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    Express Scripts Extortion Scheme Widens

    Company claims hacker wants money for personal information

    An ongoing investigation into the breach of personal medical records held by pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts took a new turn yesterday. The company claimed the alleged perpetrator was trying to prove they held more records than originally reported.

    The breach was first reported a year ago, when an unidentified culprit claimed they possessed 75 personal records of Express Scripts customers, including in some cases names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and prescription information. The culprit claimed they had access to millions of other records, and would release the information unless their monetary demands were met.

    Express Scripts instead notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator. Now, the company claimed, the FBI informed them that the alleged culprit does have access to the records.

    The company has already notified 1,771 customers in New Hampshire that their information was compromised, according to DataBreaches.Net, but Express Scripts spokesperson Maria Palumbo said there was no evidence that any of the breached information had been misused.

    "We did send letters to members across the country," Palumbo told the Dow Jones Newswire.

    The Express Scripts news comes at a sensitive time due to the Obama administration's push for increased adoption of electronic medical records, online prescriptions, and other online-based health practices. The company's recent purchase of NextRX, the benefits manager formerly owned by health insurer WellPoint, Inc., leaves it poised to be an even bigger player in the online prescription world.

    Express Scripts came under fire in 2004 from former New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who claimed the company overcharged the state's employee health plan for prescription drugs and pocketed the differences for itself.

    The company settled charges with 29 states in 2008 that it deliberately pushed customers to switch from certain brand-name drugs to others without explaining the process clearly, often leaving customers paying higher prices.

    ConsumerAffairs.com readers regularly write in with complaints about Express Scripts, ranging from difficulties getting prescriptions filled to problems tracking requests and authorizations from insurance companies.

    What you can do

    If you've been contacted by Express Scripts regarding the data breach, the New York State Board of Consumer Protection recommends the following:

    • Get the facts from the notification: Read the letter carefully to understand what assistance the company may be offering you. If you have questions, contact Kroll Inc., the company assisting Express Scripts, at the phone number provided in the letter.

    • Call the credit reporting agencies: Report the breach to all three of the major credit reporting agencies by calling any one of the following toll-free fraud numbers: Trans Union 1-800-680-7289, Experian 1-888-397-3742 and Equifax 1-800-525-6285. You will reach an automated telephone system that allows you to flag your file with a fraud alert at all three agencies. You will also be sent instructions on how to obtain a copy of your report from each of the credit agencies. A fraud alert helps protect you against the possibility of an identity thief opening new accounts in your name. When a merchant checks the credit history of someone applying for credit, the retailer receives a notice that there may be fraud on the account, and must take steps to verify the identity of the applicant.

    • Order your credit reports for free: You may order one credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies every twelve months. You can place your order online or by phone at www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 1-877-322-8228. We recommend that you order one report from a different credit reporting agency every four months to help maximize your protection. Should you become aware that you are a victim of identity theft, you are entitled to an additional free credit report each year.

    • Watch for signs of fraud: Read your credit reports, look for accounts you don't recognize, especially accounts opened recently. Look in the inquiries section for names of creditors from whom you haven't requested credit. Some companies bill under names other than their store names. The credit reporting agency will be able to tell you when that is the case. You may find some inquiries identified as "promotional." These occur when a company has obtained your name and address from a credit reporting agency to send you an offer of credit. Promotional inquiries are not signs of fraud. (You are automatically removed from lists to receive unsolicited offers of this kind when you place a fraud alert.)

    • Read your financial statements, including your credit card statements, checking account statements, mortgage and auto loan statements, etc. carefully. As a general precaution, look in the personal information section of your credit report for any address listed for you where you've never lived.

    • Close all compromised accounts. This is the best way to reduce your risk of an ongoing breach.

    • Retain all paperwork. Maintain a file documenting all the actions you have taken along with copies of all the letters you have written and the documents you have reviewed.


    An ongoing investigation into the breach of personal medical records held by pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts took a new turn yesterday....
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    Avoid Brokers Pushing 'Fishy' Stocks

    Investors getting $4 million restitution in NJ Case

    The stock market has been in a sustained rally since March, tempting more and more investors -- burned by Wall Street's free-fall that began one year ago, to take another look at stocks.

    For those putting a toe back in the water, the best advice is to proceed cautiously and beware of anyone pushing a "sure thing."

    A New Jersey judge has ordered a broker to pay $5,193,280 in penalties and restitution for violating the New Jersey Uniform Securities Law by fraudulently operating a publicly-traded penny stock shell company, Digital Gas Inc., fraudulently issuing stock and issuing false press releases to boost the value of that stock.

    Superior Court Judge Thomas W. Cavanagh, entering a final decision in a suit brought by New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram and the New Jersey Bureau of Securities, permanently barred broker Brian Smith of Spring Lake from the securities industry, and ordered him to pay $4,693,280 in restitution.

    The judge also ordered Smith and Digital Gas to each pay $500,000 in civil penalties, and ordered Lynn Smith, Smith's wife and co-defendant, to disgorge $809,237 in funds she received from her husband's scheme.

    Judge Cavanagh filed his decision following a 10-day civil trial which concluded in June in his Monmouth County courtroom. He found that for seven years, from 1999 to 2007, Smith sold unregistered Digital Gas securities to at least 200 investors but was not a registered agent.

    The judge also found that Smith issued press releases that manipulated the price and demand for Digital Gas and concluded that Brian and Lynn Smith used investor funds for their personal benefit, including home improvement and mortgage expenses related to their Spring Lake home.

    The Bureau of Securities had obtained a temporary order in October 2006 freezing the assets of Digital Gas and the Smiths. While Digital Gas is currently in a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in Michigan, the Smiths' assets, including their home in Spring Lake, are subject to collection efforts by the Bureau of Securities.

    "This case is another example of why investors need to carefully research company backgrounds before investing their hard earned money," Milgram said. "It is also why we urge consumers to check with our Bureau of Securities to determine whether securities are properly registered."

    Digital Gas was a Michigan-based corporation that publicly traded on the Over-The-Counter market as DIGG.PK. The Bureau of Securities charged that Digital Gas was a shell corporation with no known business operations, although its Website claimed it was a business incubator for new technologies in the energy and natural resource fields.

    The judge found it had no bank accounts in its name, and that Smith used fraudulent corporate resolutions to cause a transfer agent to issue shares of the stock.

    Avoid Brokers Pushing 'Fishy' Stocks...
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      John Deere Recalls Compact Tractors

      September 30, 2009
      John Deere is recalling compact utility tractors models 3032E and 3038E. An incorrectly sized differential was installed in the tractor transaxle affecting the engagement of the differential lock and causing the tractor to turn to the left when braking. This causes the vehicle to veer left when the brake is applied, posing a risk of collision.

      The recalled tractors have model numbers 3032E and 3038E painted on the side of the tractor. The serial number plate is on the tractor frame above the front wheel to the right of the operator. The recall includes the following serial numbers:

      Tractor ModelSerial Numbers
      3032ELV3032E111981 - LV3032E111988
      LV3032E111990 - LV3032E111993
      LV3032E111996
      LV3032E111999 - LV3032E112001
      LV3032E112003 - LV3032E112019
      LV3032E112022 - LV3032E112024
      LV3032E112029
      LV3032E112031 - LV3032E112032
      LV3032E112046 - LV3032E112047
      LV3032E112049
      LV3032E112052
      LV3032E140285
      3038ELV3038E111798
      LV3038E111804 - LV3038E111805
      LV3038E111808
      LV3038E111810
      LV3038E111815
      LV3038E111817 - LV3038E111818
      LV3038E111820 - LV3038E111823
      LV3038E111825 - LV3038E111827
      LV3038E111829 - LV3038E111832
      LV3038E111835 - LV3038E111840
      LV3038E111842
      LV3038E111844 - LV3038E111850
      LV3038E111853 - LV3038E111854
      LV3038E111856
      LV3038E111871 - LV3038E111872
      LV3038E111875 - LV3038E111876
      LV3038E111879 - LV3038E111881
      LV3038E111883 - LV3038E111884
      LV3038E111888 - LV3038E111889
      LV3038E140226
      LV3038E140234

      The tractors were sold by John Deere dealers nationwide from July 2009 through August 2009 for between $13,000 and $15,000.

      Consumers should stop using the recalled vehicles immediately and contact a John Deere dealer to schedule a free repair. John Deere tractor dealers were notified of this recall and registered owners of the recalled tractors will be directly contacted by the firm.

      For additional information, contact Deere & Company at (800) 537-8233 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET or visit the firms Web site at www.johndeere.com

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

      John Deere Recalls Compact Tractors...
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      Consumers Have Little Trust That Food They Buy Is Safe and Healthy

      Outbreaks and recalls contribute to eroding confidence

      A new IBM study reveals that less than 20 percent of consumers trust food companies to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy for themselves and their families.

      Sixty percent of consumers surveyed said they are concerned about the safety of food they purchase, and 63 percent claimed to be knowledgeable about the content of the food they buy.

      The survey of 1,000 consumers in the nation's ten largest cities shows that consumers are increasingly wary of the safety of food purchased at grocery stores, and their confidence in -- and trust of -- food retailers, manufacturers and grocers is declining.

      The Debilitating Impact of Recalls

      Eighty-three percent of respondents were able to name a food product that was recalled in the past two years due to contamination or other safety concerns. Nearly half of survey respondents -- 46 percent -- named peanut butter, the staple of school lunches for kids across the nation, as the most recognizable recall. Spinach came in a distant second, with 15 percent awareness nearly two years after the incident.

      Consumers are proving to be extra cautious in purchasing food products after a recall. Forty-nine percent of those asked said they would be less likely to purchase a food product again if it was recalled due to contamination. Sixty-three percent confirmed they would not buy the food until the source of contamination had been found and addressed. Meanwhile, eight percent of respondents said they would never purchase the food again, even after the source of contamination was found and addressed.

      These findings underscore how the rise in recalls and contamination has significantly eroded consumer confidence in food and product safety, as well as with the companies that manufacture and distribute these products.

      Changing Consumer Behaviors

      Sixty-three percent of respondents report they have purposefully changed their grocery shopping behavior in the past two years because they wanted better value for their money. And almost half have changed shopping behavior to access fresher foods (45 percent) or better quality foods (43 percent).

      "Especially in today's economy, if consumers are going to pay a little extra for a branded or organic product, they want to be assured that they're paying for something different and better quality," said Guy Blissett, Consumer Products Leader, IBM Institute for Business Value. "Across the board, consumers are demanding transparency and more information about the food they purchase to ensure their safety and that of their families. As the government, industry associations, retailers and manufacturers work through the operational issues associated with ensuring food safety, we can each become more aware and take greater responsibility for the food we purchase."

      Where is my Food From?

      The survey found that over the past two years, consumer appetite for information about food products increased. Seventy-seven percent of consumers want more information about the content of the food products they purchase, and 76 percent would like more information about its origin. Seventy-four percent said they are willing to dig deeper and seek more data about how the food products are grown, processed and manufactured.

      Despite industry efforts to keep consumers informed with more detailed product information, there's still a significant gap between consumer expectations and what retailers/manufacturers are providing.

      The survey also found that consumers are spending more time poring over food labels to know which ingredients were used, questioning supermarkets and product manufactures about product detail, paying closer attention to expiration dates, and doing more in depth background checks on specific food brands and their origin. This will have an even bigger impact as the younger, more Internet savvy generation of consumers evolve into being the primary purchasers of groceries.

      An estimated 76 million people in the United States get sick every year with food borne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food safety is top of mind for governments, retailers, manufacturers and consumers alike. President Obama's proposed budget includes $1 billion for the FDA to spend on improving food safety. More than 600 bills addressing food safety have been introduced in state legislatures since January 2009.

      "The ability to trace a contaminated product all the way back to the source of production is key to modernizing our food industry," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety, Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It would also allow producers to more precisely identify the source of a problem in order to improve production practices and could help narrow the scope of recalls by more quickly identifying the specific plant or country of origin."

      Are Food Retailers and Manufacturers Looking Out for Me?

      Fifty-five percent of respondents trust food manufacturers when handling a recall in the event that a food product is contaminated, indicating a decrease in their level of trust over the past two years. Meanwhile, 72 percent said they trust the store where they buy groceries to properly handle food product contamination recalls.

      Fifty-seven percent of consumers report they've stopped purchasing certain foods, even for a short time, within the past two years due to safety considerations.

      Take Responsibility: "Smart" Recommendations for Consumers:

      • Seek out other concerned consumers: connect with those interested in food safety issues. Share information and insights with others.

      • Make yourself known: Speak up and let your local grocery know you'd be interested in more information on the products they are selling and their origins. Grocers want to listen; they are in a very competitive marketplace. Research from IBM shows 75 percent of consumers are dissatisfied with their grocer.

      • Ask your retailer: Assess who provides more information about the products they sell. This is being accomplished through in store kiosk and touch screen computers and brochures.

      • Read the packaging closely: Some products are providing more information than ever, including specific details on the farm where ingredients were grown.

      • Take responsibility: Leverage the Internet and visit consumer products company websites to learn more about the companies and processes behind the products you buy. Companies are providing a wealth of background information on their products to gain consumer credibility and shift consumer attitude.



      Consumers Have Little Trust That Food They Buy Is Safe and Healthy...
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      Fed Proposes New Credit Card Rules

      Would bring new regulations into line with tougher new law

      September 29, 2009
      The Federal Reserve has amended its credit card rules, drafted last December, to bring thing into line with the tougher consumer protection aspects of a law passed in May. The rules are designed to protect consumers from some long-standing abuses by the credit card industry.

      "This proposal is another step forward in the Federal Reserve's efforts to ensure that consumers who rely on credit cards are treated fairly," said Federal Reserve Governor Elizabeth A. Duke. "The rule bans several harmful practices and requires greater transparency in the disclosure of the terms and conditions of credit card accounts."

      Among other things, the proposed rule would:

      • Protect consumers from unexpected increases in credit card interest rates by generally prohibiting increases in a rate during the first year after an account is opened and increases in a rate that applies to an existing credit card balance.

      • Prohibit creditors from issuing a credit card to a consumer who is under the age of 21 unless the consumer has the ability to make the required payments or obtains the signature of a parent or other cosigner with the ability to do so.

      • Require creditors to obtain a consumer's consent before charging fees for transactions that exceed the credit limit.

      • Limit the high fees associated with subprime credit cards.

      • Ban creditors from using the "two-cycle" billing method to impose interest charges.

      • Prohibit creditors from allocating payments in ways that maximize interest charges.

      In December 2008, the Fed adopted final regulations prohibiting unfair credit card practices and improving the disclosures consumers receive in connection with credit card accounts. However, Congress and the Obama Administration said tougher rules were needed. This Fed proposal amends aspects of those 2008 regulations to incorporate provisions of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (Credit CARD Act), which was enacted in May 2009.

      The proposed rule represents the second stage of the Fed's implementation of the Credit Card Act. On July 15, 2009, the Board issued an interim final rule implementing the provisions of the Credit Card Act that went into effect on August 20, 2009.

      The proposed rule would implement the provisions that go into effect on February 22, 2010. The remaining provisions of the Credit CARD Act go into effect on August 22, 2010 and will be implemented by the Federal Reserve at a later date.

      Some consumer advocates have complained that both the Fed and Congress waited too long to implement the new rules. Over the last few months many credit card companies have raised rates on existing balances and closed thousands of accounts before the new law and regulations could take effect.



      Fed Proposes New Credit Card Rules...
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      Recession Creating New Drain On Social Security

      More 62-year olds opting for benefits than expected

      Like everyone else in this economy, the Social Security Administration is feeling the pinch. In January, when most social security recipients anticipate a small cost of living adjustment, there is probably not going to be one.

      While the check won't get smaller, it won't rise by the anticipated two to three percent. It would be the first time in nearly three decades that's happened.

      The reason is two-fold. The government's inflation index, by which it sets cost of living increases, has been mostly flat over the last year, thanks to a severe recession. The recession has also had another ill effect; an unexpectedly large number of Americans are opting to receive benefits at age 62, rather than wait until later, even though it means a reduced benefit.

      In fact, applications for benefits this year are running more than 20 percent ahead of last year. That's putting an additional strain on Social Security funds.

      While Social Security checks won't be going up, premiums on Medicare Part B drug coverage will. Many retirees have depended on that annual cost of living increase to offset the rising drug coverage premiums.

      While recipients are unlikely to get a raise in 2010, they got a larger than expected one at the beginning of this year. The cost of living adjustment amounted to 5.8 percent nearly double the normal increase because of last year's soaring gasoline prices.

      Douglas Elmendorf, Director of the Congressional Budget Office, says Social Securities could become more pronounced, and have a greater drag on the economy, as the population quickly begins to age, with baby boomers entering their retirement years.

      "The aging of the U.S. population and rising costs for health care are making federal spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid a much larger burden relative to GDP," Elmendorf wrote in his blog last week. "During the expansion of the 1980s, federal spending on those three programs stayed close to 7 percent of GDP; in the 2013 to 2019 period, CBO projects that spending on those programs will rise from just over 10 percent of GDP to a little below 12 percent. Beyond the 10-year budget window, CBO expects that this share would continue to rise rapidly under current law."

      This sobering outlook for the federal budget is likely to weigh on policy decisions for some time, Elmendorf says.



      Recession Creating New Drain On Social Security: Like everyone else in this economy, the Social Security Administration is feeling the pinch....
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      Consumers Union Opposes USDA Proposal On Salad Safety

      Group urges Congress to pass FDA food safety program

      Consumers Union is voicing opposition to a proposed national USDA Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, claiming the pact will fail to adequately improve the safety of raw spinach and other salad ingredients.

      "We urgently need improvements in the safety of many kinds of food, from spinach and other leafy greens to peanut butter to imported fish," said Elisa Odabashian, Director of Consumers Union's west coast office. "But this USDA Marketing Agreement approach is the wrong way to go about it.

      Consumers Union claims the agreement amounts to industry self-regulation, wrapped up in a USDA package, so consumers think the government is insuring that their food is safe. "But," points out Odabashian, "all the safety standards will be developed by the big food processors and other members of the industry. There will be only one consumer member on their Administrative Committee, and that consumer member will be chosen by the food processors."

      At issue is whether the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which has set food safety standards for California growers and processors, should be expanded nationally. While the agreement has imposed new safeguards on its participants, it is voluntary.

      Growers and processors can choose whether to participate, and CU says that opens the door for unsafe leafy greens to enter the marketplace. Some farmers, environmentalists, and scientists are critical of the agreement because what Consumers Union calls "its damaging impact on the environment."

      The publisher of Consumers Reports says it supports stronger Food and Drug Administration regulation of leafy green safety. "The right way to improve the safety of leafy greens is to strengthen FDA's ability to regulate processors," said Odabashian, "so that new stronger government standards are set and enforced through a transparent, open, public process that takes into account the views of consumers, environmental scientists and activists, organic farmers, and sustainable agriculture. FDA's weakness has left a vacuum in food safety."

      Congress is currently considering FDA food safety reform. The House of Representatives passed a bill in July that would require the FDA to set new leafy green safety standards, and inspect all high risk food processors -- such as those that bag spinach and leafy greens -- at least once every six to 12 months. Consumers Union supports passage of a companion bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, S.510, in the Senate.

      "Industry self-regulation without public input falls far short of what we need to keep contaminated lettuce greens from reaching our tables," said Odabashian. "We should create an open and inclusive process for FDA to implement stronger standards that will keep consumers safe."



      Consumers Union Opposes USDA Proposal On Salad Safety...
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      Cemetery Operator Sentenced For Stealing Funeral Funds

      Defendant accused of "stealing from the dead"

      September 28, 2009
      A Grand Rapids, Mich., cemetery operator has pleaded guilty to two felonies for embezzling more than $4.2 million in cemetery trust funds from Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in Grand Rapids, and failing to properly administer numerous funeral contracts over a three year period.

      "Stealing from the dead is a betrayal of the highest order," said Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, who brought the case against 41-year old Robert Earl Nelms. "Families who have laid their loved ones to rest have a rightful expectation that this sacred ground will forever be protected."

      Nelms pleaded guilty to one count of embezzlement and one count of failing to trust funeral contracts. Nelms will serve a prison term of 20-120 months for the embezzlement charge and 20-60 months for the failure to trust count.

      Nelms, who resides in Indiana, also must pay restitution of more than $4,256,000.00, which will be returned to the cemetery's trust accounts. If Nelms fails to pay restitution at the time of his sentencing, he will be required to serve 3 to 10 years in prison for embezzlement and 3 to 5 years for the failure to trust.

      In December 2007, a joint Attorney General and Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth investigation uncovered the theft, resulting in criminal charges and forcing Nelms to lose control of Chapel Hill Cemetery.

      In total, it is alleged Nelms stole more than $24 million from cemeteries and funeral homes he controlled in Michigan and Indiana. He did this by selling cemetery products and services but failing to deposit the required portion in trust for cemetery upkeep and consumers' use. Approximately $4.2 million dollars were from the Grand Rapids cemetery, with Nelms facing charges in Indiana for the rest, Cox said.

      Bereaved consumers should always make sure they are dealing with a reputable funeral service provider. In July hundreds of outraged families brought a class action suit against an Illinois cemetery accused of illegally interring remains and altering grave sites in the name of profit. Employees of the Burr Oak Cemetery in Chicago allegedly stacked and disposed of bodies in an attempt to create space at the graveyard in order to maximize their income. They also allegedly desecrated and destroyed bodies in order to resell the plots on which they were buried.

      In Michigan, Cox said this is the second defendant to be convicted for involvement in a major theft of cemetery trust funds. Carter Green of Nevada was convicted in Wayne County Circuit court in December of 2007 for his role in aiding co-defendant Clayton Smart.

      Cox alleges that Smart embezzled as much as $70 million in cemetery trust funds from 28 Michigan cemeteries. Clayton Smart is awaiting trial in Tennessee on related charges. Upon completion of that trial, Smart will be transferred to Michigan for arraignment on charges filed by Cox.

      Cemetery Operator Sentenced For Stealing Funeral Funds...
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      Fat Chance: A Simple Approach to Weight Loss

      What your grandmother could have told you about losing weight


      I'll never forget my first impression of America as I hauled my luggage off the conveyor belt in an airport in South Carolina: while the rest of the passengers pushed their carts on towards the arrival hall, a special transport buggy had arrived to shuttle away an obese woman in her 40's.

      She had no visible impediment other than her weight and seemed overall quite content to relinquish the tedium of walking. The driver seemed impervious to the human luggage he was carrying and I wondered if I was looking at the next step in human evolution.

      Of course, it's easy to poke fun. For years stand-up comedians and slapstick movies have fallen back on the have-a-cheap-laugh-at-fat-people routine. Smokers, drinkers and even drug addicts may have something of a tragic charm to them but of all the self-afflicted conditions a person might suffer from, obesity is often seen as the least excusable. Hence fair game for wisecracks like:

      'How come I have to pay for extra luggage on my flight when the guy in front weighs 60 pounds more than me?'

      Obese passengers supposedly cost airlines some $275 million a year but that's nothing compared to the health costs from treating medical conditions connected to being overweight, which run to around $78 billion a year. Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death (smoking wins every time) and is the major underlying cause of diabetes in the U.S.

      Yet everywhere we look we see ultra-thin role models in advertisements, music videos, films and TV shows. All the products in the grocery store are required to show a breakdown of ingredients and calories, and science has laid out the formula for weight loss in terms that only a monkey would have trouble understanding: spend more calories than you consume and your weight goes down.

      So how on earth did we end up in a situation where, according to the American Obesity Association, 64% of Americans are overweight, half of those qualifying as obese?

      The answer is that America, God bless her, is a confused country. It's not so much that the information isn't out there, it's that there's too much data to digest.

      Americans wanting to lose weight are confronted by any number of fad diets, calorie charts, pills to prevent food absorption, weight loss programs, nutritional controversy and food industries that are less than clear about just what their products contain.

      And although there are countless unquantifiable factors that influence one's weight, in essence the problem is pretty simple: Americans eat too much and don't get enough exercise.

      The roots of the problem

      In the old days, most of the people were hungry at least some of the time. Scarcity was the norm and the temptation of a third helping of dessert just wasn't an option. There were no jars of Skippy's on the shelf to jazz up your bread and when you were thirsty you took a drink of water instead of breaking open a can of Coke. For the vast majority of the world's population, food was never abundant enough to be considered a luxury and obesity was only really an option for the rich.

      All that changed (in the so-called developed nations at least) with improvements to agriculture and the economy in the 20th century. Hunger became a thing of the past. Eating out became an option for just about everyone as fast food outlets and cheap supermarkets replaced the local store.

      But as Americans began to include the hamburger, the soda and the packet of cookies in their daily diets, they began eating food they didn't understand. Salts, fats and sugars made their way into seemingly innocuous produces, making snacking an exercise in gluttony. It didn't help that manufacturers could hide sugar content, for instance, under names like dextrose, glucose, sucrose, lactose and corn syrup.

      Take sodas, for instance. Around a quarter of the calories that American children take in these days come from soft drinks. The promotional team at Coke may have convinced the national pysche that drinking sugared caffine water is as essentially American as pledging allegiance to the flag, but the current generation of 9 million overweight kids might one day ask themselves how they were suckered into swallowing some 140 calories a can or about 7% of their daily requirement.

      Burning it off

      Overweight people are often looked down for being lazy. If they could just be bothered to put on a pair of running shoes or pump a little iron they would slim down in no time, the thinking goes. Where's their get-up-and-go energy? They are, in the worst possible sense, self-made.

      Yet many dieters include morning runs and laps in the swimming pools in their weight loss regimes and still get nowhere. A recent study featured in Time revealed that while people might burn off calories by putting themselves through the paces, they tend to put them all back on again by snacking out afterwards. Working out makes people hungry and they end up eating more than they would have done otherwise.

      I remember trying to explain the concept of exercise to a friend in Nepal. I told him all about weight lifting, aerobics and jogging. He almost cried with laughter when I told him about power walking.

      "What's the point?" he giggled, "Why don't they just walk everywhere normally?"

      Living in a mountain village he couldn't imagine a country so dominated by the car that going places by foot isn't even an option. When he went to market he walked half an hour there and then carried his groceries back up the slope to his house. His wife then prepared lunch by grinding up the spices and then kneading the dough for the flat bread chapattis by hand. Her arms were already muscular from washing clothes by hand, just as her husband's were from chopping wood. Everything they did was exercise. What need did they have of a gym?

      Of course, there's no turning the clock back. Most of us are happy enough to buy our bread and the washing machine was the salvation of mothers across the modern world. But we have largely failed to see the true costs of all the labor-saving devices that fill our homes. We get around by car. Any number of kitchen appliances save us from actually squeezing lemons, kneading dough or washing our own dishes. Hell, I remember when to change stations on the TV, you had to get up and push the button yourself.

      Diets galore

      Luckily, the free market is here to help.

      I'd like to say I'd uncovered a secret agreement between the fast food companies, a major car manufacturer and the weight loss industry, the former two providing a customer base for the latter. But it's bad enough to think that it could even have been true. The number of diet plans and products facing Americans today is overwhelming, an almost gluttonous number of methods and pseudo-scientific approaches drowning out all common sense as they cash in some $30 billion a year.

      Take for example, Body Solutions, a company that promised you could "lose weight while you sleep." Their secret formula? You had to swallow a spoonful of their fruity liquid and wait for those pounds to come rolling off. Following a lawsuit alleging false advertising Body Solutions now urges exercise to complement its product.

      In fact, you'd have to be a little too trusting to believe any of the claims the diet companies make. As Richard Cleland of the Federal Trade Commission noted: "The ads are filled with testimonials about amounts of weight that are just physiologically impossible for a person to lose. You just don't lose 30 pounds in 30 days."

      But then came Atkins, a diet that seems to actually work. At least, in the beginning. Never mind that we'd been eating wheat for tens of thousands of years, that it was a healthy staple of the American diet providing fibre and minerals. People were reportedly losing pounds on Atkins and that was all there was to it ... until they came off the diet and put them all back on again.

      Core mission

      The human body is a complex organism and its core mission is to stay alive. Storing fat is part of its survival strategy for times of scarcity and it's believed that it can be tricked into burning those reserves of fat by eating a protein-only diet. But apart from the strain on your overall health that such an approach entails, the fact remains that once you go back to your usual menu, if you're consuming more calories than you spend the weight will come right back on again.

      As food writer Michael Pollan observed about the Atkins phenomenon: "Such a violent change in a culture's eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder."

      While researching this article a biologist friend even told me about the tapeworm approach. The parasite is bought (illegally) over the internet or is consumed at a roadside restaurant in Guatemala and pretty soon, you have a little friend lightening the load from inside.

      "It makes about as much sense as Atkins." she shrugged.

      The boring but sober truth is that it takes at least as long to lose weight as it did to put it on in the first place. A healthy target of losing a pound a month puts you on course to lose 12 over the course of a year. No stress is placed on your body in the process and it's likely to involve sustainable changes to your lifestyle and thus be a long-lasting change.

      One way to shed pounds is to burn fat more quickly. Lots of expensive nutritional supplements claim to help you do that, but there's really only one way and that's through eating right and keeping fit. But you already knew that, didn't you? For a how-to guide, see Laurie Hedlund's excellent Speed Up Your Metabolism.

      A modest proposal

      So here is Tom Glaister's Common Sense Guide to Losing Weight not the kind of title that makes a national best seller but then I couldn't in all honesty make money by giving advice your grandmother could have given you.

      1. Don't Eat As Much The first time I went to a restaurant in America my friend suggested that we save money by sharing a meal. I was feeling pretty hungry but my doubts vanished when I saw the size of the plate the waitress brought us. To be honest it could have fed three.

      We eat way more than we need to. We're gotten used to being greedy. But if you eat slower, then less becomes more. Slow down and chew your food, enjoy the tastes as they meet your palate instead of just shoveling it all in.

      2. Drink Water When You're Hungry We're supposed to drink about 36 ounces of water a day but almost no one does. When our bodies dehydrate we often confuse the need to drink something with the urge to eat something. So next time you feel like snacking out, try drinking a pint of water and see if that does the trick.

      3. Don't Eat Out If you go out to eat you have no idea what's in the food. Eat meals that you prepare yourself and you can make sure that it's not packed with salt, sugar and fat. Of course if you'd believe the ads from Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization partly funded by the fast food industry, obesity is not an epidemic but 'hype'.

      Don't you just love how every time a corporation tries to sell something that's bad for you they invoke the "freedom to choose?"

      4. Cut Down On the Carbohydrates But Don't Cut Them Out Completely. Eating less carbs does seem to help lose weight but you still need them to stay healthy. Got that? Never go to extremes where your health is concerned.

      5. Walk Places You Want To Go Those two things at the end of your legs were designed for doing more than just pushing gas pedals. Walking gets you out into the fresh air, gets your circulation going, gives you time to think and burns calories at a steady, gradual rate.

      Of course in an ideal world, people would recognize their limits by themselves, food manufacturers would sell products that were good for us rather than addictively tasty and cities would be redesigned to get people out on their feet and bicycles.

      Will it happen?

      Fat chance.

      ---

      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.

      Fat Chance: A Simple Approach to Weight Loss. Including information on the roots of the problem, burning it off, diets galore, core mission and a modest pr...
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      Children's Tylenol Products Recalled

      Manufacturing problems could cause contamination

      September 27, 2009
      McNeil Consumer Healthcare is recalling certain children's and infant's Tylenol products that were manufactured between April 2008 and June 2008. The company said potential manufacturing problems could result in bacterial contamination.

      No contamination has been found in any finished product, McNeil Vice President Edwin D. Kuffner, M.D., said. He said Burkholderia cepacia (B. cepacia) was detected in some of the raw material used in the manufacture of children's Tylenol products but he emphasized that, so far, none has been found in finished products.

      The full list of recalled products is on the company's Web site and also appears below.

      B. cepacia can cause severe problems in high-risk patients, including those with underlying pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis or compromised immune systems. The risk of contamination is higher with nasal sprays, mouthwashes and similar products, he said.

      Kuffner said parents and caregivers seeking more information and a coupon for a replacement product can contact the company at 1-800-962-5357 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. (Eastern time) Monday through Friday.



      Children's Tylenol Products Recalled...
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      True.com Settles Billing Class Action

      Suit alleged site fraudulently re-enrolled users after cancellation

      A Texas court has approved a settlement in a lawsuit accusing dating site True.com of continuing to charge customers who attempted to closed their accounts.

      Plaintiff Thomas Wong filed the suit in 2007, accusing the site of charging him three separate times after he canceled his subscription. The suit described a misleading system billed Auto-Subscription that reactivated users' accounts without their knowledge or consent.

      According to the complaint, True regularly sent e-mails to users who had canceled their subscriptions, informing them that other members were trying to contact them. The lawsuit alleged that these members didn't actually exist, and that consumers who responded to the e-mail unwittingly reactivated their membership, allowing True to begin charging them again.

      Consumers who chose to dispute the charges with their credit card companies were also in a bind, as True's terms of agreement provide that users agree not to dispute any authorized charge by True.com or its authorized agents.

      The lawsuit also said that True sneaked snuck extra charges onto consumers' bills without informing them. Users were allegedly charged $2.99 per month for access to a live chat feature, and $0.99 per month for enrollment in the coaching center, which True.com says provides ongoing feedback, advice and counsel to its subscribers, helping guide them through every stage of their relationships. The site's terms of agreement said that consumers would be automatically billed for the services unless they canceled them, even though they were described as separate product offerings from the website itself.

      The suit alleged counts of breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and violation of Texas consumer statutes, and was heard in Dallas County, Texas, where the site is based. A preliminary settlement was reached in March, and the court gave its final approval this week.

      ConsumerAffairs.com has heard from a number of consumers whose cards were charged after they closed their accounts. Lisa of Sarasota, FL writes:

      I told them no matter what I want to cancel in Sept. 2009 and they still charge to my Mastercard account-$49.99, $6.00 and $3.99. I reported to my Bank and they still won't give me my money back. This is one of those scam companies and I want my money back now.

      Malisa of Brooklyn, NY was charged for services she didn't know she was receiving:

      I did an online cancellation of the services offered by True.com. However, I observed that my credit card was charged two weeks later. I called the number provided with the credit card payment; at this time I was told that the online cancellation was insufficient for a cancellation. I was told that buried in the initial contract it is stated that cancellation have to be done via phone but it is not mentioned when you cancel online. After much discussion I was refunded the two payment they too, one for $2.99 and the other for $49.99. However, the next day there was another charge for $0.99. When I called about the other charge, I was told that the default setting included with the services provided by True.com caused this additional charge but that I could have been changed it.

      True, which has millions of members, bills itself a safer, smarter, more satisfying dating site. One of the site's main bragging points is its criminal screening process; True compares member names against a criminal database and turns away felons, sex offenders, and even married people who represent themselves as single. The site says it reports these individuals to federal authorities.

      Not just True

      True isn't the only site that finds it difficult to completely do away with ex-members. In July, a New York man filed suitagainst Match.com, claiming that the website shows current members photos of people who closed their accounts, thwarting what initially appear to be promising romantic prospects.

      Under the terms of the settlement, True will pay $1.5 million into a fund, from which refunds will be paid to eligible consumers. Affected True users will be eligible to receive either $35 (if they were charged for one additional month) or $50 (if they were charged for two or more months). An ill-defined larger group will be given a free 45-day membership to the website. In all, at least 150,000 consumers will be eligible for compensation, and plaintiffs' attorney Jonathan Tycko said that number is expected to grow. True denied any wrongdoing, claiming that it was settling to prevent protracted litigation and to return our focus on bringing people together.

      Affected consumers who wish to take advantage of the settlement must act quickly; the deadline for submitting claim forms is Oct. 21. More information is available at www.trueclassaction.com.



      True.com Settles Billing Class Action...
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      DIRECTV Takes Disputes Fees Out of Customer Accounts, Suit Charges

      Suit seeks to stop further collections until matter is litigated

      Consumers who are being charged an early cancellation penalty by satellite television company DIRECTV asked the Los Angeles Superior Court to block the company from automatically removing the fees from customers bank accounts or charging their credit card accounts without their prior knowledge and written consent until the lawsuit is resolved.

      The motion for a preliminary injunction notes that DIRECTV is systematically withdrawing the fees of up to $480 which the lawsuit contends are unlawful from customers accounts without their knowledge or permission. The withdrawals have caused consumers accounts to be overdrawn, customers checks to bounce, over-limit penalties to be assessed and their credit reports to be harmed as a result.

      The DIRECTV customers who brought the lawsuit on behalf of current and former California DIRECTV customers asked the court to bar the company from collecting the disputed fees in this manner until the court determines whether the fees themselves are lawful.

      DIRECTV charges its customers an early cancellation penalty when they terminate their service before what DIRECTV calls the term commitment period, typically eighteen to twenty-four months, is over. This early cancellation penalty is charged regardless of the reason for the cancellation. The lawsuit contends that DIRECTV fails to disclose this penalty to new customers or to existing customers who replace their equipment or add a new receiver, and that these practices are unlawful.

      These days, many families are struggling to make ends meet. Now is the last time DIRECTV should be plundering peoples financial accounts to pay a fee that we believe is unlawful, said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of the non-profit Consumer Watchdog, who, along with Litigation Director Pamela Pressley, is one of the attorneys in the case. The DIRECTV customers that we represent had no notice that this early cancellation penalty would be directly withdrawn or charged to their accounts without any advance warning or opportunity to dispute the charge, leaving them caught completely by surprise when they discovered after the fact that the money was taken from their accounts, stated Pressley.

      The companys unauthorized seizure of peoples money from their bank accounts jeopardizes the fragile financial status of these customers, and since DIRECTV has refused our request to stop collecting the fees in this manner, we are asking the court to prevent it from doing so, said Jennifer Steinberg, another attorney on the case.

      I was shocked and appalled to find that, after having been a loyal DIRECTV customer for over seven years and cancelling my service because of problems with my equipment and terrible customer service, DIRECTV had taken money directly from my bank account, said Mary Cox, a putative class member in this litigation. Cox continued, this fee caused my account to go into overdraft, thereby resulting in my bank charging me overdraft fees. I spent countless hours trying to get the charges reversed with my bank. This is money I need to pay for my groceries and other bills.

      It's outrageous for a company to be able to deduct money from its customers personal checking accounts without their written or verbal consent. This unlawful practice needs to be stopped, said Ingrid Evans, counsel for two of the representative DIRECTV customers in the suit.

      In a complaint filed last September in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of current and former California DIRECTV customers who were charged an early cancellation penalty, Los Angeles resident Kathy Greiner explained that when her DIRECTV receiver stopped working, she ordered a new one. It began experiencing problems, but DIRECTV would not resolve the problem.

      So Greiner, a six-year customer of the company, cancelled her service and returned the equipment. DIRECTV subsequently levied a $240 early cancellation penalty on Greiner, which the company took directly from her bank account (after deducting some amounts she had previously paid) without her knowledge or permission.

      Greiners complaint was later consolidated with another lawsuit brought by Amy Imburgia and Marlene Mecca, also California residents. The joint lawsuit, Imburgia, et. al, v. DirecTV, Inc., alleges that DIRECTV failed to disclose to customers that it imposed an 18 or 24 month term of service and that cancellation before the end of the term would result in enormous penalty fees. The company would also automatically extend the contractual obligation by another 18 to 24 months if malfunctioning equipment needed to be replaced or the customer decided to make a change to programming or other services. These policies were not properly disclosed to purchasers beforehand, and consumers did not agree to them, the suit states.

      Reader complaints

      ConsumerAffairs.com regularly receives complaints from readers that they've been unknowingly roped into contract renewals with DIRECTV. Here's a sample: .

      • Robert of Wirtz, Virginia, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that after he canceled his DIRECTV service six months into his contract, "I was informed that I would receive a final bill after cancellation. Funds of $195.90 were deducted (snatched) from my bank account, without prior notice. I went to my bank and was going to try and stop this transaction. My banker called and tried but it had already gone through. So I had to put this amount of money back in my account to prevent a shortage. No one at DIRECTV was remotely interested that I hadn't been notified in advance."

      • Justin of East Falmouth, Mass., says he cancelled service due to poor customer service, poor quality, and poor business practices even though he knew the cancellation fee would cost him more than $300. He wrote ConsumerAffairs.com, "I called and authorized DIRECTV to charge 40 dollars to my debit card. The following morning I had a charge for 180 dollars to my account. When I called DIRECTV to complain, the first call I was hung up on, the second call I was told a supervisor was unavailable and there was nothing they could do as I had authorized the payment, when I asked for copies of the recorded phone conversation they said they had none, the third call said it would take between 8-16 business days to refund the 140.00."

      • Heather of Simi Valley, California, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that she learned about DIRECTV contracts the hard way: "A few months ago, DIRECTV installed a new HD DVR in our home. What we didn't know was that signing the work order also threw us into another contract with them, beginning that day. When we called to cancel our service with DIRECTV...we were told we could not cancel until next year or pay a $240 cancellation fee. We were shocked! I think it's horrible that DIRECTV would trick their customers this way. We've contacted a lawyer to find out if we can fix this and keep it from happening to others.



      DIRECTV Takes Disputes Fees Out of Customer Accounts, Suit Charges...
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      Food Industry Seeks To Maintain Junk-Food Marketing In Schools

      Bill seeks thorough study of school-based marketing

      By James Limbach
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      September 25, 2009
      Despite rising public concern over childhood obesity, food companies, through an industry-funded self-regulatory group, have proposed a set of "principles" by which the companies can use a variety of approaches to market junk food to children in schools.

      The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest is calling on the industry group to go back to the chalkboard and consider whether Ronald McDonald truly belongs in the classroom. Also, a bill introduced in Congress would require the Department of Education to conduct a thorough assessment of school-based food marketing.

      The industry document at issue is a "Fact Sheet on the Elementary School Advertising Principles" released by the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which is funded by industry and administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

      Members of the initiative include Burger King, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey Company, McDonald's, Campbell Soup Company, and other major food companies.

      The fact sheet begins with an introduction stating that the member "companies agree that they will not advertise any food or beverage in elementary schools," and lists coupons, food samples, posters, and book covers among several other forms of prohibited advertising.

      That sounds promising, says CSPI, but the document then spends much of the following ten pages describing what food marketing it does not include, such as marketing on vending machine exteriors, label-collection programs, branded display racks, tray liners that promote food sold in schools, and menu boards, many of the techniques that are used most widely in schools.

      The self-regulatory plan also allows companies to sponsor curricula, other educational materials, and public service announcements. "Spokescharacters" like Ronald McDonald or Tony the Tiger are allowed, as is the sale -- by students -- of low-nutrition foods in fundraisers. It even omits the most common form of in-school marketing: the sale of the food itself.

      Although some of the CFBAI-participating companies have pledged to address school food sales through an agreement with the Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association, the majority of companies have not.

      In a letter to Elaine Kolish, the initiative's director, CSPI also expressed concern that the guidelines only cover elementary schools (K-6). At the very least, the group says, the guidelines should cover middle schools, where the average 6th grader is 11 years old.

      "These principles are a sham, written more to protect the commercial needs of food marketers than the health of children," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "It's bad enough that junk food is still available for kids to buy in schools. But who wants their son or daughter to be enlisted in an unpaid, drone army actually selling junk food?"

      CSPI cites Pizza Hut's Book It! Program as an example of an in-school marketing program that is allowed under the principles outlined in the industry fact sheet, since the Pizza Hut logo is small compared with other text on the materials. Logo aside, it is the prospect of free Pizza Hut pizza that really captures children's attention. (Yum! Brands [Pizza Hut's parent company], Chuck E. Cheese's, Topps Candy, and a number of other major marketers to children have not joined the self-regulatory program.)

      "Schools should teach the joys of reading," said Wootan. "Programs like Pizza Hut's turn reading into a commercial proposition that, unfortunately, ends up promoting obesity and disease in children." Experts warn against using food as a reward, which can instill in children lifetime habits of rewarding or comforting themselves with unhealthy food behaviors.

      CSPI says that without a substantial expansion of the marketing principles the food industry's self-regulatory system won't adequately protect kids' health.

      The legislation sponsored by Representatives Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Todd Platt (R-PA), would require the U.S. Department of Education, along with the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to assess the nutritional quality of foods available in schools and the forms of food marketing in schools.

      The bill is supported by a broad coalition of national and state health groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and the Trust for America's Health.



      Food Industry Seeks To Maintain Junk-Food Marketing In Schools...
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      Lawmakers Propose Faster Adoption Of New Credit Card Rules

      Consumers hit with rate hikes, account changes, over summer

      By Mark Huffman
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      September 25, 2009
      When Congress passed a package of credit card reforms in May, the new law gave banks until February 1, 2010 before the new rules would be implemented. Now, some lawmakers say that was too much time.

      Two Congressional Democrats, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said they will push to speed up implementation on December 1, 2009, two months ahead of schedule.

      Maloney said credit card companies have used the time between passage of the law and the implementation date to squeeze additional money out of their customers. For example, under the new law, credit card companies will not be allowed to raise rates on existing balances. They can't raise rates without notifying customers 45 days in advance. Maloney says that has led to a flurry of changes to credit card account terms over the last couple of months.

      Starting in June, Chase began contacting customers who had taken advantage of a promotion and transferred large balances to a Chase account at a low interest rate that was promised for the life of the loan. But the guarantee said nothing about the minimum monthly payment.

      At the time of the promotion, the minimum monthly payment was two percent, and many customers, like Waymon, of Deland, Fla., made the balance transfer based on what they could afford to pay monthly.

      "I took advantage of the 4.9 percent offer," Daymon told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Chase has now increased the monthly payment to five percent. The balance on this card is approximately $9200, which means the minimum monthly payment went from $190 to $469."

      Waymon says a Chase customer service rep told him he could continue paying the two percent per month, but that the annual interest rate would go up. Other Chase customers who have participated in the "low interest rate for the life of the card" promotion have posted similar stories.

      Chase also closed a large number of accounts that were former Washington Mutual Credit Card accounts. Neither of those activities would be specifically barred under the new rules, but industry analysts say all credit card companies are trying to get themselves in the most favorable financial position possible before the new rules take effect. It seems nearly every credit card company adjusted its rates over the summer months.

      "On Capital One's credit card statement this month, I noticed the percentage rate had jumped from 7.9 percent to 17.9 percent," Brian, of Hazelton, Pa., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I contacted customer service and was told this rise was due to the current economic climate."

      The "economic climate" is not specifically about the interest rate climate. Interest rates are near an all time low, hardly a reason to be raising consumers' credit card rates. Instead, banks are increasingly worried about customers' ability to repay the money they have borrowed.

      The credit card default rate has risen past 10 percent, so banks are attempting to collect more money from customers who are still paying their bills to offset potential losses on other accounts.

      Consumers, however, are confused and angry and have pressured lawmakers like Maloney and Frank for relief.

      The two lawmakers say they will sponsor legislation to speed up implementation of reforms, but with Congress's full plate of issues, the legislation -- which would have to be passed in the next 60 days -- faces an uncertain future.

      It will also face strong opposition from the banking industry. A spokesman for the American Bankers Association said it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to meet the December 1 deadline.



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      Florida Sues Acai Berry Product Distributor

      Company also faces suit in Illinois

      Advanced Wellness Research, Inc., a company allegedly offering free trials for its products, including Acai berry supplements and whitening toothpaste, faces a lawsuit in Florida. That state's attorney general filed the action, claiming the company failed to mention that customers would be charged approximately $80 on a monthly basis for products they did not intend to purchase.

      Attorney General Bill McCollum says his Economic Crimes Division began investigating the companies after receiving over 700 complaints about the companies. According to the complaints, consumers who tried to cancel the continuation program were unable to contact the company from which the products were purchased.

      ConsumerAffairs.com has received about 100 complaints from consumers all over the company, complaining about Advanced Wellness Research practices.

      "Free offers are not free offers from these people," Sharon, of Ridgecrest, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I ordered Vital Rezv which I thought was grape seed supplement and a wrinkle reducer. Never used any of their products because after calling to cancal, I knew this was a scam."

      Investigators also believe that Advanced Wellness company president Nicolas Molina and vice president Michael Trimarco became aware of the investigation and sold their business to Kelly OShea, a former Advanced Wellness employee. OShea created a new entity, Netalab Corp., and allegedly continued the same unfair and deceptive trade practices initially begun by Advanced Wellness. The complaints, in fact, have kept on coming.

      "I stupidly ordered a free trial of Dermacai Anti Wrinkle Serum for the cost of shipping $4.99," June, of Sacramento, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I recieved another bottle in the mail and when I received my credit card bill I had been billed $85.49. I called the number and was told that since I had not called to cancel with in two weeks I would have to pay. No where did I ever see anything about two weeks notice or even the cost of this product."

      The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief against the defendants, prohibiting further business activities which violate Floridas Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, as well as restitution on behalf of all victimized consumers, civil penalties of $10,000 for each violation, and reimbursement for fees and costs related to the investigation.

      In August, Advanced Wellness Research was one of 40 companies sued by talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who charged the companies were using her name and likeness to promote their acai berry supplements. In addition, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued Advanced Wellness over their business practices.

      Advanced Wellness Research, Inc., a company allegedly offering free trials for its products, including Acai berry supplements and whitening toothpaste, fac...
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      Fed Sees Recovering Economy

      Policymakers not concerned about inflation -- yet

      The Federal Reserve ended two days of meetings with a mostly upbeat message; the economy, it says, appears on the road to recovery, but the pace is not so quick as to require the Fed to boost interest rates.

      For consumers who can still get loans, that likely means lower interest rates for the foreseeable future.

      Economic activity has picked up following its severe downturn, the policymakers said in a statement. The statement said all signs seemed to be pointing to recovery, with improving financial markets, a rebounding housing market and stabilizing consumer spending.

      Of the three signs, the financial markets appear to be in the best shape. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is within striking distance of 10,000 and not far from it's pre-plunge level of last year. The Dow bottomed in early March of this year, at around 6600. Many stock portfolios and 401(k) plans, decimated by last year's stock market crash, have recovered much of their losses.

      Sluggish housing

      Housing, meanwhile, remains somewhat sluggish although is showing signs of a pulse. However, much of the recent uptick in sales has been driven by foreclosures, which have driven home prices down to 2003 levels.

      Consumers, meanwhile, are still spending but are showing a new sensitivity to price, and seem to be seeking out bargains. Discount retailers like Wal-Mart are doing better while many high end retailers continue to suffer.

      Even though the Fed and Congress are spending trillions of dollars to pump up the economy, the Fed statement said inflation is not an immediate concern. It says the economy, while recovering, will do so at a slow pace with significant unemployment factors it says will keep the breaks of rising prices.

      High unemployment

      August's unemployment rate was 9.7 percent, the highest level since the early 1980s. Some economists think it could reach 10 percent before it starts to fall.

      Wall Street's initial reaction to the Fed statement was positive, with stocks shooting higher in afternoon trading. But some market analysts are asking when the Fed plans to start exiting its bail-out strategy, and address the vast amounts of money it has pumped into the system.

      The dollar continues to fall as foreign countries, particularly China, grow leery of U.S. spending. A weak dollar will make imported goods including oil more expensive. While weak demand has kept gasoline prices stable in recent months, further weakness in the dollars could begin to cause consumers some pain when the next summer driving season rolls aroumd.



      Fed Sees Recovering Economy: The Federal Reserve ended two days of meetings with a mostly upbeat message; the economy, it says, appears on the road to reco...
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      140 Conference Takes On Everything Twitter

      Much talk, many tweets about the microblogging phenom

      The event attracted a mix of celebrities, techies, and those weird hybrids who are "Internet famous," yet could pass the average person on the street witho..

      Delaware To Reward Electric Car Drivers

      New state law provides incentives to go electric

      By Mark Huffman
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      September 24, 2009
      Some might say driving an electric car is its own reward, smiling as you glide silently past gas station after gas station. But in the tiny state of Delaware, driving an electric car now brings an additional reward from the state government.

      A newly signed law makes Delaware the first entity in the world to reward owners of electric cars with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology for plugging in. The state, of course, has an ulterior motive. Vehicle-to-grid technology is a home grown advancement, pioneered at the University of Delaware.

      Scientists say V2G vehicles work like an electrical sponge, capable of absorbing excess energy when demand for power is low, and returning some back to the electric grid when the demand for power is high. The new law lets people take advantage of this ability by requiring owners providing V2G services be "net metered," meaning they only pay for the net amount of electricity they draw. Owners will now be compensated for electricity sent back to the grid at the same rate they pay for electricity used to charge the battery.

      The bill was signed into law by Delaware Governor Jack A. Markell this week at an event that included the delivery of two electric vehicles to customers in Delaware. The vehicles were delivered by AutoPort, a New Castle, Del. automotive processing and modification facility. One is the first electric vehicle assembled in the state.

      The new law also sets inspection and safety requirements like those for home solar power and small wind generators. While the vehicles do not generate electricity like solar panels or wind turbines, their ability to provide electricity when needed means at times V2G customers meters will actually run backwards.

      The vehicles will help make the electric grid more efficient, cleaner, and more economical, said V2G pioneer Willett Kempton, a professor in the University of Delawares College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

      "This technology improves the electric system by providing balancing power via storage that would otherwise require burning fossil fuels to produce," he said.

      Kempton is a member of UD's Center for Carbon-free Power Integration, which is credited with founding the concept of V2G and continues to lead research on its development and adoption. Studying under Kempton, marine policy master's student Scott Baker played a major role in the law's development by providing much-needed background information to legislators.

      Earlier this year, the Delaware Economic Development Office issued a green-collar training award to AutoPort Inc. in New Castle, Del., which is in the process of making its first V2G vehicle. Delmarva Power and Delaware Municipal Electric Corporation Inc., Delaware utility companies affected by the legislation, were supportive of the new law.

      "We are excited about the potential electric vehicles bring to our nation and with our deployment of advanced meters we look forward to continuing to find innovative rate structures that support the development of this technology and making Delaware a leader in the nation in doing so," said Delmarva Power Region President Gary Stockbridge.

      In January, the city of Newark, Delaware, became the first electric utility in the nation to approve electrical "interconnect" for a V2G vehicle to store and provide power for the local electric grid. In June Delmarva Power did the same. UD researchers plan to have a fleet of six vehicles in operation by the end of 2009.



      A newly signed law makes Delaware the first entity in the world to reward owners of electric cars with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology for plugging in....
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