Current Events in September 2009

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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.



    Congress Urged To Enact Consumer Privacy Guarantees...

    Florida Sues Systemax Over Rebate Policies

    Tigerdirect consumers claim almost impossible to receive rebates

    Florida has sued a Delaware company, Systemax, and it its subsidiaries, Tigerdirect and Onrebate, over its rebate policies. Attorney General Bill McCollum claims the company made it so hard to collect the rebate, most consumers simply gave up.

    Authorities say that advertising a low price that includes a virtually uncollectable rebate amounts to bait and switch marketing.

    The complaint says Systemax, through Tigerdirect, offers a variety of electronic merchandise for sale at discounted prices though its retail outlets, catalogs and website. The company allegedly offered and advertised products with rebate incentives, falsely representing to consumers they would receive the rebates in approximately 8-10 weeks.

    After receiving numerous complaints from consumers, the Attorney General's Economic Crimes Division began investigating the companies in April 2007. Consumer complaints reported that the rebate program was very difficult to navigate and often led to consumers giving up their rights to rebates.

    The Attorney General's lawsuit claims rebate requests received by the company often went unprocessed, allowing the offers to expire. Many requests that did get processed were allegedly processed in a haphazard fashion, causing required supporting documentation to be lost in the process and ultimately resulting in denied rebates.

    Consumers calling the company to inquire about their rebates reported they were routinely required to wait on hold for a customer service representative for an hour or more, only to be mislead about the status of their rebate and told nothing could be done for them.

    The Attorney General is seeking a permanent injunction against Systemax and its subsidiaries which would prevent them from unreasonably denying or delaying proper rebate payments. Additionally, the Attorney General has asked for full restitution to consumers, reimbursement for attorneys' fees and costs associated with the investigation, and significant civil fines for the company's willful violations of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.



    Florida Sues Systemax Over Rebate Policies...

    Oklahoma Sues Car Warranty Telemarketer

    Latest state to take action

    Car warranty telemarketers are apparently at it again. In the wake of a federal crackdown on these warranty schemes, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson is asking an Oklahoma court to stop a Florida telemarketer from offering potentially bogus products to consumers and from violating Oklahoma telemarketing laws.

    Edmondson accuses C1F Marketing of employing unfair and deceptive trade practices in the marketing of vehicle warranties and of violating numerous state telemarketing laws.

    The attorney general alleges C1F is calling Oklahoma consumers warning that their automobile warranty is about to expire.

    "We allege the company misrepresents information when they contact consumers," Edmondson said. "The company tells consumers that their vehicle warranty is about to expire whether it's true or not. They even try this ploy with consumers who don't have a vehicle warranty. We also believe the warranty the company is selling doesn't deliver as promised."

    The Clearwater, Fla., company is also accused of violating the state's Do Not Call and automatic dial laws and of operating in the state without registering as a commercial telephone seller as required by statute.

    "We allege C1F's solicitations are knowingly false and misleading and that the company is illegally using an autodial device to contact Oklahomans who are registered on our Don't Call list," Edmondson said. "We also allege the company is not registered to make telemarketing calls in Oklahoma."

    The suit asks the court to permanently enjoin the company from conducting these illegal operations in Oklahoma and seeks civil penalties, costs and expenses. Edmondson also today filed an application for a temporary injunction to stop the allegedly illicit activity pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

    Earlier this month the Federal Trade Commission proposed a settlement with Transcontinental Warranty, Inc., stopping it from using robo callers to make warranty pitches to consumers. Under the settlement, the company its owner will be permanently banned from making any prerecorded calls like the ones it used previously to trick consumers into buying vehicle service contracts under the guise that they were extensions of original vehicle warranties.

    Oklahoma Sues Car Warranty Telemarketer...

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      Taylor Bean-Linked Platinum Bank Fails

      Five banks seized over the weekend

      Regulators seized the Platinum Community Bank of Rolling Meadows, Ill. Friday, closing another chapter in the Taylor, Bean & Whitaker story. It was one of five banks seized over the weekend, bringing the total number of bank failures to 89 for the year.

      Platinum Community Bank was acquired by Taylor Bean kingpin Lee Farkas in 2008. Taylor Bean filed for bankruptcy protection last month, a few weeks after it closed its lending operations under pressure from federal regulators.

      No purchaser for Platinum's assets could be found. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) will mail customers checks for their insured funds on Tuesday, September 8.

      MB Financial Bank, NA, will accept the failed bank's direct deposits from the federal government, such as Social Security and Veterans' payments. Customers must use MB Financial's branch located at 2251 Plum Grove, Palatine, Illinois, to access their federal government direct deposits.

      Platinum's failure is the 15th in Illinois this year, making that state second only to Georgia's 18.

      Customers who have questions can call the FDIC toll free at 1-800-640-2751. The phone number will be operational on Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., CDT; on Sunday from noon to 6:00 p.m., CDT; and thereafter from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., CDT. Interested parties can also visit the FDIC's Web site.

      Other failures

      Other bank failures this weekend include:

      • InBank, Oak Forest, Ill.
      • First Bank of Kansas City, Kansas City, Mo.
      • Vantus Bank, Sioux City, Iowa
      • First State Bank, Flagstaff, Ariz.

      InBank

      InBank's three branches were scheduled to reopen today (Saturday) as branches of MB Financial Bank, N.A., Oak Forest, which has purchased the majority of InBAnk's deposits.

      Depositors of InBank will automatically become depositors of MB Financial Bank, N.A. Deposits will continue to be insured by the FDIC, so there is no need for customers to change their banking relationship to retain their deposit insurance coverage. Customers should continue to use their existing branches until MB Financial Bank, N.A., can fully integrate the deposit records of InBank.

      As of August 3, 2009, InBank had total assets of $212 million and total deposits of approximately $199 million. In addition to assuming the deposits of the failed bank, MB Financial Bank, N.A., agreed to purchase essentially all of the assets.

      Customers who have questions can call the FDIC toll-free at 1-800-640-2607. The phone number will be operational on Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., CDT; on Sunday from noon to 6:00 p.m., CDT; and thereafter from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., CDT. Interested parties can also visit the FDIC's Web site.

      First Bank of Kansas City

      Great American Bank of De Soto, Kansas, has agreed to assume the deposits of First Bank of Kansas City, Kansas City, Mo. The sole branch of First Bank of Kansas City reopened today (Saturday) as a branch of Great American Bank. Depositors of First Bank of Kansas City will automatically become depositors of Great American Bank. Deposits will continue to be insured by the FDIC, so there is no need for customers to change their banking relationship to retain their deposit insurance coverage. Customers should continue to use their existing branches until Great American Bank can fully integrate the deposit records of First Bank of Kansas City.

      As of June 30, 2009, First Bank of Kansas City had total assets of $16 million and total deposits of approximately $15 million. In addition to assuming all of the deposits of the failed bank, Great American Bank agreed to purchase all of the assets.

      Customers who have questions can call the FDIC toll-free at 1-800-430-6165. The phone number will be operational on Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., CDT; on Sunday from noon to 6:00 p.m., CDT; and thereafter from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., CDT. Interested parties can also visit the FDIC's Web site.

      Vantus Bank

      Great Southern Bank of Springfield, Mo., has agreed to assume all of the deposits of Vantus Bank. The 15 branches of Vantus Bank reopened today (Saturday) with normal business hours as branches of Great Southern Bank. Depositors of Vantus Bank will automatically become depositors of Great Southern Bank. Deposits will continue to be insured by the FDIC, so there is no need for customers to change their banking relationship to retain their deposit insurance coverage.

      Customers should continue to use their existing branches until Great Southern Bank can fully integrate the deposit records of Vantus Bank.

      As of August 28, 2009, Vantus Bank had total assets of $458 million and total deposits of approximately $368 million. In addition to assuming all of the deposits of the failed bank, Great Southern Bank agreed to purchase approximately $387 million of the assets. The FDIC will retain the remaining assets for later disposition.

      The FDIC and Great Southern Bank entered into a loss-share transaction on approximately $338 million of Vantus Bank's assets. Great Southern Bank will share in the losses on the asset pools covered under the loss-share agreement. The loss-share arrangement is projected to maximize returns on the assets covered by keeping them in the private sector. The agreement also is expected to minimize disruptions for loan customers.

      Customers who have questions about the transaction can call the FDIC toll-free at 1-800-405-1439. The phone number will be operational on Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., CDT; on Sunday from noon to 6:00 p.m., CDT; and thereafter from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., CDT. Interested parties can also visit the FDIC's Web site.

      First State Bank

      Sunwest Bank of Tustin, Calif., is assuming the deposits of First State Bank. Due to the Labor Day holiday, the six branches of First State Bank will reopen on Tuesday as branches of Sunwest Bank. Depositors of First State Bank will automatically become depositors of Sunwest Bank. Deposits will continue to be insured by the FDIC, so there is no need for customers to change their banking relationship to retain their deposit insurance coverage. Customers should continue to use their existing branches until Sunwest Bank can fully integrate the deposit records of First State Bank.

      Over the weekend, depositors of First State Bank can access their money by writing checks or using ATM or debit cards. Checks drawn on the bank will continue to be processed. Loan customers should continue to make their payments as usual.

      As of July 24, 2009, First State Bank had total assets of $105 million and total deposits of approximately $95 million. In addition to assuming all of the deposits of the failed bank, Sunwest Bank agreed to purchase essentially all of the assets.

      Customers who have questions about the transaction can call the FDIC toll-free at 1-800-537-4048. The phone number will be operational on Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., MST; on Sunday from noon to 6:00 p.m., MST; and thereafter from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., MST. Interested parties can also visit the FDIC's Web site.


      Taylor Bean-Linked Platinum Bank Fails...

      Identity Theft Experts Offer Advice For Job-Searching

      Online searches open door to vulnerability

      With the unemployment rate rising and living costs going up, more people are looking for new jobs or second jobs. Job seekers often register with employment agencies, check employment ads, mail out unsolicited resumes, network with others, post resumes on job search sites, and often search craigslist.

      Unfortunately identity thieves are taking advantage of these uncertain economic times to scam job seekers and gather personal identifying information. The Identity Theft Resource Center offers these suggestions to avoid being victimized:

      Resumes and online applications

      • Never put your Social Security Number or Taxpayer ID number on a resume or application. Additionally, do not include driver's license number or professional license numbers. Most items of PII should be only provided during an interview, not on a job application.

      • Omit home address and consider just using city and state.

      • Consider opening a separate email account for your job search and keep your primary email address private. Placing your email address on a resume could open the door to spam and phishing, account verification, and other email scams.

      • Do not provide such personal information as marital status or hobbies.

      Internet and newspaper ads

      • Validate a company you find on a website carefully before giving them your information. Anyone can create a website, but it certainly doesn't mean that they are a real company. Most reputable companies will have a significant presence on the Internet.

      • Confirm any and all contact information for the business. Does the email contain the domain name of the company? Is the FAX number in the same area code as the corporate number? Most importantly, does the company list a "brick and mortar" physical address that can be verified?

      • Confirm the location of the company. Is it within the U.S.?

      • Avoid any website that requires you to "pre-register" with your SSN, home address or driver's license number. Also, you should not be required to prepay to view job listings. The presence of these requirements is strong indicators of a scam.

      • Update your computer security prior to emailing resumes and receiving email correspondence. Make sure your computer security is currently updated against viruses, trojans, and other types of computer malware. This can help to protect you from any intrusion or computer attack.

      Background screenings

      • Companies might want to conduct a background check of you, both financial and/or criminal. Some people find out they are victims of identity theft during this process. Be aware that you are allowed to view the results of any background checks, so that you can verify their accuracy.

      • If you find an error in your report, let the interviewer know immediately. Ask for a photocopy of the report and tell them that this is either fraudulent or a clerical error. Ask for a few days to investigate the problem.

      • If the error/fraudulent records are in your credit history, you automatically qualify for a free credit report from each of the credit reporting agencies. Call Equifax (800-525-6285), Experian (888-397-3742), and TransUnion (800-680-7289) to request your credit reports.

      • If the error is in a criminal background check, you need to contact the law enforcement agency that reported the criminal incident, i.e. outstanding warrant, and find out what is going on. Please contact the ITRC if you need help with this process, toll free (888) 400-5530.

      The safest ways to job search are to use local want ads, visit the unemployment office, use temp employment services, tell friends and family about your search, and network via professional groups and business acquaintances. When contacting a local company, you can physically meet them, see the facilities, and ask acquaintances in that industry about their reputation.

      It is very risky to contact foreign companies, especially those from Africa, Russia, and Asia, unless you have direct knowledge of their credibility.



      Identity Theft Experts Offer Advice For Job-Searching...

      HSBC Agrees To Better Serve Disabled Consumers

      Reportedly required blind customer to file written report

      At the prodding of the New York Attorney General's Office, HSBC Card Services, Inc., has agreed to draft new policies to accommodate customers with vision and hearing impairments.

      Under the agreement, the company will offer customers with disabilities improved communication options and services, as well as a fully accessible Web site. The agreement resolves an investigation triggered by a complaint from a blind credit card holder in New York.

      HSBC representatives allegedly told the customer, on numerous occasions, that she could not dispute a charge on her statement unless she completed a written form, which she could not read due to her disability. The attorney general's office reviewed the company's existing policies and training with respect to offering accommodations to customers with disabilities, and concluded that they were insufficient to guarantee full and equal access.

      "Failing to provide customers with a way to use services or receive assistance regardless of disability is discriminatory and illegal," said New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. "HSBC's willingness to overhaul its policies and systems sets a new precedent in customer service for individuals with disabilities, and I commend the proactive action it's taken today."

      The settlement requires HSBC Card Services to make significant changes to its policies and procedures. Specifically, it will:

      • Overhaul its website to ensure that customers with disabilities, including those with vision loss and hearing disabilities, can utilize its website and services;

      • Offer statements, notices, standardized forms, and informational materials in alternative accessible formats, including on-line HTML versions for customers with visual impairments;

      • Make reader services available via its toll-free customer assistance line for customers with visual impairment;

      • Train customer service staff on responding to calls placed by customers with hearing or speech impairments through a TDD/TTY or a Telecommunications Relay Service, and monitor such calls for quality assurance purposes;

      • Adopt clear and uniform procedures on how to receive, review, track, and promptly respond to accommodation requests; and

      • Designate an ADA Coordinator to ensure that the company effectively meets the needs of customers with visual and hearing impairments.

      "We applaud Attorney General Cuomo for reaching this groundbreaking agreement to give customers with vision loss options to access their financial information, whether via the web, telephone, or hard copy," said Carl R. Augusto, President & CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind. "There is no greater sense of security than knowing you can easily and immediately review information regarding your financial accounts and statements."



      At the prodding of the New York Attorney General's Office, HSBC Card Services, Inc., has agreed to draft new policies to accommodate customers with vision ...

      New Jersey Firm Pays $7.2 Million In Ponzi Scheme

      Investors' money wasn't invested

      A New Jersey investment company that defrauded investors in a Ponzi scheme will have to pay $7 million in restitution and $200,000 in civil penalties, under a state court judge's ruling.

      The defendants in a lawsuit filed by the Office of the Attorney General on behalf of the New Jersey Bureau of Securities have been ordered to pay approximately $7 million as restitution to defrauded investors, plus pay $220,000 in civil penalties, under a judge's finding that they defrauded investors through a Ponzi scheme that they operated.

      Defendants James Hankins Jr., Hankins Private Client Group L.L.C., The Hankins Group Ltd. and Hankins Life Settlement L.L.C. also are permanently barred from the New Jersey securities industry.

      "Consumers must be wary of advisors who promise consistently high rates of return that are out of line with other financial investments," New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram said. "They sound too good to be true because they usually are."

      Based on information provided by Bureau of Securities investigators, the judge found that the defendants sold promissory notes to at least 101 investors. The promised rate of return was between 10 and 15 percent.

      Hankin told the investors he would purchase the rights to viaticals and life insurance settlement policies from beneficiaries. Instead, according to prosecutors, he used the invested monies for his personal benefit, including the purchase of a vacation home in Florida, fractional interest in a private jet, and the purchase of jewelry and watches.

      In a Ponzi scheme, a con artist promises high returns to investors and uses money from new investors to pay previous investors. Inevitably, the scheme collapses and the only people who consistently make money are the promoters who set the Ponzi scheme in motion.

      "Investors should always check to insure that the person, as well as the investments offered by that person, are registered in New Jersey as legally required," said Bureau Chief Marc Minor. "I can't stress enough the value of checking with us before investing your hard-earned cash."

      New Jersey Firm Pays $7.2 Million InPonzi Scheme...

      Southwest To Sell Early Boarding For $10

      But the rest still have to scramble for seats

      By Mark Huffman
      ConsumerAffairs.Com

      September 3, 2009
      Southwest Airlines grew at a time its competitors were falling by the wayside, offering cheap fares, no-frills service and lots of flights. If there was one knock against the airline, it didn't offer reserved seating, forcing passengers to arrive at the gate early to secure a decent seat.

      Now that's changed, if you're willing to pay an extra 10 bucks. Southwest this week launched EarlyBird Check-in, which allows passengers to begin boarding the plane after Southwest's Business Select and Rapid Rewards A-List Customers.

      "With EarlyBird Check-in, you no longer need to watch the clock or set your alarm to be one of the first customers to check in for a Southwest flight. EarlyBird Customers can relax, and let us do the work for them," said Kevin Krone, Southwest's Vice President of Marketing, Sales and Distribution.

      The airline says the early boarding position provides customers with the opportunity for a better seat selection and earlier access to overhead bin space. Southwest says it gives customers the option to enhance their travel experience while creating incremental revenue opportunities for Southwest.

      But some Southwest customers ask why Southwest doesn't go to a reserved seating system like other airlines. Rhonda, of Rosamond, Calif., says Southwest's system of boarding passengers in groups, with three different classifications of boarding passes, can lead to angry encounters between passengers.

      "Obviously, people do not understand why they have a letter/number on their ticket. And southwest does not explain this system to the customers," Rhonda told ConsumerAffairs.com.

      She said that while waiting to board a flight from LAX to Las Vegas, a large group of people with B-55 on their tickets walked to the front of the line where one member of their party was waiting.

      "After five people had joined him in the group, they motioned for more members to come forward. As we had B-20 tickets and were standing in the correct area, I kindly asked this group to notice their line number and stand in the appropriate place. This led to one member of the group yelling and screaming at me with foul language," Rhonda said. "The airline employees did nothing to prevent or help this situation."

      The early boarding pass may help this situation, or make it worse, as it will leave fewer - and presumably less desirable seats - for everyone else.

      Southwest says early boarding privileges are already included in the purchase of a Business Select fare and are a benefit of being on the Rapid Rewards A-List. All Customers are required to print their boarding pass prior to their scheduled departure.

      Customers can purchase EarlyBird Check-in through a link in the Travel Tools section of southwest.com. They also can select EarlyBird Check-in from their southwest.com confirmation page online and from their confirmation e-mail. EarlyBird Check-in can be purchased up to 25 hours prior to the scheduled departure time of the customer's flight.



      Southwest To Sell Early Boarding For $10...

      Lawsuit Accuses Denny's of Sodium Overload

      Illinois man claims health consequences from too many omelets

      Cigarettes, scalding coffee, hot dogs: American consumers don't shy away from litigating fraudulent marketing or nondisclosure claims when the result is severe injury or health problems.

      The newest culprit, apparently, is sodium. In a class action lawsuit, a Chicago man accuses Denny's of putting consumers at risk by serving meals with dangerously high levels of sodium, and by failing to properly warn diners of the risk. Jason Ciszewski, a Denny's regular, says in his complaint that he now suffers from high blood pressure, requiring him to reduce his salt consumption and take prescription medication.

      According to Ciszewski's complaint, many of Denny's selections "contain more sodium than a human being should consume in 4 days." Ciszewski's attorneys charge Denny's with deceptive practices, alleging that the restaurant was not sufficiently forthcoming about the health risks presented by its food. The lawsuit also alleges unjust enrichment, breach of warranty, and breach of contract. Ciszewski is seeking $5 million in damages.

      Hypertension, a serious consequence of excessive sodium intake, is a hidden epidemic. One in three Americans has high blood pressure, a figure that health officials blame on high-sodium diets lacking in magnesium, calcium, and potassium. The average healthy young adult can take in 2,300 milligrams of sodium in a day; individuals over 40 should keep it to 1,500 milligrams. Those with hypertension are generally urged to further limit their intake, as sodium consumption matched with high blood pressure leads to a higher risk of heart disease or a stroke.

      Saying that Ciszewski's favorite dish exceeds the daily recommended limit would be an understatement. According to his complaint, Ciszewski is partial to the Meat Lover's Scramble, which Denny's online menu describes as, "Two eggs scrambled with bacon, diced ham and crumbled sausage, and topped with Cheddar cheese." In case you're still hungry, the omelet is served with two strips of bacon, two sausages, hash browns, and two pancakes. All in all, the gargantuan meal contains 5,600 milligrams of sodium, more than double the recommended intake for even the healthiest individuals. If that's not bad enough, the dish also boasts 1,960 calories and 112 grams of fat.

      Ciszewski was also a fan of the "SuperBird" turkey sandwich and "Moons Over My Hammy," which consists of ham, scrambled eggs, and two kinds of cheese, stuffed between sourdough bread slices and served with hash browns or grits. The dishes contain 2,600 and 3,200 milligrams of sodium, respectively.

      Lawsuits accusing restaurants of knowingly selling unhealthy food are hardly novel. In 2005, McDonald's settled a lawsuit alleging that the chain broke an earlier promise to reduce its use of trans fats, and failed to inform consumers. As part of the settlement, McDonald's was required to notify consumers that it was still using trans fats in its meals. In 2007, Burger King was slapped with a similar suit, which claimed that the fast food restaurant used partially hydrogenated oil despite the substance's link to heart disease.

      As America's obesity epidemic grows, some municipalities are taking matters into their own hands. In 2006, the New York City Board of Health voted to ban trans fats from restaurant food; Philadelphia followed suit the following year. New York went a step further in 2008, requiring all fast food chains to display caloric content on their menus. The regulation was enacted with the hope that diners will forgo a Big Mac when its 540 calories are staring them in the face.

      Even without legislative intervention, it is easier than ever for consumers to find the nutritional content of the foods they eat. Ciszewski's suit claims that Denny's nutrition-related disclosures are "indecipherable." However, Denny's online menu contains a prominently-placed "Nutrition/Allergens" link that leads visitors to a PDF file containing nutritional information for Denny's items. The chart includes total calories, grams of fat (including saturated and trans fats), cholesterol, and sodium for each menu item.

      Cisewzki's lawsuit follows a similar one filed by Nick DiBenedetto of New Jersey, who also claimed that Denny's meals contained much more sodium than the average person can ingest healthily, and that Denny's did not do enough to disclose the sodium levels in its meals. DiBenedetto's lawsuit is being supported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).



      Lawsuit Accuses Denny's of Sodium Overload...

      California Fires Bring Out The Scammers Again

      Some so-called relief agencies are anything but

      The fires are burning in southern California again, threatening lives and destroying homes and other property. And along with the devastation of the inferno comes the scourge of the scammers.

      "After virtually every disaster, scam artists come out of the woodwork to defraud individuals wishing to help victims," California Attorney General Jerry Brown said. "Californians should give only to reputable organizations so their donations don't end up lining the pockets of criminals and opportunists."

      Brown noted that fraudulent and misleading charitable solicitations are common following disasters - whether the donation request comes by phone, mail, in front of retail stores, or email. He advised consumers to take time to carefully consider fire-relief solicitations before giving, and offered the following tips:

      • Closely review disaster-relief appeals before giving.

      • Stick with charities that are reputable rather than those that spring up overnight. If you are unsure, check to see if the charity is registered in California with the Attorney General's Registry of Charitable Trusts. Registration does not guarantee legitimacy, but it is an important indicator.

      • Take action on your own rather than responding to solicitations. Seek out known organizations and give directly by phoning the group, finding its official web site, or via regular mail.

      • Listen closely to the name of the group and beware of "copycat" names that sound like reputable charities.

      • Don't give through email solicitations. Clicking on an email may lead you to a site that looks real but is established by identity thieves seeking to obtain money or personal information.

      • Do not give cash. Make checks out to the charitable organization, not the solicitor.

      • Do not be pressured into giving. Even in times of emergency, reputable organizations do not expect you to contribute immediately if you are unfamiliar with their services. Be wary of appeals that are long on emotion but short on details about how the charity will help disaster victims.

      • Ask what percentage of donations will be used for charitable activities that help victims and how much will fund administrative and fundraising costs. State law requires solicitors to provide such information if requested by donors. Be wary of fundraisers who balk at answering.

      • Find out what the charity intends to do with any excess contributions remaining after victims' needs are addressed.

      California Fires Bring Out TheScammers Again...

      CSPI Slams Domino's New Pasta As Unhealthy 'Food Porn'

      But pizza chain challenges assumptions about its offerings

      Most people wouldn't consider eating an entire medium hand-tossed cheese pizza from Domino's in one sitting. And these days, most folks are carb-conscious enough not to order pizza as a side order to pasta, or vice-versa.

      So why, asks the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), is Domino's trying to turn back the nutritional clock with its 1,300- to 1,500-calorie BreadBowl Pastas -- white-flour penne, sauce, cheese, and other toppings entombed in Frisbee-sized white-bread crusts?

      Domino's BreadBowl Pastas are the most recent so-called "Food Porn" that CSPI highlights in its Nutrition Action Healthletter.

      "White-flour pasta with cream-cheese sauce can be a nutritional nightmare on its own," said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley. "The last thing it needs is an 800-calorie white-bread pizza-crust bowl."

      Savvy eaters will remember that more than a decade ago CSPI called fettuccine Alfredo a "heart attack on a plate." Domino's executives seem to have forgotten since the cream sauce tops three out of the five BreadBowl Pastas: the Chicken Alfredo, the Chicken Carbonara and even the innocently named Pasta Primavera.

      But Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre takes issue with CSPI's rap on BreadBowl Pasta. He told ConsumerAffairs.com that "[I]n any Italian restaurant when you order pasta, you get served bread sticks. This is essentially the same thing. We just put them together."

      He also points out that the company's Web site shows BreadBowl Pasta to be two servings. McIntyre says CSPI, "decided to take the two servings, add them together and make an assumption that consumers would try to eat the whole thing. We don't make that assumption."

      CSPI, he concludes, "is really good at stirring things up and using creative terms like 'porn' to refer to food."

      CSPI also says Domino's has an Italian Sausage Marinara (with Provolone cheese) and Three Cheese Mac-N-Cheese. The items range from 1,340 to 1,480 calories and more than a day's worth of saturated fat (22 to 28 grams) and sodium (1,820 to 2,840 milligrams).

      "Topping a pizza crust with an order of macaroni and cheese is probably the most discouraging mac-and-cheese innovation since The Cheesecake Factory decided to ball it up and toss it in the deep-fryer," Hurley said. "What's next, wrapping it in a giant blueberry pancake?"

      Nutrition Action Healthletter spotlights a "Food Porn" in each issue alongside a "Right Stuff" recommendation. Past "Food Porns" include Starbucks' Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate, Cold Stone Creamery's Oh Fudge! shake and Hardee's Thickburger.



      CSPI Slams Domino's New Pasta As Unhealthy 'Food Porn'...

      Pfizer Pays Record $2.3 Billion Settlement Over Illegal Marketing Charges

      Company accused of misleading customers on Bextra branding

      Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has agreed to pay $2.3 billion in a settlement to the United States government and multiple state governments over charges the company illegally marketed its anti-inflammatory drug Bextra. The settlement includes a nearly $1.3 billion criminal fine, the largest of its kind in history.

      Pfizer agreed to a guilty plea over the charge of "felony misbranding" under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Under the auspices of the Act, a company must specify the uses and dosage levels of any drug it intends to market, and is forbidden from then marketing the drug for off-brand uses.

      The Department of Justice said Pfizer deliberately marketed Bextra for other uses that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had prohibited due to safety concerns.

      Numerous studies indicated that Bextra could increase the risk of heart attack and stroke in users, particularly those who had already suffered heart attacks or coronary bypasses. Pfizer had initially claimed that Bextra was safe.

      In addition to the criminal fine, Pfizer will pay $1 billion to resolve allegations under the civil False Claims Act that the company illegally promoted Bextra and several other drugs--Geodon, an anti-psychotic drug; Zyvox, an antibiotic; and Lyrica, an anti-epileptic drug--and caused false claims to be submitted to government health care programs for uses not covered by the programs' rules.

      The civil settlement also resolves allegations that Pfizer paid kickbacks to health care providers to induce them to prescribe the drugs.

      "This historic settlement will return nearly $1 billion to Medicare, Medicaid, and other government insurance programs, securing their future for the Americans who depend on these programs," said Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services. "The Department of Health and Human Services will continue to seek opportunities to work with its government partners to prosecute fraud wherever we can find it. Health care is too important to let a single dollar go to waste."

      Among the states that will receive payments under the settlement are New York ($66 million) and California ($34.8 million). New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said that "Pfizer ripped off New Yorkers and taxpayers across the country to pad its bottom line."

      "Pfizer paid illegal kickbacks in the form of cash, high-priced dinners and weekend getaways to induce physicians to prescribe its drugs," said California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown.

      Brown also noted that Pfizer will pay California $2.7 million in a separate settlement over its marketing of Geodon.

      Blowing the whistle

      The Pfizer investigation began with a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former employee John Kopchinski. Kopchinski, a West Point graduate and Gulf War veteran, was hired by former Pfizer CEO Edward Pratt in 1992 to work as a sales representative for the company.

      While there, Kopchinski said he witnessed or discovered numerous examples of Pfizer and its subsidiary Pharmacia deliberately misleading or bribing physicians to prescribe Bextra in much higher doses than what was considered medically safe.

      The complaint filed by Phillips & Cohen, the Washington, D.C. law firm representing Kopchinski, alleged that physicians would receive all-expense-paid trips sponsored by Pfizer and Pharmacia, complete with honoraria, in order to hear thinly disguised sales pitches on promoting and marketing Bextra to patients.

      Under the terms of the settlement, Kopchinski will receive $51.5 million as part of the Federal False Claims Act, plus an undetermined reward under state false claims laws.

      "The past six years have been very stressful," Kopchinski said. "I'm glad it's finally over."

      "Organized crime"

      Not everyone is satisfied with the verdict, however. Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said the settlement merely proves there is competition in the "organized crime" of the pharmaceutical industry.

      "The U.S. pharmaceutical industry, long one of the most profitable in the country...has engaged in an unprecedented amount of criminal activity in the past decade, all aimed at increasing sales, often by illegally promoting drugs for diseases for which evidence that benefits outweigh harm is lacking," Wolfe said.

      "Unfortunately, the ever-escalating fines are unlikely to stop drug companies from continuing to bribe doctors because they represent just a fraction of drug company profits and no one has gone to jail," Wolfe added. "Until corporate titans are forced to fork over a much larger proportion of their illegally gotten profits and are put behind bars, nothing will change."


      Company accused of misleading customers on Bextra branding...

      Cash4Gold Sues Consumerist.com Over Investigation

      Gold buyer already engaged in lawsuit with former employees

      An investigative report by Consumerist.com on the business practices of Cash4Gold has been met with a lawsuit, the company said.

      Cash4Gold, which bills itself as the "World's #1 Gold Buyer," recently sued Consumerist.com by appending the consumer-focused website to existing lawsuits against two former employees. The employees, Michele Liberis and Vielka Nephew, are accused of defamation and disclosing confidential information about the company in public statements and in Liberis' post about Cash4Gold on a consumer-complaint site. That site, ComplaintsBoard.com, was also added to the suits.

      The legal action against the Consumerist.com stems from its post last February titled "10 Confessions of a Cash4Gold Employee," which was part of the site's ongoing coverage of the company. The post was based on comments that Liberis, who formerly worked in C4G's customer service department, had submitted anonymously to ComplaintsBoard.com describing how Cash4Gold manages to pay customers a fraction of what their gold is worth.

      In its advertising, the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida-based company had promised "top dollar" to people who send in their valuables to be melted down. But in a test conducted with the help of its sister company, Consumer Reports, Consumerist.com found that Cash4Gold offered as little as 11% of the "melt value" of gold necklaces that were submitted for appraisal. "The results reinforce advice we've offered before," the Consumerist.com report says, "which is that consumers should not use these services because the payments they offer are too low. No matter how nice the person is who gives it to you, a bad deal is still a bad deal."

      Led by co-executive editors Ben Popken and Meg Marco, the Consumerist.com investigation is the months-long culmination of reporting that includes interviews with former employees Liberis and Nephew, Cash4Gold customers, the Better Business Bureau, the local fire department and the US Postal Service.

      "We follow-up on such challenges conscientiously," says Marc Perton, Executive Editor for Online Media at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumerist.com and Consumer Reports. "{S}o we immediately set out to learn whether the company's allegations had merit, both through our own research and through requests to Cash4Gold for more information." The company has declined to cooperate, though, and just this week canceled a scheduled interview with Cash4Gold CEO Jeff Aronson.

      The investigation provided support to Consumerist.com's decision to publish the "10 Confessions" post in the first place, and also turned up evidence that supports Liberis' account of certain business practices and working conditions at the firm. But the Consumerist.com also found that Cash4Gold may have made improvements in the time since Liberis worked there last year. For example, Liberis said the firm was shut down temporarily for "health and code violations," a statement the company disputed. Fire department records show that the Cash4Gold location was indeed shut down after a number of violations last year, but that Cash4Gold has accumulated no new violations since moving to a different address earlier this year.

      "We're proud of the work that Ben and Meg have done, and we only regret that their report could not include a response from Cash4Gold CEO Jeff Aronson beyond his earlier public comments," Perton said. "We also hope today's post will help lay to rest the idea that blogs don't do investigative reporting."

      More complaints

      ConsumerAffairs.com has also received a steady stream of complaints charging that Cash4Gold refuses to pay customers the full worth of their goods, or that they claim to have never received the goods at all.

      Sherry, of Dundalk, MD, wrote that "I sent my jewelry, luckily I use UPS and was able to track my package and they could not say they did'nt receive it. Argued with several people before they would agree they had my package. Then I refused to accept that they would call me about my jewelry. I insisted they transfer me to who had my jewelry. She was able to describe my things."

      "I demanded that they send my things back," Sherry added. "She gave me a quote of 80 dollars much less than all of my things are worth. She said some of my jewelry was 12 karat and some was gold-filled - No it is not. She is sending my things back UPS and I made her give me a tracking number."

      Cash4Gold, which bills itself as the "World's #1 Gold Buyer," recently sued Consumerist.com by appending the consumer-focused website to existing lawsuits ...

      Massachusetts Court Throws Out Ticket Resale Suit

      State anti-scalping law dates to 1924

      A Red Sox fan fed up with the stratospheric price of second-hand baseball tickets had his lawsuit tossed by Massachusetts's highest court last week. Colman Herman, of Dorchester, Ma., filed suit against the Admit One Ticket Agency in 2006, claiming that the agency's $415-dollar markup of a 2005 Sox ticket violated state anti-scalping laws.

      The state law cited in Herman's complaint limits ticket markups to no more than $2 over the original face value. On its face, the law perhaps seems a bit harsh toward scalpers who concededly put time and effort into unloading generally high-demand tickets.

      But as with so many laws, this one is riddled with exceptions. Worse, the exceptions are ill-defined, to be generous. The statute vaguely defines the types of fees that can be charged, but provides no concrete definitions or further limitations on such fees.

      As it turns out, Herman's suit was thrown out because he didn't have standing to bring it in the first place. According to the Supreme Judicial Court, since Herman never actually bought a ticket, he was unable to prove that he suffered injury as a result of the allegedly unlawful prices. In a dissent, Judge Judith Cowin said that Herman's being "ready, willing, and able to purchase a lawfully priced ticket" was enough to give him standing to bring the suit.

      It was doubtless a tough blow for Herman, who was awarded $25 million in damages at trial, but saw the verdict overturned on appeal. The Supreme Judicial Court's decision affirmed that of the Appeals Court.

      In any event, the court's ruling acknowledged the near-uselessness of the statute. Judge Mark Covin noted that "the statute specifies the types of fees a ticket reseller may assess...[but] does not impose readily ascertainable restrictions on those fees, such as dollar or percentage limits." Worse, the law allows scalpers to recover "service charges," a term that includes phone calls, messenger services, or any other expenses that may be necessary to get the tickets to the consumer. Determining whether such fees have actually been incurred is essentially impossible, the court noted, without pouring time and money into litigation--and even then the plaintiff may remain in the dark.

      No matter their thoughts on scalping, most would agree that a $2-above-face-price limit might be a bit stringent. As it turns out, there's a good explanation for that: the law was passed in 1924. Indeed, in 2007 the Massachusetts legislature made noise about throwing the law out and starting from scratch, or even doing away with scalping regulations altogether and allowing ticket resellers to charge as much as they want. State Rep. Michael Rodrigues asserted that lawmakers are "less concerned about what people pay. Our concern is consumer protection.

      Herman, the suit's plaintiff, however, was unconvinced. He told the legislature that erasing limits on resale prices would limit Red Sox attendance to the wealthy, leaving the average ball fan out in the cold.

      Herman, of Dorchester, filed suit against Admit One Ticket Agency in 2006, claiming that the agency's $415-dollar markup of a 2005 Sox ticket violated stat...