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    Consumer Complaints Up, But Resources To Help Are Down

    Debt collection is fastest growing complaint in latest consumer agency survey

    A new survey of state and local consumer agencies conducted by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators (NACAA) and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI) shows that while consumer complaints have gone up, the resources to help resolve them went down.

    The survey of 34 state, county, and city agencies from 19 states across America provides a national snapshot of the challenges faced by consumers and government consumer protectors in 2008.

    • Sixty-two percent of the agencies reported that they received more complaints last year than in the previous year.

    • Nearly half (47 percent) of the agencies suffered budget cuts just prior to or during the survey period; one was recently eliminated entirely.

    • Half of the agencies said that they noticed a trend toward receiving more complaints involving small amounts of money last year than before.

    • Debt collection topped the list of the fastest growing complaints.

    • Mortgage-related complaints, especially foreclosure rescue scams, were most frequently cited as the worst complaints.

    • Inadequate budgets and staffing was the biggest challenge most agencies faced.

    "It's ironic that at the same time that more people are asking state and local consumer agencies for help, their budgets are shrinking," said Susan Grant, CFA Director of Consumer Protection. "They deserve public support so they can continue to protect consumers from losing their hard-earned cash and ensure that the marketplace is fair for legitimate businesses."

    Grant noted the prevalence of complaints related to credit and debt in response to many of the survey questions. "A federal agency that would focus on financial safety would help consumers and state and local consumer agencies by setting minimum standards that would not preempt state laws," Grant said.

    Complaints related to the nation's economic situation

    When the agencies were asked what kinds of complaints they received last year that were particularly related to the worsening economy, the responses included:

    • Aggressive debt collection tactics;

    • False promises to help consumers repair bad credit, modify loans, settle debts and forestall foreclosure;

    • High-cost payday loans and bogus offers for loans with upfront fees;

    • Fraudulent work-at-home and business opportunities;

    • Business closings resulting in lost deposits, unused gift cards, undelivered products or services, and unfulfilled warranty repairs;

    • False advertising and billing and cancellation issues;

    • Tenant problems stemming from foreclosed rental properties;

    • Unfinished construction projects;

    • Cheating consumers on the price, quantity or quality of gasoline and home heating oil.

    "During economic hard times, consumers are even more vulnerable to phony promises to loan them money, save their homes from foreclosure, or help them make money," said Anna Huddleston-Aycock, a justice analyst with the Pinellas County Florida Department of Justice and Consumer Services and President of NACPI. "Another big problem is sudden business closings, which can leave consumers without their money or the goods and services they paid for."

    The agencies that responded to the survey handled a total of more than a quarter million complaints and obtained nearly $250 million in restitution or savings for consumers last year.

    "State and local agencies help to resolve problems that directly affect people's lives and their wallets," said Jim Rabbitt, Director of the Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection and President of NACAA.

    The survey showed that the most common complaints last year involved basic necessities such as cars, homes and credit. Following are the complaint categories that most frequently appeared in the agencies' top ten lists. Their ranking in the top ten in 2007 is noted in parenthesis.

    Top Consumer Complaints for 2008:

    1. Auto: (1) Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes

    2. Home Improvement/Construction: (2) Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job

    3. Credit/Debt Collection: (3) Billing and fee disputes, mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt settlement, predatory lending, illegal or abusive collection tactics

    4. Utilities: (5) Service problems, billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas services

    5. Retail Sales: (4) False advertising, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, nondelivery

    6. Services: (9) Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform

    7. Household Goods: (6) Major appliances and furniture, problems with nondelivery, misrepresentations, faulty repairs

    8. Landlord/Tenant: (10) Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics

    9. (tie) Internet Sales: (7) Misrepresentations, nondelivery in online purchases; Home Solicitations: (8) Misrepresentations, nondelivery in door-to-door, telemarketing and mail solicitations, do-not-call violations

    10. Health Products and Services: (not in top 10 in 2007) misleading claims, failure to deliver

    Real-life examples of cases from state and local agencies' files are used to illustrate the top, lasting-growing, and worst complaints, and the report provides tips on how consumers can protect themselves in those situations. It also describes new types of complaints that the agencies received last year, how they help consumers in disaster situations, and their biggest challenges and achievements.

    When asked what new laws were needed to protect consumers, the agencies made many suggestions, including outlawing debt settlement companies that take fees before providing any services, prohibiting overdraft protection unless consumers affirmatively agree to it and restricting unreasonable fees for such protection, strengthening consumers' rights to cancel contracts and prohibiting mandatory binding arbitration requirements for contract disputes, barring the use of devices and the fraudulent leasing of telephone numbers that allow telemarketers and identity thieves to "spoof" their identities by showing a different name or number on Caller ID, and prohibiting sub-contractors from placing liens on consumers' property when they are not paid by the contractors.

    Eight ways that consumers can protect themselves

    1. Look at the track record. Before you buy from unfamiliar companies, check with your state or local consumer agency, the Better Business Bureau, and online complaint forums to see if other people have reported serious problems.

    2. Hire licensed professionals. When you're hiring home improvement contractors or other professionals, ask your state or local consumer agency if they must be licensed or registered and how you can check to confirm that they are.

    3. Pay the safest way. When you buy goods or services that will be delivered later, pay with a credit card so you can dispute the charges if they don't arrive or aren't what you were promised.

    4. Don't pay in full upfront. If you are asked for a deposit for home improvement or other services, pay a small amount, never the full price upfront.

    5. Recognize the danger signs of fraud. Be suspicious of any requests to wire money; scare tactics or pressure to act immediately; promises that you can borrow, win or make money easily if you pay a fee in advance; and any situation in which someone gives you a check or money order and asks you to send money somewhere in return.

    6. Get all promises in writing. Verbal agreements are hard to prove. Carefully read contracts or finance agreements and make sure you understand them before you sign.

    7. Seek help for financial problems from legitimate sources. If you're having trouble paying your bills, consult your local nonprofit consumer credit counseling service.

    8. When in doubt, check it out. If you're not sure what your rights are or you think something might be fishy, ask your state or local consumer agency for advice.

    Consumer Complaints Up, But Resources To Help Are Down...
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    White House: "Cash For Clunkers" Still Running

    More funds being sought for wildly popular program

    The White House this morning quickly denied published reports that the wildly popular Cash For Clunkers program had broken down, within days of starting up.

    White House economic advisor Christina Romer, interviewed on the business cable network CNBC, said she could confirm that the program remains viable and operating. She said the White House would support Congressional efforts to pump an additional $2 billion into the program.

    Car dealers were thrown into a panic late Thursday when it looked like the program had run its course before many dealers got ramped up. National Automobile Dealers Association spokesman Bailey Wood said Thursday that the group had been told by Transportation Department officials of plans to suspend the program after just six days.

    But Congressional leaders have said they will propose tripling the number for the program and Romer said the White House supports that effort.

    The clunkers program has been the most successful of the economic stimulus progams thus far -- and the one that's most likely to have an immediate effect on Main Street USA, observers noted. Sales of new cars not only pump money into dealers' pockets but also produce big tax proceeds for cash-strapped state and local governments.

    The Car Allowances Rebate System -- more popularly known as "Cash For Clunkers" -- where buyers could trade in their old gas-guzzler for a $3,500 or $4,500 voucher towards a more eco-friendly car, was described as suspended last night, and less than a week and roughly 250,000 cars had been sold.

    Under the original bill, the funding only covered 250,000 cars, but it was estimated that it would be at least October before than many were sold.

    The program certified 22,782 car trades since Monday, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but a survey of dealers found that there was a backlog of 25,000 trades still awaiting clearance. The agency also rejected many claims due to illegible or incomplete paperwork, according to theDetroit Free Press.

    Many auto dealers around the country were reporting brisk business as a result of the program, while others were claiming the procedure for approval was too difficult and was leaving them unable to make transactions.

    Processing the remaining transactions would have drained the program of its remaining funds due to the high demand, sources said. The sources said the Obama administration had suspended the program, though the White House now says that was never the intention.

    The program was criticized on a number of fronts, with Republicans and some Democrats claiming the cost would be too high and provide too little stimulation to the economy. Environmental activists claimed the program actually favored purchasing of SUVs and "crossover" vehicles, due to inconsistencies in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s mileage standards.

    And it wasn't long before the program was announced that a proliferation of scam operations appeared, looking to take advantage of the expected flurry of business in the auto market.

    White House: Cash For Clunkers Still Running...
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      Domestic Air Fares Drop In First Quarter

      Highest fare in Huntsville, lowest at Long Beach

      Average domestic air fares dropped 9.1 percent in the first quarter of 2009 from the fourth quarter of 2008, the biggest quarter-to-quarter drop on record, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

      The average first-quarter fare of $315 was down 5.9 percent from the first quarter of 2008 and down 12.5 percent from the record high average fare of $360 in the third quarter of 2008. First quarter 2008 fares were also 9.4 percent below the pre-9/11 first quarter high of $348 in 2001.

      The $315 first-quarter 2009 average fare represented a lower rate of increase than inflation both from the first quarter of 1995, the first year of BTS records and from the previous high for first-quarter fares set in 2001.

      In the 15 years from 1995, air fares rose 6.1 percent compared with a 40.5 percent inflation rate. From 2001, when the previous first-quarter high was set, fares declined 9.4 percent compared with a 20.7 percent inflation rate.

      Since 2005, average fares have risen less than the inflation rate. First-quarter 2009 average fares rose 4.5 percent from the post-9/11 first-quarter low of $301 in 2005; the inflation rate was 10.0 percent.

      Of the top 100 airports based on 2008 originating passengers, the highest first-quarter average fares were in Huntsville, AL followed by Cincinnati, OH; Grand Rapids, MI; Savannah, GA; and Des Moines, IA.

      The lowest fares in the top 100 airports were at Long Beach, CA followed by Oakland, CA; Burbank, CA; Dallas Love and Las Vegas.

      The largest year-to-year average fare increase for the first quarter among the 100 largest airports ranked by originating passengers was 10.0 percent in Dallas Love followed by Houston Hobby; Lubbock, TX; Oklahoma City, OK and Memphis, TN.

      The biggest year-to-year average decrease was 16.8 percent in Cincinnati, OH, followed by Madison, WI; Richmond, VA; Long Beach, CA and San Francisco.

      A separate measure of fares, the BTS Air Travel Price Index dropped 8.5 percent in the first quarter of 2009 from its fourth quarter 2008 level.

      Average fare calculations and the ATPI, while similar, measure air fares in two different ways and may produce different results. ATPI measures the rise in air fares, while average fares show the increased use of lower fares. The varying results reflect trends in the airline industry that have resulted in more passengers using lower air fares even though fare levels continue to rise. Three of these trends follow.

      • First, low-cost carriers, which generally offer lower fares, now carry about 40 percent of all domestic enplaned passengers, up from about 14 percent in 1995.

      • Second, network carriers have been forced to match some of the low-cost carrier relaxed fare rules, such as eliminating the "Saturday Night Stay Rule", which has allowed more passengers to purchase lower fares.

      • Third, use of the Internet allows almost instant price comparisons that give the customer the opportunity for unprecedented low-fare shopping.

      Excluding Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, the largest year-to-year fare index increase for the first quarter among the 85 largest airline markets, ranked by passengers, was 3.7 percent in Islip, NY followed by Reno, NV; Ontario/San Bernardino, CA; San Diego, CA and Portland, OR.

      The largest year-to-year ATPI decrease was 14.5 percent in Richmond, VA followed by Dayton, OH; Rochester, NY; Boston and Philadelphia.

      Domestic Air Fares Drop In First Quarter...
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      Fed Suggests Recession Nearing An End

      Recovery may be "sluggish and uneven"

      The White House this week ridiculed Newsweek Magazine's cover that declared The Recession is Over, but the Federal Reserve reported Wednesday that, if the recession isn't over, it's getting close.

      In its so-called Beige Book, the Fed concluded that the economy is no longer in a free-fall, and in fact, some regions of the country are starting to show signs of stabilization. The report is based on data collected from businesses across the country.

      The recession is nearing its end. But that doesn?t mean that every sector has turned the corner, said Joel Naroff, chief economist for Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa. Some industries are starting to see some pick-up in demand but others will have to wait. In addition, any improvement is likely to be uneven and sluggish.

      The beige book covered the six-week period since the last book on June 10 and was prepared in advance of the August 11 and 12 meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, which sets interest rates.

      Analysts say they don't expect the FMOC to make any changes, keeping a key interest rate close to zero. The Fed may also buy billions of dollars in government and mortgage-related debt to try and keep mortgage rates low.

      While the beige book pointed to hopeful signs, it also contained a number of sobering observations. Commercial lending is still drying up, foot traffic in stores is slow and fewer business people are traveling.

      However, a separate report Wednesday suggested business spending on big ticket items is staging something of a comeback. The Commerce Department reported that orders for durable goods, fell sharply because of lower sales of cars and airplanes. But when that volatile sector is excluded, new orders rose a surprising 1.1 percent.

      There were solid increases in demand for primary metals, machinery and electrical equipment, Naroff said. The best measure of corporate spending, nondefense, nonaircraft capital goods orders, rose solidly for the second consecutive month. Yes, there was some weakness in computers, communications equipment, motor vehicles and fabricated metals, but even in some of those sectors there is hope.

      Naroff said as Chrysler and GM begin to move on from bankruptcy, the economy is likely to see production pick up as the new models are assembled. For the past few months, he says, there has been little activity as the firms have tried to reduce inventory.

      Fed Suggests Recession Nearing An End...
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      New Insight into Cell Phone Use and Driving Distraction

      Study separates fact from myth

      Several large-scale, naturalistic driving studies (using sophisticated cameras and instrumentation in participants' personal vehicles) by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) provide a clear picture of driver distraction and cell phone use under real-world driving conditions.

      And it's not very reassuring.

      "Given recent catastrophic crash events and disturbing trends, there is an alarming amount of misinformation and confusion regarding cell phone and texting use while behind the wheel of a vhicle," says says Dr. Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. "The findings from our research at VTTI can help begin to clear up these misconceptions as it is based on real-world driving data. We conduct transportation safety research in an effort to equip the public with information that can save lives."

      In VTTI's studies that included light vehicle drivers and truck drivers, manual manipulation of phones such as dialing and texting of the cell phone lead to a substantial increase in the risk of bein involved in a safety-critical event (e.g., crash or near crash). However, talking or listening increased risk much less for light vehicles and not at all for trucks. Text messaging on a cell phone was associated with the highest risk of all cell phone related tasks.

      Several recent high visibility trucking and transit crashes have been directly linked to texting from a cell phone. VTTI's research showed that text messaging, which had the highest risk of over 20 times worse than driving while not using a phone, also had the longest duration of eyes off road time (4.6 seconds over a 6-second interval). This equates to a driver traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the roadway. Talking/listening to a cell phone allowed drivers to maintain eyes on the road and were not associated with an increased safety risk to nearly the same degree.

      Recent results from other researchers using driving simulators suggest that talking and listening is as dangerous as visually distracting cell phone tasks. The results from VTTI's naturalistic driving studies clearly indicate that this is not the case.

      For example, talking and listening to a cell phone is not nearly as risky as driving while drunk at the legal limit of alcohol. Recent comparisons made in the literature greatly exaggerate the cell phone risk relative to the very serious effects of alcool use, which increases the risk of a fatal crash approximately seven times that of sober driving.

      Using simple fatal crash and phone use statistics, if talking on cell phones was as risky as driving while drunk, the number of fatal crashes would have increased roughly 50% in the last decade instead of remaining largely unchanged.

      These results show conclusively that a real key to significantly improving safety is keeping your eyes on the road. In contrast, cognitively intense tasks (e.g., emotional conversations, books-on-tape, etc.) can have a measurable effect in the laboratory, but the actual driving risks are much lower in comparison.

      Based on findings from research studies, VTTI recommends:

      • A ban on texting in moving vehicles for all drivers. This activity has the potential to create a true crash epidemic if texting-type tasks continue to grow in popularity and the generation of frequent text message senders reach driving age in large number.

      • Banning cell phone use for newly licensed teen drivers. VTTI's research has shown that teens tend to engage in cell phone tasks much more frequently, and in much more risky situations, than adults. Thus, the studies indicate that teens are four times more likely to get into a related crash or near crash event than their adult conterparts.

      The researchers say it is important to keep in mind that a driving simulator is not actual driving. Driving simulators engage participants in tracking tasks in a laboratory. As such, researchers that conduct simulator studies must be cautious when suggesting that conclusions based on simulator studies are aplicable to actual driving.

      With the introduction of naturalistic driving studies that record drivers (through continuous video and kinematic sensors) in actual driving situations, researchers now have a scientific method to study driver behavior in real-world driving conditions in the presence of real-world daily pressures.

      As such, if the point of transportation safety research is to understand driver behavior in the real-world (e.g., increase crash risk due to cell phone use), and when conflicting findings occur between naturalistic studies and simulator studies, findings from the real-world, and not the simulator-world, must be considered the gold standard.

      New Insight into Cell Phone Use and Driving Distraction...
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      FDA Warns Against Bodybuilding Products Containing Steroids

      Several products affected by FDA's advisory

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers to stop using any body building products that are represented to contain steroids or steroid-like substances.

      While many of these products are marketed as dietary supplements, the FDA says they are NOT dietary supplements, but instead are unapproved and misbranded drugs.

      The advisory was issued along with a warning letter sent to American Cellular Laboratories Inc. for marketing and distributing the products, which FDA says contain synthetic steroid substances.

      These products are sold online and in retail stores and are promoted as hormone products and/or as alternatives to anabolic steroids for increasing muscle mass and strength. Many are labeled as dietary supplements and make claims about the ability of the active ingredients to enhance or diminish androgen, estrogen, or progestin-like effects in the body. The FDA warns that these products are potentially harmful and that it has not approved them nor reviewed their safety before marketing.

      These body-building products are often marketed as being anabolic (promoting muscle building) and/or being similar to anabolic steroids (such as testosterone). The product names and ingredients listed in the warning letter to American Cellular Laboratories Inc. are:

      • TREN-Xtreme: 19-Norandrosta-4,9-diene-3,17 dione, marketed as "similar to Trenbolone"

      • MASS Xtreme: 17a-methyl-etioallocholan-2-ene-17b-ol, marketed as "similar to Methyl Testosterone"

      • ESTRO Xtreme: 4-hydroxyandrostenedione (4-OHA)

      • AH-89-Xtreme: 5a-androstano[3,2-c]pyrazole-3-one-17-ol-THP-ether, marketed as "similar to Stanozolol"

      • HMG Xtreme: 2a,3a-epithio-17a-methyl-17-hydroxy-5a-etioallocholane

      • MMA-3 Xtreme: Androsta-1,4-dien-3,17-dione, marketed as "similar to Boldenone (Equipoise)"

      • VNS-9 Xtreme: 17a-methyl-4-chloro-androsta-1,4-diene-3,17-diol, marketed as "similar to Turinabol"

      • TT-40-Xtreme: 1-androsterone, marketed as "very similar to 1-Testosterone" and "converts to 1-Testosterone"

      FDA says adverse events associated with these products involve men ages 22-55 and include cases of serious liver injury, stroke, kidney failure and pulmonary embolism (blockage of an artery in the lung). Acute liver injury is known to be a possible harmful effect of using anabolic steroid-containing products.

      In addition, anabolic steroids may cause other serious long-term adverse health consequences in men, women, and children. These include shrinkage of the testes and male infertility, masculinization of women, breast enlargement in males, short stature in children, adverse effects on blood lipid levels, and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

      FDA says these products are NOT dietary supplements because they contain synthetic steroid or steroid-like active ingredients. These products are unapproved new drugs because they are not generally recognized as safe and effective. In fact, they are potentially harmful. In addition, the products are misbranded because the labeling is misleading and does not provide adequate directions for use.

      Due to the potential serious health risks, FDA recommends that consumers immediately stop using these products. They should also consult their health care professional if they are experiencing symptoms possibly associated with these products, particularly nausea, weakness or fatigue, fever, abdominal pain, chest pain, shortness of breath, yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, or brown/discolored urine.

      FDA Warns Against Bodybuilding Products Containing Steroids...
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      Dirty Water Produces More Summer Beach Closings

      Closing days top 20,000 for fourth consecutive year

      By James Limbach

      July 29, 2009
      Summertime means sun surf and sand at the beach, right? Not so fast says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

      In its 19th annual beachwater quality report, the environmental group says the water at American beaches was seriously polluted and jeopardized the health of swimmers last year with the number of closing and advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches reaching more than 20,000 for the fourth consecutive year.

      "Pollution from dirty stormwater runoff and sewage overflows continues to make its way to our beaches. This not only makes swimmers sick -- it hurts coastal economies," said Nancy Stoner, NRDC Water Program Co-Director. "Americans should not suffer the consequences of contaminated beachwater. From contracting the flu or pink eye, to jeopardizing millions of jobs and billions of dollars that rely on clean coasts, there are serious costs to inaction."

      Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NRDC's report, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, confirms that our nation's beachwaters continue to suffer from serious contamination -- including human and animal waste -- that can make people sick.

      The report also provides a 5-star rating guide for 200 of the nation's most popular beaches, based on indicators of beachwater quality, monitoring frequency, and public notification of contamination.

      Five-star beaches included:

      • Gulf Shores Public Beach (AL),

      • Laguna Beach-Main Beach (CA),

      • Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach (CA),

      • Newport Beach (CA),

      • Ocean City (MD),

      • Park Point-Community Club Beach in Duluth (MN) and

      • Hampton Beach State Park in Hampton (NH).

      Some of the lowest ranking beaches (1-star) were:

      • Zach's Bay at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh (NY),

      • Ocean Beach Park in New London (CT),

      • Venice Public Beach (FL) and

      • Central Beach in Point Pleasant (NJ).

      While the report found a 10 percent decrease in closing and advisory days at beaches nationwide from 2007, it reveals this drop was the result of dry conditions in many parts of the country and decreased funding for water monitoring in some states last year, rather than a sign of large-scale improvement.

      The decline follows two years of record-high closing and advisory days and the primary pollution source, stormwater runoff after heavy rains, continues to be a serious problem that has not been addressed.

      "When the rains return," Stoner said, "so will pollution, forcing beaches to issue more closings and advisory days."

      Nationally, 7 percent of beachwater samples violated health standards -- indicating the presence of human or animal waste -- showing no improvement from 2007 or 2006. The highest level of contamination was found in the Great Lakes, where 13 percent of beachwater samples violated public health standards. In fact, from 2005-2008, the Great Lakes consistently tested the dirtiest, while the Southeast and Delmarva Peninsula proved relatively cleaner than other regions.

      States with the highest percentage of samples exceeding health standards in 2008 were Louisiana (29 percent), Ohio (19 percent), Indiana (18 percent) and Illinois (15 percent). Those with the lowest percent of water samples exceeding health standards last year were Delaware, New Hampshire and Virginia (all with 1 percent).

      Beachwater pollution makes swimmers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

      "Nobody wants their trip to the beach to send them to the bathroom or, worse, the emergency room," said Stoner. "It is vitally important to remember that if it has recently rained - or you see or smell a pipe discharging onto the beach - keep your head above water or avoid swimming altogether."

      Dirty Water Produces More Summer Beach Closings: Summertime means sun surf and sand at the beach, right? Not so fast says the Natural Resources Defense Cou...
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      Denny's Hit With Lawsuit Over Alleged Unsafe Sodium Levels

      Suit claims chain's meals promote heart disease, stroke, risk of early death

      Most Denny's meals are dangerously high in sodium, putting the restaurant chain's customers at greater risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke, according to a class action lawsuit filed by a New Jersey man with the support of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

      The lawsuit seeks to compel the restaurant chain to disclose on menus the amount of sodium in each of its meals and to place a notice on its menus warning about high sodium levels.

      Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that most people consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. But at Denny's, the great majority of its meals contain more, and in some cases, several times more.

      Some meals at Denny's provide more than 4,000 or 5,000 mg of sodium -- more than most adults should consume in three days. Diets high in sodium are a major cause of high blood pressure, which in turn is a major cause of heart disease and stroke, the first- and third-leading causes of death in the United States.

      "Denny's is slowly sickening its customers," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "For those Americans who should be most careful about limiting their sodium, such as people middle-aged and older, African-Americans, or people with existing high blood pressure, it's dangerous to eat at Denny's. Denny's customers deserve to be warned about the considerable health risk posed by many of these meals."

      The plaintiff, Nick DeBenedetto, is a 48-year-old resident of Tinton Falls, NJ, who has eaten for many years at Denny's restaurants in East Brunswick and Brick, NJ. He takes a prescription medication to control his high blood pressure and at home does not cook with salt or use the salt shaker.

      Some of his favorite Denny's items, such as Moons Over My Hammy or the Super Bird turkey sandwich, contain far more than 1,500 mg of sodium -- even without soup, salad, fried onion rings, or other side dishes.

      "I was astonished -- I mean, literally floored -- to find that these simple sandwiches have more salt than someone in my condition should have in a whole day," DeBenedetto said. "It's as if Denny's is stacking the deck against people like me. I never would have selected those items had I known."

      Moons Over My Hammy, a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich, has 2,580 mg of sodium by itself -- more than even a healthy young person should consume in a day. It's served with hash browns (adding 650 mg of sodium) or grits (an additional 840 mg).

      The Super Bird sandwich, served with regular French fries, has 2,610 mg of sodium -- more than twice what someone with high blood pressure should consume in a day.

      Denny's Meat Lover's Scramble, which has two eggs with chopped bacon, diced ham, crumbled sausage, Cheddar cheese, plus two bacon strips, two sausage links, hash browns, and two pancakes has 5,690 mg sodium, or 379 percent of the advised daily limit.

      A full meal at Denny's consisting of a bowl of clam chowder, a Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt, and a side of seasoned fries contains an alarmingly high 6,700 mg of sodium. It's a big meal, to be sure, with about 1,700 calories. But that's more sodium than what 70 percent of Americans should consume in four and a half days.

      Even many of the smaller meals advertised for children and seniors have inappropriately high sodium levels.

      Many health experts consider high dietary sodium levels to be one of the nation's top health threats. Dr. Stephen Havas, adjunct professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, says that reducing the sodium content of packaged and restaurant foods by half would save at least 150,000 lives per year.

      For some people, particularly Denny's elderly patrons, getting several days' worth of sodium in a single meal might be enough to trigger congestive heart failure.

      "As a physician, I have grave concerns about the sodium levels at Denny's, and grave concerns about an elderly person or someone with hypertension eating even one such meal," Havas said. "The body can have a hard time getting rid of that much salt, potentially leading to fluid retention and accumulation in the lungs. Consuming that much sodium can have severe consequences."

      Denny's describes itself as the largest full-service family restaurant in the United States, with more than 1,500 restaurants and annual sales of $2.4 billion.

      "By concealing an important material fact about its products -- namely, that that these foods have disease-promoting levels of sodium -- Denny's is failing its responsibility to its customers and is in violation of the laws of New Jersey and several other states," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner.

      Denny's and CSPI had been in private negotiations over sodium, but those talks ended earlier this year. Shortly thereafter, the chain made small sodium reductions in a handful of items, like cheese sauce, shrimp skewers and kids' meals, but the chain did not make the kind of broad sodium reductions or menu disclosures urged by CSPI.

      The lawsuit filed against Denny's is CSPI's first sodium-related lawsuit against a food company. Separately, CSPI has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate salt as a food additive and to restrict sodium levels in various categories of food.

      Denny's Hit With Lawsuit Over Alleged Unsafe Sodium Levels...
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      Sprint To Purchase Virgin Mobile

      $483 million deal built on potential for prepaid phones

      Third-place wireless carrier Sprint Nextel announced yesterday that it would purchase prepaid phone service Virgin Mobile at $5.50 a share, a deal estimated at $483 million.

      Sprint Nextel, which already owned a 13.1 percent stake in the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), promised to retire the company's estimated $205 million debt when the deal closes in late 2009 or early 2010. The deal is alleged to have netted Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson an estimated $250 million.

      The post-merger Virgin Mobile will be headed by current Virgin Mobile CEO Dan Schulman, reporting to Sprint CEO Dan Hesse. The Virgin Mobile brand will coexist alongside Boost Mobile, Sprint's current prepaid phone offering.

      In a statement, Hesse said the buyout was designed to give Sprint more leverage in the burgeoning prepaid mobile arena.

      "The acquisition of Virgin Mobile USA positions Sprint for even greater success in the prepaid wireless segment," Hesse said. "Prepaid is growing at an unprecedented rate with consumers keenly focused on value. Virgin Mobile is an iconic brand in the marketplace that will complement our Boost Mobile brand."

      As the recession drags on and consumers look to downsize any way they can, prepaid wireless services--where the user buys blocks of minutes and pays only for those, rather than unlimited "all-you-can-eat" plans--can be an attractive alternative. The Virgin Mobile purchase also gives Sprint a dominant leg up in the MVNO market, where carriers lease their networks from other carriers. Virgin Mobile had previously bought MVNO operator Helio.

      The deal may also reflect Sprint's struggles to right itself after losing ground to competitors AT&T and Verizon Wireless in the last several years, hampered by problems stemming from its acquisition of Nextel in 2005, and continual bleeding of customers to rival providers.

      Although prepaid cell phone plans can save customers both time and money, and Virgin Mobile has scored high in customer satisfaction among prepaid wireless carriers, ConsumerAffairs.com regularly receives complaints about both Virgin Mobile and its new parent Sprint.

      "On 6/22/2009, I made payment of $150 on my cellular service. Per Sprint, they applied the payment to my ex-husband's account without my knowledge or consent," said Pamela of Phoenix, Arizona. "They now refuse to transfer the payment to my account and have turned off service, although they are continuing to charge me for service."

      Sprint To Purchase Virgin Mobile...
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      New York Targets Toy Gun Manufacturers

      Retailers warned about selling realistic toys

      New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has sent cease-and-desist letters to over 100 companies demanding that they immediately stop selling imitation toy guns that are easily confused with real weapons in New York State. The state's law prohibits the sale of imitation guns without proper markings that distinguish them as toys.

      "Realistic toy guns are a tragedy waiting to happen," Cuomo said. "Every day, these imitation weapons put the lives of both law enforcement and civilians at risk. This is a public safety matter, plain and simple, and we will not permit these companies to profit by making our streets more dangerous."

      According to the letters, the companies must immediately cease the sale of imitation or toy guns that do not have the requisite markings. Cuomo also reserved the right to take additional legal action against the companies should they fail to comply with the order to cease-and-desist.

      Letters were sent to manufacturers, distributors, and retail companies. The following companies received cease-and-desist letters: Big Lots, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Gander Mountain, and over 100 local retailers who purchased illegal toy guns from Rhode Island Novelty Co. Big Lots, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree are national retailers that, collectively, have hundreds of stores throughout New York State.

      Federal law prohibits the sale of look-alike or imitation firearms unless they have a blaze orange plug in the barrel. New York State law takes the toy gun safety restrictions further.

      New York's General Business Law prohibits the sale of any imitation gun made of plastic, wood, or metal, or any material that substantially duplicates or can reasonably be perceived as an actual firearm, unless the toy gun (i) is a color other than black, blue, silver, or aluminum; (ii) is marked with a non-removable orange stripe that is at least one inch in width and runs the entire length of the barrel on each side and the front end of the barrel; and (iii) has a barrel at least one inch in diameter that is closed for a distance of not less than one-half inch from the front end of its barrel with the same material of which the toy gun is made. The Attorney General's investigation was conducted throughout the state in dozens of locations, and toy guns that plainly violated these requirements were purchased from the vast majority of locations.

      Just this past week, Cuomo said, two men in Saranac Lake were arrested for attempted armed robbery after allegedly using a fake gun to hold up and attack a man in a parking lot.

      New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has sent cease-and-desist letters to over 100 companies demanding that they immediately stop selling imitation to...
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      Amazon Faces Kindle Class Action

      Student lost notes attached to deleted "1984"

      A high school student is suing Amazon.com, claiming that George Orwell's iconic novel 1984 was deleted from his Kindle. Worse, the plaintiff lost the notes he made in the margins of the virtual book.

      According to the suit, 17-year-old plaintiff Justin Gawronski bought and was reading 1984 as part of a summer assignment for school. Amazon deleted the book while he was reading it, causing him to see the text disappear before the eyes as he was reading.

      Gawronski had taken advantage of the Kindle feature that allows consumers to attach personal notes to specific sections of the book. Once the text disappeared, he still had the notes -- but they were rendered worthless since he couldn't match them to the correct section of the book.

      Amazon says it deleted the book because it had been sold without a proper license.

      Although Amazon provided Gawronski with a refund for the novel, he claims damages for the time he spent creating the now-useless annotations. The suit also emphasizes that Amazon didn't clearly tell consumers that improperly licensed works could end up being deleted. Indeed, the Kindle's terms of service grant [y]ou the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times.

      The suit alleges actions in trespass -- comparing Amazon's actions to that of a bookseller who sneaks into homes and steals books, leaving a check on the table -- and Washington state consumer protection laws.

      The action is being brought on behalf of three distinct classes. The first is made up of consumers whose Kindles' resale values have dropped out of fear that Amazon will pull additional works from the machines. The latter two classes consist of those who lost a digital work and those who, like Gawronski, lost a work that they had already spent time annotating.

      The first class of plaintiffs -- owners whose machines have lost value due to the threatened loss of a text -- may already have been rendered moot by Amazon itself. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was quick to apologize for the deletions, and the company has already promised that works sold without a license will be handled differently in the future, and won't be deleted from owners' devices.

      The suit is the second Kindle-related class action in a month. Earlier this month, Amazon was slapped with a suit from a plaintiff whose Kindle cracked around the edges, where the cover attaches with metal clips. The crack appeared despite the fact that lead plaintiff Alisa Brodkowitz opted for the $30 protective cover.

      As a result of the cracks, the screen froze and the Kindle stopped working altogether. According to Brodkowitz, Amazon covered the screen freeze under its warranty, but not the cracks, claiming that they were caused by Brodkowitz having improperly bent the cover backwards. The company charged $200 to repair the cracks.

      Brodkowitz, who vehemently denies having bent the cover, filed suit in Seattle, contending that scores, if not hundreds of consumers were in the same boat.

      Amazon Faces Kindle Class Action...
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      Fees For Unauthorized Overdraft Loans Keep Going Up

      Consumers need better protections to safeguard bank accounts

      A new survey of overdraft fees charged by the nation's largest banks reveals bankers are hiking fees, adding new fees, and shortening time limits to trigger fees when banks pay overdrafts and extend credit to families struggling to make ends meet.

      According to the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), the Federal Reserve has failed to protect consumers from unauthorized bank overdraft loans and, as a result of this inaction, fees for these extremely expensive loans are escalating and multiplying.

      Testifying before Congress recently in support of President Obama's proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, the CFA noted that regulatory inaction in just this one area is costing hard-pressed consumers over $17.5 billion during the worst economic downturn since the Depression.

      In a typical overdraft loan program, banks unilaterally lend money to consumers without the consumer's knowledge or consent by paying or authorizing checks, debit card purchases, ATM withdrawals and preauthorized electronic payments when there is insufficient money in the account to cover the transaction.

      Banks charge a flat fee per overdraft, taking funds directly from the next deposit into a consumer's bank account to repay the overdraft and cover the fee. A growing number of large banks charge additional fees when consumers are unable to repay the overdraft and fees within just a few days, diverting funds from consumers to their banks.

      "For years, consumer advocates have complained about these anti-consumer practices and urged the Federal Reserve to force banks to comply with the Truth in Lending Act and get their customers' consent to use this extremely expensive form of credit, but the agency has turned a deaf ear to those requests," stated Jean Ann Fox, CFA's director of financial services. "Instead, the agency has continued to allow banks to collect billions of dollars in overdraft loan fees for credit extended without the customers' consent, and without providing either information on the cost to borrow or affordable repayment schedules."

      CFA, along with many consumer and community groups, has voiced support for creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency to make consumer protection the top priority for an independent federal agency. The group also supports Rep. Carolyn Maloney's bill (H.R. 1456) to give consumers control over overdraft loans, and Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Jackie Speier's bills (S. 500, H.R. 1608) to extend the 36 percent annual rate cap on credit set by Congress to protect Service members to all Americans.

      In July CFA updated its findings from a survey of the largest banks for comments to the Federal Reserve in March 2009. All of the largest banks unilaterally authorize payment of overdrafts at the bank's discretion and charge per-overdraft fees without advance consent or on-the-spot warning to customers. They also process withdrawals largest first, or retain the right to do so, a practice that optimizes the number of transactions that will trigger an overdraft fee when consumers live paycheck to paycheck -- maximizing the cost to consumers and the income to banks.

      Key findings from the survey of the top sixteen banks' fee schedules and practices:

      • The median overdraft fee is $35. The highest overdraft fee is $39, charged by Citizens Bank for the third overdraft in a year. Fourteen of the sixteen largest banks charge $35 or more per overdraft, either initially or after a few overdrafts in a year.

      • For example, Regions Bank in Tennessee charges $26 for the first overdraft, $35 for the second, and $37 each for three or more. Fifth Third Bank switched to tiered fees and now charges $25 for the first, $33 for the second to fourth, and $37 for five or more overdrafts in a year. In February, Bank of America dropped its initial $25 fee and now charges $35 for every overdraft over $5 total overdrawn in one day (those tiny less-than-$5 total overdrafts still cost a $10 fee).

      • Over 60 percent of the largest banks charge "sustained overdraft" fees when consumers are unable to repay the overdraft and fee in a few days. As of August 1, BB&T will impose its $30 extra fee after only five days, down from seven days. In June, Bank of America started charging a $35 sustained overdraft fee when its customers are unable to repay within five business days. Citizens Bank charges two sustained overdraft fees if its customers are unable to repay the overdraft and fees within ten days.

      • The total cost of a single overdraft at the banks' highest fee if unpaid after seven days ranges from $74 at Citizens, $72 at SunTrust, and $70 at Bank of America to $34 at CitiBank and WaMu, neither of which charges a sustained or tiered overdraft fee. If unpaid after ten days, Citizens Bank charges $109 for a single overdraft.

      • Ten of the largest banks set no limits on the number of overdraft fees charged per day. And the banks that set limits provide little relief for cash strapped customers. This year Bank of America doubled its limit to ten overdraft fees per day, the same that Wells Fargo Bank sets. Both TD Bank and US Bank charge up to six overdraft and six insufficient funds fees per day.

      • In the last year, overdraft fees have gone up at half the surveyed banks. Citibank's fee jumped from $30 to $34. Fifth Third Bank dropped its flat $33 fee and now charges tiered fees up to $37. PNC increased its sustained overdraft fee by a dollar to $7 per day and SunTrust upped its fees from $35 to $36 for both an initial and sustained overdraft.

      Since March, Regions Bank added a dollar or two to each tiered fee while TD Bank added a $20 sustained fee after an overdraft is unpaid nine days.

      • The cost to borrow $100 via overdraft for seven days, if computed as a closed-end one week payday loan, ranges from 1,768 percent APR at CitiBank and WaMu to 3,848 percent APR at Citizens Bank. A Bank of America $100 overdraft repaid in one week costs $70 or 3,640 percent APR.

      "Inaction by bank regulators to protect struggling consumers against astronomically expensive unauthorized overdraft loans illustrates why American consumers need the Consumer Financial Protection Agency to put consumer protection first," Fox stated. "Even now, after banks that brought the global economy to the brink of collapse have received billions in taxpayer bailouts, bank regulators appear to care more about protecting bankers' bottom lines than they do about protecting consumers' checking accounts and family budgets."

      Fees For Unauthorized Overdraft Loans Keep Going Up...
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      National Consumers League Warns Of Recession-Fueled Fraud

      New statistics underscore call for increased federal fraud fighting

      The National Consumers League (NCL) warns that frauds linked to the bad economy are on the rise and is calling upon federal fraud cops to "vigorously enforce existing anti-fraud statutes and regulations" and redouble their efforts to educate consumers about the growing threat of recession-fueled fraud.

      In testimony before a senate subcommittee, NCL said consumers' thinly stretched pocketbooks have "increased their vulnerability to fraudsters offering promises of extra income.

      The consumer group also warned that nearly one in three consumers could be at risk for fraudulent work-at-home schemes and that fake check complaints involving phony sweepstakes and bogus "mystery shopper" jobs continue to increase.

      "Consumers face a double bind. The economic crisis has made them increasingly vulnerable to fraud while local agencies that investigate scams and enforce the laws are shutting their doors, leaving consumers with fewer avenues to protect their interests," said Greenberg. "Absent increased action at the federal level to investigate and prosecute scam artists, consumers will be caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place."

      In support of Greenberg's testimony, NCL's Fraud Center released its semi-annual ranking of the top telemarketing and Internet scams plaguing consumers so far in 2009, with fake check scams continuing to top the list. For the first six months of 2009, fake check scams made up more than 44 percent of the total complaints NCL received, with more than half of these complaints (55 percent) involving a fraudulent mystery shopper job or phony sweepstakes winnings. Average losses per victim were more than $3,000.

      Phony business opportunity scams, which include fake franchises and distributorships, were not among the most commonly reported scams to the Fraud Center in 2008. However, in the first six months of 2009, they have risen into the top ten most-reported scams.

      Earlier this year, an NCL-commissioned survey found that 31 percent of respondents were more likely to consider starting a home-based business due to the current economic climate. NCL contents that this is a reflection of a weak economy, loss of jobs, and consumers' eagerness to find viable employment.

      "The worsening economy has clearly had an impact on consumers' vulnerability to fraud." said John Breyault, NCL Vice President for Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud. "Consumers should be wary that scammers are eager to prey on those in greatest financial need."

      National Consumers League Warns Of Recession-Fueled Fraud...
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      American Teens Go Missing on People to People Trips

      Parents outraged at mishaps; company disclaims responsibility

      Three American teenagers traveling abroad on People to People Student Ambassador trips have -- in the past few weeks -- gone missing or been unaccounted for for an unknown period of time, ConsumerAffairs.com has learned.

      All the students returned unharmed, but the cases have sparked concerns by parents and an advocacy group for exchange students about why the travel organization that touts its extraordinary safety record isnt keeping a closer eye on children who are thousands of miles from home.

      They (People to People) are supposed to watch the kids like a hawk, said Danielle Grijalva, director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students. That is their responsibility. They should be watching to see if there are enough leaders to properly supervise the group so students do not wander off. The onus is on them (People to People) to be more diligent.

      These missing students reports are the latest in a serious of troubling events facing the student travel organization.

      Earlier this month, a securities class action lawsuit was filed against the company that markets People to Peoples student trips and handles all the travel arrangements, The Ambassadors Group (EPAX). The lawsuit alleges the organizations directors issued misleading and overly optimistic statements about the company's financial future.

      And just last month, the parties involved in the wrongful death lawsuit of a Minnesota teenager who died on a 2007 People to People trip to Japan reached a confidential settlement in the case. The lawsuit alleged that People to Peoples Student Ambassador Group and its delegation leaders refused to get 16-year-old Tyler Hill the medical attention he requested -- and charged that his June 29, 2007, death in Tokyo was the result of their negligence.

      These latest worrisome cases involve a 15-year-old California girl who went missing for at least 24 hours in Paris and a 14-year-old Missouri boy and teenage girl from Iowa who wandered off from a July 4th People to People-sponsored BBQ in England and were unsupervised for an unknown amount of time.

      The Missouri boys mom is outraged that People to Peoples delegation leaders did not notice the teenagers absence.

      These are kids who are 13 to 15 years old and they were able to leave this event and go to an unsupervised location, says the mom, who did not want to be identified because of fear of retribution by People to People and its delegation leaders. They went to another classroom in the school and we still dont know how long they were unaccounted for. But nobody noticed they were gone or when they returned.

      The boys mom acknowledged that her son -- who just turned 14 -- shouldnt have left the group and agrees he should be held accountable for his actions.

      I have no problem with there being reasonable consequences to my child's behavior, she told us. However, the fact that two children were able to separate from the group and to remain unsupervised for an undetermined amount of time is very disturbing.

      Its also disturbing, she says, that eight days passed before People to Peoples delegation leaders learned that her son and the other teenager left the event.

      One of the delegation leaders called me on July 12th to tell me my son had violated People to Peoples policies, the mom says. Someone ratted the kids out and what happened got back to the delegation leaders. But had it not gotten back to them, no one would have known they had gone missing.

      When the boys mom followed up with People to Peoples national office in Spokane, Washington, a company representative told her the organization shouldnt be expected to keep tabs on students all the time. She said that People to Peoples representative, Wanda Lashbrook, also said the four delegation leaders on the trip couldnt watch the 40 students in the group every second.

      Ms. Lashbrook (said) that People to People believes I should not expect them to know the whereabouts of children under their care at all times during trips to foreign countries, the mom told us. And when confronted with such an occurrence will vehemently deny any wrongdoing on the part of People to People or delegate leaders.

      The mom adds: What incensed me the most was when Ms. Lashbrook said you send your son to school everyday and he is not supervised. I told her he is supervised and if this had happened at school I would be up in arms. I also told her thats irrelevant because Im not paying seven-grand for promises of safety.

      No apologies

      People to Peoples defensiveness about the situation -- and the moms concerns -- didnt stop there. The mom says Lashbrook also told her:

      • Students are free to go to the restroom on their own and her son could have sneaked off without a supervisor noticing he was gone. But I was assured the students were not allowed to go to the bathroom by themselves, the mom says.

      • Students are required to sign a contract which states they understand the behavior policies of People to People. That means any misbehavior by students on the trip is their fault and not the responsibility of the delegation leaders.

      My son is 14 years old, so signing a contract does not release the leaders from responsibility and liability for actions the delegates may engage in while under their care, the mom says. If all it took was a contract to regulate the behavior of an unsupervised minor, adolescence would be a very easy period of time for parents and I would not have needed to pay People to People for adult supervision during this trip.

      People to Peoples representative even blamed the 14-year-olds decision to leave the BBQ on poor parenting skills.

      Ms. Lashbrook said that given that fact that my son violated a People to People rule, my parenting skills should be questioned -- not their ability to supervise children, the mom told us. My son is a Scholastic and Citizenship Honor Roll student. He knows these behaviors are not tolerated and hes never engaged in these types of behaviors before. These behaviors happened oversees while he was under someone elses watch.

      The Missouri mom says shell never trust People to People -- or its delegation leaders with her children again. I wouldnt risk it.

      And now that shes learned how poorly the organization supervised her son, she regrets sending him on the 19-day European adventure.

      I would have never sent my son on a trip overseas if I knew that People to People did not take responsibility for their supervision at all times, she says. After all, how long does it take for a child to experience harm if they are on their own in a foreign country? What amount of time is acceptable for People to People to not provide for the protection and supervision of my child?

      People to People, however, did an excellent job supervising her son on a previous trip he took with the organization to Australia. Thats why his European journey is so disturbing, she says.

      The reason I sent my son on this trip was that he had such a wonderful experience on his first People to People trip two years ago to Australia. But this trip was definitely different than his previous People to People trip. It had a whole different flavor.

      I should have seen some of the reds flags, she adds. This trip was just so disorganized. When we got to the airport, they maybe did one head count of the kids. The kids were much less prepared and the delegation leaders did not seem vested in the kids or put the kids as their top priority.

      Another case

      Earlier this month, another teenager went missing on a People to People trip to Paris, France. That case involved 15-year-old Alexis Brown of Vacaville, California.

      She went missing on July 10 and was missing for at least 24 hours, Sgt. Ian Schmutzler with the Vacaville Police Department told us. Alexis had apparently left the group on two separate occasions and she was chastised by the chaperones for doing so.

      Surveillance cameras videotaped Alexis leaving the hotel by herself and police discovered her ATM card was used after her disappearance.

      Shortly after she was discovered missing, the groups leaders contacted Paris authorities and Alexis parents in Vacaville, Sgt. Schmutzler said. The parents made a missing persons report through the Vacaville Police Department as French authorities began searching for her.

      Alexis, who had been in Europe for five days prior to her disappearance, was found unharmed on July 11, police said. But Sgt. Schmutzler said he did not know where Alexis went during the time she was missing.

      ConsumerAffairs.com contacted People to People about the missing students. The company did not respond to our inquiry.

      ConsumerAffairs.com also contacted Danielle Grijalva with Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students about the missing students. Those cases, she said, raise serious concerns about People to Peoples ability to supervise the students on its trips.

      It appears that People to People recognizes and openly admits to the problem of it being impossible to supervise 40 kids at a time. So theyve recognized a problem and failed to come up with a solution.

      She adds: People to People needs to make it so that this is no longer an impossibility or a problem. After all, were talking about children. And its very common for there to be instances in which children wander off or even instances in which they (students) become victimized.

      Misplaced blame

      Its also inexcusable, she said, for People to People to blame a parent for the companys lack of supervision.

      To attack a moms parenting skills is irrelevant. They accepted that moms money -- they took her money -- and they entered in an agreement. To later question her parenting skills is wrong and irrelevant," she said. But its so common for many in the student exchange industry to constantly blame anyone besides themselves.

      Grijalva and other advocates for students involved in travel and exchange programs say parents who have concerns about People to People or similar organizations should contact the attorney general of their state, the Better Business Bureau (BBB), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

      Im hopeful parents will get mad enough to come forward and play an active role to prohibit things like these from happening again, Grijalva said.

      Back in Missouri, the 14-year-olds mom vows to hold People to People accountable for its lack of supervision on her sons trip. Shes already filed a complaint with the BBB and now plans to contact the states attorney general.

      The safety of children -- especially those traveling overseas -- should never be taken lightly, she says.

      After Tyler Hills death, I wonder why more parents are not up in arms about this organization. The kids are these trips are not kids whove been in trouble before. But the people who are supposed to be watching them are not keeping an eye on them.

      People to People talks about how these kids are ambassadors for the United States, but (these recent cases of student missing) do not represent the adults of the United States very well.

      More about People to People

      American Teens Go Missing on People to People Trips...
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      Job Relocation Rate Hits Three-Year High

      Desperate job seekers take more risks

      As employers continue to cut jobs and with few signs of a hiring resurgence on the horizon, new job-search statistics reveal an increased willingness among out-of-work Americans to pull up stakes and relocate to wherever positions are available.

      If the still-budding upward trend continues, it could help re-ignite home sales in some areas of the country, particularly those with more job opportunities.

      According to the new data, 18.2 percent of job seekers finding employment in the second quarter relocated for the position, compared with 14.3 percent in the previous quarter and 11.4 percent in the second quarter of 2008. It is, in fact, the highest job-seeker relocation rate since the second quarter 2006, when it also reached 18.2 percent.

      The latest job search statistics were released by global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. and are based on data collected from among approximately 3,000 job seekers at all levels in a wide variety of industries nationwide.

      "Job seekers had been extremely reluctant to relocate up until this most recent quarter," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "The reluctance was almost certainly related to the inability to sell one's current home without incurring significant losses. There was also the fear that, with the job market so unstable, it was too risky to relocate for a job that might not last."

      Challenger notes that while job seekers are no less likely to lose money on the sale of their home and the job market is only marginally more stable than it was six months ago, the overwhelming desire to get back to work appears to be outweighing the perceived risks.

      Between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2009, the relocation rate averaged just 11.9 percent. It hit a record low of 8.9 percent in the first quarter of 2008, according to Challenger tracking that began in 1986.

      While the 18.2 percent relocation rate in the second quarter represents a significant increase from previous quarters, it pales in comparison to the level of relocation exhibited in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

      In 1986, for example, the quarterly relocation rate averaged 42 percent. In 1993, it averaged 35 percent over the year, but reached a record high of 49.2 percent in the second quarter. After 1993, however, job seekers appear to be more averse to relocation, with the quarterly average sinking to 22 percent from 1994 through 2000.

      "Around 2001, the annual average for relocation fell below 20 percent for the first time, despite the fact that expanding one's job search greatly increases the odds of finding a position. What made the decline in relocation even more surprising is that it came at a time when the Internet made it easier than ever to search for out-of-town jobs," said Challenger.

      "Several factors probably contributed to the decline in relocation," he added. "The country experienced a period of phenomenal growth, with many cities and states diversifying their economies. This made it less necessary to relocate to find work in specialized occupational categories. In other words, you no longer had to relocate to Silicon Valley if you wanted to find a technology job.

      Challenger speculates that another factor that has contributed to the fall in relocation is the fact that the same Internet technology that makes out-of-town job seeking so easy also makes it easier for people to work from anywhere. Faster and cheaper Internet connections, coupled with relatively low air-travels costs, made it possible for job seekers to gain out-of-town employment without actually moving out of town.

      In May, that latest month for which local area unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was available, there were about 200 metropolitan areas with unemployment rates below the national average, which stood at 9.1 percent at that time. Remarkably, about 20 metro areas had unemployment rates below 5.0 percent, including Bismarck, North Dakota, which had the lowest jobless rate in the country, at 3.5 percent.

      Some of the other cities enjoying low unemployment rates are Iowa City, 3.7 percent; Ames, Iowa, 3.8 percent; Lincoln, Nebraska, 4.2 percent; and Manhattan, Kansas, 4.4 percent.

      New job-search statistics reveal an increased willingness among out-of-work Americans to pull up stakes and relocate to wherever positions are available....
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      AGs Worry About Cash For Clunkers Scams

      Scammers already taking advantage of popular government program

      The U.S. Government's "Cash for Clunkers" program is going to be trouble. The nation's attorneys general feel it in their bones.

      Formally known as the Car Allowance Rebate System, the $1 billion program offers consumers up to $4,500 for trading in certain gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient cars. The program has captured the public imagination, making it a perfect vehicle for scammers to trap consumers who aren't aware of how the program actually works.

      "Scammers often try to piggyback on new programs or trends, and this is no exception," Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said.

      In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan is warning consumers to beware of identity-theft scams related to the new program.

      "Before this program even officially launched, we were seeing scams pop up online, trying to falsely convince consumers that they must first pre-register and provide their Social Security numbers and other identifying information in order to participate," Madigan said. "That is absolutely not true. Consumers don't need to register or provide any personal information to an outside source before taking advantage of the trade-in credit with a qualified auto dealer."

      The program offers $3,500 or $4,500 credits through auto dealers to consumers who trade in less fuel-efficient cars and purchase or lease a new vehicle. The $1 billion initiative is designed to help boost auto sales and put more fuel-efficient cars on the nation's roads.

      Madigan said unofficial Web sites have begun to appear online, using similarly named URLs and names, and falsely stating that consumers must first register for the program and asking for consumers' personal information such as a Social Security number or home address. Other sites claim to connect consumers with authorized auto dealers in their local community.

      According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, consumers do not need to register or obtain a voucher to benefit from the program. Instead, the auto dealers will apply a credit at the time of purchase.

      "Consumers should be wary of anything on the web that isn't cars.gov," said Karen Aldana, a spokeswoman for the NHTSA, which maintains the government's official website for the program.

      Aldana said consumers who suspect they've come across a Cash for Clunkers scam should report it to the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Transportation at 800-424-9071 or by e-mail at hotline@oig.dot.gov.

      To be eligible for the credit, consumers must provide a one-year proof of insurance, registration and a clear title, free of any liens. In addition, the vehicle must have been manufactured within the last 25 years.

      Just to add to the confusion, Chrysler is offering $3,500 or $4,500 rebates, or zero-percent, 72-month financing, on most 2009 models -- in effect doubling the government's rebate.

      Smart consumers

      Consumers need to shop wisely to get the full benefit of the program.

      "It's important that consumers get full value for their trade-in," Jessica Caldwell at Edmunds.com in Santa Monica, California, told Consumeraffairs.com. To that end, the Web site is making available a vehicle value calculator. It can be accessed by clicking the "cash for clunkers" icon.

      The formula for all of this gets a little complicated. The car you're unloading must get 18 miles per gallon or less to qualify. If the car you buy gets 4-mpg- to-9-mpg better mileage than your trade-in, you get $3,500. An improvement of 10-miles-per- gallon nets you $4,500.

      In the case of light trucks, the new vehicle will have to get at least 18 mpg. There's a $3,500 credit for a 2-mpg-to-5-mpg improvement, $4,500 for 5 mpg or more.

      In addition, your trade-in has to be drivable, and you have to have proof that it has been insured and registered for the past year.

      As you might expect, the program has brought forth an army of scamsters trying to make a quick buck off the bill.

      AGs Worry About Cash For Clunkers Scams...
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      TJX Pays $9.75 Million To Settle Data Breach

      Customers exposed to potential identity theft

      Retailer TJX Companies, Inc., has reached a $9.75 million consumer protection settlement with 41 states, stemming from a breach of sensitive data about thousands of customers.

      The company is the parent of the T.J. Maxx and Marshalls discount clothing chains and HomeGoods stores.

      "This multi-state investigation was triggered by the largest computer security breach ever reported," said Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett. "Every time someone swiped a credit card or debit card at a store operated by TJX, their information was funneled directly to hackers, compromising the accounts of millions of consumers."

      Corbett said the settlement resolves allegations that TJX ignored flaws in the configuration of its computer network and failed to take sufficient steps to protect customer information--allowing hackers to access its unsecured network and operate undetected for more than a year, leaving tens of millions of consumers vulnerable to identity theft.

      Additionally, Corbett said the settlement requires TJX to upgrade and carefully test its security systems and to regularly report the results of their security testing to Attorneys General across the country.

      "Identity theft is crime that impacts millions of consumers every year, robbing people of their credit and their sense of financial security," Corbett said. "Businesses have an obligation to make every possible effort to protect customer information, so that consumers are not left to struggle with fraud and theft simply because they made a purchase."

      States participating in the agreement include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.

      TJX Pays $9.75 Million To Settle Data Breach...
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      Rising Cost of Health Insurance at Center of Debate

      Congress delays action til after August recess

      The rising cost of health insurance is at the center of Congress' debate over health care reform. The question for lawmakers, however, is what reform actually lowers costs without adding to the deficit or impacting quality of care.

      Thursday's announcement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that the issue will not come up for a vote before the month-long recess was seen by some as a stumbling block -- but others said that lawmakers will get an earful from their constituents as they make the obligatory round of fairs, picnics and festivals in their home districts.

      The cost of insuring a family of four with an employer-sponsored health plan in the United States averaged $12,298 in 2008, according to the latest News and Numbers from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. In most cases, employers and employees shared the cost. Another study found that small businesses are being crushed by health care costs.

      The federal agency's new data for private industry further showed that the annual premium for covering an employee and one family member, known as an "employee-plus-one" plan, averaged $8,535, while the annual premium for a plan that only covered the employee averaged $4,386.

      Almost 20 million of the 62.5 million workers enrolled in employer-based insurance in 2008 had family plans, while about 11 million had employee-plus-one plans. The 31.5 million remaining workers had single-coverage plans.

      AHRQ's 2008 private-industry data also showed that:

      • Nationally, workers enrolled in family plans last year contributed an average of $3,394 toward the cost of their premiums, compared with $2,303 for an employee-plus-one policy and $882 for a single-coverage plan.

      • Across all states, workers in Florida contributed the most for a family plan ($4,412) while Indiana workers contributed the least ($2,472); for employee-plus one plans New Hampshire workers contributed the most and Idaho workers the least ($3,005 and $1,736 respectively); and for single coverage, New Hampshire workers again contributed the most ($1,264), and workers in Hawaii contributed the least ($451).

      • For about 22 percent of workers with single-coverage plans, their employers paid the entire premium amount. In contrast, employers paid the entire premiums for just 11 percent of workers with family plans and 9 percent of those with employee-plus-one plans.

      Small business

      It's not just individuals who are likely to be buttonholing their Congressional representatives in August. Small business owners are being crushed by rising health care costs, and feel left out of the current health care debate in Washington, according to a new report released by U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

      "In this economy," said U.S. PIRG's Health Care Advocate, Larry McNeely, "health care costs are killing small business owners. But instead of leading on this important issue, the national Chamber of Commerce and other inside-the-beltway groups are playing politics with a crucial issue and actively impeding reform efforts."

      The new report, The Small Business Dilemma, which surveyed hundreds of small business owners and managers across the country, makes clear that small business owners want and need health care reform.

      Mike Brey, owner of the Hobby Works hobby stores located in communities around Washington, is one of those small businessmen, and he is eager to speak out on the issue.

      "We are creating a greater downward spiral," Brey said about the current health care system and its rising costs.

      U.S. PIRG surveyed 309 small business owners and managers around the country for the snapshot survey. The data collected found that the costs and administrative hassles associated with offering insurance weigh particularly heavily on small businesses.

      According to the 14-page report:

      • Small businesses value health insurance as a key to business success because it allows them to attract better employees.

      • 78% of small business owners surveyed who do not offer coverage would like to do so.

      • 80% of those who would like to offer coverage cite the expense of coverage as a reason why they don't.

      William Dennis, a senior research fellow with the National Federation of Independent Business Research Foundation tells Consumeraffairs.com that the U.S. PIRG findings complement what his surveys show. "Health care," he says, "is a major cost item" for small business.

      Dennis agrees that small business has traditionally been left out of the health care debate, but notes that "this time it's much better. At least we're getting some consideration."

      Recent analysis by MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber, commissioned by the Small Business Majority, found that health reform would save up to 128,000 small business jobs that would otherwise be lost due to high health care costs.

      Achieving these benefits will require ensuring that health reform legislation has a mix of policies that work for small businesses, according to the study, including health insurance exchanges, ending discrimination in issuance, renewal, and pricing of coverage plans based on health history, small business tax credits, and a comprehensive push to reduce the growth in overall health care spending.

      As Dennis puts it, "Everyone agrees that change is needed. The big question is 'how do you do it?'"

      Rising Cost of Health Insurance at Center of Debate...
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      Scammers With Falsely Promising "Guaranteed" Government Grants

      Court halts operators' deceptive pitches for grant writing book and services

      A federal judge has stopped an operation from falsely claiming that it could help consumers secure a "$25,000 Grant" -- guaranteed -- from the U.S. government.

      The case is part of a Federal Trade Commission crackdown on scammers trying to capitalize on the economic downturn by targeting people facing financial hardship.

      In the complaint the FTC, jointly with the attorneys general of Kansas, Minnesota, and North Carolina, charged that Grant Writers Institute, LLC and its related entities (together, GWI) falsely told consumers that they were eligible for grants as part of the recently announced economic stimulus package.

      According to the complaint, the false and deceptive claims by GWI violate federal law, state consumer protection laws, and the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule. The complaint seeks a court order permanently stopping the defendants' illegal conduct and forcing them to return money to consumers injured by the scheme.

      "Stamping out grant fraud and other types of schemes that take advantage of consumers in dire financial shape continues to be one of the Federal Trade Commission's highest priorities," said David Vladeck, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. "There is no such thing as a guaranteed grant. But to consumers in financial trouble, the chance for extra income -- guaranteed or otherwise -- can unfortunately be a huge draw."

      The FTC says since at least 2007, GWI has mass mailed postcards to consumers across the country falsely claiming that the consumers "are Guaranteed a $25,000 Grant from the U.S. Government." Consumers who call the number are pitched a $59 book titled "Professional Grant Writer 'The Definitive Guide to Grant Writing Success.'"

      The company's telemarketers falsely claim that the book will explain how to get government grants -- including the "guaranteed" $25,000 grant. GWI and its North Carolina-based telemarketers, also named as defendants in the complaint, then call consumers who have bought the book, trying to get them to pay hundreds of dollars or more for grant research, writing, or coaching services, falsely claiming a 70 percent success rate in securing grant funding.

      In reality, few, if any consumers ever receive any grant money.

      The Commission contends that in addition to falsely claiming consumers were "guaranteed" to receive grants, GWI used the current government stimulus package to make its pitch. For example, when consumers called the number on the mass-mailed postcard, they heard a recording that said, "If you've been reading the papers you know that recently our government released $700 billion into the private sector. What you probably don't know is that there is another $300 billion that must be given away this year to people just like you."

      The recording continues, "And if you're one of the lucky few who knows how to find and apply for these grants, you will receive a check for $25,000 or more, and we guarantee it . . . If you don't get a check for $25,000 or more, you pay nothing."

      The following were named as defendants:

      • Affiliate Strategies, Inc.;

      • Landmark Publishing Group, LLC (d/b/a G.F. Institute and Grant Funding Institute);

      • Grant Writers Institute, LLC;

      • Answer Customers, LLC;

      • Apex Holdings International, LLC;

      • Brett Blackman, individually and as an officer, manager, and/or member of Affiliate Strategies, Inc., Landmark Publishing Group, LLC, Grant Writers Institute, LLC, Answer Customers, LLC, and Apex Holdings International, LLC;

      • Jordan Sevy, individually and as a manager of Landmark Publishing Group, LLC;

      • James Rulison, individually and as president of Answer Customers, LLC, all located in Kansas.

      The complaint also names the following North Carolina entities as defendants:

      • Real Estate Buyers Financial Network LLC (d/b/a Grant Writers Research Network);

      • Martin Nossov, individually and as a manager and member of Real Estate Buyers Financial Network LLC; and

      • Alicia Nossov, individually and as a manager and member of Real Estate Buyers Financial Network LLC.

      Scammers With Falsely Promising "Guaranteed" Government Grants: Court halts operators' deceptive pitches for grant writing book and services....
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