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    Florida Sues To Stop Travel Scam

    Victims told club membership provided free travel

    September 16, 2009
    The deal sounded too good to be true. And in fact, it was.

    Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum says Suncoast Incentives LLC's offer of a travel club with unlimited free travel was nothing but a scam and he's hauled the company into court.

    McCollum's complaint alleges that the company owner Nicholas Congleton enticed victims to purchase travel club memberships for thousands of dollars, but failed to provide the incentives advertised. McCollum says his suit was prompted by the more than 500 consumer complaints his office has received.

    Victims received advertisements for sales seminars that featured images of various commercial cruise ships. The advertisements encouraged consumers to attend the seminars and receive a free cruise.

    Once at the seminars, consumers were allegedly told they would never have to pay retail price for travel again if they joined the travel club. Membership fees ranged from $2,495 to $7,495, and annual renewal fees ranged from $199 to $249.

    The Attorney General's Economic Crimes Division determined the free cruises were not free and included substantial fees, often over several hundreds of dollars. Additionally, investigators believe the companies had a contract with only one condo association, and no contracts with any airlines, cruise lines, hotels, or motels. Former employees told investigators they would merely search online for price options, just as consumers might otherwise do for themselves.

    Congleton is associated with several other companies, including Royal Palm Vacations, World Travel, and Capital Financial. The Attorney General's lawsuit has requested the Court prohibit Congleton and his companies from selling any travel packages. The lawsuit also requests full consumer restitution and recovery of the costs of the state's investigation and litigation.

    Florida Sues To Stop Travel Scam...
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    Massachusetts Cracks Down On Medical Discount Plans

    Consumers often believe they are buying health insurance

    A medical discount card is not a health benefit plan. Many a consumer has learned that lesson the hard - and costly - way. All too often, the marketers of these discount plans have done their best to blur the difference.

    In Massachusetts, Attorney General Martha Caokley has filed proposed new consumer protection regulations designed to protect residents of the Bay State from unscrupulous marketing of plans that claim to offer discounts on medical products or services. The proposed regulations are part of the Attorney General's general crackdown on deceptive marketing of medical discount plans.

    In addition to the regulations, Coakley has also published a consumer education advisory and pursued law enforcement actions to protect consumers from medical discount plan scams.

    "As a result of health care reform in Massachusetts, all residents are required to have health insurance and are presented with a wide range of coverage options. It is critical that companies who offer any kind of medical coverage plans or medical discount card clearly disclose what their plans do and do not offer, and whether they fulfill the individual mandate." Coakley said. "We have received numerous complaints from consumers who have fallen victim to these deceptive discount plan scams. The new regulations that we are proposing will complement ongoing efforts to protect consumers from these deceptive practices."

    Medical discount plans claim to offer consumers discounts for specific health care products or services from certain providers in exchange for some form of fee. Under a medical discount plan, the plan member receives a discount, but is obligated to make all payments for services provided. Medical discount plans are not insurance products and are not regulated by the Division of Insurance. These plans also do not meet the minimum coverage standards as required under health care reform.

    The proposed regulations filed with the Secretary of State's Office would require organizations marketing medical discount plans for sale in Massachusetts to fully disclose how the plan works and whether the plan is limited to certain services or products from certain providers. The disclosures must make clear that the discount plan is not insurance and that the consumer will be required to pay for any services or products. In addition, the regulations will require medical discount plans to maintain lists available to consumers of any providers who have agreed to offer the plan's members discounts.

    Massachusetts Cracks Down On MedicalDiscount Plans...
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      Dell To Pay New York $4 Million In Fraud Charges Settlement

      Court finds Dell used "bait and switch" advertising tricks

      With the New York State Supreme Court ruling that Dell Computer engaged in fraud against consumers in the state, the once-dominant computer maker has agreed to settle charges, paying $4 million in restitution, penalties and costs.

      New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo brought the case against Dell, claiming it had engaged in fraud, false advertising, deceptive business practices, and abusive debt collection practices.

      The court's decision came as a result of the original lawsuit filed by Cuomo's Office, which charged that Dell engaged in bait and switch advertising with respect to its "no interest" financing promotions, misled consumers to believe they had qualified for promotional financing, failed to adequately disclose the terms of its "next day" service contracts and failed to provide consumers with warranty service and promised rebates.

      "Today's announcement is the final step in ensuring New Yorkers harmed by Dell's deceptive and illegal business practices are fully compensated," said Cuomo. "Going forward, this deal means that Dell will have to clearly and fully disclose the terms and conditions of their products and services, to avoid this kind of fraud at the consumer's expense. My office is committed to ensuring a fair and honest marketplace across New York by rooting out these unlawful practices, and we encourage anyone who was ripped off by Dell to come forward and file a claim to get their money back."

      Along with the $4 million in restitution, penalties and fees, the settlement also requires Dell to make sweeping changes to its advertising, sales and financing practices. Among other things, Dell will be required to advise consumers before they purchase an "at home" or "on site" service contract that they may be required to engage in diagnostic activity over the telephone that includes consumers themselves opening their computers to access internal components. The settlement also requires Dell to disclose in its advertisements for promotional financing the estimated percentage of consumers who will actually qualify for the promotion.

      In the past 12 months, ConsumerAffairs.com has received 1,368 complaints about Dell, mostly concerning customer service.

      "All I want is for someone to come to my home and fix my computer," Debra, of Vero Beach, Florida, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "They will not set up an appointment for a repair tech to go to your home. I not only have ended up screaming like another person mentioned on this site but I told them to give me an address to send this back because I have never dealt with a company who doesn't have or won't send a repair tech."

      According to the Court's decision upholding lawsuit, Dell deprived consumers of the technical support to which they were entitled under their warranty or service contract by:

      • Repeatedly failing to provide timely on site repair to consumers who purchased service contracts promising "on site" and expedited service;

      • Pressuring consumers, including those who purchased service contracts promising "on site" repair, to remove the external cover of their computer and remove, reinstall, and manipulate hardware components; and

      • Discouraging consumers from seeking technical support; those who called Dell's toll free number were subjected to long wait times, repeated transfers, and frequent disconnections.

      The court concluded that Dell lured consumers to purchase its products with advertisements that offered attractive "no interest" and/or "no payment" financing promotions. In practice, however, the vast majority of consumers, even those with very good credit scores, were denied these deals.

      Cuomo calls it "a classic bait and switch scheme," with DFS instead offering consumers financing at high interest rates, which often exceeded 20 percent. Dell and DFS frequently failed to clearly inform these consumers that they had not qualified for the promotional terms, leaving many to unwittingly finance their purchase at high interest rates.

      The decision also held that DFS incorrectly billed consumers on cancelled orders, returned merchandise, or accounts they did not authorize Dell to open, and then continually harassed these consumers with illegal billing and collection activity.

      Although many consumers repeatedly contacted Dell and/or DFS to advise them of the errors, DFS did not suspend its collection activity and Dell failed to expeditiously credit consumers' accounts, even after assuring consumers it would do so. As a result, many consumers have been subjected to harassing collection calls for months on end and have had their credit ratings harmed.



      Dell To Pay New York $4 Million In Fraud Charges Settlement...
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      prepaid Debit Card Vs. Big Bank

      Debit card can offer lower cost, prevent steep overdraft fees

      By Sara Huffman
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      September 15, 2009
      Like millions of Americans, I have a checking account with one of the Big Banks. And like millions of Americans, I have had my share of unexpected, infuriating overdraft fees.

      For a ConsumerAffairs.com experiment, I decided to try a prepaid Mastercard for a couple weeks and compare its fees and ease of use with my bank.

      After looking through my options, I selected a Silver Prepaid Mastercard, which promises free unlimited purchase transactions anywhere credit cards and debit cards are accepted, and most importantly, no overdraft fees. Because I'm not borrowing money, but putting my own money onto the card, it doesn't matter what my credit score is and I was approved immediately.

      Like just about any bank product, there are some fees. The general knock on these prepaid cards is the number, and amount, of fees. While that's generally true, some have lower, and fewer fees than their competitors. After doing some homework, I settled on the card from Silver.

      The first fee was $9.95 fee to open the account. After checking around, I decided it was worth it because it was similar to others, and it was a one-time charge.

      Step-by-step directions

      Within a week, they sent me my card and after a quick authorization call, I chose my PIN number which I could use to make debit purchases. On the back of the card, they gave me the URL to their website (www.silvercardmc.com) where I created a profile and could check my account details online. Again, after a few minutes, I was all set up with my username and password.

      Through the online website, there are step-by-step directions on how to transfer money from a PayPal account onto the card. If you don't have a PayPal account, there are instructions on how to set up direct deposit of paychecks or transferring money via Western Union, but PayPal is the least expensive way to do it.

      I transferred $250 onto the card and within three days, the money was available to use. The cost of the transfer -- a fee of 95 cents.

      Over the next couple of weeks, I used my Silver Mastercard like any other credit card. I used it to make an online purchase, I used it at the post office and I used it at the grocery store. I quickly learned to choose "credit" instead of "debit" when I made a purchase at a store. A "credit" purchase with my Silver card is free. A debit transaction costs 95 cents. So over a typical month, I could probably save $10 to $20 in fees by always selecting "credit" when paying for an item.

      There was also an unexpected bonus my Big Bank doesn't offer. Two minutes after each purchase I got an email from Silver Card telling me I had made a purchase, how much the purchase was for, and best of all, how much money was left in my account. What a great feature!

      A few kinks

      There were a few purchases that eventually worked out fine, but weren't quite as seamless as the others:

      No overdrafts



      At Target, I swiped my card without choosing "credit" first. As a result, it rang up as a debit charge and I got a 95 cents fee.

      At the gas station, I filled up my tank for $35.00. The gas station held onto $50.00 for a few days until the charge cleared. I'm not sure why that happened.

      I paid one of my bills using the Bill Pay feature on Silver Mastercard's website. It took about three days for the payment to clear and my bill to be paid. I wish I had known that -- while the payment went through before the due date, it came dangerously close. I would have paid the bill earlier. Silver Mastercard charged me 95 cents to use Bill Pay.

      At the ATM, I took $20.00 out. The ATM charged me a $3.00 fee and then Silver Mastercard charged me $1.95 for using the ATM. I now realize that when I need cash, I can always get cash back on a purchase from the grocery store. In that case I would select "debit" instead of "credit" but would only have to pay the 95 cents debit fee, instead of almost $5 at the ATM.

      With about $5.00 left on my card, I decided to see what would happen if I tried to use the card on a large purchase that would overdraw my account. At my Big Bank, the charge would go through, but then I would get dinged with a $35 overdraft fee. So, at the grocery store, I swiped the card for a $40 purchase. As promised, the card was declined, instead of going through and causing me to be in the red. Within minutes, I got an email, telling me that I didn't have enough money in my account for that purchase.

      Silver -- as well as almost all of the prepaid debit cards -- advertise that they have "no overdraft fees." And while that's technically true, there is a fee involved when you exceed the money in your account. Only, they don't call it an overdraft fee, but rather a "decline fee." It seems a little misleading, but when I checked the "terms of service," the "decline fee" was among the list of fees.

      But the decline fee was a lot less than my bank's overdraft fee. When I got home, I checked my account online and found that the fee was $2.95. That's it.

      I thought about all those times I would go out and make six or seven debit purchases through my bank, only to come home, check my account online, and see that I was in the red and was getting charged six or seven overdraft fees of $35.00 EACH. A one-time fee of $3 is nothing in comparison.

      In the couple of weeks I used the card to spend $250, I paid $10.75 (not counting the charge to open the account) in fees. If I had used it to pay more bills online, that total would have been higher.

      The card will work best if you can have your paycheck direct deposited into your account. It not only saves time, its an easy way to keep funds in your account.

      I haven't decided whether I will keep using my prepaid debit card now that the experiment is over, but I have to say there are two features that I really like: the $2.95 decline fee instead of a $35 overdraft fee and the email updates to alert me to the charges I've made and my current balance.

      While there is almost no truly free banking, using a prepaid credit card is an alternative to going with the Big Banks. It isn't for everyone, but if you get hit with multiple overdraft charges every month or so, you might find it's just as simple and much, much cheaper.

      A word of caution: Don't just accept whatever debit card plan your Big Bank happens to offer. Many banks pile on debit card fees that are just as expensive as the checking-account fees we've all learned to hate. Shop around and read the terms and conditions carefully.

      prepaid Debit Card Vs. Big Bank...
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      Craigslist Scammer Using Fake Wisconsin Department Of Revenue Checks

      At least one "purchaser" used checks to pay for items sold through Craigslist

      Counterfeit checks from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue are being used by at least one "purchaser" to pay for items sold through Craigslist.

      "It appears that this is another fake check scam used to cheat consumers out of their money," said Janet Jenkins, Trade and Consumer Protection division administrator with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. "This fraud has been around for a long time but, every now and then there is a new twist which in this case, seems to be the use of fake Department of Revenue checks."

      In this particular version of the fake check fraud, the person committing the fraud pretends to want to buy something that is for sale on Craigslist. This "purchaser" contacts a seller and arranges a sale. The fraudulent purchaser then sends a check to the seller in an amount that is greater than the selling price. The purchaser asks the seller to deposit the check promptly and then send the extra amount back to the "purchaser" using a money order.

      The check issued to the seller ultimately bounces but, by that time the seller has already sent the money order. Neither the Wisconsin Department of Revenue nor the financial institution that cashed or deposited the fake check has any liability for the scam. The seller is the person who ends up losing money.

      Consumer Protection offers a few simple tips to help consumers to avoid fake check scams:

      • If someone sends you a check for more than the amount you're owed, the chances that it is a fake check scam are very high.

      • Anyone who asks you to wire funds via Western Union, MoneyGram or any other wire service this is almost certainly a scammer.

      • With today's computer technology, fake checks, including cashiers checks, and fake money orders are easy to make. If the name of the check issuer seems at all odd, talk to your financial institution.

      • Make certain that the financial institution in which you deposited the check has actually received the money for the check before sending your money to someone else. The fact that the financial institution cashes the check does not necessarily mean that the institution has received the money for the check. Again, talk to your financial institution.



      Craigslist Scammer Using Fake Wisconsin Department Of Revenue Checks...
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      California Consumer Group Wants Its Billboard Back

      Bright yellow billboard warned consumers 'You can't trust Mercury Insurance'

      By Truman Lewis
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      September 13, 2009
      It's not unusual for businesses to respond aggressively when consumers go online to complain about them, but it's not often a billboard causes a major dust-up. In Los Angeles, the non-profit consumer group Consumer Watchdog is demanding that CBS Outdoor reinstall a bright yellow billboard that read "Consumer Watchdog Says: 'You Can't Trust Mercury Insurance'".

      CBS Outdoor must re-install the billboard immediately and fulfill its contractual obligation, the consumer group demanded in a letter to the billboard company sent last week. The letter, from First Amendment lawyer Anthony Glassman said that Consumer Watchdog would sue CBS Outdoor if the company did not honor the contract.

      On August 24, after following the standard protocol for posting billboard ads, CBS Outdoor posted the billboard at Wilshire Blvd. and Witlon Place near downtown Los Angeles. Sometime around September 3rd, CBS Outdoor ripped the sign down without notifying Consumer Watchdog in violation of the contract. According to a CBS representative, Mercury Insurance's Chairman, billionaire George Joseph, complained and threatened CBS, leading to the removal of the sign.

      At its Web site -- the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization has listed the Top 10 Reasons that Mercury, the third largest auto insurer in California, can't be trusted. The group cites punishments Mercury received from regulators in California and Florida for its claims-handling practices, as well as smoking gun documents exposing the company's practices of lowballing policyholders with claims and incentivizing its body shops to use aftermarket and junkyard-refurbished parts rather than original manufacturer parts when repairing policyholders' cars.

      The group also posted a legal brief from the California Department of Insurance in which the Department wrote: "Among Department [of Insurance] staff, consumer attorneys, and consumer victims of its bad faith, Mercury has a deserved reputation for abusing its customers and intentionally violating the law with arrogance and indifference."

      Consumer Watchdog's Executive Director Douglas Heller said: "What's worse than CBS Outdoor breaking its contract and pulling down the billboard, is the fact that Mercury's customers who might have been informed by the billboard, won't be apprised of the problems they might face if they ever need Mercury to pay a claim."

      In its letter calling on CBS Outdoor to replace the billboard, Consumer Watchdog's attorney Glassman cited the group's contract with the billboard firm, which reads: "If Copy is furnished and delivered as required above and such Copy is not rejected by Company pursuant to the terms hereof (i) the Copy shall be posted... "

      Glassman wrote: "The "Copy" furnished and delivered to CBS Outdoor was not rejected and was subsequently posted by CBS Outdoor as required by the terms of the contract. Once posted, it should have remained through the term of the contract as the Copy did not violate any of the terms requiring removal under the contract, i.e., it did not contain [n]udity, pornographic, profane or obscene copy, which would have precluded its initial posting." Glassman added, "Having been approved by CBS Outdoor, and not being in violation of any of the terms of the contract, you are estopped from removing it prior to the period paid for under the contract."

      The group is demanding that the billboard be reinstalled for 16 days, which represents the least number of days left on the contract when CBS removed the billboard. Consumer Watchdog has not yet determined when the billboard was actually removed.

      California Consumer Group Wants Its Billboard Back...
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      Google Books Settlement Facing Scrutiny

      Concerns center on possible monopoly, invasion of privacy

      By Jon Hood
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      September 13, 2009
      The proposed Google Books settlement, once hailed by Google cofounder Sergey Brin as giving consumers unprecedented access to the tremendous wealth of knowledge that lies within the books of the world, is getting decidedly negative reviews from a number of industry players and government agencies, with concerns about monopolies and consumer privacy at the top of the list.

      Google was hit with a lawsuit in 2006, accused of copyright infringement for offering over 10 million protected works to the public free of charge. The search behemoth settled the lawsuit in October of last year, agreeing to pay $125 million in what it called an historic deal that would benefit consumers. Under the agreement, Google would give publishers about two-third of revenues made from selling access to out-of-print works, keeping 37% for itself.

      The settlement was hailed as the first step toward allowing consumers to search for and buy out-of-print books, and provided that U.S. libraries would have free access to Google's master database. In testimony before Congress, Google's chief legal officer David Drummond added that bookstores and online booksellers like Amazon.com would be able to sell access to Google's database on any Internet-connected device they choose.

      The settlement is now facing increasing scrutiny as it awaits final court approval. A key point of contention is a section permitting Google to scan and store orphan books -- those that are no longer in print but still protected by a valid copyright -- without first securing permission from the works' copyright holders.

      Marybeth Peters, head of the U.S. Copyright Office, told Congress that the settlement would give Google a license to infringe first and ask questions later, and added that the agreement makes a mockery of Article One of the Constitution, that anticipates that authors shall be granted exclusive rights.

      John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, a California-based non-profit, said a key problem is the unfair competitive advantage Google receives under the settlement that comes from its attempt to pull an end-run around the appropriate legislative solution to the orphan books problem. This is not an issue for a court and certainly one that cannot be settled by solving the problem for one large corporation and no one else, he said in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last week.

      He said the problem is Googles monopolistic digital library and how it would be implemented. The proposed class-action settlement is monumentally overbroad and invites the court to overstep its legal jurisdiction, to the detriment of consumers and the public, he said. The proposed settlement agreement would strip rights from millions of absent class members, worldwide, in violation of national and international copyright law, for the sole benefit of Google.

      Google's competitors -- Microsoft, for example -- are also crying foul, claiming that the provision allowing Google to store orphan books would amount to a veritable monopoly on that market. Amazon executive Paul Misener told SF Gate that, while his company also scans and stores orphan books, it first secured permission from copyright holders. We went to the rights holders, and one by one, negotiated deals, Misener said.

      Misener likened Amazon's interest in blocking the settlement with its interest in network neutrality. He said the settlement would give Google an advantage rather than provide a level playing field. "Under the proposed settlement, Google would become a consumer's nightmare: the only store in town," he said.

      In a move aimed at quelling such criticism, the settlement agreement provides that funds for orphan books would be held in escrow for five years, or until the copyright owner claims the book. Additionally, Google has agreed to spend $34.5 million to create a registry in an effort to locate those owners.

      Privacy concerns

      Google is also under fire from privacy advocates, who insist that the agreement will do nothing to protect consumers. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sought to intervene on behalf of consumers' privacy rights, apparently unswayed by Google's newly released privacy proposal.

      That proposal, pitched to the Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, stresses that Google would not share users' information with third parties except under very limited and narrow circumstances, which would be explicitly set forth in the final privacy proposal. According to Google, those narrow circumstances are limited to situations where Google shares information with trusted entities that process information on our behalf or to prevent physical or financial harm. Google also promised to enact protections to limit the information ... available to credit card companies about book purchases. Privacy advocates point out that these measures are informal and not legally binding, and thus afford consumers little real protection.

      The amount of data that Google could amass about a readers behavior is unprecedented, Consumer Watchdog's Simpson said. It could be commingled with data from other Google services posing a new threat to user privacy and flies in the face of the U.S. tradition of privacy regarding reading habits, he argued.

      "Consumer Watchdog supports digitization and digital libraries in a robust competitive market open to all organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, that offer fundamental privacy guarantees to users, Simpson concluded. But a single entity cannot be allowed to build a digital library based on a monopolistic advantage when its answer to serious questions from responsible critics boils down to: Trust us. Our motto is Dont be evil.

      Its its defense, Google notes that it has taken measures to protect privacy in the past. The company blurs certain locations on Google Maps including, until January, the Vice President's residence in Washington -- and its privacy policy says that personal information required for customers to log in is not shared with third parties, although it makes an exception for trusted parties.



      Google Books Settlement Facing Scrutiny...
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      Mortgage Brokers Arrested For Theft

      Brokers allegedly changed terms after customers signed documents

      September 11, 2009
      Three California mortgage brokers face charges of criminal conspiracy after they allegedly stole nearly $1 million from borrowers who were trying to refinance their homes.

      California Attorney General Jerry Brown leveled the charges against 39-year old Michael McConville of Simi Valley, sales manager of ALG, Inc, a Los Angeles based mortgage company; Garrett Holdridge, 23, of Palmdale, California and Texas, loan officer for ALG, Inc.; and Alan Ruiz, 28, of Huntington Beach, also a loan officer for ALG, Inc.

      Brown charges McConville and his co-conspirators lured dozens of borrowers into refinancing home loans by falsely promising low interest rates and brokers' fees, and other attractive terms. They then allegedly negotiated different terms with lenders, forged the victims' signatures on the final loan documents and collected hefty brokers fees - ranging from $20,000 to $57,000 - that were never disclosed.

      Only when the borrowers received true copies of the loan documents after the refinance, Brown maintains, did they discover that their names had been forged. In total, defendants are accused of stealing over $950,000 from more than 70 borrowers, leaving victims holding $30 million in loans with terms they did not agree to.

      "After victims signed their closing papers, McConville and his associates doctored the loan documents, forged borrowers' signatures and slipped in hefty fees that were never disclosed," Brown said. "This was not some clerical error but a criminal conspiracy to steal nearly a million dollars from borrowers."

      Brown says McConville promised one couple a 5.5 percent fixed interest rate, cash-out of $58,000 and $4,500 in closing costs. Only after they signed the documents, they realized their copy did not include the pages detailing the key terms of the loan. The couple soon received loan documents from Indymac Bank and discovered their signatures had been forged and they had received a 7 percent interest rate, no cash-out, and over $50,000 in closing costs, including a $42,000 origination fee paid to ALG, according to the complaint.

      Mortgage Brokers Arrested For Theft...
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      Survey: Americans Want Consumer Agency For Financial Products And Services

      Strong support for better disclosures, prohibitions on abusive practices

      By James Limbach
      ConsumerAffairs.com

      September 11, 2009
      A year after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy froze credit markets and sent the stock market into a nosedive, consumers overwhelmingly want government action to increase consumer protections for financial products and services, according to a new national poll released by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).

      In a country where skepticism about the role of government is high, 57 percent of those polled support the creation of a new federal agency to protect consumers who purchase banking and other financial products and services.

      Those most likely to be adversely affected by many unfair and deceptive financial practices -- adults under 35 blacks, Hispanics and low-income individuals -- expressed the strongest support for a new consumer protection agency.

      "Americans are fed up with the tricks and traps that they confront daily as they purchase and use financial products and services," said Travis Plunkett, CFA's Legislative Director. "To add insult to injury, the same firms that benefited from a taxpayer bailout are hitting consumers with exorbitant and unjustified charges. Americans want a cop on the beat to rein in these abuses, which helped trigger the current economic crisis and have worsened the plight of those hardest hit by the recession."

      President Obama proposed the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency in response to the perceived failure of regulators to rein in lending that helped bring down the economy.

      Chairman Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee and Chairman Christopher Dodd of the House Banking Committee have both strongly endorsed the agency. The House Financial Services Committee is scheduled to take up the legislation to establish the new agency in the next few weeks.

      Poll results

      The poll of 1018 people conducted by Caravan Opinion Research Corporation for CFA asked specifically about mortgage lending, bank practices, and credit cards. The survey showed that, in the wake of the mortgage meltdown, Americans overwhelmingly support disclosure requirements on mortgage documents and limits on fees and certain practices:

      • 89 percent support (82 percent strongly support) requiring banks to disclose all mortgage fees upfront, clearly and conspicuously.

      • 67 percent support (58 percent strongly support) prohibiting banks from charging substantial penalties to borrowers who pay off mortgages early.

      • 61 percent support (45 percent strongly support) prohibiting mortgage brokers from collecting additional fees from banks for persuading borrowers to purchase higher-rate mortgages.

      • 61 percent support (48 percent strongly support) prohibiting mortgage brokers and banks from selling more expensive subprime mortgage loans to borrowers who qualify for less expensive regular mortgage loans.

      Bank practices also are of concern to Americans. They support disclosure requirements and limits on overdraft practices.

      • 85 percent support (73 percent strongly support) requiring banks to disclose, on the ATM screen, that a withdrawal will overdraw an account.

      • 71 percent support (44 percent strongly support) requiring banks to gain the permission of customers before routinely providing loans to cover these overdrafts.

      • 70 percent support (53 percent strongly support) requiring banks to pay checks in the order they are received, as opposed to the current practice of allowing banks to routinely pay the largest first, which drains some accounts more quickly and increases bounced check fees.

      More regulations

      In spite of the recent enactment of credit card protections by Congress, consumers still believe that additional prohibitions on particular credit card practices are necessary:

      • 67 percent support (55 percent strongly support) prohibiting credit card companies from extending total lines of credit that exceed a person's annual income.

      • 63 percent support (51 percent strongly support) prohibiting credit card companies from increasing the interest rate on one card because of their payment history on another card.



      Survey: Americans Want Consumer Agency For Financial Products And Services...
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      August Foreclosures Up 18 Percent Over 2008

      Most activity still centered in a few states

      The rate of foreclosure activity dipped slightly in August from the previous month, but still remains sharply higher than 2008's rate.

      The latest monthly report from RealtyTrac, a foreclosure tracking firm, shows foreclosure filings - default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions - were reported on 358,471 U.S. properties during the month, a decrease of less than 1 percent from the previous month but still an increase of nearly 18 percent from August 2008. The report also shows one in every 357 U.S. housing units received a foreclosure filing in August.

      "The August report demonstrates that there is still an ample supply of properties filling the foreclosure pipeline even while the outflow of bank-owned REO properties onto the resale market is being more carefully regulated," said James J. Saccacio, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac. "After hitting a high for the year in July, REOs dropped 13 percent in August, but we also saw a record high number of properties either entering default or being scheduled for a public foreclosure auction for the first time."

      Complaints received by ConsumerAffairs.com in recent months show a high level of frustration by homeowners who are trying to modify their loans to prevent becoming a foreclosure statistic.

      "I called Litton for help to modify my loan back in December 2008. I spent all my time calling them trying to get someone who can help me, but each time I kept getting different answers," Rosa, of Freeport, NY, told ConsumerAffairs.com. I gave them all the information to apply for a modification and it was not approved. I got a letter in the mail stating that it was declined by the investor."

      Nevada, Florida, California post top state foreclosure rates

      With one in every 62 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing in August, Nevada continued to document the nation's highest state foreclosure rate despite an 8 percent decrease in foreclosure activity from the previous month. A total of 17,902 Nevada properties received a foreclosure filing during the month, still an increase of 53 percent from August 2008.

      Florida documented the nation's second highest state foreclosure rate, with one in every 140 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing, and California documented the nation's third highest state foreclosure rate, with one in every 144 housing units receiving a foreclosure filing.

      A 10 percent month-to-month decrease in foreclosure activity helped lower Arizona's foreclosure rate from the nation's third highest in July to fourth highest in August. One in every 150 Arizona housing units received a foreclosure filing in August - still more than twice the national average.

      Other states with foreclosure rates ranking among the nation's 10 highest were Michigan, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Georgia and Illinois.

      Six states account for more than 60 percent of national total

      Six states accounted for 62 percent of the nation's total foreclosure activity in August despite decreasing REOs in all six states. California REOs dropped 32 percent from the previous month, but the state continued to post the highest overall total of any state, with 92,326 properties receiving a foreclosure filing in August. California's total was down 15 percent from the previous month and was also down nine percent from August 2009 - the first year-over-year decrease in California foreclosure activity in RealtyTrac's monthly reports.

      A total of 62,401 Florida properties received foreclosure filings in August, the nation's second highest state total and an increase of more than 10 percent from the previous month despite a 5 percent decrease in REO filings. Initial default notices in Florida increased 12 percent from the previous month, and scheduled auctions increased 13 percent from the previous month.

      A new law in Michigan requiring lenders to file a separate public notice of default before scheduling a foreclosure auction boosted overall foreclosure activity numbers in the state for August. A total of 9,789 of the new default notices were reported in August, bringing the total number of Michigan properties receiving foreclosure filings to 19,359 for the month - a 134 percent spike from the previous month and third highest among the states. Michigan's foreclosure rate leapfrogged from 19th highest in July to fifth highest in August.

      With 17,902 properties receiving foreclosure filings in August, Nevada posted the nation's fourth highest total despite a 24 percent decrease in REO filings from the previous month, and with 17,807 properties receiving foreclosure filings in August, Arizona posted the nation's fifth highest total despite an 11 percent decrease in REO filings from the previous month.

      Illinois REO filings decreased 15 percent from the previous month, but the state's total of 13,078 properties receiving foreclosure filings was still sixth highest among all the states in August.

      Other states with totals among the 10 highest in the country were Georgia (11,947), Ohio (11,368), Texas (11,261) and New Jersey (8,316).



      August Foreclosures Up 18 Percent Over 2008...
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      California Kaiser Permanente Lawsuit Dismissed

      Plaintiff failed to pursue other options before suing, judge said

      A federal judge in California handed Kaiser Permanente a victory yesterday, dismissing a suit claiming that the insurance company failed to reimburse copayments after collecting its share from personal injury awards.

      In her decision, Judge Maxine Chesney said that lead plaintiff Nicole Glaus failed to sufficiently pursue administrative remedies before filing the lawsuit. In a previous motion, Glaus conceded that she had not filed a formal complaint with Kaiser before initiating the suit.

      Glaus, of Concord, CA, won an award of $4,250 from an individual who rear-ended her car. Kaiser, pursuant to its policy, sought reimbursements of its own costs from the civil award, but failed to credit Glaus the $20 she had already shelled out as a copayment.

      Kaiser's "Evidence of Coverage," or EOC, which provides terms and conditions of coverage, requires consumers who obtain a judgment in their favor to reimburse Kaiser for services provided. The EOC explicitly provides, however, that this provision "does not affect your obligation to pay Cost Sharing for these Services, but we will credit any such payments toward the amount you must pay us under this paragraph."

      Glaus brought suit on behalf of all Kaiser customers covered under a private employer's medical plan, who reimbursed Kaiser after collecting a civil judgment, and who were never reimbursed their copayment as required by Kaiser policy. Glaus said that the company's failure to reimburse the copayment violated both the terms of the contract and Kaiser's fiduciary duty to its customers.

      In her decision, filed in response to Kaiser's motion to dismiss, Chesney relied on the exhaustion doctrine, which requires a putative plaintiff to pursue all available administrative options before resorting to litigation. Chesney noted that the Kaiser EOC explicitly laid out an administrative procedure for the resolution of customer complaints.

      The policy provides that consumers "can file a grievance for any issue," as long as they "submit [the] grievance orally or in writing within 180 days" of the incident they are complaining about. The EOC allows grievances to be filed by mail, phone, online, or in person. Because Glaus received multiple EOC copies during her time with her employer, she was deemed to have had notice of these administrative procedures, and thus could not be excused from pursuing them.

      The exhaustion doctrine, Chesney noted, is a judicially-created requirement, designed to prevent individuals from resorting to legal action unless absolutely necessary. Chesney asserted that "use of the [Kaiser] administrative grievance procedure could resolve the error quickly and inexpensively, without the need for the parties to expend resources to retain counsel and pay the costs incident to the filing and prosecution of a lawsuit."

      Chesney dismissed the suit without prejudice, meaning that Glaus can refile her complaint if she is unsuccessful in recovering under Kaiser's administrative procedures. Another member of the class could also theoretically file suit in the interim, assuming that they have pursued all administrative remedies. While it is unclear how many individuals would be eligible to recover under Glaus's suit -- her class was defined relatively narrowly -- her attorney insists that enough people are affected to make a potential recovery substantial.

      In her decision, Judge Maxine Chesney said that lead plaintiff Nicole Glaus failed to sufficiently pursue administrative remedies before filing the lawsuit...
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      Care-Tech To Halt Sale Of Unapproved Germ Fighters

      Company violated numerous regs

      St. Louis-based Care-Tech Laboratories Inc. and its principal officers, John C. Brereton and Sherry L. Brereton, have agreed to stop the illegal manufacture, marketing, and distribution of over-the-counter antimicrobial drugs used to treat and prevent infection.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says its inspectors found that Care-Tech violated numerous provisions of the agency's current good manufacturing practice (cGMP) regulations that direct how antimicrobial drugs are made.

      Additionally, it says the products do not conform to any applicable regulations for OTC drug products and have not undergone an FDA review, and therefore are considered unapproved drug products.

      Under the terms of a consent decree, Care-Tech may not resume manufacturing and distribution of the drugs until it corrects these and other violations.

      "The FDA is concerned about Care-Tech's products because they lack FDA approval, do not conform to any applicable over-the-counter drug monograph, and are not appropriately manufactured," said Deborah Autor, director of the FDA's Office of Compliance, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "Companies have an obligation to consumers to ensure that their products are safe, effective, and high quality, and the FDA recommends that Care-Tech's customers seek alternative products."

      Care-Tech products are sold online and through telephone orders to hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities. They are not sold in retail stores.

      The FDA says it is not aware of any reports of injury or illness related to the use of these products. The agency advises consumers to contact Care-Tech at 1-800-325-9681 to return products in their possession, which include:

      • Barri-Care

      • Care-Crme

      • Caricia Care

      • CC-500

      • Clinical Care

      • Consept

      • Formula Magic

      • Humatrix

      • Loving Lather

      • Loving Lather II

      • Loving Lotion

      • Orchid Fresh II

      • Satin

      • Tech 2000

      • Techni-Care

      • Urban Skin

      Health care professionals and consumers may report serious side effects or quality problems for these or any products to the FDA's MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program, online, or by regular mail, fax or phone.

      • Online: http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/default.htm

      • Regular Mail: use postage-paid FDA form 3500 available at: http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/HowToReport/DownloadForms/default.htm and mail to MedWatch, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20852-9787

      • Fax: 800-FDA-0178

      • Phone: 800-FDA-1088



      Care-Tech To Halt Sale Of Unapproved Germ Fighters...
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      Small Businesses Would Benefit From Health Reform, Study Finds

      High costs called impediment to insuring employees

      As the debate over health care reform continues, a report by the a Commonwealth Fund report says small business owners and employees stand to benefit the most from provisions in some of the proposals under consideration by Congress.

      Provisions to extend health care coverage to everyone and repair the small group insurance market would alleviate high premium costs, high broker fees, underwriting, and a lack of transparency about benefit packages that small business owners currently face, according to the report.

      Currently, 39 million Americans work for small businesses (defined as those with fewer than 50 employees) and only 25 percent of them have health insurance through their employer, the report finds.

      While some workers buy coverage on their own or get it through a family member, half (52percent) of people working for small businesses are uninsured or underinsured, compared with 28 percent working for larger firms. The gap in employer coverage between large and small firm employees widened over 2003 and 2007.

      In addition, when small business employees do have coverage, it is often less comprehensive: 48 percent have health insurance plans with lifetime coverage limits, versus 37 percent of employees in large firms.

      "Small businesses are vital to the strength of our economy, and under our current system they don't have the ability to provide affordable, comprehensive health insurance to their employees," said Commonwealth Fund President Karen Davis. "Health reform provisions that take into account the insurance problems currently facing small business owners and their employees will provide security and stability to a large and important segment of the American workforce and their families."

      The report analyzed the effect specific pieces of legislation will have on small business and found there are several broad categories of reform that would improve the ability of small businesses to provide coverage and for their employees to afford coverage if they do not:

      • The ability to purchase health insurance through the new health insurance exchange would guarantee a standard benefit package, eliminate lifetime maximums, and control premium costs. Eligibility for this option varies in current Congressional bills under consideration, with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee bill opening the exchange to firms with fewer than 50 employees and the House Tri-Committee bill opening it to firms with 10 or fewer employees the first year and those with up to 20 employees in subsequent years. An amendment to the House bill by the Education and Labor Committee would increase eligibility to 15 employees in year one, 25 in year two, and no fewer than 50 employees in year three.

      • An exemption from any requirement to offer health insurance to employees or pay into a fund to finance coverage would protect very small businesses. Again, eligibility varies with the Senate HELP bill exempting employers with fewer than 25 employees and the House Tri-Committee bill exempting small businesses with a payroll of less than $500,000 a year. The House bill phases in the payments as payrolls rise.

      • Tax credits provided to small businesses offering health insurance to their workers would help further offset premium costs for businesses that choose to offer coverage to their employees. The tax credits would vary depending on size of the firm, the average wage, and the percent of the premium that the employer pays.

      • Premium subsidies to purchase coverage through the health insurance exchange and higher income eligibility limits in Medicaid would help those small firm low-wage workers who do not have access to health benefits through their jobs.

      "Small businesses and their employees have a great deal to gain from the health reform proposals under discussion in Congress," said Sara Collins, report co-author and Commonwealth Fund Vice President for Affordable Health Insurance. "The reforms have the potential to increase both the affordability and comprehensiveness of health insurance available to small businesses and individuals by protecting them from underwriting on the basis of health, establishing new standards for health benefits, and lowering their premium costs."



      Small Businesses Would Benefit From Health Reform, Study Finds...
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      More Consumers Turning To Food Stamps

      People with jobs tapping into food assistance

      The Food Stamp program has long been considered a welfare program for the nation's unemployed, but a growing number of consumers with jobs are turning to the aid program to help put food on the table.

      Nearly 40 percent of the families receiving food stamps have some kind of earned income, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2007, only 25 percent of working families received the assistance.

      USDA reports the number of Americans receiving food stamps rose for an eighth straight month in June to 35 million, a 700,000 increase over May's total. The June food stamp rolls are up 22 percent over June 2008.

      While the unemployment rate hit has jumped to 9.7 percent, many people who still have jobs are also hurting. With companies cutting back workers' hours, the average work week is now down to about 33 hours, the lowest on record. The number of people forced to accept part-time work, because they can't find full time employment, has risen 50 percent in the last year.

      In addition, many consumers find themselves in a credit squeeze. One bank, JP Morgan Chase, recently doubled the minimum monthly payment for millions of its credit card customers. Other credit card companies have raised rates on existing balances, ahead of new credit card rules that take effect in February.

      Rate resets on subprime and adjustable rate mortgages continue to push homeowners into foreclosure. Falling home values have made it next to impossible to tap into a home's equity for extra cash.

      Many states - which administer the food stamp program - find the crush of new applications is difficult to handle. In Texas, 2.8 million citizens received food assistance last month, ,compared with 2.3 million in August 2007.

      Texas officials haven't been able to keep up with the demand. The state faces a class action suit that accuses it of violating federal rules requiring food stamp applications to be processed within 30 days.

      It's a similar story in other states. In Arizona, the number of people on food stamps in June was up 34 percent over June 2008. In Vermont, the number is up 38 percent over last year. In Alabama, officials say the number of people on food stamps in August hit a record high.

      Congress appropriated additional money for food stamps when it passed the $787 billion stimulus package in February. The program provides the average recipient nearly $300 a month in food assistance.



      More Consumers Turning To Food Stamps...
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      Victims of Government: Asthma Patients' Lives Shattered by 'Green' Inhalers

      Previously healthy asthma sufferers wind up disabled -- and worse

      On a good day, Victoria O. can walk from her house to the driveway without stopping to catch her breath. But those days are rare for this Florida woman, who has what doctors call severe airflow obstruction.

      I struggle to breathe all the time, she explains, wheezing between her words. Im 43 years old. I should be enjoying my life. I used to have an active life, but I went from a normal person to a very sick person.

      Victoria can pinpoint the moment her health started its downhill spiral -- a rapid decline that has left her unable to work.

      Its the same moment that triggered another, unexpected, battle in her life: one that pits the ailing and financially-strapped woman against her disability insurance company. And in yet another blow to her ongoing battle, Victoria learned just days ago that her employer -- which in May approved her absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act -- will no longer cover her under its health insurance plan.

      As of today, I have no insurance, Victoria told us last Tuesday, choking between breaths. And I have a doctors appointment tomorrow. Here we are in the middle of a national discussion on health care and look what Im going through. I was fine before all this startedI never had a problem with my asthma before.

      But that all changed in April 2008 when Victoria took a puff from her new environmentally friendly rescue inhaler that contains a propellant called hydroflouroalkane (HFA). Victoria hadnt used one of those inhalers before, she says. On the once in a blue moon occasions she needed an inhaler, she used one propelled by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

      And she never had any problems.

      Inhalers banned

      Those albuterol metered-dose CFC inhalers, however, are now banned in the United States under an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

      That ban went into effect on December 31, 2008, but pharmacies nationwide started switching to HFA inhalers last year in preparation for the mandated change.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- and other supporters of the 1987 agreement -- say the CFC propellant in the inhalers damages the ozone.

      Asthma and pulmonary patients must now use the greener and more expensive HFA inhalers, which the FDA acknowledges have a different feel and taste.

      Patients must also breathe in deeply when using the four HFA inhalers now on the market: ProAir, Proventil, Ventolin, and Xopenex.

      FDA officials say these inhalers are a "safe and effective" alternative for the more than 40 million asthma and pulmonary patients nationwide.

      ConsumerAffairs.com, however, has heard from hundreds of scared and angry patients with asthma and other respiratory problems who say the new HFA inhalers dont give them any relief. The inhalers, they say, fail to open their airways and leave them literally gasping for air.

      Some patients also say the HFA inhalers are too costly; theyve jumped in price from about $5 to, in some cases, more than $50.

      Ethanol allergy

      And then there are patients like Victoria, who had an allergic reaction to the ethanol in her HFA inhaler and can no longer work because of her declining health and the constant battle to breathe.

      Compounding those problems, Victoria says, is the recent denial of her short-term disability benefits and last weeks loss of her employer-provided medical insurance.

      Im facing a dilemma that I didnt anticipate, she says, adding her employer had covered her under its plan during her leave. Ive gotten sicker and sicker and I know its solely because of the HFA inhaler.

      ConsumerAffairs.com has learned that other asthma and pulmonary patients are also considering filing for disability, saying theyre unable to work because the HFA inhalers leave them tired and constantly gasping for air.

      Grassley takes an interest

      A few elected officials and public-interest organizations are beginning to take an interest in the asthma victims' plight, however.

      Senator Chuck Grassleys (R-Iowa) office continues its review of the nearly 400 complaints ConsumerAffairs.com has received about HFA inhalers from asthma and pulmonary patients nationwide.

      And an environmental organization in Washington D. C. said it supports efforts to bring CFC inhalers back to the United States.

      The FDA, however, isnt likely to support any efforts to legalize CFC inhalers.

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

      Asthma and pulmonary patients must also be sure theyre using the HFA inhalers properly -- and keeping them clean to prevent build-up and blockage of the medication, the FDA said.

      What about the increased costs of the HFA inhalers, which do not have a generic alternative?

      The FDA said it expects those prices to drop in the next few years. Until that happens, The Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA) and drug companies that make inhalers have special programs and coupons to help consumers cover the higher costs.

      But the salient issue in this debate, the FDA and pulmonary experts say, is for patients to get their asthma under control.

      Someone who uses a 'quick reliever' (rescue) inhaler many times a day does not have well-controlled asthma, says Dr. Norman H. Edelman, chief medical officer for The American Lung Association. "Patients shouldn't need their quick relief inhalers more than two to three to four times a week.

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

      Problems started with HFA inhaler

      But Victoria and the hundreds of other patients whove contacted ConsumerAffairs.com say their asthma was in control until they used an HFA inhaler.

      In Victorias case, her medical -- and now insurance -- problems started in April 2008 when her doctor prescribed an HFA inhaler for bronchitis and wheezing.

      I hadnt used an asthma pump in years, she recalls. But I couldnt get rid of the bronchitis. The doctor gave me that HFA asthma pump and within a week, I was sicker than Id ever been.

      The moment she took her first puff, Victoria knew something was wrong. A burning sensation instantly blistered the back of her throat. It moved down and burned her windpipe and lungs.

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

      Since that day, she says, her health has deteriorated. I have headaches, throat pain, my immune system is all over the place, my hair has fallen out, and I constantly struggle to breathe.

      Her breathing has become so labored at times that shes had to be rushed to the emergency room and spend days in the intensive care unit.

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

      Disability filing

      In May, Victoria heeded her doctors advice and filed for short-term disability.

      My pulmonary tests did not come back very good, she says. I had to file for disability. My doctor said that I have moderate to severe lung obstruction.

      Victoria, however, grappled for months over the decision to apply for those benefits. Ive always worked. Ive always had a job. I like my job and I want to keep working. But how can I work when I cant breathe?

      Despite her health problems -- which she says are documented by two of her doctors -- Victorias insurance company denied her claim.

      Oh my gosh, its been a mess. They keep rejecting, rejecting, rejecting, my claim. They dont believe this asthma issue is a problem.

      I paid into this disability for years, she says. Its very expensive. But I wanted to be sure I had coverage in case something happened. When I sent in my claim, though, they said I wasnt sick enough.

      Victorias short term disability is through a company called Lincoln Financial Group of Omaha, Nebraska. In a letter dated July 27, 2009, the company said it had determined that no benefits are payable.

      After a thorough review of the information currently contained in your claim file, we have determined that you do not meet the definition of Total Disability.

      The company cited the following reasons for its denial of Victorias claim:

      • The date Victoria stopped working. The company said one of her doctors stated she was unable to work back in November 2008, but her employer said she continued working until May 2009;

      • Lack of medical proof that she couldnt perform her sedentary duties as a secretary;

      • Pulmonary tests in April 2008 indicated her lung function had improved, according to the company;

      • Her reluctance to try systemic steroids and controller treatment that might improve her condition.

      Victoria balks at those reasons for denying her claim.

      I needed the insurance, she says, adding her family was covered under her employers health care plan until she went on leave in May. I have a 12-year-old son. And like I said, Ive always worked and I like to work.

      Victoria says she was finally forced to stop working in May when her portable nebulizer broke down. I couldnt work without that machine. And I couldnt afford to fix it or rent another one.

      What about her sedentary job duties?

      First of all, I was running all over the place at my job, Victoria says, adding the company used a Department of Labor (DOL) description for her secretarial duties. In a letter she sent to Lincolns president and CEO, Victoria criticized the company for using that job description in her case.

      I dont see how DOL job descriptions apply to my realistic situation or my health, she wrote. My breathing became critical at times because of the undue stress on my lungs at work.

      Victoria also counters the companys claims that her lungs improved and she didnt want to try new treatment methods.

      I have documentation from two doctors who placed me on disability, she says. One said as far as he was concerned I would never go back to work. The other one said maybe I would go back to work. But we dont know all the effects the HFA inhaler (and the ethanol) will have on me. I may clear up. I hope thats the case."

      'Ruined my life'

      She adds: I cant tell you how much HFA inhalers have ruined my life. Im sick all the time and Im not getting better. Some days I feel okay in the morning, but by the afternoon, I feel like a three-week wilted rose.

      Victoria told us shes shocked and disappointed that Lincoln Financial ignored her doctors opinions.

      My doctors have given them everything -- all the analysis and the blood tests. Theyve told them that I have difficulty breathing.

      Their (Lincoln Financial) doctors have never even met me or talked to me, she says. If they did, theyd hear me wheezing and choking. But yet, they said Im fine. Its almost a mockery of how the system is supposed to work.

      ConsumerAffairs.com obtained a copy of July 26, 2009, letter from Victorias pulmonologist, who said shes been disabled since April.

      (She) is under my care for moderate to severe persistent asthma, wrote Dr. James Lucio of Kissimmee, Fla.

      Dr. Lucio said he evaluated Victoria in April 2009 and again in Mid-July and did not see signs of improvement. She continues to manifest persistent and disabling respiratory symptoms, including persistent wheezing, shortness of breath, and cough. She has had only a modest response to therapy.

      Dr. Lucio also confirmed that Victoria has been unable to work due to the recalcitrant nature of her symptoms. He wrote: Therefore, in my medical opinion, she has been temporary (sic) disabled as of 4/21/09.

      Victoria is now appealing Lincoln Financial Groups denial of her disability benefits and has included Dr. Lucios July 2009 letter to back her claim. She has also consulted an attorney regarding the companys decision.

      ConsumerAffairs.com contacted Lincoln Financial about Victorias case. The company's Assistant Vice President of Risk Services did not respond to our inquiries.

      More disability filings

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

      During our investigation, we also discovered that other asthma and pulmonary patients -- who say the HFA inhalers dont give them any relief or made their conditions worse -- are now considering filing for disability.

      Their problems may signal a new and troubling trend in the ongoing debate over the governments decision to ban what hundreds of asthma patients call their life-saving CFC inhalers.

      Consider:

      The new inhalers dont work for me, says Roberta W. of New York. After the CFC inhalers were banned, I developed a severe respiratory infection. I nearly died and now I can barely shop for necessities or run the vacuum in the living room.

      This legislation could very well end my life decades sooner and it has disabled me completely, she adds. I cannot live independently or care for my disabled husband.

      An asthma patient in Louisiana worried that should couldnt continue working because the HFA inhalers leave her constantly out of breath.

      I would like to know what procedures I need to take to become considered fully disabled as an asthmatic since I can barely function on an everyday basis because of my asthma, says Kimberly W. of Maurepas, La. The government wants this change that affects my quality of living as a normal person. I have to rest after everything I do; Im constantly out of breath.

      Kimberly, however, recently found a job and hopes she can keep working in spite of her asthma. She also hopes the extra income will cover the increased costs of the HFA inhalers.

      I cannot afford the new inhalers, she says. (They are) $80 more ($126 plus tax) than the one I've used since I was 12 years old.

      Early warnings ignored

      In Washington, D.C., the head of an environmental organization said he isnt surprised that so many asthma and pulmonary patients have experienced physical -- and now financial -- problems because of their HFA inhalers.

      He warned the public about these issues before the ban on CFC inhalers went into effect.

      "The breath of life for asthmatics is being seriously threatened by the elimination of CFCs in asthma inhalers, wrote Norris McDonald, president of the African American Environmentalist Association and Center for Environment, Commerce & Energy. We need to immediately amend the Clean Air Act to fix this well intended, but woefully misguided, effort to protect the ozone layer. Asthmatics unite.

      The HFA inhalers are not as effective (as the CFCs), said McDonald, who suffers from asthma, in a ConsumerAffairs.com interview. And thats the scary part. The old CFC inhalers gave you a nice boost.

      I much prefer the old inhalers with the CFC propellant, which had an insignificant effect on the ozone layer.

      McDonald says his organization supports legislative efforts to legalize CFC inhalers in the United States -- and would even lobby Congress to make that happen.

      Theres a lot on their (Congress) plate and were a little bitty group, he says. It takes a groundswell to get things moving and this is not on top of the radar screen. But as more and more people start having problems with these (HFA inhalers), that might move Congress to do something.

      He added: Your call has refocused my attention to this issuemaybe its now time put out more publicity on this.

      One group that is already spearheading efforts to bring back CFC inhalers is The National Campaign to Save CFC Inhalers.

      The California-based organization -- which says the FDA and other supporters of the ban duped the public about the need for the action and the safety of HFA inhalers -- is lobbying Congressional leaders to amend the Clean Air Act and make CFC inhalers permanently legal in the United States.

      We are the last hope for asthma and pulmonary patients, says the organization's founder, Arthur Abramson. And we will fight this state by state."

      Asked if his organization has heard from asthma and pulmonary patients who are considering filing for disability because of HFA-inhaler related problems, Abramson said: Yes, several. His group, however, doesnt track whether patients have received those benefits.

      Neither does McDonalds environmental organization. But he empathizes with patients whove encountered problems with their insurance companies because of asthma and problems related to their HFA-inhalers.

      I cant get insurance because of my asthma and so I have to pay (cash) for the HFA inhalers, he says. And its a $10 to $15 increase over the CFC inhalers. Its a vicious cycle. I cant get insurance because of my asthma and Im paying more for my asthma medication.

      Back in Florida, Victoria says she can no longer afford her medications or medical treatments.

      Last week, her employer dropped her from its insurance plan.

      It is my understanding that you were turned down by Lincoln Financial Group for your short-term disability claim, her employer wrote in an e-mail. Unfortunately, it is our policy that once a claimant is denied benefits, that individual may no longer remain on our health insurance plan.

      Therefore, regrettably, your coverage will end at the end of business today.

      The only way Victorias employer will put her back on its insurance plan is if Lincoln Financial approves her appeal. But that process could take weeks or months, Victoria says. And she needs medical coverage now.

      This is obviously another upset in this dilemma since I now am not able to seek medical care unless I get Medicaid, which is a very long and difficult process, she says, adding she cant file for long-term disability through the state until her appeal process is over. I just applied online tonight since I know that this could take months in the state of Florida.

      In spite of these setbacks, Victoria refuses to give up her fight. Or change her surprisingly optimistic outlook on life.

      I have emotionally accepted this the best I can, she says. I dont like it and it makes me angry, but I have a strong faith. I believe there must be a reason Im going through this. And I thank God that Im alive.

      Shes also thankful that her husband recently found a job. But hes had to move to New York for that position and he doesnt have medical coverage yet.

      Victims of government

      As she struggles to catch her breath, Victoria says she isnt waging this battle just for herself. Shes fighting for all asthma and pulmonary patients whove experienced similar problems.

      I'm sure I'm not the only HFA victim who became disabled, she told us. I think that asthmatics are still having major reactions to this medication and many (people) should know what life looks like after using HFA inhalers.

      Congressional leaders, she says, need to pay closer attention to this issue and those suffering in its wake. They also need to legalize CFC inhalers in the United States. Unfortunately, the powers that be in Congress are not interested in listening.

      We need somebody to advocate that there are sick people out there, she says. There are people who are so sick (because of their HFA inhalers) and theyre not getting better. They used what was out there (for their asthma or respiratory problems), but that is whats creating their disability.

      And now there are people like me who are not getting their disability benefits. My insurance company isnt there when I need them. I now stand alone.

      Read consumers' comments about the new inhalers.



      Victims of Government: Asthma Patients' Lives Shattered by 'Green' Inhalers...
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      Congress Urged To Enact Consumer Privacy Guarantees

      Concerns raised about behavioral tracking

      A coalition of ten consumer and privacy advocacy organizations today called on Congress to enact legislation to protect consumer privacy in response to threats from the growing practices of online behavioral tracking and targeting.

      "Developments in the digital age urgently require the application of Fair Information Practices to new business practices," the groups said. "Today, electronic information from consumers is collected, compiled, and sold; all done without reasonable safeguards."

      The groups noted that for the past four decades the foundation of U.S. privacy policies has been based on Fair Information Practices: collection limitation, data quality, purpose specification, use limitation, security safeguards, openness, individual participation, and accountability. They called on Congress to apply those principles in legislation to protect consumer information and privacy.

      Behavioral advertising, where a user's online activity is tracked so that ads can be served based on the user's behavior, was cited as a particular concern: "Tracking people's every move online is an invasion of privacy. Online behavioral tracking is even more distressing when consumers aren't aware who is tracking them, that it's happening, or how the information will be used. Often consumers are not asked for their consent and have no meaningful control over the collection and use of their information, often by third parties with which they have no relationships."

      "The rise of behavioral tracking has made it possible for consumer information to be almost invisibly tracked, complied and potentially misused on or offline. It's critical that government enact strong privacy regulations whose protections will remain with consumers as they interact on their home computer, cell phones, PDAs or even at the store down the street. Clear rules will help consumers understand how their information is used, obtained and tracked," said Amina Fazlullah of U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "In the event of abuse of consumer information, this legislation could provide consumers a clear pathway for assistance from government agencies or redress in the courts."

      The coalition outlined its concerns and recommended principles for consumer information privacy legislation in letters sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, its Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection and Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

      "Consumers must have their privacy protected as they conduct business and personal matters online," explained Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Ensuring that our financial, health, and household transactions have adequate safeguards must be a top Congressional priority."

      Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has indicated that the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet will consider consumer privacy legislation this fall. Hearings were held this summer.

      So far the online industry has argued that self-regulation provides adequate consumer protection. The coalition said formal regulation is necessary.

      "The record is clear: industry self-regulation doesn't work," said Beth Givens, Director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse "It is time for Congress to step in and codify the principles into law."

      The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which represents more than 375 leading media and technology companies responsible for selling most of the online advertising in the U.S, disagrees. Mike Zaneis, vice president of Public Policy, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that IAB "is serious about consumer privacy" and has "a plan to make sure we continue to live up to those obligations."

      He says the industry no longer believes in providing the notice, the information for consumers about what happened on the web site buried deep inside a legal privacy policy. Thus, he says, the industry has "committed to pulling the notice out of the privacy policy, to providing it in plain English so that consumers can understand it."

      Among the main points that the coalition said should be included in consumer privacy legislation:

      • Sensitive information should not be collected or used for behavioral tracking or targeting.

      • No behavioral data should be collected or used from anyone under age 18 to the extent that age can be inferred.

      • Web sites and ad networks shouldn't be able to collect or use behavioral data for more than 24 hours without getting the individual's affirmative consent.

      • Behavioral data shouldn't be used to unfairly discriminate against people or in any way that would affect an individual's credit, education, employment, insurance, or access to government benefits.

      Other members of the coalition are the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog (formerly The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights), the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Lives, Privacy Times and the World Privacy Forum.



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