards totaling hundreds of dollars. Shoppers are also stung by the chains failure to warn them of the impending cutoff, especially since many were Fortunoff regulars for decades.

Grace of Staten Island describes a typical experience: I still had $1,000 left in gift cards but the sales person told me that I still had time before they closed because their court date was not [until Feb. 22]. I returned on Friday to use the rest of my gift card and I got the surprise that they were no longer accepting them. I was sick to hear that because nobody ever warned me.

In addition to alienating longtime customers, Fortunoffs also managed to taint a few otherwise happy nuptials.

Nicole of Verona, NJ told ConsumerAffairs.com she received a $125 gift card given to me by my family member as a gift for my wedding. It [saddens] me to think that beautiful day is tainted due to Fortunoffs. Similarly, S of Milford, CT writes, My husband and I are left with over $200 in gift cards from our wedding. Gift cards should be honored if they were purchased prior to the filing of bankruptcy.

While the loss of a gift card, even a high-priced one, might seem trivial to some, every loss hurts consumers as the economy continues to circle the drain. As Donna of North Caldwell, NJ, put it, I am out about $350. It was a gift for my birthday. Now nothing. In light of all the other disastrous news this really, really hurts.

Ultimately, bankruptcy law allows a corporation which files for bankruptcy protection to stop honoring gift cards. The situation may become more commonplace as the troubled economy threatens to drive more chains out of business. When electronics specialist The Sharper Image went under last year, it too refused to honor gift cards. After widespread public outrage, the retailer relented and agreed to accept the cards, but only if consumers spent at least twice their value.

It's just the latest piece of bad news for NRDC, the private equity firm that acquired Fortunoff in February 2008, essentially saving the 85-year-old chain after its first bankruptcy filing. At the time, NRDC announced plans to spend $100 million in an effort to restore Fortunoffs status as a retail leader. Unfortunately, NRDC struggled to revive the chain as bad economic news rolled in throughout 2008.

If things werent bad enough, two years earlier the firm acquired home goods chain Linens n Things, which has also since gone bankrupt. Analysts say that NRDCs poor track record doesnt bode well for the other chains it controls, including Lord & Taylor, another longtime retailer.

At least one independent gift card vendor is weighing its responsibility to consumers. GiftCertificates.com, a website that offers gift cards from over 200 retailers, will reportedly consider independent relief for consumers if Fortunoff decides not to honor the cards.

In bankruptcy court, meanwhile, a group of six liquidators won an yesterday entitling them to run the liquidation process, which could start later this week.

 

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Experts Worry About Web's Impact On Teens

Social networking sites seen as potential hazard

Adults have long worried about the younger generation's latest enthusiasms, and today more and more of that concern is focused on computers and the Interne...

Adults have long worried about the younger generation's latest enthusiasms, and today more and wore of that concern is focused on computers and the Internet. In particular, the growing use of social networking sites is causing alarm among parents, educators and, increasingly, health experts.

The latest warning comes from Dr. Susan Greenfield, a noted British neuroscientist, who says sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are shortening attention spans, encouraging instant gratification, and making young people more self-focused.

Greenfield believes extended time using these sites is actually rewiring the brain. She told Britain's Daily Mail that, just as babies need constant reassurance that they exist, the networking Websites encourage the same impulse in teens.

My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment, she told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese researchers suggest parents and educators pay more attention to childrens online habits because Internet-addicted teens seem more prone to aggression. However, Americans who study violence are not ready to make any conclusions about a possible link.

The study does not demonstrate that one behavior caused the other, said Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia.

Even so, he said, other research shows that persons who play violent video games will be more prone to have aggressive thoughts, feelings and actions.

Internet addiction

Internet addiction itself remains a controversial topic more than a decade after it was first described. Some mental health specialists refuse to recognize its existence, although a number of rehabilitation centers treat people who say they suffer from it.

In the new study, researchers led by Chih-Hung Ko, M.D., from Kaohsiung Medical University, gave questionnaires to 9,405 adolescents and asked about their Internet activity and behaviors. The study appears online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The researchers deemed 25 percent of the male students and 13 percent of females to be Internet addicts based on a commonly used scale.

Thirteen percent of all female students and 32 percent of all males reported engaging in aggressive behavior — such as threatening or hurting others — within the last year, compared with 37 percent of those suffering from Internet addiction.

The researchers, who were not available for comment, wrote in the study that chatting online, playing video games and visiting sexually oriented Web sites could provide opportunities for teens to observe, experience and try aggressive behaviors resulting in positive outcome, such as identification in a group, being a hero or winning in games.

Brad Bushman, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, said the study does not allow conclusions about which came first — Internet addiction or aggression.

It could be that using the Internet causes people to behave more aggressively or it could be that aggressive people seek out the Internet, he said. Or some other third factor could cause both people with poor social skills dont have any friends, so they spend a lot of time on the Internet and cant resolve conflicts in non-aggressive ways.

 

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Fisher-Price Recalls 3-in-1 High Chairs

Fisher-Price Recalls 3-in-1 High Chairs...

February 24, 2009
Fisher-Price is recalling about 24,000 3-in-1 high chairs. The seat can fall backwards from high chair frame if the booster seat release is unlatched while the child is in the product. Also, the seat back can detach if not fully snapped in place, posing a fall hazard and risk of serious injury to young children.

The firm has received one report of a seat back detaching and child falling out, resulting in a skull fracture.

This recall involves the 3-in-1 High Chair to Booster, which converts from a high chair to a toddler booster seat. It includes a removable tray, height adjustment and folds for storage. The product number (P5369) is printed on the side of the seat, on a label on the seat pad, and on the products packaging.

The high chairs, made in Mexico, were sold exclusively at: Target stores nationwide from December 2008 through March 2009 for about $100.

Consumers should stop using the recalled high chairs immediately and contact Fisher-Price for instructions and a free repair kit.

For additional information, contact Fisher-Price at (800) 432-5437 anytime or visit the firms Web site at www.service.mattel.com.

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

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Asthma Patients Get Scant Response to Problems with New Inhalers

Government agencies "sympathize" but offer little more than that

Asthma Patients Get Scant Response to Problems with New Inhalers...

New inhalers, like this Proventil model, are powered by non-aerosol propellants

Asthma patients nationwide are getting little more than sympathy — and not much of that — from government agencies and health officials in response to their complaints about the new ban on chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) albuterol inhalers and the life-threatening problems many say they are having with the environmentally-friendly hydroflouroalkane (HFA) rescue inhalers.

In just the last few days, ConsumerAffairs.com has heard from more than 125 asthma and pulmonary patients who are outraged and frightened by the government's "life-threatening" ban on CFC inhalers —which took effect on December 31, 2008 —and the ineffectiveness of the new HFA alternative inhalers.

So far, Congressional leaders have not responded to our inquiries about patients' concerns.

At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a spokeswoman said she empathizes with patients' concerns, but said it would be more appropriate for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to comment.

Meanwhile, a clinical pharmacist at the University of Florida called the ban on CFC inhalers "political," and said he has also heard reports that asthma and pulmonary patients are having trouble adjusting to the new HFA inhalers.

He suggested patients work on their "technique" to get more relief because studies have shown many people don't use the "emergency" HFA inhalers correctly. He also downplayed efforts to bring back CFC inhalers, saying there's a "tremendous" shortage of the Freon propellant.

But the founder of a California-based organization trying to get CFCs inhalers back on the market disagrees with that supply assessment.

While politicians stall and agencies stonewall, ConsumerAffairs.com continues to hear from angry and scared asthma and pulmonary patients. Not one of them has expressed support for the ban on the CFC "rescue" inhalers or told us the HFA-models are an effective alternative.

Making matters worse

In fact, most told us the HFA inhalers made their asthmas worse.

Many also said they're shocked by what they call the FDA's "lack of concern" and "ignorance" about this issue especially its position that pulmonary patients will just have to get used to the HFA inhalers and remember to take deep breaths when using the devices.

"The thing the FDA doesn't realize is that to say we need to take a deeper breath to make the new HFA inhalers work is almost an oxymoron," an asthma patient in Litchfield Park, Arizona, told us. "If we could take deep breaths, we wouldn't need the inhalers. We need medicine that opens the passages quickly ... with little effort ... so that we can breathe deeply and function as normal people do."

Another asthma patient in Virginia voiced harsher concerns about the FDA's comments that patients remember to breathe deep with the HFA inhalers.

"This is absolutely total ignorance," says Roger M. of Glen Allen, Virginia. "People having an asthma attack and in a panic state cannot breathe in deeply. People with COPD and limited lung function —when in need of medication —cannot breathe in deeply. This decision needs to be reversed, but it may be too late because the drug companies most probably will not resume production on these old products."

He added: "Recent times have shown the (incompetence-plagued) FDA's inability to properly understand and evaluate these life altering decisions. If allowed to stand, these bureaucrats and their abettors will have successfully reduced the quality of life for millions of lung disease sufferers throughout the world."

Breathe through a straw

Another consumer who responded to our investigation suggested FDA officials try to "breathe through a straw for a week" so they could understand the fears pulmonary patients have when they're gasping for air.

"I contacted the FDA, which replied saying I should speak to my doctor," says Rose Anne S. of Las Vegas. "What can the doctor do but prescribe another HFA inhaler that will do the same thing. It appears that the FDA really doesn't care. With all my heart I hope someone on the President's staff is monitoring this situation.

"Believe me I want these HFAs to work," she added, "but they don't. As soon as I puff on them, my breathing gets worse. I'm allergic to alcohol so all it does it make it worse."

As we've reported, metered-dose CFC inhalers are —as of December 31, 2008 —banned in the United States under an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

The FDA and other supporters of this 1987 agreement say the CFC propellant in the inhalers damages the ozone.

"CFCs reduce the amount of ozone in the ozone layer that surrounds the earth and protects the earth against the sun's harmful rays," the agency wrote. "The loss of ozone can increase the risk of skin cancer, cataracts, and other harmful rays."

Asthma and other pulmonary patients must now use an environmentally friendly —and more costly —type of inhaler that contains a propellant called hydroflouroalkane (HFA).

The FDA and other health organizations say HFA inhalers have a different feel and taste — and patients need to take deep breaths when using them.

The HFA "emergency" inhalers give patients the same dose of albuterol as CFC inhalers and are a "safe and effective" alternative for the more than 40 million asthma and pulmonary patients nationwide, according to the FDA.

A Florida pharmacist and a spokesman for The American Lung Association and also told us the HFA inhalers now on the market — ProAir, Proventil, Ventolin, and Xopenex — are just as effective as the CFC inhalers when properly used.

But the key issue, ey said, is for patients to get their asthma under control

The scores of patients who contacted us say their asthma was in control until they tried the new HFA inhalers.

They also told us:

• The HFA inhalers don't give them quick relief;

• In some cases, the HFA inhalers made their asthma worse. Some say they're allergic to the ethanol in the HFA inhalers;

• HFA inhalers are more expensive than CFC inhalers. The price has skyrocketed from about $5 for a CFC inhaler to around $50 for an HFA inhaler. That's because there is no generic alternative for HFA inhalers;

• Many are not convinced CFC inhalers harm the ozone. They also say they're environmentalists, but believe the government picked the wrong product to ban;

• Many wonder why people can't choose which type of inhaler to use. They understand some patients don't have problems with the HFA inhalers. But what about those who do? Why can't they use their old CFC inhalers?

The comments we've heard from asthma and pulmonary patients in the past two days mirror those concerns. Consider:

• "I may die if I cannot have my CFC inhaler," says Paulette B. of Sacramento, California. "I cannot use HFA albuterol inhalers as I am allergic to the propellants in all of them. I tried two different ones and they made me cough really badly, and my lungs burned awfully. They gave me an awful headache and caused nausea, too;"

• "I have been using CFC inhalers for years with very effective results in controlling my asthma," says Kori L. of Queen Creek, Arizona. "As soon as the CFC inhaler ban was complete, I was forced to use the new HFA inhaler. Not only did the HFA inhaler not work as well controlling my symptoms, but I went from using 1 CFC inhaler a month (a cost of $10/month) to using at least 2-3 HFA inhalers a month and insurance only covers 1 Rx (prescription) a month (at $20) so I was stuck having to pay for the full cost of the additional inhalers or just suffer through my asthma symptoms;"

• "I have tried all the new inhalers meant to replace the CFC and had no good results," says Dana of Greenwood Village, Colorado. "My asthma is on the side of severe and next to impossible to keep under control. I take a preventive medication, but also need a fast acting inhaler when exposed to any of my many triggers. These new inhalers are completely ineffective and give side effects unable to conquer. This new ban makes my quality and quantity of life a disgrace. I am unable to work, leave my house, or exert energy to play with my children;"

• "During an attack, I used the new inhaler and my attack became worse," says Jessi Rose F. Fredericksburg, Virginia. "The lack of function of my inhaler frightens me, and I feel unheard and uncared for (because) I was not given a choice in the system I use. I find the switch to be not just careless, but dangerous. At the very least, I feel that we should be given a choice;"

• "The CFC inhalers would usually give me relief, even if I was having a bad attack, or at the very least, enable me get to the ER without an ambulance ride," says Mary M. of Edgewater, Florida. "I don't care what the doctors, pharmacists, or the FDA say. The HFA inhalers are not the same and they don't work as well, if at all. It has absolutely nothing at all to do with us not using the inhaler 'correctly'. How could so many people have used CFC inhalers fine, but not know how to use an HFA inhaler to get relief? HFA inhalers are dangerous and will cause many preventable deaths. Maybe some of these people from the FDA who won't budge on this will even get to watch a family member or loved one struggle for their last breath because of a defective and unsafe inhaler that replaced one that worked;"

• "I just read your article on the new HFA inhalers and reading the comment by the FDA representative about not changing (its) position on these new HFA inhalers is short sighted and a disservice to asthmatic patients," says Kim C. of Mebane, North Carolina. "These new inhalers are inferior, case closed! I was sick for many months after using these products: coughing, burning chest, worsening asthma symptoms and body aches. It was horrible. Peoples' health should have never been subjected to political correctness, and that's what this is all about politics."

Change was "political"

A clinical professor at the University of Florida —and the co-author of a 2007 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine about the transition to HFA inhalers —agrees the switch was political.

"Why was it political?" asks pharmacist Leslie Hendeles. "Some years ago, the United States, along with other countries, signed an agreement to phase out all CFCs. That's political. Secondly, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to include this (ban). That's political."

He disagrees with political and environmental officials who say CFC inhalers harm the ozone.

"The science is not there that these (CFC inhalers) were damaging the ozone," he told us. "A majority of the damage (from CFCs) came from refrigerators and air conditioners."

A medical exemption allowing CFC inhalers to remain on the market was included in the Montreal Protocol when it was signed in 1987. At the time, there weren't viable alternative propellants for CFCs.

But that exemption was removed when HFA-albuterol inhalers became available. In 2005, the FDA determined CFC inhalers were no longer "essential" and said they must be phased out by December 31, 2009.

The four HFA-albuterol inhalers now on the market, Hendeles says, are safe and effective alternatives. And he takes issue with those who question the validity of the FDA's studies on these new inhalers.

"There was a wide range of studies done on these (HFA inhalers)," he told us. "These were double-blind, random, placebo studies. I've been studying asthma studies for 35 years. I've served on the FDA's advisory committee ... you're talking to someone who is knowledgeable about this. The FDA was careful to require studies (on HFA inhalers) to detect any differences and make sure they were equivalent (to CFC inhalers.").

Hendeles said he reviewed all the HFA inhalers now on the market for his article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Good technique needed

"We analyzed the data. There isn't a hint that any one of those drugs doesn't work as well as CFCs. The difference is everyone in those studies was trained to use the HFA inhalers correctly."

That's why Hendeles suggests patients work on the "technique" they use with these new inhalers.

"What I tell our patients is 'let me see how you use (the HFA inhaler) and maybe I can make some suggestions to get an increase of the medicine in your lung.' Studies that have examined how people use inhalers have shown many don't use them correctly."

He added: "I'm also going to throw out the possibility that the HFA inhaler is less forgiving (to bad technique) than the CFC inhalers. If you didn't have good technique with a CFC inhaler it may be magnified with the HFA inhaler."

Hendeles said he's had excellent results with patients who've improved their technique. "I've rarely had anyone come back (with complaints) who is using the correct technique. It's uncommon."

Some patients, he told us, also respond differently to the various HFA inhalers. "We've had a lot of patients say the ProAir (which has ethanol) doesn't work for them and we've switched them to Ventolin, (which doesn't have excipients other than the propellant) and they say they're okay."

Other patients, he said, have trouble with the HFA inhalers because they don't clean them as often as their CFC devices.

"Unlike the CFC inhalers, the HFA propellant plugs the opening if patients don't follow the directions," Hendeles said. "What we have found is people are —after using them a few times --maybe not be washing them. That makes them clogs and they don't get a full dose. Or some patients may not prime the (HFA) inhaler when it comes out of the package or if they haven't used in a few weeks.

"If people say they're having trouble with these inhalers," Hendeles added, "ask them how often they're washing them."

Hendeles echoed other medical professionals who say the key issue is for asthma and pulmonary patients to get their disease under control. "The guidelines say you shouldn't use your rescue inhaler more than twice a week."

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), which told us it's keeping this issue on its radar, concurs."The bottom line is that asthma patients need to make sure they're getting their asthma under control," said Charlotte Collins, the foundation's director of public policy and advocacy. "If they're having trouble with these (HFA) inhalers, they need to get with a specialist to find alternatives."

One alternative the FDA isn't likely to consider is letting CFC inhalers back on the market.

"CFC inhalers damage the ozone," spokesman Christopher Kelly told us. "People will have to get used to the new (HFA) inhalers."

Kelly said his agency researched its decision to phase-out CFC inhalers for several years. He referred us to pages of documentation on the agency's Web site about the ban and the "safe and effective" alternatives for CFC inhalers.

One FDA posting said: "There are three albuterol HFA inhalers and one levalbuterol HFA inhaler that are alternatives to albuterol CFC inhalers. Each of the HFA inhalers is different. It is important to remember that it is the deep breath that gets the medication into a patient's lungs, not the force of the spray. The spray from an albuterol HFA inhaler may feel softer than the spray from an albuterol CFC inhaler, but this will not affect the amount of drug that a patient breathes into their lungs.

The posting adds: "The spray from an albuterol CFC inhaler often hits the back of the mouth. The spray from an HFA inhaler is a fine mist that may actually be easier to breathe into the lungs compared to a CFC inhaler. If patients have problems with the albuterol HFA inhaler, they should talk to their healthcare provider as a different product may work better for them."

Kelly said his agency knows many consumers are upset about the ban on CFC inhalers.

More than 300 consumers, he said, filed complaints with FDA last year about this action: 295 by phone and 39 by e-mail.

"The complaints concerned the cost increase and patients getting used to the new formulation," Kelly said. "But I don't think our position is going to change on this."

He and other proponents of the HFA inhalers also say the costs should come down in the next few years.

Until that happens, The Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA) and drug companies that make HFA inhalers say special programs and money-saving coupons are available to help consumers cover the higher prices.

Hendeles and others also told us Wal-Mart now sells a smaller Ventolin inhaler for $9.99.

Congressional action

But many asthma patients don't like those options. They want their trusty —and more affordable —affordable CFC inhalers.

The National Campaign to Save CFC Asthma Inhalers is trying to help those patients get what it argues is much-needed medication.

The California-based organization encourages asthma and pulmonary patients to join its grassroots campaign to convince Congress to amend the Clean Air Act.

"Congressional action is the answer," says the organization's founder, Arthur Abramson. But first, Abramson wants President Barack Obama to issue an emergency order to allow CFC inhalers in the country.

"We're the lead organization on this. If we are silent about this then there is no hope for people. We are the last hope for asthma and pulmonary patients. And we will fight this state by state."

"Not realistic"

Hendeles, however, doesn't consider either of those viable options.

"Neither is realistic," he told us. "No one is making CFC inhalers. And an emergency order would not bring about change. There's a tremendous shortage of Freon propellant.

"The reality is there isn't enough CFC to supply the companies (making the inhalers)."

Not true, says Abramson, who said he has researched this issue for two years. "That's nonsense to say that you can't get CFCs anymore. It's absolutely untrue."

Abramson said he's been in contact with a lab in New York that could make CFC — MDI inhalers. He also told us that Honeywell has publicly said it would "be happy to make" CFC inhalers again.

A Honeywell spokesman said on Friday that she would research the issue and have a response later this week.

We've also contacted various Congressional leaders about patients' concerns regarding the ban, including California Senator Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the U.S. Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) and Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak, who serves on the Committee for Energy and Commerce that has oversight over the FDA.

We're waiting for comments from these elected officials.

EPA is "sympathetic"

A spokeswoman for the EPA told us her agency is sympathetic to asthma patients' concerns. "But it would be more appropriate for the FDA to comment," said Catherine C. Milbourn, the agency's senior press officer. "I am reluctant to step on another agency's turf. It sounds like they (FDA) have extensive information on their Web site."

She added: "We regulate the propellant (CFC) itself. And under the Montreal Protocol, CFCs were phased out. The only thing we would have is the responsibility for phasing out the CFCs."

Meanwhile, Abramson said he will continue his grassroots campaign to bring back CFC inhalers and educate consumers about what he calls the "false and misleading" information the FDA and others have made about this ban and HFA inhalers.

That false information, he claims, includes:

• CFC inhalers harm the ozone. There's no evidence to support this claim, Abramson says. "The trivial amount of CFC emissions from MDIs (metered-dose albuterol inhalers) does not threaten the ozone layer," Abramson states in his group's petition to save CFC inhalers. "The amount of CFCs required for the world's pulmonary patients peaked at less than 10,000 tons (including U.S. use) per year in 1997 (less than 1% of the peak global 1987 CFC emissions for all industrial uses). U.S. CFC MDI use peaked at 2,645 tons/year in 1999. These amounts are trivial and harmless;"

• HFA inhalers are safe. "There's no way HFA inhalers are safe or effective for all patients who were doing well with CFC MDIs," Abramson told us. "They have ethanol, corn, leachables, HFA-134a Propellant, which was untested in asthma and other pulmonary patients, and many and other potentially dangerous impurities in them."

• HFA inhalers were thoroughly tested before they went on the market: The tests done of the HFA inhalers were flawed, Abramson says. "The group was too small, the duration was too short, and the population in the clinical tests was a carefully groomed group. These are not real world tests."

The organization's petition reiterates those concerns.

"The FDA's false and misleading PR campaign is primarily based on twelve week drug company bought-and-paid-for 'clinical trials' of a couple of hundred mild/moderate asthmatics each — no severely ill patients are included, and black patients (who often have severe asthma), older patients (who often have complex medical problems), and COPD, cystic fibrosis and other important patient populations are frequently under-represented/not represented in these virtually worthless 'clinical trails,' which are nothing more than drug company advertising/PR sales pieces."

Abramson says he initially launched the campaign because he opposed the ban on CFC inhalers. "I've had asthma since birth —it's not severe —but the new HFA inhalers are not nearly as effective for me as my CFC inhaler."

The scores of asthma patients who've contacted us hope Abramson's campaign is successful.

Many, like April T. of Murrieta, California, say this is a mater of life and death.

"Please, please, please. I am begging whoever can make this change happen to allow people like me who cannot take the new (HFA) medications have an alternative and bring back the life saving CFC inhalers."

Read consumers' comments about the new inhalers.

 



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More Pet Foods Added to Salmonella Recall

Dog treats pulled from shelves on fears of contamination

More Pet Foods Added to Salmonella Recall...

Add more pet treats to what seems like a never-ending list of products recalled in the wake of this year's salmonella outbreak, which has sickened more than 600 people nationwide and may be linked to the deaths of nine others.

The company at the heart of this outbreak — the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) — recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. That action came within days after the company's president, Stewart Parnell, refused to answer questions about the salmonella outbreak from the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee.

The bankruptcy action also came on the heels of state and federal inspections of the company's facilities in Georgia and Texas, which revealed PCA shipped products it knew had tested positive for salmonella.

The reports also revealed such unsanitary conditions at PCA's facilities as dead rodents, roaches, mold, and bird feathers and rodent excrement in a crawl space above the production area at one of the company's plants.

The ongoing recalls are fueled in part by Texas authorities' recent decision to immediately pull all products made at PCA's Plainview, Texas, plant since March 2005.

The latest products recalled in this outbreak are American Health Kennels baked dog treats. The action specifically covers the following items:

• American Health Kennels, Inc., Cookie Bars: Creamy Peanut Butter UPC 725999522004; PB & Carob Chips UPC 725999523001; Lucious Carob UPC 725999521007; 4pack Cookiebar Assortment UPC 725999538005; Best Before: 11/09;

• American Health Kennels, Inc., Peanut Butter Crunch 12oz UPC 725999001103; 16oz UPC 725999161104; Best Before: 11/09;

• American Health Kennels, Inc. Bark Bars Peanut Butter: 1.5oz Jumbo UPC 725999000168; 2.25 Pillow Pack UPC 725999333105; 2.5lb canister UPC 725999005064; 5lb bulk UPC 725999001257; 6oz Smiles UPC 725999530009; Giggles UPC 725999530009;

• American Health Kennels, Inc., Christmas Stocking 6oz UPC 725999000175; Christmas Card Mailer UPC 725999513003; Birthday Mailer UPC 725999528006; "With Love" Hearts UPC 725999512944; Holiday Smiles UPC 725999222300;

• American Health Kennels, Inc., 100 Calorie 2oz Pillow Pack UPC 725999539101; 100 Calorie 14oz dispenser UPC 725999539200; Gravity Trial 2oz UPC 725999400166; Best Before: 11/09;

• American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Minis UPC 72599953300; Best Before: 11/09;

• American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Animal Snackers 3oz UPC 725999512098; 12oz UPC 725999512098; Best Before: 11/09;

• American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Milk & Cookies UPC 725999333808; Best Before: 11/09;

• American Health Kennels, Inc., Dog Ate My Homework Jumbo UPC 725999531006; 2oz Pillow Pack UPC 725999535004; Best Before: 11/09;

• American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Naughty or Nice UPC 725999530092; Best Before: 11/09;

• American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Carob & Peanut Butter, 2.5lb canister UPC 725999005071; 2.25oz Pillow Pack UPC 725999333402; 5lb bulk UPC 725999003251; Best Before: 11/09;

• American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Brownie Delight 12oz UPC 725999003107; 5lb bulk UPC 725999003251; Best Before: 11/09

American Kennel said it has not received any reports of illnesses linked to these products. "We are effecting this recall in the interest of public safety even though we know our product is safe," the company said in a written statement.

In recent months, more than 200 companies nationwide have pulled some 2,100 products off store shelves because they contain potentially tainted peanut butter or paste made by PCA. The recalled products include such items as crackers, cookies, cereal, energy bars, ice cream, and pet treats.

None of the national brands of peanut butter — including Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan — are included in any recalls. The makers of those products continue to remind consumers their peanut butter is safe to eat.

Hundreds of food manufacturers, however, used PCA peanut butter and paste as ingredients in their products. Many continue to pull products off store shelves almost daily, making this one of the country's largest food-related recalls.

PCA remains the focus of a criminal investigation for allegedly shipping products it knew had tested positive for salmonella, including the strain linked to the current outbreak — Salmonella Typhimurium. The company also faces more than a dozen civil lawsuits.

Damaging evidence that surfaced in the investigation includes e-mails that indicate PCA's president Stewart Parnell ordered products he knew were tainted with salmonella to be shipped anyway.

Some of those potentially-tainted products made their way to poor school children and victims of recent disasters.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that salmonella can be transferred from pets to humans. They advise pet owners to thoroughly wash their hands before and after feeding treats to pets.

FDA officials say symptoms of salmonella poisoning in pets includes lethargy, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets may also have decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain.

Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, it can cause more severe illnesses, including arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis, and arthritis.

Health officials say consumers should discard any products recalled in this salmonella outbreak.

The FDA now has a database that consumers can search to see if their favorite products are involved in any recalls.

 



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Economists See Recession Continuing Through First Half of 2009

Bad data on jobs, markets makes business roundtable pessimistic

Economists See Recession Continuing Through First Half of 2009...

Looks like the recession is going to be with us for a while longer.

A panel of the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) is expecting the recession to continue through the middle of this year, with large declines in real GDP during each of this year's first two quarters. Cumulatively, the cyclical downturn will rival that of 1973-75.

In the current downturn real GDP is predicted to decline 2.8 percent, slightly less than the 3.1 percent during the early 1970's. This represents a significant markdown of the November forecast, when 60 percent of survey participants expected a decline of 1.5 percent, or less.

The steady drumbeat of weak economic and financial market data has made business economists see the decidedly more pessimistic on the economic outlook for the next several quarters.

Credit conditions remain tight and declines in equity markets and home values, combined with significant job losses, are causing consumers to rein in discretionary spending. The unemployment rate is forecast to rise to 9.0 percent by year-end and inflation is expected to moderate, as economic slack builds and as oil prices are forecast to remain relatively depressed.

The good news is that economic activity is expected to turn up in the second half of the year and 2010 is expected to see modestly above-trend growth of 3.1 percent.

Other highlights of the NABE Survey:

• The auto industry is projected to remain under severe pressure. Auto sales forecasts have been cut to 10.9 million units this year from an already weak 12.5 million estimate in November's survey. Sales in 2010 are forecast to rise to just 13.1 million.

• Housing starts for 2009 were marked down, with 630 thousand units expected to break ground, compared with 870,000 units projected in the November survey. Home prices, as measured by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, are expected to decline 5.3 percent in 2009, following a 6.0 percent drop in 2008, but rise 2 percent in 2010. The good news is that NABE panelists see housing demand stabilizing fairly soon. When asked to identify the bottom in home sales, the panel was optimistic that home sales should trough by mid-2009, as should housing starts, with the latter rising to 900 thousand units in 2010.

• Despite falling exports, foreign trade is still expected to provide a boost to an otherwise weak economy this year. The overall trade gap on a balance of payments basis is now slated to be just $510 billion in 2009 and $530 billion in 2010, well below the $677-billion deficit seen in 2008. The trade-weighted dollar is expected to remain relatively strong this year before losing some of its gains in 2010.

The efficiency of the $787 billion fiscal stimulus package signed into law is a hotly debated topic. Although there is general agreement among NABE panelists that the fiscal stimulus will aid GDP growth in 2009, the growth impact of such actions called forth somewhat guarded responses.

For 2009, 43 percent of the panelists expect that the fiscal impact on real GDP growth will be 0.5 percent or less, but 38 percent project that the government's programs could boost growth by 0.6 percent to 1.0 percent. The impact is expected to last into 2010, yet the panelists are evenly divided on whether real GDP growth will receive a 0.5 percent, 1.0 percent or 1.5 percent boost from the fiscal package.

If the growth dynamics play out as expected by NABE panelists, then the economy should step up to exceed its potential growth rate by 2010. When quizzed separately about estimates of potential GDP growth for the U.S. economy, panelists gave varied responses; 30 percent of panelists pegged potential GDP growth in the 2.25 percent to 2.50 percent range, with 49 percent responding higher than the range and 17 percent lower. The overall distribution of responses suggests a potential GDP growth rate of about 2.5 percent.

The median expectation is that the US economy will grow at a below-trend rate until the first quarter of 2010.

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Chinese Drywall a Threat to Homeowners?

Drywall emits harmful sulfuric odors, homeowner lawsuits charge

The drywall, may be emitting sulfuric odors, potentially exposing homeowners to respiratory health problems. The emissions can also corrode air conditionin...

A class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of homeowners experiencing problems with drywall manufactured in China, just as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) ramps up an investigation.

The drywall, installed in homes in Florida, may be emitting sulfuric odors, potentially exposing homeowners to respiratory health problems. The emissions can also corrode air conditioning coils and wiring, posing a potential risk of electrical fire.

Although a number of drywall manufacturers may be implicated, the most commonly-cited is Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., Ltd. (KPT), a China-based producer. The company regularly prints its name on the back of its drywall, making it the most easily identifiable potential culprit.

Florida homeowners have submitted almost 100 complaints to the Florida Department of Health about problems relating to their drywall, prompting U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) to petition the CPSC and Environmental Protection Agency to investigate.

In a statement, Nelson called for the agencies to determine the number of homeowners potentially affected by the problem, and to decide whether a recall needs to be initiated. Nelson also directed the CPSC to promulgate drywall safety standards to avoid a repeat of the issue in the future. Nelson said that he does not believe that any such standards currently exist. The CPSC said it has initiated an investigation.

Most of the complaints have come from homeowners in Southwest Florida, although the scope of affected homes remains to be seen. Miami-based Lennar Homes, the nations second-largest homebuilder by volume, has confirmed that KPT drywall was installed in some of its homes, and says it is taking steps to address the issue.

Homeowners have complained of headaches, dry eyes, and bloody noses, among other allergy-like symptoms. The Florida Department of Health says that preliminary tests show no immediate health threat, but is reportedly conducting further tests to determine the extent of health risks.

The problem was originally blamed on a shortage of American-manufactured drywall, ostensibly due to the housing boom and extensive construction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Recently, however, suspicions have arisen that the problem dates back further. Some Florida experts have suggested that the defective drywall was installed as early as 2004.

Additionally, Florida attorney Gary Rosen recently told the South Florida Business Journal that a number of complaints have been quietly settled over the past three years, suggesting that the problem is more widespread than originally thought. The problem is common enough that Florida real estate agents have begun adding disclosures to forms, informing buyers that they have the right to seek inspection to determine whether the homes drywall poses health hazards.

Meanwhile, a class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of affected homeowners, and more may be coming. The law firm of Parker, Waichman, and Alonso LLP filed suit on behalf of lead Plaintiffs Shane and Nicole Allen, representing a putative class consisting of all Florida homeowners whose houses were built using KPT-supplied drywall.

In addition to KPT, the suit names as defendants the Knauf Group, KPTs parent company; Banner Supply, a material supply company based in Miami; and Rothchilt International Ltd., an exporter located in China.

The suit alleges that the drywall emits one of several sulfur compounds including sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, and estimates that 10 million square feet of defective drywall was used in Florida homes. The suit accuses KPT of using fly ash, a waste material from Chinese power plants, in manufacturing the drywall. Morgan & Morgan, a personal injury firm based in Orlando, is also involved in the action.

More litigation is likely to follow. Jordan Chaikin, an attorney with Parker Waichman, told a Florida newspaper that, [a]s this case moves forward, more builders will be identified. That I'm sure of. In a preemptive strike, Lennar Homes has already filed suit against KPT, Banner Supply, and Taishan Gypsum, another China-based drywall manufacturer. In its complaint, the builder insists that, Lennar stands alongside its homeowners as a victim.

The defective drywall is one in a line of problematic Chinese imports, from childrens toys to dog food to car tires. Nelson, the Senator from Florida, was involved in the promulgation of more stringent regulations on China-manufactured toys.

Anyone who thinks their home may contain defective drywall can learn more about the lawsuit online.

 



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Drinker's Nose Not Just for Tipplers

The Healthy Geezer

W.C. Fields, the vaudevillian and comedic actor in early films, was known to hoist more than an occasional beer. But, Fields got his red, bumpy nose from r...

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Split Your Direct Deposit to Save More Money

Automatic saving can help build nest egg with no effort

A new survey by the Consumer Federation of America finds that although 66 percent of all employees use direct deposit, only 23 percent split their deposit ...

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Medicine Abroad: Cheap But At What Cost?

The cost of a medical procedure can't always be measured in dollars

The fumes sent up from the adulterated petrol were fast turning my mucous black and had in fact tarnished the signs on the building opposite....

I weaved my way across the Indian street, dodging traffic that was so random as to be fatalistic. The fumes sent up from the adulterated petrol were fast turning my mucous black and had in fact tarnished the signs on the building opposite. Squinting I could just about make out "Ajay Jain, Dental Surgeon" followed by some indecipherable initial letters as proof of qualification.

Sparks fell from an electricity pole overhead in a tangle of wires that would have made any American electrician faint. I hopped over a stagnant puddle and onto the staircase of the building which looked like it had never been cleaned in living memory. The walls smelled of human urine and by the time I reached the rubble-strewn balcony, I was beginning to wonder if the friend who had recommended I come here for my molar cavity was having a good laugh at my expense.

I knocked timidly on the door bearing a plaque with the name Jain and it swung open to reveal a gleaming white dental surgery. The floor was tiled and kept immaculately clean, air conditioning chilled the sweat on my forehead and there was a little table of magazines to read while waiting for one's appointment.

That was my first experience of seeking medical help abroad back when I was 19. I had the choice between seeing a local specialist or going back home. I tried my luck and found treatment as friendly and professional as in the West and half an hour of dental work cost me a grand total of 400 rupees — $10.

In 2007, 750,000 Americans also concluded that it was cheaper and faster to get medical attention abroad and that number was expected to double for 2008. To get an idea of how much money they hoped to save, check out the numbers from the report by Udaily, a publication of the University of Delaware:

"The cost of surgery in India, Thailand or South Africa can be one-tenth of what it is in the United States or Western Europe, and sometimes even less. A heart-valve replacement that would cost $200,000 or more in the US, for example, goes for $10,000 in India — and that includes round-trip airfare and a brief vacation package. Similarly, a metal-free dental bridge worth $5,500 in the U.S. costs $500 in India, a knee replacement in Thailand with six days of physical therapy costs about one-fifth of what it would in the States, and Lasik eye surgery worth $3,700 in the US is available in many other countries for only $730. Cosmetic surgery savings are even greater: A full facelift that would cost $20,000 in the US runs about $1,250 in South Africa."

And then there's the time factor; while a patient might wait a year for a hip replacement in the U.S., an operation could in theory be scheduled the day after arrival in the Phillipines and many other venues.

It comes as a surprise to many that Americans should need to travel to get medical treatment. The flashing images of wealth and glamour on MTV have convinced the locals in poorer parts of the world that everyone in America is rich.

"Everyone is having at least one swimming pool there," an Indian cigarette seller once told me with great authority. When I told him about the Americans who couldn't even afford health insurance he looked at me as though I was trying to pull the wool over his eyes.

Even for me it was a hard one to swallow when I first came to the U.S. Growing up in Britain, health care was always free and like most Europeans, I pretty much took it for granted. If I ever got seriously ill I always knew that I could just head back home and get diagnosis the next day. I couldn't imagine how Americans would experience any less security or care.

Then I met someone from Oregon who, unable to afford insurance or a trip to the dentist when pain struck, had taken out a rotten tooth with a pair of pliers. The same kind of thing that happens all the time in the Third World.

Big savings

Barack Obama won early support for his promises to reform health care in the U.S. and time will tell if he manages to deliver. But with American medicine plagued by Big Pharma sales reps, litigation and prohibitively high costs, a medical vacation to Mexico or Panama can save a family a lot of money.

Waiting for my luggage once in Guadalajara airport, I got chatting with an engineer from New York who had flown down with his teenage daughter so that she could get some corrective laser treatment for her eyesight.

"Look," he said, "I could have paid thousands of dollars to get her treated back home but instead we can get it done here for like a third of the cost — and we get to have a vacation together!"

The prospect of our health going wrong is one of the scariest out there. Debilitated by pain, we'd be unable to work and so unable to pay for treatment. Many American travelers that I've known on the road, however, have taken a rather more fatalistic approach.

"I don't even have insurance," one told me, "If I added up all the money that I'd be giving to some greedy company — and who knows if they'll find something in the fine print to avoid paying up — I could just book another flight somewhere warm and get treated there instead."

It sounds good

The thing about medical tourism is that it all looks good on paper. You save a lot of money, you get treated fast and it's an unexpected opportunity to go somewhere exotic. But believe it or not, when something goes wrong with your body, you're unlikely to be in the mood to soak up a foreign culture.

Bangkok is a center for medical tourists who come for plastic surgery, knee replacements and dental work and when I spent a month in the city doing some business, I got to know a few of them. They were easy to spot amid the other backpackers — whereas the other travelers skipped around with bright eyes on their big adventure abroad, planning river trips and island hopping, these poor souls had nothing more to look forward to other than the next appointment.

I took a cold coffee with one woman from Los Angeles who was there to do some cosmetic work on a disfiguring scar that ran down her left cheek, the result of a car accident. Whereas back home no one mentioned her injury, here she was asked a thousand times a day what had happened, a fact that did nothing to calm her nerves as she waited for the day of the operation. She was alone with no moral support, other than long-distance phone calls to a boyfriend back home, and had little in common with the other westerners who had only partying on their minds.

I could relate to her. Only a couple of years before I was living in Brazil when I found myself suddenly alone and ill; one night as I went to sleep I started getting lights flashing behind my eyes and experienced a kind of electric shock in my head. I put it down to the stress of living in Rio de Janeiro and moved to a village along the coast to chill out. The symptoms persisted though and I started to get seriously worried.

I saw a couple of Brazilian neurologists but although I spoke Portuguese and their English wasn't bad, it was miserable to be discussing my health in a second language. Worse, it was terrible balancing up the options available to me without friends or family around to talk it through with. So one day I dropped everything and flew home to see a doctor I knew I could trust. There was no price I could put on that.

Why is it cheaper?

It's also worth asking yourself just why medical treatment is cheaper abroad. It's not that the quality of attention is any less — at least not if you're sensible and make sure your chosen clinic is accredited by an independent body like the Joint Commision International — but other factors come into play.

Other countries may have quite distinct legal and working practices than you would find back in the U.S. Litigation, for instance, may be the bane of professional life in America, but at least it is an option. Suppose for instance, that your operation in India goes wrong — trying to sue a doctor there would be seriously injurious to your health, the case quite probably outliving you.

And whereas the quality and competence of doctors abroad is often every bit as good as in the U.S., you'll occasionally encounter a fairly flexible set of ethics. I remember reading a scandal in the Indian newspapers a couple of years back when doctors had been caught referring their patients for heart bypass operations when there was actually no need. They had simply been getting kickbacks from the surgeons.

Medical tourism is a growing industry and professional attention can be found abroad for just about anything from cardiology to plastic surgery to joint replacements. From Panama to South Africa, Turkey to Thailand, poorer countries welcome visitors in search of treatment with open arms and, while I heard local Thais complain that all their best doctors were busy treating the falangs, no serious harm is done by it.

The other side

There is, however, another side to the story that brings out some of the biggest ethical questions of all.

Despite the best efforts of donor agencies, across the Western world there is a shortage of organs for transplants. In an aging population, by the time donors die their organs are generally in less than top condition. So there you are: you need a liver transplant and the 6-month waiting list might prove fatal; a company in China claims they can perform the operation the day after you arrive — just how many questions would you ask about where the organ comes from?

In countries like China and India, human life is cheap. Street children go missing all the time and are dumped back on the streets minus a kidney. The same can happen in state hospitals where doctors can augment their income by taking advantage of an anethetized patient.

If it's hard to believe that humans could stoop so low, take the case reported by the British newspaper, the Guardian, when they exposed the business in organs from executed political prisoners. The company concerned advertised that, "Viscera providers can be found immediately!" — some poor enemy of the regime executed to supply a fresh heart for a customer from abroad.

Even when people have parted with a kidney voluntarily, it's often for a pittance, many ending up with less than a thousand dollars. They may have been promised more but were then cheated and they may have lacked the education to understand how their health might suffer after such an operation.

We, as patients, are assured that the organ came from a willing, well-paid donor and, as we're unlikely to ever meet the poor sod, we give the clinic the benefit of the doubt. After all, we want the transplant.

Sentiment against so-called "medical tourists" is rising in some countries that have made a business out of providing transplants and other surgeries to wealthy foreigners while, in many cases, their own citizens make do with substandard care.

Even China, which sometimes seems willing to do just about anything, is having second thoughts. It has banned all organ transplants for foreigners while it investigates reports that 17 Japanese tourists received illegal kidney and liver transplants while 1.5 million Chinese languished on waiting lists.

Hidden costs

In short, the smart consumer should always look for the hidden costs.

Yes, a vital operation can be arranged abroad cheaply but will it be traumatic to undertake something so important in a foreign setting? Yes, cosmetic surgery is cheap in South America but will we really start following the example of the Argentines and buying breast enhancements as presents for our teenage daughters? And yes, a life-saving organ can be found at short notice in Asia — but can we live with ourselves if we don't know where it came from?

Whatever the ethical and emotional issues surrounding medical tourism, it's clear that it's only going to increase. In a globalized world we'll always head for the cheapest and fastest option. It was director Jim Jarmusch, however, who noted that of the three qualities cheap, fast and good, you could only ever hope for two of them at a time.

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Tom Glaister is the author of children's books www.bozoandthestoryteller.com and is also the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.

 



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West Virginia Targets Debt Relief Scammers

Texas company to pay nearly $36,000 for false charges

West Virginia Targets Debt Relief Scammers...

The nation's credit crisis and deepening recession has put more and more consumers in debt and increased their vulnerability to companies making big promises about debt relief but who deliver very little.

In November 2007, Regina Bays of South Charleston answered her telephone and heard a recorded message from a company guaranteeing to reduce her credit card debt by at least $2,500.00. At the end of the recording she was connected with a salesperson for PDM International, Inc., who promised to send her additional written information about the debt relief program.

Although she was interested, Ms. Bays did not sign up for the program. Nonetheless, she later learned that PDM of Bedford, Texas, had charged her credit card $990.00. When Bays was unable to cancel the service, she filed a complaint with West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw's Consumer Protection Division.

McGraw says his office has entered into a settlement with PDM that will result in refunds of $35,345.00 for 38 West Virginia consumers. In addition to PDM's questionable promise to reduce consumers' credit card debts, McGraw's office also alleged that PDM was engaging in telemarketing sales without a business license or surety bond as required by state law. Importantly, PDM did not give consumers an unconditional right to cancel at least seven days after the telephone sale, as required by West Virginia law.

"Consumers should always be wary of telephone calls from strangers who offer products and services that sound too good to be true," McGraw said. "Thanks to the complaint of Regina Bays, my office was alerted to PDM's practices and we were able to obtain refunds for all aggrieved consumers."

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Asthma Patients Outraged at Indifference to Problems with New Inhalers

Lack of concern by government agencies "criminal," say patients who fear the new inhalers will kill them

Asthma Patients Outraged at Indifference to Problems with New Inhalers...

 

New inhalers, like this Proventil model, are powered by non-aerosol propellants

A ConsumerAffairs.com investigation about the new ban on chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) albuterol inhalers — and the problems many consumers are experiencing with the environmentally-friendly hydroflouroalkane (HFA) inhalers — has generated an outpouring of response from asthma patients nationwide.

There have been no expressions of concern from the government officials who imposed the switch and no hint that anyone plans to do anything to provide relief to frightened asthma patients. And organizations that supposedly represent the interests of asthma victims say patients need to get used to the new inhalers.

Since Part 1 of this series appeared on Sunday, we've heard from scores of asthma patients who are outraged by the government's decision to ban the "rescue" inhalers they rely on and force them to use a new type of inhaler they say doesn't give them any relief.

One woman even told us her daughter died after using an HFA inhaler.

"She was not sick and was not doing any activities that were not a part of her regular routine," says Maureen H. of Marengo, Ohio. "She was 26 years old and had been diagnosed (with asthma) when she was three. She was not a rookie at managing her asthma. She had an attack on Feb. 25, 2007, and died. We know without a doubt that the HFA inhaler contributed to her death. Someone must help the folks who are suffering ill effects from these new inhalers."

Many patients now fear they may die without their CFC "rescue" inhalers.

"I am very worried about not having CFC inhalers available, dying and leaving my two sweet young children motherless," Melissa L. of New York City, told us. "Within three weeks of starting the new HFA inhaler, my normally well-controlled asthma became scarily severe. The FDA has clearly made a mistake in its safety assessment of HFA propellant."

Another asthma sufferer who read our investigation called the ban on CFC inhalers "criminal."

"A travesty"

"This is a travesty of untold proportions," says Kathleen W. of Scottsdale, Arizona. "To take away viable effective medication that is vital for saving the lives of pulmonary patients is insane, inhumane, and criminal."

As we reported, metered-dose CFC inhalers are — as of December 31, 2008 — banned in the United States under an international agreement, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — and other agencies supporting the 1987 agreement — say the CFC propellant in the inhalers damages the earth's ozone layer.

"CFCs reduce the amount of ozone in the ozone layer that surrounds the earth and protects the earth against the sun's harmful rays," the agency wrote. "The loss of ozone can increase the risk of skin cancer, cataracts, and other harmful rays."

Asthma and other pulmonary patients must now use an environmentally friendly — and more costly — type of inhaler that contains a propellant called hydroflouroalkane (HFA).

The FDA says HFA inhalers have a different feel and taste — and patients need to take deep breaths when using them.

But the HFA "emergency" inhalers give patients the same dose of albuterol as CFC inhalers and are a "safe and effective" alternative for the more than 40 million asthma and pulmonary patients nationwide, according to the FDA.

Lung Association's stance

A spokesman for The American Lung Association also told us the HFA inhalers now on the market — ProAir, Proventil, Ventolin, and Xopenex — are just as effective as the CFC inhalers when properly used.

But the key issue, he said, is for patients to get their asthma under control

But the more than 100 patients who have contacted us say their asthma was under control until they tried the new HFA inhalers.

They also told us:

• The HFA inhalers don't give them quick relief;

• In some cases, the HFA inhalers made their asthma worse. Some say they're allergic to the ethanol in the HFA inhalers;

• HFA inhalers are more expensive than CFC inhalers. The price has skyrocketed from about $5 for a CFC inhaler to around $50 for an HFA inhaler. That's because there is no generic alternative for HFA inhalers;

• Many are not convinced CFC inhalers harm the ozone. They also say they're environmentalists, but believe the government picked the wrong product to ban;

• Many wonder why people can't choose which type of inhaler to use. They understand some patients don't have problems with the HFA inhalers. But what about those who do? Why can't they use their old CFC inhalers?

A pharmacist in the Midwest told us his patients have raised similar concerns. "My customers are not happy," says Pete Spalitto, owner of Spalitto Pharmacy in Kansas City, Missouri. "I don't anyone who is happy with these (HFA inhalers). They just flat out don't want them — young, old, middle-age. Moms don't like them for their kids. Our customers can't stand them."

He adds: "The albuterol (CFC) inhalers immediately opened up the lungs for people who had asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis. When you're gasping for air, you like to feel that inhalation going in. But people don't feel that with this new (HFA) inhaler."

Since our story ran, we've received an overwhelming response from asthma patients who echo those sentiments. In fact, we haven't heard from a single patient who supports the ban on CFC inhalers or says the new HFA emergency inhalers are an effective alternative.

Consider some of their comments:

• "I suffered a serious allergic reaction to the HFA Albuterol Sulfate inhalers (two different brands)," Judy F. of Broomfield, Colorado, told us. "The inhalers were also ineffective in relieving my asthma;"

• "Like the people in your article, I have COPD and asthma," says 52-year-old Bob D. of Wyandotte, Michigan. "I did manage to stock up on a couple of CFC inhalers before the ban, but I am having to try to stretch them out and am using the HFA inhalers as much as possible. I echo the sentiments that they do not work. I have heard and tried all the explanations and helpful tips, but they do not work. My doctor, who has asthma, agrees with me. But he feels as helpless as I do. I can no longer go about my routines like I used to.I worry that I will soon have a heart attack or cardiac arrest;"

• "The HFA inhaler fails as a rescue device, which is after all the only use of albuterol consistent with good asthma management," says Roger D. of Chicago, Illinois. "This new inhaler is going to kill somebody - hopefully not me;"

• "My son needed a new inhaler for his asthma," says Cindy Crockett of Raleigh, North Carolina. "We tried three different HFA inhalers--each at $20 co-pay instead of $10. They simply do not work as well. He has had asthma for 15 years and the problem is not because he doesn't know how to use the inhaler. It just doesn't work as well. I worry that if he has a really bad attack, he will end up in the hospital. (The damage) from this is several extra and more expensive co-pays;"

• "I have had asthma for about 30 years and COPD for the last 15," says Amanda Otero of Lincoln, California. "My asthma has always been well controlled with medications and inhalers, including CFC albuterol inhalers. I lead a very active life. A few months ago my doctor switched me to ProAir HFA inhaler. My asthma immediately became worse I could not breathe. I went back to the CFC inhalers and have had no problems since. I have a supply on hand, but live in fear of what will happen once they are gone. How can the FDA condemn so many asthmatics to this fate? Why is there not a mercy clause in this law that allows those for whom the HFA inhalers do not work to continue using the CFC's, especially when the FDA has stated that the damage done to the ozone layer by inhalers is negligible? Something has to be done to right this wrong;"

• "The HFA inhalers do not work for me," says Jen of Enfield, New Hampshire. "They have made my asthma 100 times worse than it has ever been. This is such a helpless feeling that our government would take away a life-saving medication for the label of going green. It feels like genocide. I am only 35 and I have a 2-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. I live in constant fear that one of them could develop asthma and have no effective medication available for them. I don't know how the FDA or the American Lung Association can turn a blind eye and keep saying the HFA inhalers are just as effective as the CFC ones. It is absolutely disgusting and unforgivable. They are killing people, and the government is watching it happen;"

• "These new HFA Inhalers do not work," wrote Ryan W. of Burbank, California. "We need our Old CFC inhalers back. I almost died."

"On the radar"

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) told us today that it's heard similar concerns from patients. And it's keeping this issue on its radar.

"We continue to hear from patients and review the information we are getting," said Charlotte Collins, the foundation's director of public policy and advocacy. "We have not done a stand-alone survey (on this). That's not outside the realm of responsibility, but that really is the place of the FDA. We've advocated for (the FDA) to do some surveying to make sure what's going on with patients as a result of this transition."

How is the foundation helping patients cope with this change?

It says it's using a three-prong approach: listening to patients' concerns, reminding them to keep their asthma under control, and educating them through its Web site about the mandatory switch to HFA inhalers and the different types of options available.

"The bottom line is that asthma patients need to make sure they're getting their asthma under control," Collins said. "If they're having trouble with these (HFA) inhalers, they need to get with a specialist to find alternatives."

AAFA officials also applauded our investigation for bringing this issue to the public's attention.

"We need to hear these things," said spokeswoman Angel Waldron. "I'm glad you're educating readers about this so there can be more discussion. This transition is happening and we're trying to learn how we can help patients cope with this change. For now, we have to figure out a way to make this (ban) work so people get the relief they need."

She added: "This is a hard issue. We, as a society, are trying to go green and make our air, our planet, safer for our kids and grandkids. The important thing for patients (who are having problems) to remember is none of the medication has changed. The only thing that is different is the way in which it is propelled. We understand patients' concerns with this, but our hands are tied. We've got to comply with this legislation."

FDA won't budge

As we reported, the governmental agency in charge of enforcing the ban on CFC inhalers — the FDA — has adopted a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

"CFC inhalers damage the ozone," spokesman Christopher Kelly told us. "People will have to get used to the new (HFA) inhalers."

Kelly said his agency researched its decision to phase-out CFC inhalers for several years. He referred us to pages of documentation on the agency's Web site about the ban and the "safe and effective" alternatives for CFC inhalers.

One FDA posting said: "There are three albuterol HFA inhalers and one levalbuterol HFA inhalers that are alternatives to albuterol CFC inhalers. Each of the HFA inhalers is different. It is important to remember that it is the deep breath that gets the medication into a patient's lungs, not the force of the spray. The spray from an albuterol HFA inhaler may feel softer than the spray from an albuterol CFC inhaler, but this will not affect the amount of drug that a patient breathes into their lungs.

The posting adds: "The spray from an albuterol CFC inhaler often hits the back of the mouth. The spray from an HFA inhaler is a fine mist that may actually be easier to breathe into the lungs compared to a CFC inhaler. If patients have problems with the albuterol HFA inhaler, they should talk to their healthcare provider as a different product may work better for them."

Kelly said his agency knows many consumers are upset about the ban on CFC inhalers. More than 300 consumers, he said, filed complaints with FDA last year about this action: 295 by phone and 39 by e-mail.

"The complaints concerned the cost increase and patients getting used to the new formulation," Kelly said. "But I don't think our position is going to change on this."

He and other proponents of the HFA inhalers claim the costs "should" come down in the next few years.

Until that happens, The Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA) and drug companies that make HFA inhalers say special programs and money-saving coupons are available to help consumers cover the higher prices.

Whose job is it?

ConsumerAffairs.com also learned the American Lung Association has received complaints from asthma patients about the ban and the switch to HFA inhalers.

"Patients tell us the HFA inhalers are not working as well as their CFC inhalers," said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the association's chief medical officer. "I have no idea how prevalent this is, but we know there are some people who feel this way.

"There is such a thing as post-marketing surveillance," he added. "It is the responsibility of the FDA to ask doctors to collect these reports and make a determination if there is a problem. Right now, I can't tell if it's a problem or if people feel antsy."

But according to its many fund-raising publications and its Web site, it is the job of the Lung Association to be an advocate for patients.

"The American Lung Association is the leading organization working to save lives, improve lung health and prevent lung disease. With your generous support, the American Lung Association is 'Fighting for Air' through research, education and advocacy," boasts the organization's Web site.

Edelman says patients will "notice a difference" when using HFA inhalers. "It's a softer feel. The particles are more finely disbursed and people don't feel that same blast."

Patients must also prime the HFA inhalers — and keep them clean to prevent build-up and blockage of the medication.

"But as far as we know, the studies done on these (HFA inhalers) show that when they are used properly, that are as effective as the old (CFC) inhalers," Edelman said.

As a pulmonologist, though, Edelman said his focus is making sure patients get their asthma under control.

"Someone who uses a 'quick reliever' inhaler many times a day does not have well-controlled asthma," he said. "Patients shouldn't need their quick relief inhalers more than two to three to four times a week.

"Asthma is a variable disease and doctors are always readjusting medications and dosages," he added. "If patients are not getting good asthma control, they need to talk to their doctor."

Many asthma patients, however, told us what they really need are their trusty and affordable CFC inhalers.

Brute political force

The National Campaign to Save CFC Asthma Inhalers is trying to help those patients get what it agrees is much needed medication. And the California-based organization encourages asthma and pulmonary patients to join its grassroots campaign.

"We're the only game in town and our strategy is simple: brute political force to get Congress to amend the Clear Air Act amendments of 1990," says the organization's founder, Arthur Abramson. "Congressional action is the answer."

But first, Abramson wants President Barack Obama to issue an emergency order to allow CFC inhalers in the country.

"We're the lead organization on this. If we are silent about this then there is no hope for people. We are the last hope for asthma and pulmonary patients. And we will fight this state by state."

Abramson has spent the past two years researching this issue. During that time, he says, he uncovered documents that reveal the FDA and other proponents of the ban duped consumers about the need for this action and the safety of the HFA inhalers.

The FDA, he claims, has spread such false and misleading information as:

• CFC inhalers harm the ozone. There's no evidence to support this claim, Abramson says. "The trivial amount of CFC emissions from MDIs (metered-dose albuterol inhalers) does not threaten the ozone layer," Abramson states in his group's petition to save CFC inhalers. "The amount of CFCs required for the world's pulmonary patients peaked at less than 10,000 tons (including U.S. use) per year in 1997 (less than 1% of the peak global 1987 CFC emissions for all industrial uses). U.S. CFC MDI use peaked at 2,645 tons/year in 1999. These amounts are trivial and harmless;"

• HFA inhalers are safe. "There's no way HFA inhalers are safe or effective for all patients who were doing well with CFC MDIs," Abramson told us. "They have ethanol, corn, leachables, HFA-134a Propellant, which was untested in asthma and other pulmonary patients, and many and other potentially dangerous impurities in them."

• HFA inhalers were thoroughly tested before they went on the market: The tests done of the HFA inhalers were flawed, Abramson says. "The group was too small, the duration was too short, and the population in the clinical tests was a carefully groomed group. These are not real world tests."

The organization's petition reiterates those concerns.

"The FDA's false and misleading PR campaign is primarily based on twelve week drug company bought-and-paid-for 'clinical trials' of a couple of hundred mild/moderate asthmatics each no severely ill patients are included, and black patients (who often have severe asthma), older patients (who often have complex medical problems), and COPD, cystic fibrosis and other important patient populations are frequently under-represented/not represented in these virtually worthless 'clinical trails,' which are nothing more than drug company advertising/PR sales pieces."

Abramson says he initially launched the campaign because he opposed the ban on CFC inhalers. "I've had asthma since birth -- it's not severe -- but the new HFA inhalers are not nearly as effective for me as my CFC inhaler."

Now he's fighting for pulmonary patients around the world, especially the moms who've sent him heartbreaking letters about HFA inhalers making their kids "cough until they vomit."

"Two years later, after uncovering the incredible betrayal of patients, including kids I decided to try to do something — with a small group of others — to permanently legalize CFC (inhalers) for those who are suffering terribly and who currently have no voice," he told us. "And, yes, I'm confident that we will prevail."

Back in Washington, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America didn't rule out the possibility of — someday — backing Abramson's effort.

"Any issue that effects patients' right, access to health care, and improves patients' quality of life might be something we'd be active in," spokeswoman Waldron told us. "If he (Abramson) gains ground on this, we might try to be involved with it in some way and try to offer our support. We advocate for patients."

Tough odds

What are the odds of getting the Clean Air Act amended?

"It would be pretty unprecedented," said Collins, the foundation's public policy and advocacy director. "The FDA has spent years on this and it has gone through the normal regulatory process.

"But," she added, "it's not outside the realm of possibility."

Until the law is changed, however, Collins said the best strategy for asthma patients to follow is to get their disease under control.

"And even if a law went into effect tomorrow (allowing CFC inhalers back on the market), that doesn't mean there will be a supply available for everyone. Those meter-dose CFC inhalers are not going to be available overnight. They are no longer available as of January 1st.

"What we're advocating patients do right now," she said, "is make the transition (to HFA inhalers) sooner than later so they can find out if they have any issues."

But the scores of patients who've contacted ConsumerAffairs.com are adamantly opposed to making that transition.

"It is completely shocking and disturbing that this (ban on CFC inhalers) is now a law considering the fact that it was millions of peoples' everyday medication for years and years," says Jamie L. of San Diego, California. "I'm 22. I've had asthma for 10 years. The HFA inhalers do not work. I am not able to breathe with them. This is horrifying. Please bring my inhalers back."

Read consumers' comments about the new inhalers.

 



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Florida Seeks to Outlaw Cramming

Proposals would prohibit billing of third-party charges by phone companies

Florida Seeks to Outlaw Cramming...

Florida officials are trying to put a stop to one of consumers' biggest complaints — unauthorized third-party charges on local phone bills, generally known as "cramming."

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and Public Counsel J. R. Kelly filed a petition before the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) seeking a prohibition against all Florida telecommunication companies placing unauthorized third-party charges on consumers telephone bills.

Such charges are usually for products or services not requested, authorized, needed or used by the consumer. The companies named in todays petition include Embarq, and Verizon, as well as BellSouth Telecommunications, Inc., which does business as AT&T Florida and AT&T Southeast.

This practice of phone companies placing unauthorized charges on telephone bills has increased dramatically in recent years and must not be allowed to continue, said McCollum. Florida consumers have a right to expect their telephone bills will not be used as a billing and collection service for every vendor selling its wares.

McCollum and Kelly asked the PSC to declare that the telephone companies do not have the right to bill customers for non-telecommunication vendor products and services.

Telecommunication companies should be concerned with serving their customers, not adding on third-party charges for profit," said Public Counsel J. R. Kelly. "Consumers should not have to pay for services they neither wanted nor authorized.

Through internet advertising and telemarketing, vendors are able to bill for their products and services by obtaining the telephone numbers of unsuspecting consumers. For example, consumers accepting free coupons and other free benefits over the internet often do not realize that, when they provide their phone number as part of the acceptance, they may be unknowingly approving the purchase of some other unwanted product or service.

Once vendors of these services have a phone number, they forward any charges to a billing aggregator, which in turn provides the charges to the consumer's local telephone companies for placement on the consumer's monthly bill. The local telephone companies and the aggregators both earn a certain percentage of the total amount of charges billed to consumer telephone bills.

Consumers frequently complain about these products and services, which include voicemail boxes and other non-essential items, but are unaware of whom to contact for resolution and reimbursement. Other consumers are often unaware of the unauthorized vendor charges because of the length and complexity of telephone bills.

From July 2007 to August 2008, Florida telecommunication companies billed approximately 387,000 Florida consumers for third-party charges totaling over $26.9 million.

Cramming is a problem basically created by Congress as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

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Coffee May Cut Stroke Risk In Women

But not for coffee-drinkers who smoke

Coffee May Cut Stroke Risk In Women...

Go ahead, have that second, or even third, cup of coffee. Just don't have a cigarette while you're doing it.

A 24-year follow-up study reported in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association finds that Long-term coffee consumption is associated with lower stroke risk in women who don't smoke.

Researchers also say regular coffee drinking may be associated with a modest reduction in stroke risk in nonsmoking women. The research, which used Nurses' Health Study data, found that compared with women who drank less than one cup of coffee a month, the risk of all types of stroke was:

• 20 percent less in women drinking four or more cups/day.
• 19 percent less in women drinking two to three cups/day.
• 12 percent less in women drinking coffee five to seven times a week.

Previous analyses -- including a 2006 report from the Nurses' Health Study -- raise the possibility that coffee may help protect against diabetes and does not appear to raise the risk of heart attack, researchers said.

However, the few studies on stroke had contradictory findings, said Esther Lopez-Garcia, Ph.D., lead author of the study and assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, Spain.

Researchers from Spain and Harvard Medical School in Boston analyzed the impact of coffee consumption on stroke risk over 24 years. The subjects were 83,076 women who began the study in 1980 with no history of stroke, heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

Every two to four years, the women completed food frequency questionnaires about their diet, including their consumption of coffee, tea, decaffeinated coffee and caffeinated soft drinks. Researchers used a woman's average coffee consumption from all available reports (prior to a stroke or death) for the analysis.

Between 1980 and 2004, 2,280 strokes were documented: 1,224 ischemic, caused by blockage of a blood vessel feeding brain tissue; 426 hemorrhagic, caused when a blood vessel feeding brain tissue bursts; and 630 of undetermined type.

To assess the role of coffee consumption, the researchers adjusted for several factors known to influence stroke risk, including age, smoking status, body mass index, physical activity, alcohol intake, menopausal status, use of hormone replacement therapy, use of aspirin and diet. This type of analysis can only account for known factors but cannot consider risk predictors as yet unidentified.

Among other findings, coffee was not associated with either raised or lowered stroke risk in the subgroups of women with high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol.

Researchers said women who drink a lot of coffee also tend to smoke. The difference between smokers and nonsmokers was noted:

• Among women who had never smoked or quit the habit, drinking four cups or more of coffee a day was associated with a 43 percent reduction in stroke risk.
• Among smokers, drinking four cups or more was associated with only a 3 percent reduction in risk.

"The potential benefits of coffee cannot counterbalance the detrimental effects smoking has on health," Lopez-Garcia said.

Other caffeinated beverages, such as tea and caffeinated soft drinks, as well decaffeinated coffee, were not associated with any change in stroke risk.

"This finding supports the hypothesis that components in coffee other than caffeine may be responsible for the potential beneficial effect of coffee on stroke risk," she said. "Antioxidants in coffee lower inflammation and improve blood vessel function."

While possibly good news for current coffee drinkers, the authors said their findings don't provide enough evidence to recommend that women start drinking coffee for its health benefits.

"I would also add that the beneficial effects of coffee can only be applied to healthy people," Lopez-Garcia said. "Anyone with health problems that can be worsened by coffee (insomnia, anxiety, hypertension or heart problems) should talk to their doctor about their specific risk."

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States after diseases of the heart and cancer.

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Retirees Targeted in Texas Investment Scam

"Life Settlement" scheme promised guaranteed returns

Retirees Targeted in Texas Investment Scam...

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has charged the owners of two investment plans with orchestrating a fraudulent scheme that targeted retirees and teachers.

According to the state's enforcement action, Howard G. Judah Jr. and Gregory F. Jablonski falsely guaranteed lucrative investment returns, misrepresented their "life settlement" policy investment offerings, failed to disclose material information to investors, and committed multiple violations of the Texas Securities Act.

Travis County District Judge Suzanne Covington granted the Attorney General's request for receivership and issued an order seizing more than $19 million held in several bank accounts under the defendants' control.

"At a time of extraordinary market volatility, the defendants attempted to take advantage of anxious investors by falsely promising safe investments and guaranteed returns," said Attorney General Greg Abbott. "Today's enforcement action charges the defendants with failing to make required disclosures, selling unregistered securities and other violations of the Texas Securities Act."

According to State Securities Board investigators, Judah, a three-time felon convicted of financial crimes, and Jablonski each formed a limited liability company in their respective states, both known as National Life Settlements, LLC.

Together they marketed and sold three principal investment schemes that are identified in the state's enforcement action as secured notes, the Immediate Income Investment plan and membership interests in special purpose limited liability companies. Neither the defendants' securities -- nor their salespeople -- were registered with State Securities Board, as required by law.

The secured notes program purported to offer notes -- written promises to pay sums of money -- secured by life settlement policies. In life settlements, a life insurance policy owner sells the policy to a third party for more than the cash surrender value offered by the insurance company. The purchaser then must make premium payments and receives the payout upon the insured's death.

According to the enforcement action, investors were told that their investments were guaranteed, had little or no risk, and would deliver up to a 10 percent annual return on the investment. Like the secured notes program, the Immediate Income Investment plan purported to have little or no risk. Investors were told their funds would yield a fixed rate of return and feature bi-weekly income payments.

The marketing materials claimed that National Life was "among the most secure, stable, and highest paying investment programs available today." National Life also claimed that certain products guaranteed a 10 percent rate of return, and promised that its investment opportunities were "not subject to market volatility." Both statements constitute a "fraudulent practice" under the Texas Securities Act.

Between November 2006 and December 2008, the scheme raised approximately $20 million from 240 individual investors. That amount includes more than $2.5 million from employees who withdrew assets from their pension funds to invest in the defendants' investment scheme.

Of the nearly $20 million that the defendants raised from investors, approximately $3.16 million was used to compensate National Life's unregistered securities salespeople. It is illegal to pay commissions to securities salespeople who have not registered with the State Securities Board.

Nearly $900,000 has been transferred to Judah and his family members, including $230,000 for Judah's salary. More than $650,000 was paid to Jablonski and his company, JCJ and Associates.

Despite the guaranteed annual investment returns and bi-weekly payments promised to investors, National Life has only paid investors approximately $3 million over the two-year period.

Court documents filed by the Office of the Attorney General indicate that the Internet-based advertisements and false statements also constituted Texas Securities Act violations. For example, the defendants wanted investors to think their investments were subject to regulatory oversight. Marketing materials produced by the defendants falsely stated that their products were regulated by the Texas Department of Insurance. And they furthered their attempts to project security and legitimacy by falsely claiming that National Life received over $60 billion in "commission checks" from the Federal Reserve in 2008.

According to investigators, Judah and Jablonski were poised to launch a third scheme that would sell membership interests in special purpose limited liability companies. Investors were told that their investment would yield a tax-free return on investment as high as 11 percent annually.

More Scam Alerts ...

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Asthma Sufferers Live in Fear of New Inhalers

Do new rules pit human life against the ozone layer?

Asthma Sufferers Live in Fear of New Inhalers...

 

New inhalers, like this Proventil model, are powered by non-aerosol propellants

Something was wrong.

Victoria O. knew it the moment she took the first puff of her new inhaler. A burning sensation blistered the back of her throat. It moved down to her windpipe and into her lungs.

"It felt like liquid acid," the Kissimmee, Florida, woman says. "I realized I couldn't breatheI thought I was going to die."

So did a woman thousands of miles away, who used the same type of inhaler for her asthma.

"I used to go hiking a lot, but I'm afraid to after I had a severe asthma attack while I was hiking," says 20-year-old Marissa M. of West Hills, California. "My new inhaler did not work and I was fearful of dying on a trail."

An asthma sufferer in New York experienced similar fears when she used that same type of inhaler.

"I thought I was going to die on the way to hospital," says Danielle A. of Brentwood, New York. "I had to pull over and call an ambulance. I can't rely on these new inhalers. I can't breathe with them. That's like having your throat close. It's a very real feeling that you're going to die."

These asthma sufferers are not alone.

In the past few months, ConsumerAffairs.com has heard from more than 55 people nationwide with various pulmonary conditions who are scared, outraged, and often literally gasping for breath because they can no longer use the medication that gives them instant relief: their chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) albuterol inhalers.

That's because metered-dose CFC inhalers are — as of December 31, 2008 — banned in the United States under an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — and other supporters of this 1987 agreement — the CFC propellant in the inhalers damages the ozone.

"CFCs reduce the amount of ozone in the ozone layer that surrounds the earth and protects the earth against the sun's harmful rays," the FDA said in a written statement. "The loss of ozone can increase the risk of skin cancer, cataracts, and other health problems."

Asthma and other pulmonary patients must now use an environmentally friendly — and more expensive — type of inhaler that contains a propellant called hydroflouroalkane (HFA).

"A different feel"

New inhalers are safe and effective, FDA insists.

The FDA says HFA inhalers have a different feel and taste — and patients need to take deep breaths when using them. But the HFA inhalers, the agency says, give the same dose of albuterol as CFC inhalers and are a "safe and effective" alternative for the more than 40 million asthma and pulmonary patients nationwide.

Those who've relied on their CFC "rescue inhalers" for years disagree.

For the past several weeks, ConsumerAffairs.com has talked to scores of asthma and pulmonary patients nationwide about what many call a "life-threatening" ban on CFC inhalers and how they're adjusting to the new generation of rescue inhalers.

Here are the patients' concerns:

• The HFA inhalers don't give them quick relief;

• In some cases, the HFA inhalers made their asthma worse. Some say they're allergic to the ethanol in the HFA inhalers;

• HFA inhalers are more expensive than CFC inhalers. The price has skyrocketed from about $5 for a CFC inhaler to around $50 for an HFA inhaler. That's because there is no generic alternative for HFA inhalers;

• Many are not convinced CFC inhalers harm the ozone. They also say they're environmentalists, but believe the government picked the wrong product to ban;

• Many wonder why people can't choose which type of inhaler to use. They understand some patients don't have problems with the HFA inhalers. But what about those who do? Why can't they use their old CFC inhalers?

A pharmacist in the Midwest isn't surprised by our findings. None of his clients are happy about the ban or their HFA inhalers, he says.

Neither are the hundreds of asthma and pulmonary patients who have contacted the National Campaign to Save CFC Asthma Inhalers. The California-based group is lobbying Congressional leaders to amend the Clean Air Act and make CFC inhalers permanently legal in the United States.

But our investigation reveals the government isn't likely to change its position on this issue.

An FDA spokesman told ConsumerAffairs.com the agency thoroughly researched this topic and stands by its decisions.

The FDA also said a generic alternative should be available in a few years, which will reduce the cost of HFA inhalers.

Until then, some pharmaceutical companies and The Partnership for Prescription Assistance have programs to help consumers cover the increased costs of HFA inhalers.

"Just as effective"

During our investigation, we also talked to The American Lung Association.

A spokesman told us the HFA inhalers now on the market — ProAir, Proventil, Ventolin, and Xopenex — are just as effective as the CFC inhalers when properly used.

But the key issue, he said, is for patients to get their asthma under control.

Asthma sufferers like Victoria in Florida say their disease was under control until they used an HFA inhaler.

"In the 30 plus years I've had asthma, I have never had it spiral out of control this quickly or this severely," Victoria says. "I think they've put poison on the market."

Victoria's health problems started last fall when she developed bronchitis. Her doctor gave her a prescription for a ProAir inhaler.

"Upon initial use I realized I was in respiratory distress," she says. "And as I administered the second treatment, I felt a burning sensation in my lungs. Thank God I have a nebulizer. I was able to clear myself that day. But within a week, I felt like I was dying. I had a high fever, couldn't breathe, and I haven't been better since."

Victoria's doctor gave her antibiotics "over and over again."

"But my health continued to decline," she says, adding her doctors suspect she had an allergic reaction to the ethanol in the HFC inhaler. "Eventually, I was up all night because of a constant choking sensation, shivering, temple headaches, nausea, throat pain, heart palpitations, general body pain, and severe asthma. My hair started to fall out. I was rushed to the emergency room twice and was in the hospital from Christmas to New Years."

The ripple effects from using a HFA inhaler, Victoria says, have damaged nearly every aspect of her life.

"This is killing me. I'm at a point where my boss is ready to fire me (because she's missed so much work). My credit score has gone down because of my medical bills. I gave up my New York apartment and asked my husband to come to Florida. He had to quit his job in New York City and came to Florida to care for me."

She adds: "My asthma was extremely controlled. But I've gone from someone with controlled asthma to someone who has to be careful where I go. I even have a handicap sticker now."

Remember Marissa in California? She says the HFA inhalers also wreaked havoc on her active lifestyle.

"There are a lot of things I can't do anymore. I was into hiking and rock climbing. But I'm terrified to do those anymore. I'm scared because my (HFA) inhaler doesn't work. I'm waiting and waiting for relief. I've had people have to carry me to my nebulizer.

"Not being able to do the things I love — and not being able to get the relief for my asthma — is sheer torture," says Marissa, who has kept her disease in control for the past 12 years. "I'm always out of breath and I have more severe asthma attacks than ever before."

Marissa, who calls herself an environmentalist, says the government chose the wrong product to pull off the market.

"It's amazing to me that you still have Hummers and NASCAR racing and yet you have to get rid of a life-saving medicine. Why ban a medicine that is saving peoples' lives? I just can't see how something like this (CFC inhaler) makes a big impact on the environment.

"I think that something that can save lives should be made available to the people who need it," she says. "HFA inhalers do not work for everyone. Take the SUV's and Hummers off the road before you take away my CFC inhaler. It is my breath and my independence."

One problem Marissa hasn't faced with the HFA inhalers is the higher cost. "I'm lucky and have very good insurance. I still pay $5. But I have friends who are not doing well in this economy and they have asked to use my inhaler."

Higher cost

Many asthma patients who contacted ConsumerAffairs.com told us they can't afford the pricier HFA inhalers.

"I called to see how much my inhaler would cost — $32 at Wal-Mart," says Mary Kathleen D. of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania. "The ProAir inhalers are half the size of the albuterol ones, which only cost $22. My husband is on workman's compensation for a knee injury and will be having a lung reduction surgery soon. I can't afford $32 for one inhaler that I need."

Heather of West Virginia can't, either.

"They're too expensive," she says of the HFA inhalers. "I have two kids to take care ofand there is a big difference between paying $20 and paying $50 for an inhaler."

During our investigation, we learned some consumers stocked up on CFC inhalers before the ban went into effect in December.

"I went to Target and paid out of pocket for four CFC inhalers and then went on some India company's Web site and had four more shipped to me," says Dean D. of Boca Raton, Florida. "So I have my stash or I couldn't continue to work out as aggressively as I do.

"My asthma is exercise-induced," he adds. "I went for a run and I couldn't breathe (with the HFA inhalers.). In fact, it made my breathing worse. The feeling is like always needing to yawn and not getting a complete and satisfying amount of air in my lungs. It's very scary. I was afraid to push and complete the workout."

Dean says his stash of eight CFC inhalers should last him about a year and a half.

"After that, I guess I will try the HFA inhalers again. Maybe there will be a new product on the market. Or I may look at India, China, or Canada. What else can I do? Stop working out? "

Another worried consumer stocked up on CFC inhalers because she couldn't breathe with the HFA-propelled ones.

"I paid hundreds of dollars out of pocket and got 37 (CFC) inhalers," says Danielle A. of Brentwood, New York. "Those should last me about two years. Even an expired albuterol (CFC) inhaler is more effective than the ProAir."

Danielle doesn't want to think about what will happen when her CFC inhalers are gone. It's too frightening for this 29-year-old, who says she's kept her asthma in check since she was four.

"I'm ready to burst into tears knowing that I may die sooner than later from an asthma attack because a medication that works better than any other (my CFC inhaler) is being discontinued. I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that something changes or rely on my nebulizer more. I can't rely on these new inhalers. They simply don't work. Whatever the thrust isthat's the part that's missing. The medicine doesn't reach my lungs."

A pulmonary patient in North Carolina is also fearful — and angry — about facing the future without his CFC inhalers.

"I'm outraged," says Paul E. of Pilot Mountain. "I'm fighting a cold as we speak. I have COPD and asthma and I go through one of these new inhalers in half a day. They don't work. They're about 15 percent as effective as the CFC inhalers. I don't think I'm getting as much medicine. If I am, it's not in a form that gets in my lungs. I'm seriously concerned for my health."

The ban on CFC inhalers may force Paul to give up his favorite pastime — spending time at the ball park with his kids.

"I don't think I can coach baseball anymore," he says, adding his CFC inhaler has given him instant relief for the past 20 years. "I may be doing batting practice with the kids and need my rescue inhaler.

"I've had asthma attacks where if I didn't have my (CFC) inhaler I wouldn't be here. If I have to rely on this red (HFA) inhaler I'm in bad shape."

Paul's new game plan is to order CFC inhalers online — from other countries.

"I also travel overseas in my work, so every time I go, I will bring another suitcase that I can fill full of CFC inhalers."

Hundreds of miles away in Missouri, pharmacist Pete Spalitto is hearing similar concerns about the ban on CFC inhalers.

"My customers are not happy," says Spalitto, owner of Spalitto Pharmacy in Kansas City. "I don't anyone who is happy with these (HFA inhalers). They just flat out don't want them — young, old, middle-age. Moms don't like them for their kids. Our customers can't stand them."

He adds: "The albuterol (CFC) inhalers immediately opened up the lungs for people who had asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis. When you're gasping for air, you like to feel that inhalation going in. But people don't feel that with this new (HFA) inhaler."

What's Spalitto telling his worried and upset customers?

"We try to be sympathetic and tell them they're not alone. We also tell them we can't purchase the albuterol inhalers anymore — these are the alternatives. If they don't work, we suggest they contact their doctor or get albuterol through a breathing machine."

The National Campaign to Save CFC Asthma Inhalers has another suggestion for asthma and pulmonary patients who are upset about the ban: join its grassroots campaign.

"We're the only game in town and our strategy is simple: brute political force to get Congress to amend the Clear Air Act amendments of 1990," says the organization's founder, Arthur Abramson. "Congressional action is the answer."

Presidential action

But first, Abramson wants President Barack Obama to issue an emergency order to allow CFC inhalers in the country.

"We're the lead organization on this. If we are silent about this then there is no hope for people. We are the last hope for asthma and pulmonary patients. And we will fight this state by state."

Abramson has spent the past two years researching this issue. During that time, he says, he uncovered documents that reveal the FDA and other proponents of the ban duped consumers about the need for this action and the safety of the HFA inhalers.

The FDA, he claims, has spread such false and misleading information as:

• CFC inhalers harm the ozone: There's no evidence to support this claim, Abramson says. "The trivial amount of CFC emissions from MDIs (metered-dose albuterol inhalers) does not threaten the ozone layer," Abramson states in his group's petition to save CFC inhalers. "The amount of CFCs required for the world's pulmonary patients peaked at less than 10,000 tons (including U.S. use) per year in 1997 (less than 1% of the peak global 1987 CFC emissions for all industrial uses). U.S. CFC MDI use peaked at 2,645 tons/year in 1999. These amounts are trivial and harmless;"

• HFA inhalers are safe: "There's no way HFA inhalers are safe or effective for all patients who were doing well with CFC MDIs," he said. "They have ethanol, corn, leachables, HFA-134a Propellant, which was untested in asthma and other pulmonary patients, and many and other potentially dangerous impurities in them;"

• HFA inhalers were thoroughly tested before they went on the market: The tests done of the HFA inhalers were flawed, Abramson says. "The group was too small, the duration was too short, and the population in the clinical tests was a carefully groomed group. These are not real-world tests."

The organization's petition reiterates those concerns.

"The FDA's false and misleading PR campaign is primarily based on twelve week drug company bought-and-paid-for 'clinical trials' of a couple of hundred mild/moderate asthmatics each — no severely ill patients are included, and black patients (who often have severe asthma), older patients (who often have complex medical problems), and COPD, cystic fibrosis and other important patient populations are frequently under-represented/not represented in these virtually worthless 'clinical trails,' which are nothing more than drug company advertising/PR sales pieces."

Abramson says he initially launched this campaign because he opposed the ban on CFC inhalers. "I've had asthma since birth — it's not severe — but the new HFA inhalers are not nearly as effective for me as my CFC inhaler."

Now he's fighting for pulmonary patients around the world, especially the moms who've sent him heartbreaking letters about HFA inhalers making their kids "cough until they vomit."

"Two years later, after uncovering the incredible betrayal of patients, including kidsI decided to try to do something — with a small group of others — to permanently legalize CFC (inhalers) for those who are suffering terribly and who currently have no voice," he told us. "And, yes, I'm confident that we will prevail."

FDA won't budge

In an asthma attack, the airways become inflamed and swollen.

The FDA, however, isn't likely to change its position on the ban.

Why?

"CFC inhalers damage the ozone," spokesman Christopher Kelly told us. "People will have to get used to the new (HFA) inhalers."

Kelly said his agency researched its decision to phase-out CFC inhalers for several years.

He referred us to pages of documentation on the agency's Web site about the ban and the "safe and effective" alternatives for CFC inhalers.

One FDA posting said: "There are three albuterol HFA inhalers and one levalbuterol HFA inhaler that are alternatives to albuterol CFC inhalers. Each of the HFA inhalers is different. It is important to remember that it is the deep breath that gets the medication into a patient's lungs, not the force of the spray. The spray from an albuterol HFA inhaler may feel softer than the spray from an albuterol CFC inhaler, but this will not affect the amount of drug that a patient breathes into their lungs."

The posting adds: "The spray from an albuterol CFC inhaler often hits the back of the mouth. The spray from an HFA inhaler is a fine mist that may actually be easier to breathe into the lungs compared to a CFC inhaler. If patients have problems with the albuterol HFA inhaler, they should talk to their healthcare provider as a different product may work better for them."

Kelly said his agency knows many consumers are upset about the ban on CFC inhalers.

More than 300 consumers, he said, filed complaints with FDA last year about this action — 295 by phone and 39 by e-mail. "The complaints concerned the cost increase and patients getting used to the new formulation," Kelly said. "But I don't think our position is going to change on this."

When asked about buying CFC inhalers from countries oversea, Kelly said: "Buying the CFC albuterol from other countries, outside the closed U.S. supply system, (either prior to or after 12/31/08) is not legal and the safety and efficacy of the product is unknown."

Kelly and other proponents of the HFA inhalers say the costs should come down in the next few years.

In the meantime, The Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA) and drug companies that make HFA inhalers say special programs and money-saving coupons are available to help consumers cover the higher prices.

Another organization that's hearing complaints about the ban on CFC inhalers is The American Lung Association.

"Patients tell us the HFA inhalers are not working as well as their CFC inhalers," said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the association's chief medical officer. "I have no idea how prevalent this is, but we know there are some people who feel this way.

"There is such a thing as post-marketing surveillance," he added. "It is the responsibility of the FDA to ask doctors to collect these reports and make a determination if there is a problem. Right now, I can't tell if it's a problem or if people feel antsy."

Patients, he said, will notice a difference when using HFA inhalers. "It's a softer feel. The particles are more finely disbursed and people don't feel that same blast."

Patients must also prime the HFA inhalers — and keep them clean to prevent build-up and blockage of the medication.

"But as far as we know, the studies done on these (HFA inhalers) show that when they are used properly, that are as effective as the old (CFC) inhalers," Edelman said.

As a pulmonologist, though, Edelman's focus is making sure patients get their asthma under control.

"Someone who uses a 'quick reliever' inhaler many times a day does not have well-controlled asthma," he said. "Patients shouldn't need their quick relief inhalers more than two to three to four times a week. Asthma is a variable disease and doctors are always readjusting medications and dosages," he added. "If patients are not getting good asthma control, they need to talk to their doctor."

Back in Florida, Victoria's doctors are still trying to find out why her asthma suddenly spun out of control. The key suspect, she says, is her HFA inhaler.

"I've seen a pulmonologist, who is pretty much boggled about how someone can go from no asthma to severe in a couple months. And my immunologist is trying to figure out if I had a really bad (allergic) reaction and that's why my hair is falling out. I also have to see a cardiologist because of the choking sensations at night."

Victoria — who still receives nebulizer treatments every four to six hours — doesn't want other asthma patients to experience similar problems with an HFA inhaler.

Neither do the scores of other asthma-sufferers who've contacted ConsumerAffairs.com.

The only solution, they say, is to bring back CFA inhalers. And let patients decide which type of inhaler works best for them.

"Obviously, the HFA inhalers work for some people," says Ivy G. of Van Nuys, California. "But for those of us that they don't work for, give us the option of having our old (CFC) inhalers. No one has a problem if they (HFA inhalers) work, but they don't work for everyone. They don't work for me. I can't breathe when I use them."

Victoria agrees.

"I cannot believe the FDA has allowed these HFA Inhalers to be forced upon an unsuspecting public. They've put a dangerous drug on the market that is causing people to suffer. The FDA has to reconsider this ban."

Read consumers' comments about the new inhalers.

 



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Credit Card Accountability Act Resurfaces in Senate

Chris Dodd's bill would speed reforms set for 2010

Credit Card Accountability Act Resurfaces in Senate...

February 16, 2009
The Federal Reserve last year adopted new credit card rules that ban practices often cited as unfair to consumers, such as raising the interest rate on an existing credit card balance when the consumer is paying the credit card bill on time.

However, those rules don't go into effect until mid-2010, prompting Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs to re-introduce the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act. The measure was offered last week.

Tamara Draut, Vice President for Policy and Programs at Demos, which calls itself a non-partisan policy center, supports legislative measures to re-regulate the credit card industry and bolster the household economy.

"America's families are facing a dire economy, and this bill couldn't come at a better time," Draut said. "As the consequences of the subprime meltdown spread, banks are openly increasing interest rates and fees on their credit card customers in order to cover losses in other areas. The only reason this is possible is because in the absence of almost any regulation, issuers have tilted the playing field heavily in their favor."

Draut said the bill would level the playing field between borrower and lender by putting an end to some of the most arbitrary, abusive, and unfair credit card lending practices that trap consumers — particularly disadvantaged and minority borrowers-in an unending cycle of costly debt. The bill would:

• Protect consumers from "any time, any reason" interest rate increases and account changes;

• Prohibit unfair application of card payments;

• Protect cardholders who pay on time;

• Limit fees and penalties;

• Ensure that cardholders are informed of the terms of their account; and

• Protect young consumers from credit card solicitations.

"Demos research shows that inequitable credit card underwriting practices have shifted the cost of credit to individuals least able to afford it, while at the same time generating some of the highest profits in the entire banking sector," Draut said. "Low-income families and households of color, primarily African Americans and Latinos, bear the brunt of the cost of credit card deregulation through excessive fees and high interest rates."

Last fall, a similar measure known as H.R. 5244 in the 110th Congress, passed the House of Representatives in September 2008 with largely bipartisan support. The Senate, however, did not take up the bill before the session ended.

Although the Federal Reserve and other bank regulators issued a rule in December 2008 that would prohibit many of the same unfair practices, Draut notes the rule does not take effect until July 2010, giving credit card companies 18 months to proceed unchecked and delaying relief for millions of American consumers.

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Text-Phishing Scam Making the Rounds Again

Scam artists try to capture ATM, credit card numbers

Most scams go through cycles. The emerge as something new, claim a lot of victims, then go dormant for a while. When they resume, they normally target a wh...

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Peanut Corporation Faces Damage Suits, Class Actions

Company's bankruptcy won't necessarily derail litigation efforts

Peanut Corporation Faces Damage Suits, Class Actions...

The peanut butter salmonella outbreak has already had wide-ranging and, in some cases devastating, consequences. It is likely only a matter of time before a class-action lawsuit is filed against the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), the company whose contaminated peanuts are believed to be the source of the outbreak.

Indeed, several firms are already laying the groundwork for a possible suit, gathering data and asking consumers who have been affected to contact their offices.

As the Pennsylvania firm of Pogust, Braslow & Millrood notes on its website, the FDA has already blamed PCA for failure to manufacture foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize the potential for growth of microorganisms and contamination. The law firm of Parker Waichman Alonso is offering free consultations to those affected by the outbreak.

But while some aspects of the incident make a class action seem appealing, any suit will invariably face tough hurdles before it moves forward.

Smoking guns

At this point, there is little doubt as to PCAs liability for the outbreak, which has so far caused nine deaths and around 600 illnesses. The bacteria are thought to have originated from PCAs Georgia plant, and the evidence against the company is staggering. The FDA announced that PCA knowingly shipped contaminated peanut butter 12 times in the past two years.

Last Wednesday, PCA president Stuart Parnell refused to testify at Congressional hearings, eventually causing frustrated lawmakers to dismiss him from the session altogether. In mid-January, PCA issued a voluntary recall of certain products manufactured after July 1, 2008; Parnell insisted the recall was instituted with the safety of our consumers as our first priority.

In the weeks that followed, more products were added to the recall list, and on February 12, in a stunning development, Texas health officials ordered PCA to recall all products ever produced at a second plant, located in Plainview, Texas. The states report detailed rodent droppings, bird feathers, and dead rodents in a crawl space above the area where the peanut butter was manufactured. Further, officials found that the air flow system was pulling the debris into the processing area, posing enormous health risks.

Finally, PCA has a history of health-related allegations; it settled a lawsuit in 1992 after inspectors discovered toxic mold in their products, and in 2001 health officials found that PCA peanuts may have been exposed to pesticides.

Litigation difficult

Even with such seemingly unassailable evidence, any class action brought against the company will be difficult to litigate. In February 2007, a class action was filed on behalf of individuals who fell ill due to a salmonella outbreak affecting peanut butter manufactured by ConAgra. The suit, brought by lead plaintiffs James Daniels and Linda Oswald, was handled by Marler Clark, a firm that has for 15 years specialized in food contamination and resulting illnesses.

In spite of the number of potential class members who stepped forward — 2,200 families contacted Marler Clark — and the attorneys extensive experience in the field, in August 2008 a federal judge in Georgia refused to let the suit proceed. In his order, Judge Thomas Thrash said that, whether or not the class action was certified, each class member would have to prove individual issues such as injury, causation, and damages.

Essentially, the judge said, the suit would proceed in the same manner regardless of whether it was certified as a class — each class member would need a separate trial — negating the judicial efficiency that is usually achieved through class actions.

The judge also said that the variation in state laws would render the suit impossible to litigate, insisting that class certification is impossible where the fifty states truly establish a large number of different legal standards governing a particular claim. The judge went so far as to suggest that litigation might not even be the best way to resolve the controversy; in that case, class members were entitled to a full refund from ConAgra, which Judge Thrash said might be the best resolution for all parties involved.

While no two cases are identical, any class action brought against PCA will likely face similar factual and legal hurdles.

Individual suits

In any event, whatever form it takes, there will be plenty of litigation; there have already been at least a dozen individual suits filed against PCA. The Minnesota law firm of Pritzker Olsen has filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of a 72-year-old woman who died after eating King Nut peanut butter, which is manufactured by PCA.

Marler, the attorney who brought the class action against ConAgra, has already filed a number of individual lawsuits, including one on behalf of two children who were hospitalized after eating Kelloggs peanut crackers containing PCA-manufactured peanuts. He is looking into at least two suits on behalf of families who lost loved ones to the contaminated products.

Marler says that the scope of illness is startling, even given his long background in the field. He went so far as to speculate that the scope of the product recall may eventually prove to be the largest recall of food weve ever had in this country.

PCAs insurance company, anticipating the coming wave of litigation, isnt taking any chances either. On February 3, Hartford Casualty Insurance filed suit against PCA, seeking a declaratory judgment that the companys policy excludes claims for salmonella infection.

In any case, it looks like PCA likely wont survive the scandal; the company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Friday. Undeterred, Marler says that if PCA doesnt have enough assets and insurance to cover civil settlements, companies who used the peanuts in their products will have to step up and cover the costs.

Major brands OK

None of PCA's products were sold directly to consumers. They were distributed to long-term care facilities, universities, food service industries, and private label food companies in the United States, Canada, Haiti, Korea, and Trinidad.

U.S. food makers, however, used the company's peanut butter and paste to make various products, including cookies, crackers, ice cream, energy bars, and dog treats. That's why so many food manufacturers have recently recalled their products.

And the list of products pulled off store shelves continues to grow almost daily, making it one of the country's largest food-related recalls.

The massive recall, however, does not include any of the major brands of peanut butter sold on grocery stores shelves. That's a message the makers of Jif, Skippy, and Peanut Pan peanut butters have taken great pains to broadcast to consumers. Some have taken out ads in newspapers nationwide to reassure buyers their products are safe to eat.

The FDA now has a complete list of all products recalled in the salmonella outbreak on its Web site. Consumers can check that Web site daily to see if their favorite products are included in any recalls.

Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, it can cause more severe illnesses, including arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis, and arthritis.

Health officials say salmonella can also be transferred to humans who handle pet treats tainted with the organism. They advise pet owners to wash their hands after they come touch these pet treats.

Symptoms of salmonella infection in pets include lethargy, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets, however, may have a decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain.

 



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Peanut Corporation of America Files for Bankruptcy

Recalls push scandalized company into Chapter 7

Peanut Corporation of America Files for Bankruptcy...

There's more bad news for the peanut processing company linked to the nationwide salmonella outbreak, which has sickened more than 600 people nationwide and may have caused the deaths of nine others.

Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) on Friday filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Virginia, according to the Associated Press.

The action comes just days after PCA's president, Stewart Parnell, refused to answer questions from members of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee.

That subcommittee is looking for ways to prevent another outbreak like this one, which has forced food manufacturers to recall more 2,000 products that contain peanut butter or paste made at PCA's Blakely, Georgia, plant.

The bankruptcy action also comes on the heels of Thursday's order by the Texas Department of State Health Services to recall all products PCA ever shipped from its plant in Plainview, Texas.

During a recent inspection of that plant, inspectors discovered dead rodents, bird feathers, and rodent excrement in a crawl space above the production area. Plainview is the second PCA plant where inspectors have found unsanitary conditions.

In January, inspectors with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discovered roaches, mold, and a leaking roof at the company's Georgia plant.

Inspectors also uncovered documents that revealed PCA shipped peanut products that had tested positive for salmonella, including the strain linked to the current outbreak: Salmonella Typhimurium.

That discovery also exposed a dirty secret in the food manufacturing industry: companies are not required to disclose internal tests to the FDA or state officials.

PCA is now the focus of a criminal investigation for allegedly shipping tainted products. It also faces more than a dozen civil lawsuits.

Damaging evidence has already surfaced in the investigation, including e-mails that indicate Parnell ordered products he knew were tainted with salmonella to be shipped anyway.

Some of those potentially-tainted products made their way to poor school children of victims of recent disasters.

Legal experts say companies file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection to liquidate their assets and distribute the proceeds to creditors.

PCA's bankruptcy filing reveals the company's debt and assets both ranged between $1 million and $10 million, according to the Associated Press. The filing also states the recalls have been "extremely devastating" to PCA's financial condition.

Lawyers handling some of the recent litigation against PCA told the Associated Press they are optimistic that victims and their families can still be compensated.

While the bankruptcy proceeding could postpone litigation against the company, the lawyers said they will push a judge to allow the civil actions to proceed.

Many lawyers have also filed lawsuits against King Nut Co. and Kellogg Co., which used PCA-tainted ingredients in their products.

"Even if Peanut Corp. doesn't have enough insurance and enough assets to cover the damages, King Nut and Kellogg will have to step up," attorney Bill Marler told the Associated Press. He has filed seven lawsuits against PCA on behalf of more than 40 possible victims.

None of PCA's products were sold directly to consumers. They were distributed to long-term care facilities, universities, food service industries, and private label food companies in the United States, Canada, Haiti, Korea, and Trinidad.

U.S. food makers, however, used the company's peanut butter and paste to make various products, including cookies, crackers, ice cream, energy bars, and dog treats. That's why so many food manufacturers have recently recalled their products.

And the list of products pulled off store shelves continues to grow almost daily, making it one of the country's largest food-related recalls.

The massive recall, however, does not include any of the major brands of peanut butter sold on grocery stores shelves. That's a message the makers of Jif, Skippy, and Peanut Pan peanut butters have taken great pains to broadcast to consumers. Some have taken out ads in newspapers nationwide to reassure buyers their products are safe to eat.

The FDA now has a complete list of all products recalled in the salmonella outbreak on its Web site. Consumers can check that Web site daily to see if their favorite products are included in any recalls.

Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, it can cause more severe illnesses, including arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis, and arthritis.

Health officials say salmonella can also be transferred to humans who handle pet treats tainted with the organism. They advise pet owners to wash their hands after they come touch these pet treats.

Symptoms of salmonella infection in pets include lethargy, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets, however, may have a decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain.

 



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Property Tax Reduction Scams Spreading, California Warns

Scam targets homeowners with declining property values

Property Tax Reduction Scams Spreading, California Warns...


California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. is warning consumers about a blatant and costly scam targeting homeowners with declining property values.

This blatant and costly scam holds out hope to homeowners that their property taxes will be reduced if they pay hundreds of dollars to a middleman to have their property re-evaluated, Brown said. In point of fact, homeowners can seek relief directly from their county assessor free of charge. Homeowners should be on high alert.

Companies are sending deceptive mailers to homeowners offering help in reducing property tax assessments, if the homeowner pays the company hundreds of dollars in fees.

The companies use official-sounding names such as Tax Adjusters, Tax Readjustment or Tax Review to make victims believe the company is a government agency.

Property tax reassessment is a free service provided by county tax assessors. If homeowners believe their property value has declined and they are paying too much in property taxes, the local tax assessor will review the property value for free for a possible downward assessment.

To avoid becoming a victim, homeowners should:

• Never pay money for something they did not ask for.

• Avoid a middleman; they should contact their local tax assessors office for property value reassessment.

More Scam Alerts ...

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Florida Sues Gas Redemption Coupon Promoters

Freebeegas, Freegasredemption coupons not honored, suit charges

The company engaged in an unfair and deceptive marketing scheme by producing and distributing vouchers for gasoline through a nationwide network of indepen...

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum has sued a company that for alleged deceptive marketing of gasoline redemption vouchers.

Tidewater Marketing Global Consultants, Inc., a Florida corporation located in Pinellas, and the companys president, Crystal Clark, are named in the lawsuit.

An investigation revealed Clark and her company engaged in an unfair and deceptive marketing scheme by producing and distributing vouchers for gasoline through a nationwide network of independent distributors, but failing to provide the gas cards as promised, McCollum said.

The vouchers were sold by distributors to retail merchants which in turn offered the vouchers to encourage sales of retail products and services. The lawsuit states hundreds of thousands of these vouchers may have been provided to consumers across the country.

Consumers with vouchers were required to register with Tidewater Marketing through websites, such as freegasredemption.com and FreeBeeGas.com, or by mail and pay a $5 fee for registration. Registered consumers were allegedly entitled to receive gift cards from Tidewater upon submitting receipts for gasoline purchases that complied with the requirements of the program.

The Attorney Generals Office is aware of over 500 complaints from consumers who never received the gift cards and is aware of at least 1,300 additional complaints reported to the Better Business Bureau and other authorities.

The lawsuit was filed under Floridas Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. Civil penalties against the company and Clark could include an injunction prohibiting them from engaging in this conduct, a requirement for consumer restitution, a $10,000 civil fine for each violation, and payment of attorneys fees and costs.

Consumers with complaints about this company should call the Attorney Generals fraud hotline at 1-866-966-7226 or may file a complaint online at http://myfloridalegal.com.

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North Carolina Parks Auto Warranty Scam

Telemarketers target seniors with bogus expiration claims

North Carolina Parks Auto Warranty Scam...

February 12, 2009
You've probably received junk mail warning you that your car's warranty is about to expire, but offering an extended warranty for a reasonable price. In North Carolina, senior citizens have received calls from telemarketers pushing these bogus plans, despite being on the Do Not Call list.

"Calling people on the Do Not Call list and trying to trick them is no way to do business," said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said. "We're taking action to stop the calls and try to win money back for consumers."

At Cooper's request, a Superior Court Judge entered a temporary restraining order against Automotive Protection of New Jersey and its manager Christopher Doyle. The order requires the defendants to stop illegally telemarketing North Carolinians and to quit taking their money.

Cooper contends that Automotive Protection targeted consumers aged 65 or older, called people who had signed up for the Do Not Call Registry to stop telemarketing calls, and misrepresented the terms of its auto warranties. He is asking the court to permanently stop the company's illegal telemarketing calls and deceptive sales practices, and to order the company to pay consumer refunds and civil penalties.

A total of 24 consumers complained to the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division about the company's illegal calls, tricky sales tactics and refusal to pay refunds. Consumers' stories, filled as affidavits with Cooper's complaint, illustrate how the company has operated in North Carolina:

• A Guilford County resident was promised that a $1,599 extended warranty would cover his car bumperto-bumper for four years. But when he got the contract, the warranty wasn't as good as the telemarketer had claimed. He called to cancel and was told he would get his $350 deposit back. Instead of returning his money, Automotive Protection charged $1,249 to his credit card.

• A 74-year-old woman in Avery County agreed to buy a warranty for her Toyota for $2,050. She made a down payment of $200 but had second thoughts within the hour and tried to cancel. She repeatedly faxed in her cancellation form and was promised her money back, but Automotive Protection kept her $200 and the company's payment processor took an additional $154.13 from her bank account.

• An 82-year-old resident of Pitt County was told that he had 30 days to review the car warranty contract before he'd be charged. But a few days later, he discovered that Automotive Protection had withdrawn $250 from his bank account using a fake check number. He wrote and called to cancel the contract but Automotive Protection's payment processor continued to try to bill him.

"Tough times bring out the scammers," Cooper said.

More Scam Alerts ...

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Don't Fall For Valentines e-Card Scam

It loves you not

It's perfectly fine to have your heart stolen on Valentine's Day, but not your money or identity. That's why you should lookout for fraudulent e-cards disg...

February 12, 2009
It's perfectly fine to have your heart stolen on Valentine's Day, but not your money or your identity. That's why you should be on the lookout for fraudulent e-cards disguised as Valentines.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller says these fraudulent Valentine's Day greetings in your e-mail inbox could potentially cause major damage to computers.

Scammers have created fake e-mail notifications stating a "friend" or "family member" has sent an e-card, causing the recipient to click on a link provided. Upon clicking the link, the recipient may be taken to a malicious Web site.

"Legitimate e-card notifications will always identify the sender by name or e-mail address, never by a generic term," warned Zoeller. "Unless you recognize the full name of the sender or the e-mail address, do not open the e-card because it is likely the e-mail is fraudulent and could cause harm to your computer."

Additional tips for avoiding becoming an internet fraud victim:

• Do not respond to spam e-mails.

• Do not click on links contained within a spam e-mail, instead log on to the official Web site.

• Only open attachments from known senders.

• Do not disclose personal information in e-mail forms.

• Always compare the link in the e-mail to the link that you are actually directed to.

If you suspect a fraudulent e-mail, contact the actual business that supposedly sent the e-mail to verify if the email is genuine.

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Lawsuits On the Trail of Nutro, Canidae Pet Foods

Pet owners' complaints of death, illness headed for court

Lawsuits On the Trail of Nutro, Canidae Pet Foods...


Two separate law firms are gathering information for potential class action lawsuits against Canidae and Nutro, the pet food manufacturers whose products are alleged to have caused widespread pet illness.

Progressive Law Group, LLC, is currently gathering information from pet owners who say their dogs became sick as a result of eating Canidae products, or who have information that would be useful to the suit.

According to its website, the firm focuses mainly on environmental, energy, and consumer affairs issues. More information about the Canidae suit can be found online.

Meanwhile, the Alabama firm of McCallum, Hoaglund, Cook, and Irby is gathering information for a potential class action lawsuit against the company that manufactures Nutro.

In spite of widespread complaints of pet illness, Canidae has yet to issue a voluntary recall of its foods. Last year, the company issued a statement explaining that it had changed the foods formulation and that pets needed to be transitioned gradually from the old to the new formula.

Specifically, the company cited the new foods increased levels of meat protein and the increased overall complex carbohydrate quality.

However, angry consumers said Canidae was at best inconsistent in warning pet owners beforehand of the need for the gradual formula transition. Many claimed that neither the food nor the shelves on which it was stocked provided any warning that the formula had changed.

Some consumers have speculated that the new formula, which contains carbohydrates such as corn and barley, came as a shock to their dogs systems, which had become accustomed to the old formulas more rice-centered composition. In September 2007, a lab report allegedly showed that a Canidae sample contained the painkiller acetaminophen, a charge which Canidae vehemently denied.

Menu Foods

Menu Foods, another large pet food manufacturer, was forced to issue a series of recalls in 2007, after scores of dogs became sick, some experiencing kidney failure. At least 10 deaths were reported. The Pet Food Products Safety Alliance (PFPSA) tested a batch of Nutro pet food in August 2008, and found alarming levels of copper and zinc.

Indeed, PFPSA noted that the copper levels were two to three times higher than recommended by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

A multi-district class action lawsuit against Menu Foods recently settled for $24 million. The suit was brought on behalf of certain U.S. and Canadian residents who purchased recalled pet food after March 16, 2007.

Under the settlement, all class members are eligible to collect up to 100% of economic damages they suffered, as long as they can provide documentation. An explanation of the settlement and relevant court documents can be found at www.petfoodsettlement.com.

More about pets ...

 



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Sirius XM Near Bankruptcy

Recession, slumping auto sales contribute to satellite broadcaster's woes

Sirius XM Near Bankruptcy...

Struggling satellite broadcaster Sirius XM may be on the verge of bankruptcy. The New York Timesreports the company is meeting with restructuring advisers in advance of a bankruptcy filing.

The bankruptcy would come just months after the two satellite radio broadcasters, Sirius and XM Radio, merged. At the time, both companies were in shaky financial condition a problem made worse by the recession.

Besides the general economic downturn, Sirius XM has been hurt by the disastrous slump in new car sales. The company gets most of its new customers from the sale of new cars equipped with stereo receivers.

The U.S. Justice Department approved the merger last year, despite strong opposition from some consumer groups. The Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and Free Press urged the Federal Communications Commission to reject the proposed XM-Sirius merger on the grounds that it would lead to higher prices.

This week Sirius XM notified subscribers that free online access would soon end, but offered to provide continued online access at no charge if customers would extend their contracts.

The combined company offers dozens of non-commercial music channels, as well as a number of commercially-supported news and talk channels.

 

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Three Big Pickups Look Wimpy in Side Tests

Silverado, Ram, Titan do poor job of protecting passengers

Three Big Pickups Look Wimpy in Side Tests...

While the Chevrolet Silverado 1500, Dodge Ram 1500, and Nissan Titan are billed as workhorses, tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show that the side crash protection these 2009 model large pickups provide is wimpy, at best.

The trio earns either poor or marginal ratings in the IIHS side tests and, even with side airbags, occupant protection in these crew-cab pickups is no better than marginal.

"The size, weight, and height of these large pickups should help them ace the side tests just like the other large pickups we've tested. Not these three," said Institute senior vice president David Zuby. "They perform worse than many cars we've evaluated."

The Dodge Ram with standard side airbags earns a marginal rating. The Nissan Titan and Chevrolet Silverado earn poor ratings when tested without their optional side airbags.

The Titan's side rating improves to marginal in models tested with side airbags, while the Silverado's optional side airbags don't improve the rating over models without them. The Silverado's ratings also apply to its twin, the GMC Sierra 1500, both of which were redesigned in 2007, so the ratings apply to 2007-09 models.

The Ram is a new design for the 2009 model year. The Titan was introduced in the 2004 model year, so results apply to 2004-09 models.

The Institute's side tests assess occupant protection in vehicles struck in the side by SUVs or pickups. Results can be compared across vehicle type and weight categories, while frontal crash test ratings can't.

This is because the kinetic energy involved in the side test depends on the weight and speed of the moving barrier, which are the same in every test. In contrast, the kinetic energy involved in the frontal crash test against an immovable barrier depends on the test vehicle's speed and weight.

The Ram, Titan, and Silverado should have an advantage in side crash tests over smaller vehicles, not just because of their size and weight but also because the dummies' higher seating positions put their heads and shoulders above the striking barrier.

Occupants of cars, for instance, are more vulnerable because their bodies are in line with the fronts of vehicles, especially tall ones, which might hit them in the side.

"These large pickups don't have to work as hard as smaller vehicles do to protect their occupants. Even with their characteristic advantages, the Ram, Titan, and Silverado still miss the mark when it comes to occupant protection in side crashes," Zuby said.

Without side torso airbags, occupants are vulnerable. What's behind the lackluster performance?

In the Silverado's case, it's a combination of a poor side structure plus the lack of side torso airbags. The truck's optional side curtain airbags are designed to protect occupants' heads, and these worked well. But occupants' upper bodies remain unprotected even with the optional side curtains.

"In the Silverado tests, there was a lot of intrusion into the occupant compartment. With no torso airbags to protect the driver and rear passenger, measures recorded on the test dummies showed that rib fractures and internal organ injuries would be likely in a real-world crash of similar severity," Zuby said. "Chevy needs to improve the Silverado's side structure, as well as add padding or torso airbags to better protect its occupants."

In contrast, the Ram and Titan's side structures are designed to better limit intrusion. The Ram's side structure/safety cage earns a good rating, while the Titan's earns acceptable marks. The Ram has standard head-protecting side curtain airbags but not torso airbags.

Both curtain and side torso bags are optional in the Titan. Adding torso airbags might improve the Ram's side protection. The Titan could be improved with some combination of structural, airbag, or door trim modifications.

"It's certainly possible to design a large pickup that offers good occupant protection in side crashes," Zuby says. Three previously evaluated 2009 models are Institute Top Safety Pick award winners. The Honda Ridgeline, Ford F-150, and Toyota Tundra all have standard side airbags with torso and head protection and good-rated structures.

The Ram would be a Top Safety Pick contender if its side rating improves to good, Zuby notes. Dodge improved the seat/head restraints in the 2009 model to earn a good rating for protection in rear crashes, while the 2006-08 models earned a poor rating.

Electronic stability control, another criterion to earn the award, also is standard.

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Another Study Discounts Vitamin Benefits

Daily vitamin pills show little effect in postmenopausal women

Another Study Discounts Vitamin Benefits...

In a blow to the vitamin supplement industry, another clinical study suggests daily vitamin pills have little effectiveness in fighting off heart disease and cancer. On the heels of a study suggesting vitamins are of little help to men and another study finding that most children don't need supplements, the latest study focuses on postmenopausal women.

The results of the Women's Health Initiative study, led by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, were published in the Feb. 9 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"Dietary supplements are used by more than half of all Americans, who spend more than $20 billion on these products each year. However, scientific data are lacking on the long-term health benefits of supplements," said lead author Marian L. Neuhouser, Ph.D., an associate member of the Public Health Sciences Division at the Hutchinson Center.

The study focused the effects of multivitamins because they are the most commonly used supplement.

"To our surprise, we found that multivitamins did not lower the risk of the most common cancers and also had no impact on heart disease," she said.

The study assessed multivitamin use among nearly 162,000 women enrolled in the Women's Health Initiative, one of the largest U.S. prevention studies of its kind designed to address the most common causes of death, disability and impaired quality of life in postmenopausal women. The women were followed for about eight years.

Nearly half of the study participants 41.5 percent reported using multivitamins on a regular basis. Multivitamin users were more likely to be white, live in the western United States, have a lower body-mass index, be more physically active and have a college degree or higher as compared to non-users. Multivitamin users also were more likely to drink alcohol and less likely to smoke than non-users, and they reported eating more fruits and vegetables and consuming less fat than non-users.

During the eight-year study period, 9,619 cases of breast, colorectal, endometrial, renal, bladder, stomach, lung or ovarian cancer were reported, as well as 8,751 cardiovascular events and 9,865 deaths. The study found no significant differences in risk of cancer, heart disease or death between the multivitamin users and non-users.

These findings are consistent with most previously published results regarding the lack of health benefits of multivitamins, Neuhouser said, but this study provides definitive evidence.

"The Women's Health Initiative is one of the largest studies ever done on diet and health. Thus, because we have such a large and diverse sample size, including women from 40 sites across the nation, our results can be generalized to a healthy population," Neuhouser said.

Since the study did not include men, Neuhouser cautions that the results may not apply to them.

So what advice do Neuhouser and colleagues offer to women who want to make sure they're getting optimal nutrition?

"Get nutrients from food," she said. "Whole foods are better than dietary supplements. Getting a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is particularly important."

 

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Wells Fargo Suit Charges Appraisal Price Gouging

Hundreds of thousands of homebuyers may have been victimized

Wells Fargo Suit Charges Appraisal Price Gouging...

A class action lawsuit alleges that lending giant Wells Fargo profited off an unholy scheme with an appraiser owned by Wells Fargos parent company.

According to the suit, Wells Fargo requires borrowers to use Rels Valuation, an appraisal service owned by the same company that controls Wells Fargo. In turn, Rels, which uses third-party appraisers to perform the work, forces these vendors to come back with an appraisal that meets Wells Fargos expectations, and pays the appraisers well below market value for their services.

Despite the bargain that Wells Fargo receives on the appraisals, it continues to charge consumers the full amount for the service, and pockets the difference.

As described in the suit, Wells Fargos alleged scheme is exceedingly clever and complex. According to the suit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, Wells Fargo pressures subcontracting appraisers to report back with a price that will allow Wells Fargo to underwrite the loan without significant obstacles, regardless of whether the figure is accurate.

Additionally, Wells Fargo allegedly informs the appraiser that they will pay them drastically less than the going market rate for their services. If the appraiser refuses to comply with either of these conditions, they are placed on Wells Fargos exclusion list, and are not considered for future appraisals.

Because of Wells Fargos giant stature — it is the number one mortgage lender in the nation — refusal to acquiesce in these demands could mean a drastic drop in appraisers business and significant damage to their reputation.

Under the rules laid out in the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), no company is allowed to require consumers to use another company, as such arrangements practically invite the kind of price gauging alleged here. However, the Act makes an exception for lenders, since appraisals are ostensibly done to protect their interests, and allowing them to choose a trusted appraiser helps further this purpose.

Under RESPA, however, when a lender requires the use of a certain appraiser, they must inform the consumer both of the relationship and of the amount they were charged by the appraiser. According to the suit, Wells Fargo sometimes disclosed the relationship between themselves and Rels, but never disclosed the price they paid for the appraisals, giving consumers no indication that they were paying as much as twice what Wells Fargo had for the service.

The suit estimates that, given Wells Fargos size and influence, tens or even hundreds of thousands of homeowners have been victimized by the scheme.

It brings claims under both RESPA and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), since the scheme was allegedly carried out across state lines via U.S. mail and interstate wire facilities. The suit also alleges unjust enrichment against Rels and breach of fiduciary duty and unfair competition against Wells Fargo.

Reader response

I would like to applaud Jon Hood for his bravery in telling the truth. I would also like to thank whatever Attorney(s) are involved and to lend support for their cause. Our business as honest, ethical appraisers has been derailed by these greedy companies. Did you know the CEO for Wells sat on the recent HVCC comittee to determine policy?

RC, Colorado Springs, CO

 

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Judge Orders Feds to Stop Sale of Toxin-Laden Toys

Safety agency had looked the other way as phthalate-laden toys remained on shelves

Judge Orders Feds to Stop Sale of Toxin-Laden Toys...

By Truman Lewis
ConsumerAffairs.com

February 6, 2009
A New York federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) must see that toys containing phthalates are removed from stove shelves after a ban takes effect next week.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Public Citizen filed suit against the CPSC last December, after the commission created a loophole in the congressionally mandated ban that is effective Feb. 10.

The loophole would have allowed retailers to stockpile and continue selling dangerous products as long as they were manufactured before the ban's effective date.

Judge Paul G. Gardephe said the law banning phthalates "provides unequivocally and unambiguously that no covered products may be sold as of Feb. 10, 2009."

"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."

Toy manufacturers say the ruling will cost them million hundreds of millions of dollars but consumer advocates said children's health is more important than corporate profits.

"Parents want to know that the toys theyre purchasing are safe — its not too much to ask," said Dr. Sarah Janssen, NRDC scientist. She said the CPSC was "ignoring the will of Congress and threatening our childrens health."

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

The commission — which routinely takes months to respond to even the simplest inquiry from the press and the public — acted quickly when the law firm Arent Fox, on behalf of unidentified corporate clients, asked it to apply the U.S. ban only 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, saying that manufacturers could 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."



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Gas Prices Creep Toward $2 A Gallon

Price of gas climbs as oil prices drop; go figure

Gas Prices Creep Toward $2 A Gallon...

Though world oil prices remain low and demand continues to fall, the price of gasoline continues to rise, and is now less than a dime away from $2 a gallon.

The latest AAA Fuel Gauge Report shows the nationwide average price of unleaded, self-serve regular is $1.91 a gallon. That's up from $1.846 last Friday and is nearly 20 cents a gallon higher than one month ago. However, it's still significantly below the $2.972 average of a year ago.

Six states Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New York and Washington remain the only states with average gasoline prices exceeding $2 a gallon.

Prices are also steadily rising in states where prices have fallen the most. Wyoming continues to have the cheapest gasoline, at $1.603 a gallon. That's up, however, from its average of around $1.49 a gallon at the end of December.

The average price in Utah is $1.691, and $1.767 a gallon in Oklahoma.

Oil futures dropped below $40 a barrel in early trading Friday. Anticipating a big jump in the U.S. unemployment rate, traders sent March crude prices down $1.38 to $39.80 a barrel.

So, why are gasoline prices rising when oil prices are falling? Don't the principles of supply and demand apply here?

Analysts say they do. They point to seasonal reduction of refinery activity, as well as minor disruptions at specific facilities. In other words, not all of that cheap oil is being turned into gasoline.

Eventually, however, market principles should swing around to favor the consumer again. Oil producers have been keeping large quantities of crude oil at sea, aboard super tankers, rather than bringing it to market for the current low prices. Eventually, however, those ships will arrive in port.

Analysts say even with a possible uptick in the economy by mid-year among the most optimistic forecasts there should be plenty of oil, keeping gasoline prices stable, if not cheap.

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Can Pacemakers Hinder Your Sex Life?

The Healthy Geezer

Modern pacemakers are stable devices, but there are still some precautions you should take if you've had one of these miraculous gizmos implanted in your c...

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NY Attorney General Seeks Jail Time for Accused Diploma Peddler

Long Island man accused of selling fake study courses

NY Attorney General Seeks Jail Time for Accused Diploma Peddler...

The office of New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo is taking action to jail a Long Island man it says continues to exploit local residents through fake GED home study courses.

Robert Collins of East Meadow is accused of duping thousands of consumers into enrolling in his fraudulent course, even though multiple court orders had already mandated him to permanently close his business.

Cuomo is seeking restitution for the victims of this scheme and a 6-month jail sentence for Collins.

Collins runs two businesses — "Long Island Home Study" and "East End Home Study" — that claim they can award genuine, state-authorized high school equivalency diplomas through an at-home General Education Development (GED) test. His actions have been barred by multiple court orders and judgments since 2005, but he continues to sell fake GED diplomas, according to the attorney general.

"This man has repeatedly preyed upon Long Island and New York City residents who are simply trying to better themselves and increase their career opportunities," said Cuomo. "Any individual or business that takes advantage of unsuspecting consumers and blatantly ignores court orders will face the consequences."

Cuomo says Collins repeatedly promised consumers that they would receive diplomas "straight from the Education Department itself" and that the diplomas could be used "to get into any college in the United States."

Many of the consumers who enrolled in Collins' course were born outside the United States and were not familiar with the educational requirements for a GED. They signed up for the course expecting to obtain diplomas that would help them gain admission to college or trade school. Instead, Cuomo says, they received nothing but worthless "certificates" stating that they had completed Collins' course.

Under state law, students can earn the New York State High School Equivalency Diploma only by taking and passing the official General Educational Development (GED) examination. Any school offering a GED preparatory course must be licensed by the State Department of Education.

The test is free and given at centers that have been approved by the State Education Department and the GED Testing Service. The term "GED" is sometimes confused with advertised "General Equivalency Diplomas," but these other credentials, whether obtained through correspondence, on-line, or classroom instruction, are not New York State High School Equivalency Diplomas and are not recognized by the State Education Department.

 



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Experian To Stop Selling Credit Scores To Consumers

Dispute with Fair Isaac leads to cutoff after February 15th

Experian To Stop Selling Credit Scores To Consumers...

By Martin H. Bosworth
ConsumerAffairs.com

February 5, 2009
For years, consumers have had it drilled into them that it's essential to check credit scores from the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union — before applying for a job or a loan of any kind. But come February 15th, Experian will no longer be selling its data to Fair Isaac, creators of the FICO credit score that the vast majority of lenders rely on.

However, Experian still plans to sell data on consumer lending and borrowing to businesses, meaning that they may make decisions about loans based on data that consumers can no longer access.

Although the three major credit bureaus were forced by Federal law to offer free credit reports to consumers, the lending process has come to rely almost solely on the credit score — the three-digit number created from a "scoring" formula of the various data in a consumer's credit report — which consumers still have to pay to see.

The move comes at a time when good credit scores are more important than ever, as banks and lenders demand higher creditworthiness in order to make loans after the excessive lending of the previous decade led to the global financial meltdown.

"This is the second threatened termination and it comes at arguably the worst economic climate in the U.S. since the Great Depression; a time when consumers need more access to their personal credit information, not less," said Credit.com's John Ulzheimer.

Fair Isaac had previously negotiated deals with the three bureaus to distribute its FICO score to consumers and lenders using their data. Trans Union and Experian also market their own credit score models, but the scores can often vary wildly and are not considered as accurate as a FICO score.

The relationship between Fair Isaac and the credit bureaus became strained in 2006, when the bureaus introduced the "VantageScore," a new proprietary credit score model that was purported to be more accurate and fair to consumers. The new score was widely panned as unnecessary and confusing for borrowers, and few lenders have chosen to use the new system.

Fair Isaac sued the bureaus over the VantageScore, claiming it harmed the FICO brand and disrupted the ability of consumers to get accurate information about their credit. Although Fair Isaac later dropped Equifax from the suit, the charges against the other two bureaus are still pending.

Fair Isaac will still carry the FICO scores for Trans Union and Equifax after February 14th, and Experian will continue to provide free credit reports through the AnnualCreditReport.com Web site. But consumers are urged to buy their Experian score from FICO before February 14th, when it may go away permanently.

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Job Cuts Soar to Seven-Year High

Retail downsizing pushes planned cuts to nearly 250,000

Job Cuts Soar to Seven-Year High...

The new year came in like a lion, as record downsizing in the retail sector helped push the number of planned job cuts announced in January to 241,749. That is the largest monthly total since January 2002, when job cuts reached an all-time high of 248,475, according to a report released by global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

The January job-cut total was 45 percent higher than the 166,348 cuts announced in December and 222 percent higher than a year ago, when employers announced 74,986 job cuts to begin the year.

Last month ranks as the second largest January on record and the fourth largest job-cut month since Challenger began its tracking in 1993.

Historically, January is the heaviest downsizing month. It has been the largest job-cut month of the year seven times between 1993 and 2008. During that period, January job cuts averaged 98,053, 10 percent higher than the 88,892 averaged in October, the next heaviest job-cut month.

The January surge was due in large part to significant reductions in the retail sector, which is coming off its worst holiday sales season in decades. Retailers announced 53,968 job cuts in January, a record number for the industry and one of the largest one-month job-cut totals for any industry.

January retail firings surpassed the 2007 year-end total for this sector (51,036) by nearly 3,000 job cuts. Meanwhile, cuts in this industry are less than 28,000 away from surpassing the 2008 year-end total of 81,621.

The second-ranked industrial goods sector announced 32,083 job cuts last month, followed by computer (22,330), pharmaceutical (22,063), and aerospace/defense (17,800).

"The variety of industries represented among the top five job-cutting sectors in January is further evidence of how far the impact of this recession has spread," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Industries that at first appeared to be immune to downturns, such as computer and pharmaceutical are now rapidly shedding workers."

Challenger notes that even if the stimulus package is successful, it could take months to make a noticeable impact on the employment picture.

"If there is any bright spot in the latest job-cut data, it is the fact that financial firms announced only 1,458 job cuts in January," he added. "That is the lowest one-month total for that industry since 2005. Whether that is a sign of lower job cuts to come or simply a fluke remains to be seen," said Challenger.

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Class Action Filed Over Chase Credit Card Fees

Bank demands "monthly service fee," higher payments

Class Action Filed Over Chase Credit Card Fees...

A class action filed in January alleges that Chase is forcing its customers to pay a "monthly service fee" and an increased monthly payment, without advance notification.

The suit concerns Chase's "Balance Transfer Checks," a tool that allows consumers to transfer outstanding balances to their Chase credit cards. The suit alleges that, under the balance transfer program, Chase promised a low annual percentage rate (APR) — typically between 2.99% and 4.99% — not subject to change for the life of the balance.

Beginning in January, however, Chase began slapping a $10 monthly "service fee" onto customers' bills. Consumers who refused to pay found their APR raised, sometimes to as high as 7.99%. Moreover, Chase asserts the right to again unilaterally raise the rate again after a year.

According to the suit, filed in federal court in California, neither the possibility of a monthly fee nor an arbitrary APR increase was mentioned in the cardholder agreement that customers signed when they first received the card. Although the agreement provides for APR increases in certain circumstances — for example, if the customer misses a payment or fails to maintain a certain balance — members of the class had their rates raised despite having met all of their obligations.

The suit further claims that customers who call Chase to inquire about the fee are given no information whatsoever, either as to the purpose of the charge or how it is calculated. The only way for customers to avoid paying the charge is to agree to the APR increase.

The practice is especially damaging to consumers given the nature of the balance transfer program, which is aimed at those who are struggling to pay existing balances on other credit cards, usually at a higher interest rate than that promised by Chase. As described on Chase's website, balance transfer cards are "a great way to simplify your finances. Plus, you can often save money on interest charges if you carry a large balance on a credit card with a higher rate."

Many affected consumers are finding themselves right back where they started when they signed up, or worse. Calvin G. of Brookings, SD says: "I was finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but it just got a little darker again. I find this practice of theirs a total sham, especially to card members who are in good standing. Told the customer rep that I guess they can pretty much do whatever they want and she had no response."

The lawsuit alleges several counts, including violations of the Truth in Lending Act, which requires lenders to clearly spell out terms and conditions in the initial agreement; breach of contract; and unfair competition.

 

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R-SYS Bicycle Wheel Rims Recalled

R-SYS Bicycle Wheel Rims Recalled...

February 4, 2009
Mavic USA is recalling about 12,000 bicycles with R-SYS wheel rims.

The spokes on the bicycle's front wheel rim can break during use, posing a fall and crash hazard to riders. Mavic USA has received one report of an injury involving broken teeth.

This recall includes R-SYS and R-SYS Premium front wheel rims. They were sold as original equipment on various bicycle brands and were also sold separately. R-SYS wheel rims are designed for road bikes. "R-SYS" is printed on the front rim of the wheels. The rims are 22mm in diameter, with 16 tubular, unidirectional carbon spokes.

The wheel rims were sold at specialty bicycle retailers from May 2007 through December 2008 for between $700 and $750 for the front wheel of the two-wheel set when sold separately from the bicycle. They were made in France.

Consumers should stop using bicycles with the recalled front wheel rims and contact their bicycle retailer for a free replacement front rim.

For additional information, contact Mavic USA at (800) 664-9228 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site at www.mavic.com.

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

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How Miraculous is the Amish Fireplace?

'Free' 1500-watt made-in-China space heater costs $300

"The HEAT SURGE miracle heater is a work of engineering genius from the China coast, so advanced you simply plug it into any standard wall outlet," the ad ...

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California, Feds Sue Over Generic Testosterone

Companies accused of monopolizing supplement sales

The lawsuit charges that Solvay and the three pharmaceutical companies violated U.S. and California antitrust laws and laws banning unfair competition....


The state of California and the Federal Trade Commission have filed an antitrust lawsuit against four pharmaceutical companies that conspired to monopolize the sale of a testosterone supplement in a "predatory move" to reap huge profits at the expense of consumers.

"The companies plotted to keep cheap generic drugs off the market, costing consumers millions," said California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. "This was a predatory move pure and simple, increasing drug company profits at the expense of critically ill patients."

Testosterone supplements like AndroGel can prevent muscle loss, fatigue or erectile dysfunction in critically ill patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and advanced age.

The lawsuit contends that Solvay Pharmaceuticals illegally colluded with three other pharmaceutical companies — Watson, Par and Paddock Laboratories — to keep the three companies from producing generic alternatives to its testosterone supplement.

In return, the suit charges Solvay agreed to pay Watson and the other companies millions of dollars over several years. With this agreement, the drug companies sought to protect the monopoly position of AndroGel, forcing consumers to pay artificially high prices for the drug while the companies shared the extraordinary profits, according to the complaint.

Solvay Pharmaceuticals manufactures and distributes a testosterone supplement called AndroGel with annual sales exceeding $400 million in 2007.

In 2003, Watson Pharmaceuticals and Par Pharmaceutical Companies, Solvay's competitors, sought approval from the Food and Drug Administration to make and sell generic versions of AndroGel. These companies received final approval from the FDA. If they had begun to sell generic alternatives, Solvay would have seen a significant reduction in its profits from AndroGel sales.

Typically, when generic alternatives are introduced in the market, the prices of brand name drugs are reduced by 50 percent to 80% percent The price for AndroGel is $225.01 for a box of 150 individual units.

Without generics on the market, consumers and health insurance programs must pay more for branded medications. Pharmaceutical monopolies cost the state, its citizens and private insurers millions of dollars each year.

Brown and the FTC filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles against the following pharmaceutical companies:

• Solvay Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

• Paddock Laboratories, Inc.

• Par Pharmaceutical Companies, Inc.

• Watson Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

The lawsuit charges that Solvay and the three pharmaceutical companies violated U.S. and California antitrust laws and laws banning unfair competition. The lawsuit seeks to:

• Declare the agreements between Solvay, Paddock, Par and Watson illegal and void.

• Permanently enjoin the defendants from similar and related conduct in the future.

• Fine the defendants $2500 for each prescription and user of AndroGel in California under the California Unfair Competition Act.

More Scam Alerts ...

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Auto Warranty Solicitations Plague Consumers

Telemarketing calls may be bogus, BBB warns

The Better Business Bureau is warning consumers to be extremely wary of telemarketing calls and mailers which claim their auto warranty has or is about to...


The Better Business Bureau is warning consumers to be extremely wary of telemarketing calls and mailers which claim their auto warranty has or is about to expire.

BBB advises that the deceptive solicitations could persuade car owners to purchase an extended auto service contract of questionable value.

BBB has seen a considerable spike in both complaints and inquiries from consumers who state that they received misleading mailers or high-pressure telemarketing calls claiming their auto warranty was about to expire.

Complaints against Auto Warranty Processing Services rose by more than 40 percent over the prior year. In 2008, more than 140,000 consumers across the country contacted their BBB to confirm the legitimacy of companies claiming to sell auto warranties.

As an outgrowth of our countrys economic troubles, and to some extent problems in the auto industry, BBB is hearing from consumers nationwide who are being bombarded by telemarketers and mailers trying to scare them into thinking their auto warranty is about to expire and if they dont sign-up now the offer expires, said Steve Cox, BBB spokesperson.

Not only are these telemarketers lying about the consumers coverage, they are potentially ignoring federal laws such as the Do-Not-Call registry.

BBB has received complaints from consumers across North America who were informed that their car warranty was about to expire, when such was not the case, and that they needed to take immediate action in order to avoid a lapse in coverage.

BBB research shows that the consumer is actually being sold an extended service contract and despite the impression given, the offer is not associated with the car manufacturers warranty.

The value of the various extended service contracts being sold also has been called into question, as many consumers complained that the contract had numerous conditions that might be difficult to meet.

For instance, pre-existing conditions often are not covered, proof of maintenance records may be required and restrictions on authorized repair facilities and repair charges must receive prior approval making many of these contracts virtually worthless. Others report difficulty in obtaining refunds.

BBB offers the following advice for dealing with a firm selling extended auto service contracts:

• Never give personal information, including Social Security, bank or credit card numbers, over the phone to an unknown telemarketer.

• When considering an extended service contract or any other type of telephone solicitation, insist on getting a contract in which all terms and conditions are clearly explained before signing up or providing credit card or other payment information.

• Read your auto manufacturers warranty and contact your dealer or manufacturer so that you are not purchasing duplicate coverage.

• Before purchasing extended warranty coverage, consumers should always check the company out first with BBB at www.bbb.org and review the consumer complaints in the ConsumerAffairs.com Extended Warranty section.

• Consumers can place their phone number on the federal do not call list by visiting www.donotcall.gov. If the consumer is already on the list but continues to receive telemarketing calls, he or she can use the same Web site to report the incident to the FTC.

More Scam Alerts ...

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Job Hunters: Beware of Rebate-Processing Scams

Tough economy raises interset in work-at-home jobs

BBB has received hundreds of complaints from victims nationwide who never earned a dime and were, in fact, ripped off for hundreds of dollars in upfront fe...

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Study: Americans Take Unnecessary Risks

Even small changes in behavior can save lives

Study: Americans Take Unnecessary Risks...

Some 48 percent of Americans don't have a carbon-monoxide detector at home, 24 percent sometimes fail to fasten a seatbelt, and 39 percent often eat raw dough when making cookies, according to a nationally representative poll of 1,000 Americans conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

This is the second part of a two-part series that looks at risky behavior. The first half was published in the February 2009 issue of Consumer Reports.

The poll reveals what behaviors Americans do which they probably shouldn't, including:

• Occasionally using the top step of a ladder (31 percent).

• Sometimes having a beer while using a power tool or mower (13 percent).

• Letting their kids play on a trampoline (43 percent)

Also, the survey shows what behaviors Americans don't do that they probably should, including:

• Having a rubber mat in the tub or shower (61 percent don't)

• Changing batteries in smoke alarms yearly (21 percent don't)

• Eating burgers only well done (32 percent don't)

The results are revealing because these behaviors can cause real harm, according to safety experts at Consumer Reports and elsewhere.

According to the National Highway Traffic Administration, safety belts saved 15,147 lives in 2007.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that carbon-monoxide poisoning claims almost 500 lives in the U.S. each year.

The CDC notes that a common cause of food-borne salmonella infections is under-cooked or raw eggs, often found in cookie dough. Salmonellosis causes an estimated 1.4 million cases of food-borne illness and more than 500 deaths annually in the United States.

Based on Consumer Reports' analysis of Consumer Product Safety Commission data, more than 105,000 hospital-treated injuries in the U.S. in 2007 were linked to trampolines.

The poll revealed men were slightly more likely than women to let children play on a trampoline, and women were more apt to eat burgers well done, fasten their safety belt religiously, and clean lint from the dryer after each use. Respondents ages 18 to 35 were more likely than older folks to eat raw cookie dough; those 55 and older were more likely to have a rubber mat in the tub or shower.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a random-digit-dialing telephone survey of a nationally representative probability sample of telephone households. In all, 1,000 interviews were completed among adults aged 18+. Interviews took place in October 2008. The margin of error is +/- 3% points at a confidence level of 95 percent.

The full report on how often Americans take risks is available in the March 2009 issue of Consumer Reports, on sale February 3 and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.

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Pricey Pet Food Not Necessarily Better

Consumer Reports advises consumers about what to look for on pet-food labels

Pricey Pet Food Not Necessarily Better...

When it comes to buying pet food, higher cost doesn't always mean higher quality. A higher price could indicate better ingredients and better quality control during and after manufacturing, but it could also just mean prettier packaging, more marketing, or a fancy name.

And despite food safety concerns that resulted from a recall of pet food tainted with melamine in 2007, Consumer Reports urges caution for consumers who are considering making their own pet food, a growing trend.

Consumer Reports asked eight experts in dog and cat nutrition at seven top veterinary schools what consumers get by spending more for pet food. They were also asked what they served their own pets: Most of the experts said they use a variety of common brands sold at pet stores or supermarkets.

A recent survey by the Associated Press found that although Americans may be spending less on themselves, they're not scrimping on their pets. According to the survey, just one in seven pet owners said they had curtailed spending on their pet during the past year, even as they cut back on other expenses.

Thirty-seven percent of U.S. households have dogs, and 32 percent have cats. But because of multi-cat households, felines outnumber canines. As of 2007, there were almost 82 million cats and 72 million dogs.

The bottom line: It's more important to look for the overall nutrient profile of a particular pet food brand than it is to shop by price or even individual ingredients. "As a pet owner, your main goal is to ensure that your animal is active and healthy," says Jamie Hirsh, associate health editor at Consumer Reports. "That suggests that the food you're buying is doing its job. But it's also important to know that you don't have to choose the most expensive food to get what's best for your pet. Look for food labeled 'complete and balanced,' which indicates it can be the pet's sole nourishment."

Hirsh advises pet owners to look for labels stating that the food's nutritional adequacy was validated by animal-feeding tests based on protocols from the American Association of Feed Control Officials, a regulatory group. That statement is a step above the other one that AAFCO allows — that a food was formulated to meet the group's nutrient profiles. "In addition, make sure the package has contact information for the food's manufacturer, in case you have questions," Hirsh says.

Consumers should also take into consideration the age of their pet and whether he or she has special needs. For example, cats with kidney or urinary problems might benefit from the moisture in wet food, while animals with dental issues might do better with dry food.

What pet food labels really mean

For pet food, there's no official definition of organic, human-grade, premium, no fillers, or gourmet. Gluten-free foods are generally necessary only for the tiny percentages of pets that are intolerant of that protein. There's some evidence that antioxidants — such as vitamin E — and some omega-3 fatty acids might enhance pets' immunity or help protect against certain diseases, but the experts interviewed by Consumer Reports were split on whether consumers need to look for them.

Consumer Reports recommends that consumers educate themselves about pet food labeling, which is mostly defined by AAFCO, which sets standards for pet food manufacturing. Here are some examples:

• The 95 percent rule (Beef for Dogs). Named ingredient(s) must account for a least 95 percent of the product by weight.

• Dinner; also Entre, Formula, Nuggets, Platter, Recipe (Chicken and Salmon Dinner for Cats). The named ingredients must make up at least 25 percent of the product by weight, not counting water. Each individual food must make up at least 3 percent.

• "With..." (Gourmet Fillets with Turkey for Dogs). Contains 3 percent or more of the named ingredient.

• Flavor (Beef flavor). No specific percentage required, but the product must contain enough of the food to impart the claimed flavor, or another substance that tastes like it (beef stock, for example).

• Guaranteed analysis. Mandatory guarantee that the food contains the labeled percentages of crude protein, fat, fiber, and moisture.

• Light, lite, low-calorie. Meets AAFCO limits for a reduced-calorie diet for overweight dogs and cats. "Lean" and "low-fat" have a similar meaning for fat.

• Natural. Technically, the food has few or no synthetic ingredients. But the claim is loosely defined.

• Grain-free. Protein in the product comes from nongrain sources (perhaps for people who want pets to eat more animal protein). It's unclear whether there's any benefit to a diet high in animal protein.

What consumers can do

Consumer Reportsoffers this advice to pet owners:

Be careful when making your own pet food. Most experts said they hadn't seen a pet get sick from inexpensive food; however, half said they had seen pets become ill from eating homemade pet food, a growing trend since the 2007 recall of some commercial pet food contaminated by melamine. Dogs and cats each require about 40 different nutrients in very specific proportions, so pet owners who insist on making their own pet food should consider enlisting a nutritionist certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (www.acvn.org) or get help from the Web sites www.balanceit.com or www.petdiets.com.

Consider your pet's age. Age-specific food is very important for puppies, kittens, and pregnant pets, who have especially stringent nutritional needs. Foods labeled either "for growth" or "for all life stages" meet those needs. Foods "for maintenance" are for healthy adult animals only. "Senior" is a marketing term, not a nutritional term.

Weigh the costs and benefits of wet versus dry food. There's no nutritional difference between wet and dry pet food, but there is a cost difference. Wet foods contain about 75 percent water, so pets need more to get the same calories, and that makes wet food more expensive per serving.

The full report is available in the March 2009 issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org.

 

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Peanut Butter Recall Claims Still More Products

More than 20 companies added to list

Peanut Butter Recall Claims Still More Products...

More than 20 companies recalled cookies, candies, pet treats, and other products over the weekend because they contain peanut butter or paste made by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).

That company is linked to the nationwide salmonella outbreak, which has sickened more than 500 people in 43 states and may be related to the deaths of eight others.

PCA is also the focus of a federal investigation for allegedly shipping peanut products it knew had tested positive for salmonella.

In recent weeks, food makers across the country have recalled more than 400 types of products in what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calls the largest food-related recall in memory.

And the list keeps growing — fueled by PCA's recent decision to expand its recall to include all peanuts and peanut products made at its Georgia facility since 2007.

Here are some of the latest products companies have recalled in the wake of PCA's expanded recall of peanuts and peanut products:

Walgreens chocolate candies. The company sold the candies in its stores from January 1, 2007 to Jan. 29, 2009. The recall covers: WALGREENS BRIDGE MIX 3.5 OZ, 4 OZ, 14 OZ and 15 OZ; WALGREENS CHOCOLATE COVERED PEANUTS 3.5 OZ, 4 OZ, 13.5 OZ and 15 OZ; WALGREENS CARAMEL NUT CLUSTERS 3.5 OZ, 4 OZ, 13.5 OZ and 15 OZ; and WALGREENS CHOCOLATE PEANUT CLUSTERS 3.5 OZ and 4 OZ. Customers can return the candies for a full refund. For more information, contact Walgreens at 847-315-2755.

Kroger Peanut Butter Bakery Cookies and Select Cakes. The company sold the products in 31 states under the following names: Kroger, Ralphs, Fred Meyer, Food 4 Less, Fry's, King Soopers, Smith's, Dillons, QFC, City Market, Foods Co., Jay C, Scott's, Owen's, Baker's, Gerbes, Hilander and Pay Less. The recall specifically includes all packages of the following Kroger, Store-Brand, and Private Selection store-baked and store-packaged cookies: Peanut Butter Cookies Regular, Jumbo, Decorated, Iced, Gourmet, Mini and Sandwich cookies; Assorted and Variety Bakery Cookies Regular and Jumbo; Private Selection Peanut Chocolate Chunk Cookies; Private Selection Gourmet Variety Cookie Trays. Kroger is also recalling all sizes of the following Private Selection Cakes: Private Selection Chocolate Trio Single-Layer and Double-Layer Iced Cakes. Customers can return these products to the store for a full refund. For more information, contact Kroger's at (800) 632-6900 or check the company's Web site.

Mountain Man Nut & Fruit Co. products with Honey Roasted Peanuts and Granulated Peanuts. The recall covers: Mountain Man Special Mixed Nuts (All Lots); Mountain Man Sweet Explosion (All Lots); Mountain Man Paddlewheel Mix (All Lots); Mountain Man Honey Roast Peanuts (All Lots); Mountain Man Special Mixed Nut Gift Pack (All 1 lb and 1.75 lb packs); Mountain Man Cherry Hill Supremes (Product purchased prior to August 14, 2008); RiverTrail Sweet & Spicy Mix (All Lots); and RiverTrail Honey Roast Mix (All Lots). The recall, however, does not include any Mountain Man products offered in partnership with Frontier Airlines. Consumers can return the products for a full refund. For more information, contact Mountain Man Nut & Fruit Co. at 1-800-225-0045.

Six types of Publix Super Markets snacks. The products included in this action are Publix Boston Baked Beans, 10.7oz UPC: 41415-17686-7; Greenwise Organic Ambassador Mix, 6.9oz UPC: 41415-13586-4; Publix Sunburst Mix, 17.1oz UPC: 41415-07186-5; Publix Sweet N Nutty, 35.8oz UPC: 41415-16486-4; Publix Trail Mix with Goji Berries, 7.7oz UPC: 41415-06086-9l; and Publix Spicy Trail Mix, 23.2oz UPC: 41415-07786-7. Consumers can return the products for a full refund. For more information, contact Publix at 1-800-242- 1227 or check the company's Web site.

Healthy Hide 6" Peanut Butter Filled Shank Bone. The products are made by Salix LLC, a manufacturer of rawhide dog chews, and sold to retailers nationwide. They come in a clear plastic bag with the name Healthy Hide on the front. The package is a 1-count 6" Peanut Butter Filled Shank Bone and has a Universal Product Code of 0-91093-33479-0. All packages are marked with one of the following lot codes: between CP 20081508 and CP 20012209. Consumers can return the products for a full refund.

The candies were distributed nationwide through retail stores and the company's mail order division and retail store. For more information about this action, or to obtain a refund, contact the Standard Candy Company at 1-800-226-4340.

The FDA has a complete list of all products recalled in the salmonella outbreak on its Web site. Consumers can check that Web site daily to see if their favorite products are included in any recalls.

Meanwhile, PCA has halted production at its Georgia plant and says it's working with the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in their investigation of the salmonella outbreak.

PCA made that decision after the FDA released an inspection report that revealed such unsanitary conditions as roaches and mold at its Georgia plant, and confirmed the company shipped peanut products that had tested positive for salmonella 12 times since 2007.

That discovery exposed a dirty secret in the food manufacturing industry — companies are not required to disclose internal tests to the FDA or state officials.

According to the FDA's inspection's report, one of PCA's recent shipments — a batch of peanut paste made on September 25, 2008 — had tested positive for the strain of salmonella linked to the current outbreak: Salmonella Typhimurium.

Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, it can cause more severe illnesses, including arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis, and arthritis.

PCA's products are not sold directly to consumers. They are distributed to long-term care facilities, universities, food service industries, and private label food companies in the United States, Canada, Haiti, Korea, and Trinidad.

U.S. food makers, however, use the company's peanut butter and paste to make cookies, crackers, ice cream, energy bars, and other products.

Some pet food makers also use PCA products. That's why health officials have warned pet owners that salmonella can be transferred to humans who handle these products. Pet owners are advised to wash their hands after they come touch these pet treats.

Symptoms of salmonella infection in pets include lethargy, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets, however, may have a decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain.

None of the major brands of peanut butter sold on grocery stores shelves are included in any of the current salmonella-peanut butter recalls. The makers of Jif, Skippy, and Peanut Pan peanut butters continue to remind consumers that their products are safe to eat.

 



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Aetna Agrees to Reimburse Students' Health Insurance Claims

Settlement with New York covers more than 200 colleges nationwide

Aetna Agrees to Reimburse Students' Health Insurance Claims...

February 2, 2009
New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced an agreement with Aetna, the third-largest health insurer in the country, to reimburse health insurance claims by over 73,000 students at over 200 colleges nationwide.

Under the agreement, Aetna will pay more than $5 million, plus interest and penalties, for claims involving out-of-network care.

The agreement resolves an investigation into the use of outdated reimbursement rate information by Aetnas subsidiary, Aetna Student Health, which shortchanged students and doctors across the nation.

The investigation disclosed that Aetna Student Health underpaid in excess of $5.1 million in student health insurance claims nationwide between 1998 and April 1, 2008. More than $2 million worth of these claims were attributable to almost 21,000 students who attended college in New York State.

The health plans in question were sponsored by the students colleges, underwritten by Aetna Life Insurance Company and administered by Aetna Student Health, formerly known as Chickering Student Health.

Health insurers must honor the promises they make to reimburse consumers fairly. Here, students were particularly vulnerable to being cheated because they placed their trust in health care plans sponsored by their colleges. Aetna Student Health broke that trust, said Cuomo.

Aetna has agreed to pay students or, where appropriate, their doctors, more than $5.1 million for underpayments, plus interest and penalties calculated under governing state law. Late payments in New York are subject to 12 percent interest. The scope of the agreement is nationwide.

Under the agreement, Aetna will also:

• update Aetna Student Healths claims processing system within 30 days after receiving new market rate schedules and annually certify when that was done;

• hire an independent third party examiner to review Aetna Student Healths compliance and training procedures, and improve those procedures based on the examiners recommendations; and

• provide all employees of Aetna and its subsidiaries enhanced training on reporting compliance issues.

"At a time when tuition and educational expenses at many colleges and universities are going up, students and parents simply can't afford to overpay for health care," said Charles Bell, programs director for Consumers Union.

"We are very pleased that Aetna has agreed to refund $5 million to students who were shortchanged on their health insurance claims. This national settlement also establishes strong consumer protections to ensure that students will be fairly reimbursed when they use out-of-network medical services in the future," Bell said.

Todays agreement is related to a settlement between the Attorney General and Aetna announced on January 15, 2008, in which Aetna agreed to stop using databases operated by UnitedHealth Group, Inc.s subsidiary, Ingenix, Inc., to determine out-of-network reimbursement rates.

Under that agreement, Aetna agreed to pay $20 million to a qualified nonprofit organization that will establish a new, independent database to help determine fair out-of-network reimbursement rates for consumers throughout the United States.

Todays agreement concerns the use of outdated schedules from the Ingenix databases to reimburse students. Because the schedules were out of date, they indicated lower reimbursement rates than the students were entitled to. The agreement resolves restitution issues arising from the use of outdated schedules to reimburse students; it does not resolve any other restitution issues arising from the use of the Ingenix database.

In February 2008, the Attorney General announced an industry-wide investigation into allegations that health insurers unfairly saddle consumers with the cost of out-of-network care.

At the center of that investigation is Ingenix, the nations largest provider of healthcare billing information, which gathers data from health insurers and creates schedules insurers use to formulate out-of-network reimbursement rates. Ingenix is used by the largest insurers in the country and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group Inc. (NYSE: UNH), the nations second largest health insurer. The Attorney Generals office learned of Aetna Student Healths underpayments through the industry-wide investigation.

Aetna will send notice to all affected individuals with details on securing reimbursements.

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Feds Open Criminal Probe of Peanut Producer

Massive recall continues; Obama promises tougher food safety oversight

Feds Open Criminal Probe of Peanut Producer...

Federal officials have launched a criminal investigation into the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) -- the company at the heart of the salmonella outbreak -- for allegedly shipping peanut products it knew had tested positive for that bacteria.

President Obama on Friday also promised tougher oversights of the food safety industry.

In related action, scores of food makers across the country continue to pull peanut products off store shelves in response PCA's expanded recall, which now includes all peanuts and peanut products made at its Georgia facility since January 1, 2007.

The company took that action hours after federal officials released an inspection report that revealed unsanitary conditions at the Georgia plant--including roaches and mold - -- and confirmed the company shipped peanut products its knew had tested positive for salmonella.

According to investigators with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), PCA shipped products that tested positive for various strains of salmonella 12 times since 2007.

In late 2008, the FDA's inspection revealed, the company shipped products that tested positive for the strain linked the current salmonella outbreak, salmonella Typhimurium.

Also on Friday, the Associated Press reported that schools, day care facilities, and group homes in three states received potentially tainted peanuts and peanut butter as part of the federal school meal program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) previously said the school meal programs were not affected by any of the salmonella-related recalls.

But USDA officials confirmed that schools, day care centers, and group homes in California, Idaho, and Minnesota received roasted peanuts and peanut butter linked to PCA's expanded recall.

"A limited number of products were identified as being purchased by USDA during the two-year timeframe and most of the recalled products already have been consumed," according to a statement posted on the USDA's Web site. "The USDA is working with the small number of affected parties to identify recalled product and remove it from distribution. All USDA nutrition assistance program operators are being asked to check for any product that might have been purchased commercially."

The salmonella outbreak is now blamed for the illnesses of more than 500 people in 43 states and could be linked to the deaths of eight others.

Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, it can cause more severe illnesses, including arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis, and arthritis.

PCA's products are not sold directly to consumers. They are distributed to long-term care facilities, universities, food service industries, and private label food companies in the United States, Canada, Haiti, Korea, and Trinidad.

U.S. food makers, however, use the company's peanut butter and paste as ingredients in cookies, crackers, ice cream, energy bars, and other products.

Some pet food makers also use PCA products. That's why health officials have warned pet owners that salmonella can be transferred to humans who handle these products. Pet owners are advised to wash their hands if they come into contact with these pet treats.

Symptoms of salmonella infection in pets include lethargy, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets, however, may have a decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain.

In recent weeks, companies have removed more than 400 types of products that contain peanuts or peanut paste from PCA's Georgia facility.

The Food and Drug Administration calls this one of the largest product recalls in memory.

And the list of recalled products keeps growing. Here are the latest products companies have recalled because they contain peanuts or peanut paste made by PCA's Georgia's plant:

Harry and David Olympia Delight Trail Mix The recall includes approximately 30,500 12 oz. bags labeled Olympia Delight Trail Mix and approximately 14,200 5 oz. boxes labeled Olympia Delight Trail Mix. The recalled products were distributed throughout the United States under the Harry & David brand. The bagged product was sold only in Harry and David stores; the boxed product was sold in both Harry and David stores, Barnes and Noble, T.J. Maxx, Marshall's, and HomeGoods stores. The bagged products have a best if used by date of 3/28/08 or later. The UPC code is 780994604896.

The recalled boxed products are packaged in 5 oz tan colored paperboard boxes. The UPC code is 780994737013 or 780994751262. The company has not received any reports of illnesses linked to these products. Consumers can return the products for a full refund. For more information, contact the company at 800-233-1101, 24 hours a day.

Kroger Nut topping The topping was sold in 31 states in Kroger, Ralphs, Fred Meyer, Food 4 Less, Fry's, King Soopers, Smith's, Dillons, QFC, City Market, Foods Co., Jay C, Scott's, Owen's, Baker's, Gerbes, Hilander and Pay Less, grocery stores. The recalled items include: Kroger Nut Topping sold in 2.25-ounce containers with a "Sell by" date of DEC-22-09 and earlier under the following UPC Code Number: 0001111074500.

Ralphs Nut Topping sold in 2.25-ounce containers with a "Sell by" date of DEC-9-2009 and earlier under the following UPC Code Number: 0001111071444; and Fred Meyer Nut Topping sold in 2.25-ounce containers with a "Sell by" date of DEC-21-09 and earlier under the following UPC Code Number: 0001111074507. There are no reports of illnesses linked to these products. Customers can return them to the store for a full refund. For more information, contact Kroger at (800) 632-6900 or check its www.kroger.com/recalls Web site.

CLIF and LUNA bars The recall includes the following Clif Bar & Company products: CLIF BAR Crunchy Peanut Butter, BEST BY or SELL BY: 09OCT08 to 31DEC09; CLIF BAR Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch, BEST BY or SELL BY: 09OCT08 to 31DEC09; CLIF BAR Peanut Toffee Buzz, BEST BY or SELL BY: 09OCT08 to 31DEC09; CLIF Builder's Peanut Butter, SELL BY: 20SEP08 to 31DEC09; CLIF Kid Organic ZBaR Peanut Butter, BEST BY: 21OCT08 to 31DEC09.

LUNA Nutz Over Chocolate, BEST BY: 28OCT08 to 31DEC09; LUNA Peanut Butter Cookie, BEST BY: 28OCT08 to 31DEC09; All MOJO and MOJO Dipped bars, BEST BY: 01SEP07 to 31OCT09. The products were sold in retail stores across the country. To date, none of the recalled products has tested positive for salmonella. For more information -- or a refund customers can contact Clif Bar & Company at 1-888-847-2770 or visit its www.clifbar.com Web site;

Select Peanut Butter Ice Cream Products made by Perry's Ice Cream: The recalled ice cream products include:

75767-50030 Perry's Butterscotch Sundae 1.75 QT All Lots 75767-39008
Perry's Hot Fudge Sundae 8 Oz All Lots 75767-20036 Perry's Hot Fudge Sundae 1.5 QT All Lots 75767-20036
Perry's Hot Fudge Sundae 1.75 QT All Lots 75767-22504
Perry's Light No Sugar Added Mexican Sundae 1.75 QT All Lots None
Perry's Nutty Business 3 GL All Lots 75767-00237
Perry's Nutty Business 1.75 QT All Lots 75767-57001
Perry's Nutty Cones 24/4.1fl oz each All Lots 75767-82040
Perry's Vanilla Nutty Cones 6/4.1fl oz each All Lots None
Perry's Peanut Butter Swirl 3 GL All Lots None
Perry's Sabres Top Shelf Sundae 3 GL All Lots 75767-50060
Perry's Sabres Top Shelf Sundae 1.75 QT All Lots 15400-22251
Shurfine Heavenly Hash 1.75 QT All Lots 15400-82995 Shurfine Sundae Cones 6/4.1fl oz each All Lots 77890-64182
Wegmans Heavenly Hash 1.75 QT All Lots 77890-16059
Wegmans Tin Roof Sundae 1.75 QT All Lots 77890-97864
Wegmans Sundae Cones 6/3.8fl oz each All Lots 42704-00319
Cumberland Farms Hot Fudge Sundae 1.75 QT All Lots 42704-00314
Cumberland Farms Caf Coffee Fudge 1.75 QT Nov 12, 2009 only 50711-10124
Baldwin Peanut Butter Cup 1.75 QT All Lots

The company distributed the products in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Florida, Illinois and Indiana. There are no reports of illnesses linked to these products. For more information, contact the company at 1-800-873-7797 between the hours of 9:00 a.m. 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday EST.

Blue Bunny Personals Bunny Tracks The product was sold in 8 fl oz. containers in retail stores and on the foodservice levels and includes Lot Number 80030 "Best Used By" date 11/17/2009. The product was shipped to Virginia, Iowa, Ohio, Nebraska, Washington, Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Oregon. Consumers can return the product to the store for a full refund. For more information, contact Wells' Dairy at 1-800-331-0830.

Lesserevil Peanut Butter and Choco Kettle Corn LesserEvil distributed the product nationwide and exported it to Japan and Canada. The recalled products distributed in the U.S. and Japan have a UPC of 180999000356. The UPC for the Canadian product is 180999000516. The product comes in a 3.65 oz bag. LesserEvil sells the product through distributors to grocery and specialty stores and on the Internet. The products were also included in some gift baskets. Consumers can return the products for a full refund. For more information, contact the company at (914-779-3000 ext 5) or check its www.lesserevil.com Web site

Hannaford Denali Nutty Moose Tracks ice cream. The ice cream was sold in Hannaford Stores in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and Sweetbay Stores in Florida. The product is packed in 56 (UPC# 41268 15394) and 16 (UPC# 41268 15447) fluid ounce paper containers stamped date code prior to 09028.

Consumers can return the ice cream for a full refund. For more information, contact House of Flavors at 1-800-930-7740 x 2229, M-F from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST;

Six ice cream and frozen yogurt products by Turkey Hill Dairy: The recalled products are:

Turkey Hill Tin Roof Sundae Premium Ice Cream Container Size: 1.5 Quarts UPC Code: 0-20735-11013-3 From Sell By Code: 08/09/2009 to 01/20/2010
Turkey Hill Chocolate Nutty Moose Tracks Stuff'd Container Size: Pint UPC Code: 0-20735-42080-5 From Sell By Code: 10/09/2009 to 01/19/2010
Turkey Hill Chocolate Nutty Moose Tracks Light Recipe Ice Cream Container Size: 1.5 Quarts UPC Code: 0-20735-12122-1 From Sell By Code: 08/05/2009 to 01/06/2010
Turkey Hill Nutty Caramel Caribou Frozen Yogurt Container Size: 1.5 Quarts UPC Code: 0-20735-12505-2 From Sell By Code: 11/25/2009 to 12/19/2009
Turkey Hill Peanut Brittle No Sugar Added Recipe Ice Cream Container Size: 1.5 Quarts UPC Code: 0-20735-13506-8 From Sell By Code: 01/01/2008 to 12/12/2009
Turkey Hill Peanut Butter Mania Light Recipe Ice Cream Container Size: 1.5 Quarts UPC Code: 0-20735-12116-0 From Sell By Code: 01/01/2008 to 01/06/2010

The products are sold in retail stores in Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, DC and West Virginia. Consumers can return the products for a full refund. For more information, contact the company at 1-800-MY-DAIRY (1-800-693-2479) or send an e-mail to crela@turkeyhill.com.

NutriSystem Peanut Butter Breakfast Granola Bar The company distributed the granola bars directly to customers in the United States and Canada through its Web site or call center sales. The products included in this action are: PEANUT BUTTER GRANOLA BAR 6 32674 32016 2 1.41 oz (40 g) Flexible Film TC08158A, TC 08188A, TC09158A, TC09168A, TC09178A, TC11148A, TC11178A, TC03198A, TC04178A, TC05128A, TC05148A, TC05158A, TC05168A, TC06028A, TC06108A, TC06128A, TC06138A, TC06168A, TC06178A, TC07038A, TC07078A, TC07088A. TC08148A, TC09118A

PEANUT BUTTER GRANOLA BAR / BARRE GRANOLA AU BEURRE D'ARACHIDE 6 32674 37016 7 40g Flexible Film TC03198A

NutriSystem has not received any reports of illnesses linked to these products. Customers who would like a replacement bar should e-mail the company at PBbar@Nutrisystem.com. NutriSystem, however, previously told ConsumerAffairs.com that it would issue refunds to customers who had recalled products.

Arico Peanut Butter Cookies and Cookie Bars The recalled products were sold in health food and grocery stores throughout US and Canada. The products included in this action are: Arico Peanut Butter Cookies (4.76 oz stand-up pouch with UPC 1 82363 00022 1), Sell-by dates of "080309" and "100509" Date code is printed on the top, front, left of each pouch OR on the case label as 08/03/09 and 10/05/09; and Arico Peanut Butter Cookie Bars (1.4 oz with UPC 1 82363 00006 1) Sell-by date of AUG0409; M03098 Date code is printed on the middle, back of individual bar wrapper OR on the case label as 08/04/09. The company made a one-time purchase of organic peanut butter from PCA. It has stopped using PCA as a supplier. The company has not received any reports of illnesses linked to these products. For more information or to request a refund -- customers should contact the company at 866-98-ARICO (27426) ext. 2.

Chef Pierre Chocolate Peanut Butter Silk Pie from Sara Lee The recalled product was sold frozen--with four package pies in each case -- in a 34 ounce package. It has a UPC code of 3210005095. The product was sold and distributed nationally to foodservice companies and to consumers through Sara Lee outlet stores and other foodservice establishments. Consumers can return the product for a full refund. Sara Lee has not received any complaints or reports of illnesses linked to this product. For more information, contact the company at 1-888-891-6100.

Galliker Dairy Co. Rocky Road Ice Cream and Sundae Nut Cones The recalled ice cream was sold in three-gallon containers and has lot numbers of 008-08, 086-08, and 176-08. The Sundae Nut Cones were sold to foodservice and retail outlets in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. They are individually wrapped and distributed in a 24-pack paperboard box. The recalled products have code dates prior to 01/29/10.

Galliker Dairy has not received any reports of illnesses linked to these products. For more information, contact Galliker Dairy at 1-800-477-6455 Ext. 239.

Orchard Valley Harvest Peanuts The recall includes conventional and organic peanuts roasted. The products are packed in 2-5 lb bag packs and sold to Safeway grocery stores for sale in bulk by weight and in "Nut Hut" kiosks in various U.S. stores across the county. All Lots of the following products are impacted by this voluntary recall. Peanuts Dry Roasted Unsalted 24295-70029

Peanuts Dry Roasted with Salt 24295-70030

Organic Peanuts Runner Splits Dry Roasted Unsalted 24295-70034

Peanuts Blanched Runner Splits Dry Roasted Unsalted 24295-70037

Peanuts Blanched Runner Splits Dry Roasted with Salt 24295-70038

Organic Peanuts Runner Splits Dry Roasted with Salt 24295-70053

Customers can return the products for a full refund. For more information, contact the company at 209-521-1701.

Various Simbree Energy Food products The recall products are distributed throughout the United States and Canada to grocery stores, bike shops, mail order and direct delivery. The recall includes: Simbree Oat Almond Pistash, Simbree Almond Pistachio Energy Bites, Simbree Oat Bites with Peanuts, Almonds and Pistachios/ Bouches d'avoine aux arachides, amandes et pistaches. The products are sold in 6oz/170g plastic clear pouches, pre-printed bags and 15oz/426g clear plastic canisters. The expiration dates range from 02/2009-02/2010. The United States and Canadian UPC codes for the products include: 6 oz/170g individual packages: 8 9484800006 9; United States and Canadian UPC codes for 15oz/426g individual packages: 8 9484800002 1; Canadian case UPC codes for 6oz/170g: 8 9484800024 3; Canadian case UPC for codes 15oz/170g: 8 9484800027 4. The company not received any reports of illnesses linked to these products. Consumers can return the products for a full refund. For more information, contact Simbree Energy Foods at 206-763-6020.

Rain Creek Baking Corporation's Peanut Butter Turtles, Peanut Butter Baskets and Peanut Butter Princesses: The recall covers the following products:

SinbadSweets.com 12pc Peanut Butter Princess 0 38105 10304 3
Sinbad Special Baklava Assortment Sinbad Sweets Peanut Butter Baskets, uncupped 0 38105 10933 0 0 38105 10939 7
Sinbad Sweets Baklava Assortment 19 pc Bakery and Sweets Sinbad Special European Baklava Assortment (#10989) 0 38105 10944 1 0 38105 10985 4 0 77589 37240 8
Sinbad Sweets Enrobed Peanut Butter Princesses 0 38105 10996 0
Sinbad Sweets Peanut Butter Baskets, cupped Sinbad Sweets Peanut Butter Baskets (#11949) 0 38105 11939 6 0 77589 33213 3
Rain Creek Baking Company Peanut Butter Princesses 0 38105 20013 1
Rain Creek Baking Company Peanut Butter Turtles 0 38105 20026 1
Rain Creek Baking Company Peanut Butter Turtle Shells 0 38105 20031 5
Sinbad Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 20101 5
Sinbad Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 20102 2
Sinbad Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 20103 9
Sinbad Galleta estilo Baklava 0 38105 20106 0
Sinbad Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 20117 6
Sinbad Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 20120 6
Sinbad Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 20124 2
Sinbad Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 20127 5
Sinbad Sweets Peanut Butter Princess Baklava 0 38105 20128 2
Sinbad Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 20129 9
Sinbad Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 20130 5
Sinbad Galletas estilo Baklava 0 38105 20180 0
Rain Creek Baking Company Baklava Assortment * 0 38105 20211 1
Rain Creek Baking Company Baklava Assortment Rain Creek Baking Company Baklava Assortment 0 38105 20213 5 0 38105 20207 4
Sinbad Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 21335 3
Sinbad Sweets European Baklava Assortment * 0 38105 21339 1
Sinbad Sweets Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 21375 9
Sinbad Sweets Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 21382 7
Sinbad Sweets Caffe Sweets Sinbad Sweets Baklava & Sweets 0 38105 22143 3 0 38105 22204 0
Sinbad Sweets Caffe Sweets Peanut Butter Tartlets Rain Creek Baking Corporation Baklava Assortment * 0 38105 22257 7 0 38105 22280 5
Michael's Baklava Assortment 0 38105 22297 3
Rain Creek Baking Corporation Hand Crafted Baklava 0 38105 22306 2

Items with an asterisk (*) are the only 2009 produced items included in this action. The company sold the products in grocery, warehouse and other retail stores throughout the United States. The company has not received any reports of illnesses linked to these products. Consumers can return the products for a full refund. For more information,

Country Maid Classic Breaks Peanut Butter Cookie Dough This recalled cookie dough was distributed through fundraising groups from August 20, 2007 through January 9, 2009 -- in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The product comes in a 2 pound rectangular-shaped package with a white wrapper. Classic Breaks Peanut Butter Cookie Dough products with the following lot numbers are included in this action: 22507, 24007, 24707, 29707, 31007, 36207, 03008, 03908, 04608, 06708, 11308, 11408, 21908, 26208, 26308, 29808, 33808, and 36508. The company has not received any reports of illnesses linked to this product. Consumers contact Country Maid for a refund. The number is 1-888-460-6904. For more information, check the company's www.classic-breaks.

PCA said it will notify customers who received the recalled products. For more information on this action, consumers can contact the company at 1-877-564-7080.

The FDA now has a complete list of all products recalled in the salmonella outbreak on its Web site. Consumers can check that list to see if their favorite products are included in any recalls.

 



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