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    Class Action Challenges Cheerios Claims

    FDA earlier questioned 'heart-healthy' cholesterol-lowering claims

    Does anybody really think a breakfast cereal will lower cholesterol? Two New Jersey residents swear they fell for General Mills' claims that certain types of Cheerios would prevent heart disease by reducing harmful cholesterol in the bloodstream.

    Edward Myers and Elsa Acevedo, both of Hudson County, N.J., have filed a class action suit against General Mills and a federal court judge in Newark has consolidated the case with other, similar suits filed by more than 100 other plaintiffs across the country.

    In May, the Food and Drug Administration fired off a warning letter to General Mills, taking issue with its claim that Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal can reduce cholesterol.

    In a letter to Ken Powell, Chairman and CEO of General Mills, the FDA said its review of the Cheerios label found serious violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The agency said that if Cheerios reduced cholesterol the way the label said it does, then Cheerios isn't a cereal, its a drug. And an unapproved drug, at that.

    The plaintiffs claim they were misled to believe Cheerios had drug-quality properties to reduce their cholesterol levels. The plaintiffs are seeking in excess of $5 million in relief from General Mills.

    Science 'not in question'

    In a statement issued after the FDA warning last May, the company said Cheerios soluble fiber heart health claim has been FDA-approved for 12 years, and Cheerios lower your cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks message has been featured on the box for more than 2 years.

    The science is not in question, the statement said. The scientific body of evidence supporting the heart health claim was the basis for FDAs approval of the heart health claim, and the clinical study supporting Cheerios cholesterol-lowering benefit is very strong. The FDA is interested in how the Cheerios cholesterol-lowering information is presented on the Cheerios package and website. We look forward to discussing this with FDA and to reaching a resolution.

    In its warning, the FDA said: Based on claims made on your product's label, we have determined that your Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug because the product is intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease, the agency wrote.

    Specifically, the FDA took issue with the following label claims:

    • "You can Lower Your Cholesterol 4 percent in 6 weeks"

    • "Did you know that in just 6 weeks Cheerios can reduce bad cholesterol by an average of 4 percent?

    • Cheerios is ... clinically proven to lower cholesterol. A clinical study showed that eating two 1 1/2 cup servings daily of Cheerios cereal reduced bad cholesterol when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol."

    The FDA says these claims indicate that Cheerios is intended for use in lowering cholesterol, and therefore in preventing, mitigating, and treating the disease hypercholesterolemia. And that's not all.

    According to the FDA's interpretation of the cereal box label, Cheerios is intended for use in the treatment, mitigation, and prevention of coronary heart disease through, lowering total and "bad" (LDL) cholesterol.

    Two New Jersey residents swear they fell for General Mills' claims that certain types of Cheerios would prevent heart disease by reducing harmful cholester...

    California Law Cracks Down On Foreclosure Rescue

    Outlaws advance fees charged by scammers

    October 17, 2009
    In response to escalating foreclosure rescue scams, the state of California now has a new law with a tough requirements for firms offering services to homeowners facing foreclosure. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law this week.

    "Over the past two years, unscrupulous attorneys and real estate brokers have abused their trusted roles and exploited desperate homeowners seeking to avoid foreclosure," said California Attorney General Jerry Brown. "The loophole that allowed this abusive practice to continue has now been closed, and homeowners should avoid any person charging up-front fees for foreclosure relief services."

    The new law makes it unlawful for any licensed attorney or real estate agent "who negotiates, attempts to negotiate, arranges, attempts to arrange, or otherwise offers to perform a mortgage loan modification or other form of mortgage loan forbearance for a fee or other compensation paid by the borrowerto claim, demand, charge, collect, or receive any compensation until after the [attorney or agent] has fully performed each and every service the licensee contracted to perform or represented that he, she, or it would perform."

    Until now, licensed attorneys and real estate brokers could charge advance fees under certain limited circumstances. Foreclosure scam artists often sought to exploit this exception. The new law closes this loophole.

    In August, threatening possible criminal and civil prosecution, Brown ordered 386 mortgage foreclosure consultants to register with his office and post $100,000 bond. Brown also ordered more than two dozen foreclosure assistance companies to substantiate suspect claims made on the Internet and in direct mail advertising.

    This action followed a nationwide sweep in July that led to lawsuits against 21 individuals and 14 companies who ripped off thousands of homeowners seeking mortgage relief. In total, Brown has sought court orders to shut down more than 30 companies and has brought criminal charges and obtained lengthy prison sentences for dozens of deceptive loan modification consultants.

    Loan modification consultants continue to exploit homeowners desperate for relief. This year, Brown's office has received more than 2,500 complaints against loan modification consultants and their businesses. This is a dramatic jump from 2008, when less than 200 complaints were filed.

    Tips for homeowners

    As part of a consumer alert, Brown offered the following tips to homeowners:

    • Don't pay up-front fees. Foreclosure consultants are prohibited by law from collecting money before services are performed.

    • Don't ignore letters from your lender or loan servicer. Responding to those letters is your best bet for saving your house.

    • Don't transfer title or sell your house to a "foreclosure rescuer." Beware! This is a scam to convince homeowners they can stay in the home as renters and buy their home back later. It might also be part of a fraudulent bankruptcy filing. Either way, a scammer can then evict the victim and take the home.

    • Don't pay your mortgage payments to anyone other than your lender or loan servicer. Mortgage consultants often keep the money for themselves.

    • Never sign any documents without reading them first. Many homeowners think that they are signing documents for a loan modification or for a new loan to pay off the mortgage they are behind on. Later, they discover that they actually transferred ownership of their home to someone who is now trying to evict.

    California Law Cracks Down On Foreclosure Rescue...

    Office Depot 'Quantum' Chairs Recalled

    October 16, 2009
    Raynor Marketing is recalling about 150,000 Quantum desk chairs sold exclusively at Office Depot. The bolts attaching the seatback on the recalled chairs can loosen and detach, posing a fall and injury hazard to consumers.

    Raynor has received reports of 33 seatback detachments and 14 injuries involving bumps and bruises.

    The recall involves the Quantum Realspace PRO 9000 Series Mid-Back Multifunction Mesh Chair SKU # 510830 and the Quantum Realspace PRO 9000 Series Mesh Chair with Headrest SKU # 690690. The Realspace PRO Mesh Guest Chair is not involved in this recall.

    The chairs were sold at Office Depot stores nationwide and on the Web at www.OfficeDepot.com from May 2006 through August 2009. The mid-back chairs sold for about $300 and the chair with headrest for about $350. They were made in China.

    Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled office chairs and contact Raynor to receive a free repair kit.

    For additional information and to receive a free repair kit, contact Raynor toll free at (866) 244-8180 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or visit the firm's Web site at www.Quantumchair.com/recall.

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

    Office Depot 'Quantum' Chairs Recalled...

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      Passenger Rights Advocate Claims Delta Hacked Her Email

      Says hacker accessed files to thwart passing legislation

      By Jon Hood

      October 16, 2009
      A leading proponent of the Airline Passenger's Bill of Rights making its way through Congress says that Delta Airlines hacked into her e-mail account in an effort to thwart the legislation.

      Kate Hanni's complaint, filed in federal court in Houston, accuses Delta and a contractor of conspiracy and violation of privacy, and seeks at least $11 million in damages, most of them punitive.

      Hanni founded the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, which is lobbying Congress to impose more passenger-friendly requirements for planes stuck on runways for long periods of time. The bill would give passengers the right to disembark any aircraft that has been grounded for at least three hours, unless such an exit is deemed unsafe or the pilot reasonably believes the plane will take off within a half-hour. The legislation also requires airlines to provide adequate access to food, water, and restrooms for grounded passengers. The bill imposes fines for violations, and requires the Department of Transportation to approve airlines' individual plans for delayed flights.

      Hanni's computer was illegally accessed over the summer; AOL confirmed that her e-mail account had been compromised. The hacker corrupted and destroyed some files, and copied others to a still-unknown location.

      The facts of Hanni's case are bizarre and surprisingly dramatic. Hanni apparently began exchanging data about delays on Delta Airlines with an employee of Metron Aviation, a Virginia-based corporation that specializes in improving traffic flow management and reducing airline delays. Metron counts Delta as a client.

      In a sworn affidavit, Frederick Foreman, the Metron employee, said that his superiors approached him in late September and informed him of the breach. They told him that the e-mails at issue were those between himself and Hanni, and that they were sent from his private, rather than company, e-mail account. Worse, Delta was furious that he had access to the flight delay data, despite the fact that it is publicly available information. Foreman was fired on the spot and escorted off of Metron's property.

      Delta is fighting back, calling Hanni's allegations "absurd." But the airline certainly has an interest in preventing the legislation from passing. Such a bill would cost airlines at least $40 million in lost revenue.

      Airlines have fought for years to keep Bill of Rights-style legislation from being passed. In 1999, the aviation industry headed off a similar bill by promising to meet tighter self-imposed standards. But support for federal legislation surged again in August, when 47 passengers were stranded on a grounded plane in Rochester, Minnesota. Inclement weather forced Continental Express Flight 2816 to divert while en route from Houston to Minneapolis, and passengers sat on the runway for six hours before finally being cleared for takeoff. The crew ran out of food almost immediately, and the small plane's sole toilet quickly filled up and sent a foul smell throughout the cabin.

      While Flight 2816 drew its share of negative publicity, it was hardly the first such incident in recent years. In 2007, a JetBlue flight sat on the runway for 11 hours at JFK International Airport in New York, and a 2004 Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Seattle took 28 hours once all was said and done. The Northwest passengers, too, suffered through food and water shortages and an overwhelmed toilet. A passenger told the Today show that "at one point it seemed like we would have a riot towards the end."

      Hanni's advocacy is based on personal experience. After being stranded on a tarmac in Austin in 2006, Hanni founded FlyersRights.com and began a determined push to get Congress to act.

      Passenger Rights Advocate Claims Delta Hacked Her Email ...

      Is a Reverse Mortgage a Good Idea?

      Homeowners should get advice from objective source

      The recession hit at a bad time for people getting ready to retire. Not only did their retirement investments take a major hit, their homes also lost significant value.

      Many retirees are looking at reverse mortgages as one way to make up the difference, but are reverse mortgages a good idea? It all depends, financial experts say.

      A reverse mortgage is a special type of home loan that lets you convert a portion of the equity in your home into cash while you continue to live in it. The equity that built up over years of home mortgage payments can be paid to you in a lump sum, or in payments.

      But unlike a traditional home equity loan or second mortgage, no repayment is required until the borrower(s) no longer use the home as their principal residence. If you were to die, or move into a nursing home for example, the payment would come due.

      In recent years -- even before the financial meltdown -- these kinds of loans have gained in popularity. In fact, the government's FHA program created the first reverse mortgage.

      "The Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) is FHA's reverse mortgage program which enables you to withdraw some of the equity in your home," the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says on its Website. "The HECM is a safe plan that can give older Americans greater financial security. Many seniors use it to supplement social security, meet unexpected medical expenses, make home improvements and more."

      To be eligible for a FHA HECM, the FHA requires that you be a homeowner 62 years of age or older, own your home outright, or have a low mortgage balance that can be paid off at closing with proceeds from the reverse loan, and you must live in the home. You are further required to receive consumer information from an approved HECM counselor prior to obtaining the loan.

      Why not just get a traditional second mortgage, or home equity line of credit? You can, of course, but you'll need sufficient income to qualify for the loan and you'll have to make monthly payments, which could eat into the equity you take out.

      No monthly payments

      The reverse mortgage is different in that it pays you, and is available regardless of your current income. The amount you can borrow depends on your age, the current interest rate, and the appraised value of your home or FHA's mortgage limits for your area, whichever is less. Generally, the more valuable your home is, the older you are, and the lower the interest, the more you can borrow.You don't make payments, because the loan is not due as long as the house is your principal residence.

      What happens when you die? Is there anything left for your heirs? It all depends. When your heirs sell your home, your estate will repay the cash you received from the reverse mortgage plus interest and other fees, to the lender. The remaining equity in your home, if any, belongs to your heirs.

      Not all financial planners are sold on reverse mortgages. Anna Rappaport, a former president of the Society of Actuaries and now head of a Chicago consulting firm, says reverse mortgages may offer significant income potential to some households, but at relatively high cost and risk.

      "Furthermore, they may help older households remain in their homes, but they limit future housing choices and are presented as a last resort option by some financial planners," she said.

      Earlier this year AARP warned its members that scammers have moved into the business of offering reverse mortgages with mailing designed to look like they come from government agencies. Last year Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum warned his state's large elderly population to be very careful when considering a reverse mortgage.

      "When our senior citizens are concerned about finances and are seeking a legitimate option for financial relief, they should not have to worry about predatory lenders or brokers trying to capitalize on their precarious position," said McCollum. "Consumers should take every precaution to avoid scams and situations which could leave them in even worse financial shape."

      May be a bad deal

      Even if the reverse mortgage is not a scam, it may come with so many charges and hidden fees to make it a bad deal. And of course, the person trying to sell it to you probably won't mention that.

      If you think you might be interested in a reverse mortgage, your best course would be to speak with a HUD counselor, or a financial planner who does not sell mortgage-related products.

      Is a Reverse Mortgage a Good Idea?...

      Attorneys General Back Consumer Financial Protection Agency

      State officials say consumers need new federal protection

      A number of attorneys general from around the country have voiced support for creation of a federal Consumer Financial Protection Agency, saying consumers need strong, unified protection.

      A measure now before Congress, H.R. 3126, would take those powers from the Federal Reserve and place it in the hands of independent regulators who would oversee credit cards and other financial services. The Fed, along with much of the financial services industry, opposes the legislation.

      "People are hurting," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "Now more than ever, consumers deserve an independent federal regulator whose sole mission is to protect their interests. They need protection at the federal level against the very practices that have caused so many of them to struggle financially, lose their jobs, see their home values decline and watch their college savings and retirement funds disappear."

      Madigan says the current financial crisis, caused in part by the banking industry's lending practices, is reason enough for a new consumer regulatory agency. Madigan noted that her office's Consumer Protection Division has heard from record numbers of consumers who are struggling to make their credit card payments, pay off their rising debts, and avoid getting buried under an avalanche of unfair rate hikes, penalty fees, and hidden charges piled on by their banks.

      "Abusive lending practices and regulatory loopholes are at the heart of the mortgage crisis that has devastated Arizona families and our state's economy," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. "I am aggressively prosecuting those who defraud Arizonans, but state action alone is not enough. Federal policy makers must reform the system to be more efficient and operate in the best interests of consumers."

      The CFPA would protect consumers by setting and enforcing national rules for the financial services industry. Overall, the new agency would consolidate authority in one place with the sole mission of looking out for consumers across the whole lending market. It would have broad authority over consumer financial products including mortgages, credit cards and payday loans with the power to enforce existing statutes and levy fines for violations.

      "Risky lending practices and a free-for-all in the financial services industry helped cause our current economic problems," said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. "Smarter regulation and stronger enforcement, from federal and state authorities, are clearly needed to protect individual consumers and our entire economy."

      Cooper noted that strong North Carolina laws against predatory lending prevented a foreclosure problem in the Tar Heel state until federal regulators "pre-empted" those laws, allowing national banks to engage in subprime lending.

      "Creation of a federal CFPA will be an important step toward a safer and sounder financial marketplace," he said.

      The administration proposal would give state regulators, including state attorneys general, the authority to enforce their state consumer protection laws against federally-chartered institutions. New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram said states need all the help they can get.

      "The breadth of financial fraud occurring in the current economic climate outstrips the resources of both the federal and state government - let alone either by itself," Milgram said in her letter to the Congress. "The joint resources of both federal and state government are not only desirable but are necessary if the security of consumers' financial resources is to be adequately protected."

      Attorneys General Back Consumer Financial Protection Agency...

      Mattel Settles Suits Over Dangerous Toys

      Company agrees to consumer reimbursement, stricter quality control

      By Jon Hood

      October 15, 2009
      Mattel announced Tuesday that it has agreed to settle a group of cases arising from the company's recalls of millions of dangerous toys. The settlement, filed in Los Angeles on Tuesday, would put to rest 22 consolidated cases stemming from the massive 2007 recalls, which implicated toys containing lead paint and magnets that could harm children if swallowed.

      Under the terms of the agreement, customers who participated in the recalls will receive either $10 or 50 percent of the value of recall vouchers, whichever is greater. After Mattel initiated the recalls, consumers with defective toys received vouchers for the product's retail value. The settlement will allow those consumers another bite of the apple.

      Class members who didn't take part in the recalls, but who have an eligible toy or proof that they once owned one, will receive either a check or a voucher for the amount they originally paid. Consumers who destroyed a recalled toy are eligible to receive reimbursement for up to three items. Class members may also recoup money they spent for lead testing, with up to $600,000 of the settlement set aside for that purpose.

      A statement from Whatley Drake & Kallas, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs, said the settlement amounts to "tens of millions of dollars in monetary relief."

      The recalls, announced in August 2007, shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the toy industry and raised questions about manufacturing oversight and quality control. On August 2, 2007, Mattel recalled 967,000 toys contaminated with lead paint. That recall implicated 83 separate products, including Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street-themed toys. Two weeks later, on August 14, Mattel simultaneously recalled 436,000 die-cast toy cars covered with lead paint and a shocking 18.2 million toys containing small magnets that posed dangers if swallowed.

      The recalls also furthered concerns about the safety of foreign-made products. All of the recalled items were manufactured in China, and the incidents followed recalls of pet food implicating Chinese-manufactured ingredients. Even before the 2007 incidents, Mattel had initiated 16 recalls in a 10-year span.

      Tests showed that, in some cases, the level of lead in affected toys was 180 times the legal limit of 0.06 percent. To put things in perspective, that means the toys' lead level was twice that allowed before lead house paint was banned.

      A number of the recalled products contained tiny magnets with an unfortunate habit of falling out of the toys. The magnets were so small -- some measuring an eighth of an inch in diameter -- that parents often didn't notice them. If a child swallowed more than two, the magnets could attract one another and cause potentially fatal internal perforation. Three children were seriously injured when they swallowed more than one magnet, according to a recall notice by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The commission received over 170 incident reports of magnets falling out.

      After the recalls were announced, in an apparent attempt at damage control, Mattel CEO Bob Eckert took out a full-page ad in several nationwide newspapers touting the company's "long record of safety" and assuring parents that "nothing is more important than the safety of our children."

      The recalls were so extensive that Mattel had to set up a separate website to guide consumers through the process. That site includes links to the original recall announcement and a "recall brochure," an eight-page document with labeled pictures of recalled toys and a table listing affected date codes and the voucher amount for recalled toys. The incidents prompted Congress to pass new legislation that essentially banned lead in toys.

      In addition to consumer reimbursement, Mattel has agreed to donate $275,000 to the National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions and to set up a stricter quality-control process. Specifically, Mattel is required to annually verify to the court that it is meeting certain benchmarks, and to comply with new federal regulations and rules created by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).

      The settlement, which will require final court approval, follows Mattel's decision last year to pay $12 million to end investigations by a number of states into the recalls.

      Mattel Settles Suits Over Dangerous Toys...

      Wysong Pet Food Pulls Products Due To Mold

      Third company in as many weeks to issue recall

      By Lisa Wade McCormick

      October 15, 2009
      A third pet food company in as many weeks has pulled some of its products off the market.

      Wysong Pet Food confirmed that it recalled five batches of Canine Diets Maintenance and Senior dry dog food -- manufactured in June and July 2009 -- because the products contain mold.

      "Penicillium and fusarium mold species have been identified," Lucas Wysong, the company's vice-president, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "All mycotoxin tests conducted thus far are negative with regard to the recalled products."

      "That we released some product that was not of the highest quality and may have caused any animals harm makes us frankly ashamed and heartsick," he added.

      Specifically, the Michigan-based pet food maker recalled the following batches of dry dog food:

      • Wysong Maintenance: lot #: 090617

      • Wysong Maintenance: lot #: 090624

      • Wysong Maintenance: lot #: 090706

      • Wysong Maintenance: lot #: 090720

      • Wysong Senior: lot #: 090623

      ConsumerAffairs.com talked to a pet owner in Hawaii who says her Doberman Pinscher recently died -- and her eight other dogs became sick -- after eating Wysong's moldy food.

      Lucas Wysong said his family's company is working closely with that pet owner. He called the case "exceptional" and said his company has received only two other minor complaints -- reports of diarrhea -- linked to the recalled food.

      Wysong told us his company discovered the problem in late September after it investigated customer complaints' of possible mold contamination in the food.

      In a prepared statement, Wysong said "At first report of potential mold in our products, Wysong launched an internal investigation. Batch records were re-examined, numerous bags of product opened and scrutinized, product samples were acquired from customers, and testing in-house and out-of-house conducted."

      That investigation, the company said, revealed the problem with the food stemmed from the "unusually high heat and humidity" on the days the products were made in June and July. The company also blamed the higher moisture issues on a "malfunctioning moisture checking device."

      Wysong said his company notified its distributors about the problem on September 29, 2009.

      "Once Wysong ascertained that there was mold presence and the potential for mold (based on moisture tests) in certain batches we alerted our distributors, who were the primary recipients of these batches of product," he said. "Distributors were instructed to dispose of the product, as well as pull product from stores that had already received the product."

      The company also said it contacted stores that received the recalled product and asked them to remove the food from store shelves. In addition, the company destroyed any "problematic" batches that remained in-house.

      Wysong also told us that his company notified the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)about the mold problem. The FDA's new Reportable Food Registry requires U.S. companies to file a report when there is a "reasonable probability" that their food will cause serious health consequences to people or animals.

      Wysong also posted a recall notice on its Web site, but that warning is buried under the dry dog food section.

      When asked why his company didn't immediately notify pet owners about the mold problem, Wysong said "The vast majority of the recalled product was sent to our distributors and retailers. We have therefore focused our efforts on alerting distributors and stores and asked them to dispose of the product."

      "In other words, we are focusing on the supply chain because the customers at the retail/store level are not identifiable," he said.

      Wysong admitted that posting a notice on the company's Web site is not the most effective way to reach customers who may have the recalled products.

      "The actual recipients of the product -- distributors and retailers -- have already been alerted, and those that buy our product in stores are likely not Wysong.net site visitors," he said. "The notice on the site therefore serves as an alert to those who did not receive these products."

      "We keep records of the distributors and stores that were shipped this product," he added. "Our best chance at notifying customers is through these mediums."

      Pet owners who have any of the recalled food should immediately stop feeding it to their dogs, Wysong said.

      "She did not deserve to die that way"

      That warning, however, came too late for Julie P. of Hawaii. She says her healthy Doberman Pinscher, Scarlet, died on September 26, 2009, after eating some of Wysong's moldy food.

      "Losing Scarlet was just horrible and totally needless," Julie told us. "She died a very painful and agonizing death on the morning of her fifth birthday after suffering all night long. She had gone completely toxic."

      But Julie's nightmare didn't end with Scarlet's death. Her other eight Dobermans also became seriously ill after eating Wysong's moldy food.

      "They're lethargic and continued to get more and more down as time went by," says Julie, who switched her dogs to Wysong in August. "They have very red eyes with yellow gunk that they have had the whole time I was feeding Wysong. That has now finally gone away because I took them off the food after Scarlet died," she said.

      "They also had severe diarrhea the whole time, too. At first I thought it was from the changing of their food, but it got worse with some bloody stools and did not go away until again I stopped feeding them Wysong."

      One of Julie's dogs, a male named Doug, also developed a sore on his leg that would not heal and had "dry flaky skin with red bumps on his neck."

      "Several of my other dogs, including my Daddy, Ruby, and Maybelle all have a bad rash on their groin areas that I also could not get to go away for the last two months," Julie says. "They have had gaseous upset stomachs many times in the last two months. They have been throwing up, and at times, Doug refused to even get near his feeding dish."

      Julie says she didn't make a connection between Wysong's food and her dogs' death and illnesses until she opened a new bag on October 4, 2009.

      "When I opened that bag, I noticed a moldy look to the kibble -- a look I had seen on several previous bags in the two months I feed it to my dogs. I did not notice any smell, but I think my dog Doug did."

      Julie contacted the company that same day. "I was afraid to feed them what looked to me like moldy food," she says. "And I started putting all these symptoms together as being from the food."

      "I'm not sure how I can prove that all of these symptoms were from eating the bad dog food," she adds. "But now that I've stopped feeding the food to them, they are all getting better, which seems to prove that it was."

      Julie says Wysong should give her some compensation -- at least enough to cover her vet bills -- but no amount of money can ever replace Scarlet.

      "She did not deserve to die that way," Julie says. "She was still a young and vibrant dog and very, very special to us. She could have gone on to live another ten years...it's hard to put a price tag on that. What would you pay to have your loved one with you for all those days?"

      Lucas Wysong told us his company is "immensely sorry" for any worry or inconvenience this issue has caused its customers.

      In Julie's case, Wysong said his company is in "direct communication" with her regarding the death of Scarlet and the illnesses of her other dogs.

      "We have requested specific tests be conducted in an attempt to definitively determined the cause of death/sickness," he said, adding the company has not received any other reports of serious adverse reactions linked to the recalled food.

      The company, he added, has also taken steps to ensure a mold problem like this doesn't surface again.

      "We are in the midst of scrutinizing each and every step of our quality assurance processes," he said. "All products going back for months are being tested for moisture and mold, thus eliminating the possibility of further problematic product (if any exists) being released.

      "We vow to all interested parties to do everything we can to ensure that this never happens again."

      Julie, however, isn't taking any more chances with Wysong's food.

      "Like a lot of people I am going to be making my own food for my dogs. But with this many to feed, that's a challenge. It can be hard to get all the vitamins in there, so I would like to supplement with a small amount of kibble."

      Meanwhile, pet owners who have any of Wysong's recalled food -- or questions about the recall -- can e-mail the company at Wysong@Wysong.net.

      Third in a series

      Wysong is the third pet food maker in recent weeks to quietly pull some of its products off the market.

      Earlier this month, Diamond Pet Foods removed some of its Premium Edge Finicky Adult and Hairball cat food off the market because of deficiencies in the thiamine levels.

      Diamond's action came just days after Nutro Products quietly pulled from the market three types of its puppy food because of a production error.

      The company said it voluntarily withdrew the puppy food after it had discovered pieces of melted plastic in the "production line of select varieties of NUTRO dry dog and cat food products."

      Wysong Pet Food Pulls Products Due To Mold...

      No Social Security Cost Of Living Increase In 2010

      COLA wasn't triggered because prices remained flat

      The Social Security Administration has made it official, announcing Thursday what many had predicted; there will be no cost of living increase in Social Security Benefits next year.

      It will be the first year without an automatic Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) since the adjustment mechanism went into effect in 1975.

      "Social Security is doing its job helping Americans maintain their standard of living," Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security said. "Last year when consumer prices spiked, largely as a result of higher gas prices, beneficiaries received a 5.8 percent COLA, the largest increase since 1982. This year, in light of the human need, we need to support President Obama's call for us to make another $250 recovery payment for 57 million Americans."

      But senior advocacy groups were quick to label the announcement a disaster for seniors.

      "This is a serious problem and unless Congress acts, millions of seniors will see their checks stay flat or even reduced while the costs of prescription drugs, utilities and health care continue to climb fast," said Barry Jackson, AARP's online advocacy manager in an email sent to the organization's millions of members just minutes after the announcement was made.

      The Social Security Act provides that Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits increase automatically each year if there is an increase in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) from the third quarter of the last year to the third quarter of the current year. This year there was no increase in the CPI-W from the third quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of 2009.

      In addition, because there was no increase in the CPI-W this year, under the law the starting point for determinations regarding a possible 2011 COLA will remain the third quarter of 2008.

      But Jackson said the CPI-W is not a reliable indicator of the expenses faced by seniors. "The reality is that the bad economy this year has hit seniors particularly hard. They spend an average of $4,400 out of pocket every year on health care alone. With home values dropping, losses in the stock market, and low returns on interest bearing accounts, it's no wonder that more Americans are counting on the promise of Social Security," he said in his email.

      Jackson said seniors should demand that Congress provide "at least modest relief."

      Some other changes that would normally take effect in January 2010 based on the increase in average wages also will not take effect, even though average wages did increase. Since there is no COLA, the statute prohibits an increase in the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax as well as the retirement earnings test exempt amounts. These amounts will remain unchanged in 2010.

      Medicare changes?

      The Department of Health and Human Services has not yet announced if there will be any Medicare premium changes for 2010. Should there be an increase in the Medicare Part B premium, the law contains a "hold harmless" provision that protects about 93 percent of Social Security beneficiaries from paying a higher Part B premium, in order to avoid reducing their net Social Security benefit.

      Those not protected include higher income beneficiaries subject to an income-adjusted Part B premium and beneficiaries newly entitled to Part B in 2010. On September 24th, the House passed legislation by 406-18 that would, on a fully paid-for basis, prevent abnormally large premium increases.

      President Obama has asked the Senate to enact this legislation before it becomes too late for the Social Security Administration to update its computer systems to implement this needed change, the agency said.

      No Social Security Cost Of Living Increase In 2010...

      Despite Rules Changes, Banks Still Depend On Overdraft Fees

      Customers remain at risk of getting dinged with "courtesy" charges

      Amid consumer outrage and Congressional pressure, banks are beginning to make changes to their overdraft fees. But they aren't about to wean themselves off fees altogether, and that has consumer groups demanding more reforms.

      "None of the largest banks reduced their overdraft fees, which average $35 per overdraft, or dropped sustained overdraft fees tacked on if consumers cannot repay in just days," noted Jean Ann Fox, Director of Financial Services for the Consumer Federation of America. "For a $100 overdraft repaid in one week at that $35 fee, consumers are paying 1,820 percent APR if computed in the same way as a short-term loan. A single $10 overdraft loan can still cost up to $70 if not repaid in just five days."

      Banks extend credit when they cover overdrafts for a fee. However, the Federal Reserve does not require banks to comply with the credit laws that apply to other short-term cash loans. As a result, consumers are permitted to overspend their checking accounts without affirmative consent, do not get comparable cost-to-borrow information, and are not warned when a transaction will trigger an overdraft.

      It now appears the Federal Reserve will change rules requiring banks to allow customers to decide whether they want their banks' "courtesy" overdraft protection, in which the bank covers the overdraft but charges the consumer an overdraft fee of about $30 per overdraft. Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo told the Wall Street Journal that change is likely.

      JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, anticipating these changes, recently announced liberalization of their policies that assess consumers a hefty service charge when they make debit purchases that exceed the funds in their accounts. Some consumers who routinely draw their checking account down to the bare minimum can end up paying hundreds of dollars a month in overdraft fees.

      "Overdraft loans are one of the most expensive and exploitative credit products on the market," said Chi Wu, National Consumer Law Center Staff Attorney. "A few limited reforms by a half dozen banks aren't going to stop the abuses. These reforms are too little and too late, coming after years in which banks made billions off of overdraft abuses."

      Recently announced changes in overdraft programs by some large banks are unlikely to reduce costs significantly to customers, said the groups. Some banks have changed the threshold that triggers overdraft fees and have lowered the total number of overdraft fees a consumer can be charged in one day. But none of the banks are lowering the fees charged for initial or sustained overdrafts.

      Chase Bank plans to permit its existing and new customers to sign up affirmatively to use overdraft loans, while other large banks have announced that they will permit existing customers to opt out of using the banks' most expensive form of credit.

      In some cases, banks will permit only new customers to opt in to some forms of overdrafts in the future. Citibank does not permit its customers to incur overdrafts when using debit cards or at ATMs, and Citibank customers can incur four overdraft fees per day for checks.

      "The Consumer Financial Protection Agency, under consideration this month by the House Financial Services Committee, is needed to restore consumer protections to bank overdraft lending," said Travis Plunkett, CFA's Legislative Director. "The Consumer Financial Protection Agency will monitor these types of transactions and provide a floor of protections for consumers so that Americans are not left to the mercy of the banks to decide on fundamental protections and fair transactions going forward."

      What to watch out for

      Consumers burned by these charges on a regular basis are unlikely to agree to continue the bank's "overdraft protection" once they have the choice, so bank revenue from these fees will probably drop sharply.

      But banks still depend on fees to bolster profits and consumers should be aware of them. To make up for the loss of overdraft fees, these other fees might increase, and new fees might be added.

      For example, when a credit card company offers you an attractive deal on a credit card if you will transfer balances from another card, keep in mind that transfer can come at a cost. Some banks charge up to five percent for a balance transfer, meaning the cost of moving $10,000 can cost $500.

      The same is true for a cash advance. To take out a "loan" from your credit card, the bank will assess a fee, or surcharge, often between two and five percent. That can make a cash advance an expensive proposition -- something that shouldn't be considered except in a dire emergency.

      Using the ATM can also come with fees, though most banks don't charge their customers for using the machines within the bank's network. But using a "foreign" ATM, or one outside the bank's network, can be expensive. Your bank will charge a fee, as will the "foreign" bank. A way to avoid these fees is to make a debit purchase at a store where you can get cash back. That transaction, in most cases, doesn't carry a fee.

      Most banks also charge for checking services unless the customer meets certain conditions. For example, the fee might be assessed when the balance in the checking account falls below a certain level.

      Usually, that minimum balance isn't all that high, so if a consumer has a savings account, it would be much better to keep the savings in a checking account, to maintain the minimum balance. Avoiding a monthly surcharge usually offsets the less than one percent interest usually paid on a passbook savings account.

      Despite Rules Changes, Banks Still Depend On Overdraft Fees...

      Annual Credit Card Fee Makes a Comeback

      More consumers likely to join those already paying it

      By Mark Huffman

      October 14, 2009
      When Congress passed credit card reform legislation in May, many industry analysts warned that lenders would find new ways to extract the revenue they would soon be losing from consumers.

      Among the mentioned new fees is actually an old one -- the annual fee.

      When credit cards were first introduced almost all cards charged an annual fee. But as the industry grew more competitive, with more and more banks and financial services firms offering cards, the annual fee gradually disappeared from major bank cards.

      Now, Bank of America says it will begin test marketing a new "membership" fee for some of its customers. In other words, not every customer will be assessed the charge. If those who are charged don't cancel their cards or protest too loudly, presumably all customers will soon be required to pay it.

      While other banks are expected to follow suit, it may be helpful to point out that many current credit card users are already paying an "annual fee" for the privilege of carrying a credit card.

      Small credit card issuers that target the subprime market have always charged a high annual fee, one of the many things making these low credit limit cards such bad deals.

      Michael, of Hershey, Pa., said he paid a $100 annual fee recently on his Imagine Visa card.

      "This month I get a letter stating that their credit card program has ended, and that my account will be closed immediately," he told ConsumerAffairs.com. "If they would have sent a letter, stating their intentions, before charging me the annual fee of $100, I would have paid the balance off and cancelled the card myself."

      But to other credit card customers, the appearance of an annual fee on their credit card bill comes as a surprise. Rick, of Erskine, Minn., said he had never been assessed an annual fee on his Washington Mutual credit card. Then Washington Mutual was acquired by JP Morgan Chase earlier this year.

      "I got a charge for over the limit, which was only a few bucks over my limit," Rick told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I looked at my account and saw that what put me over was a $39 annual fee. I had not warning about this charge and didn't know about it."

      When major banks offer a credit card in partnership with another business, such as a hotel or airline, customers often get slapped with an annual fee, although some customers might overlook it. Jennifer, of Murray, Utah, wanted to use her Marriott Rewards Credit Card for a major purchase and called the company to determine how much credit she had.

      "I proceeded with the charge and was quickly notified that it was declined because it put me over the credit limit by $65 - their annual fee that is not published on all of the marketing material," Jennifer told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I called customer service to rectify the situation, they passed me on to three different representatives before they told me it was my fault for not expecting the annual fee to be included in my balance."

      Last year Anna, of Brooklyn, N.Y., lost her Citicard and asked for a new one. The replacement card was Citi's new Diamond Preferred Rewards card, even though she just wanted a replacement for her old card.

      "When I called to inquire about the change, I was told that the new card works just the same as the old card, and only adds the "Thank You Network" feature, at no charge," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I asked if I can instead have my old card back, and was told no. Now, less than a year later, I'm being charged a $30 membership fee, for doing nothing more than always paying the card charges in full every month. This change comes without any notice, although the company claims that there was a letter."

      Is there anyway to get out of paying an annual fee? Maybe. Scott Bilker, who writes the Dollar Stretcher Blog and is author of Talk Your Way Out Of Credit Card Debt, suggests calling and asking politely if the bank would waive the fee. He says in his experience, 95 percent of the time the bank will agree.

      Annual Credit Card Fee Makes a Comeback...

      FTC Stops Two Deceptive Telemarketing Operations

      Magazine seller, medical discount plan pitchmen barred from false claims

      Two telemarketing operations targeted by the Federal Trade Commission as part of a major law enforcement sweep last year must stop the deceptive tactics they allegedly used to trick consumers into buying overpriced magazine subscriptions and worthless medical discount plans -- and must pay a total of $2.06 million in consumer redress.

      The FTC filed the two cases in 2008 as part of "Operation Tele-PHONEY," the largest telemarketing fraud sweep ever coordinated by the agency. With the announcement of a settlement in one case and a court order in the other, 11 of the 13 "Tele-PHONEY" cases have been resolved to the benefit of consumers.

      In the magazine telemarketing case, the FTC charged that U.S. Magazine Services and its principal misled consumers by understating the monthly charges for its subscriptions. Although the actual monthly charge was disclosed in a later call -- often after the consumers provided their billing information -- some consumers learned of the charge only after checking their credit card bill or debit account balance.

      Consumers who subsequently tried to cancel the subscriptions were told that no cancellations were allowed. In addition, the defendants violated the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule by failing to disclose important terms during their sales pitches.

      The settlement order resolving the Commission's charges bars the defendants from making any further misrepresentations when marketing any product or service, charging consumers without their express informed consent, or violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The order requires them to disclose important facts before consumers provide their billing information, including payment details and refund and cancellation policies. It also includes a $600,000 judgment against the defendants, to be paid over the next year.

      In the other case, the Commission announced a court order and default judgment against Union Consumer Benefits and its owner, Naeem Alvi, who were charged with marketing worthless medical discount packages to elderly consumers throughout the United States.

      The FTC charged them with using deception to persuade consumers to reveal their bank account information, and often pretending they were calling from the Social Security Administration, Medicare, or the consumers' banks.

      According to the FTC's complaint, the defendants offered "free" benefits or a medical discount plan that -- for a one-time fee -- would supposedly save consumers money on medical care and prescriptions. The company then debited $399 from the consumers' bank accounts, sending them only a package containing a prescription discount card that didn't work. The FTC also charged the company with calling consumers whose telephone numbers are on the National Do Not Call Registry.

      The court order bars the defendants from making misleading statements or misrepresentations about any product or service, including its effectiveness, total cost, conditions or restrictions, or refund policies. They also are barred from misrepresenting that they are affiliated with government programs such as Medicare or Social Security, or consumers' banks, or that they can provide consumers with substantial discounts on medical care or prescriptions in exchange for a one-time fee.

      In addition, the order bars them from violating the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule, including the provisions of the National Do Not Call Registry, prohibits them from debiting consumers' accounts without their consent, and imposes a $1.46 million judgment to provide redress to defrauded consumers.

      FTC Stops Two Deceptive Telemarketing Operations...

      AT&T Missouri Pays $1.4 Million To Settle False Claims Suit

      Allegedly exploited E-Rate Program for needy schools

      AT&T Missouri, which used to do business as Southwestern Bell Telephone L.P., has agreed to pay the U.S. Government $1.4 million as part of a settlement of a civil lawsuit alleging that the company violated the False Claims Act in connection with the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate program.

      The U.S. Department of Justice, which brought the action, announced the settlement.

      The E-Rate program, which Congress created in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, provides funding for needy schools and libraries to connect to and utilize the Internet. Under the program, which is supported by fees collected from telephone users, schools apply for funds to pay for hardware and monthly connectivity service fees.

      The government contended that AT&T Missouri provided false information to the E-Rate program and otherwise violated the program's requirements by engaging in non-competitive bidding practices for E-Rate contracts. The Justice Department further alleged that AT&T Missouri employees colluded with officials in the Kansas City, Mo., School District to award contracts to the company, extended contracts in violation of E-Rate rules and provided meals and other inducements to school district employees.

      The government previously filed suit against and settled with the Kansas City, Mo., School District.

      These allegations arose from a False Claims Act lawsuit filed in Missouri federal court by American Fiber Systems Inc., which submitted an unsuccessful bid to the Kansas City, Mo., School District for the E-Rate contracts that were awarded to AT&T Missouri.

      The False Claims Act allows private parties to bring fraud claims on behalf of the United States and to share in the proceeds of any recovery. American Fiber Systems Inc.'s share of the settlement will amount to $195,000.

      "The E-Rate program provides critical support for Internet access to the most under-served schools in the nation," said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice's Civil Division. "Working with our partners at the FCC's Office of the Inspector General, the Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that this important program, which benefits our neediest children, not be misused by those seeking to defraud the public."

      AT&T Missouri Pays $1.4 Million To Settle False Claims Suit...

      Consumer Legislation Faces Key Vote This Week

      Business groups mount strong opposition

      A bill to create a consumer financial protection agency within the federal government faces its first Congressional vote this week. The measure, which has the strong backing of the White House, is expected to be approved by the House Financial Services Committee.

      The legislation, which would give the new stand-alone agency authority to set rules regarding credit cards and other financial services products, has strong opposition. The banking industry is adamantly opposed, as is the Federal Reserve, which currently has that authority.

      In his weekly radio address over the weekend, President Obama urged lawmakers to approve the new agency and not listen to the business lobbyists who oppose it.

      They're doing what they always do -- descending on Congress and using every bit of influence they have to maintain a status quo that has maximized their profits at the expense of American consumers," Obama said in his remarks. "That's why we need a Consumer Financial Protection Agency that will stand up not for big banks and financial firms, but for hardworking Americans."

      Obama sent the bill to Capitol Hill in June, but it has progressed slowly, as much of Congress's attention over the summer was fixed on health care legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi echoed Obama's plea, saying the agency would prevent abusive anti-consumer practices that she said contributed to the global financial crises.

      Along with robust supervision of financial firms and strong oversight of their practices, this agency will prevent the egregious abuses that hurt working families, the young and the elderly, and the millions of consumers who entrusted their hard-earned dollars to financial firms that deceived them, Pelosi said. "American families deserve a financial marketplace they can trust to protect their financial futures and that no longer rewards reckless behavior on Wall Street.

      Barring a surprise defection or two by Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee, the measure should pass along party lines this week and move to the House floor for a vote, where its outcome is less certain. While nearly all Republicans oppose it, so do some Democrats, who have felt pressure from community bankers in their districts.

      "Consumer protection has been in hands of federal bank regulators, and I figure it is fair to say that no calluses will be found on the hands of those that had consumer responsibilities, because there is no evidence of hard work there," said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, during his panel's hearing on the legislation last month.

      The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been leading the lobbying effort against the legislation, issued a statement calling for expanded power for existing regulators, but said creating a new agency is the wrong approach.

      We disagree that a massive new federal agency with unprecedented powers over vast segments of the business community will be good for consumers, for America's job creators or for the economy," David Hirschmann, president of the Chamber's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, said in the statement. "We disagree that adding a new agency atop a broken regulatory system solves the problem or closes regulatory gaps. And, we don't agree that consumers are well served by allowing the states to each create different disclosures, and regulations on top of those created by the proposed new regulator."

      Consumer Legislation Faces Key Vote This Week...

      Nissan Recalls Cube, Murano, Rogue Models to Fix Tire Pressure Sensor

      Infiniti M35, M45 also recalled for same problem

      October 12, 2009
      Nissan is recalling a number of models to fix a problem with the tire pressure monitoring system.

      Included in the recall are:

      Vehicle Make


      Model Year


      The recall affects vehicles sold or registered in the following states:


      The company said material used to secure the tire pressure sensor may corrode and crack in areas with heavy concentrations of road salt. That could cause the tire pressure light to illuminate in error. If the light is disregarded, drivers may not be aware of dangerously low tire pressure.

      Dealers will replace the part when the recall begins in November. Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261 and Infiniti at 1-800-662-6200.

      Consumers may contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY: 1-800-424-9153) or at www.safercar.gov.

      Nissan Recalls Cube, Murano, Rogue Models to Fix Tire Pressure Sensor...

      New York Makes Arrests In Mortgage Fraud Ring

      Subprime lending not the only contributor to housing collapse

      October 9, 2009
      Targeting corruption in the lending industry, the state of New York and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York have teamed up to take down what they call a mortgage fraud ring.

      New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said the 12 defendants, including lawyers, loan officers, and providers of false identification, illegally obtained $9 million in loans for phantom homebuyers.

      As alleged in the indictment: Between 2005 and 2007, the defendants engaged in an illegal scheme to trick various mortgage lending institutions into giving loans for the purchase of homes in New York City and Long Island. In many instances, the defendants used fake identity information - like driver's licenses and bank statements - and presented imposters at home closings who claimed to be those identities.

      Through the scheme, the defendants obtained dozens of home mortgage loans with a face value of approximately $9 million. Some loans were in the names of individuals who did not exist and others were in the names of individuals whose identification information had been misused. Most of these loans are now in default.

      "This is exactly the type of criminal activity that was caused by - and contributed to - the terrible mortgage crisis facing our nation," said Cuomo. "These defendants were allegedly able to obtain millions of dollars in home loans for phantom buyers precisely because obtaining these loans was far too easy at the time. As we work to reform our nation's mortgage regulation, law enforcement must continue to collaborate to ensure that those who exploited the system for their personal financial gain are brought to justice."

      "The U.S. economy is still reeling from the damage done by mortgage fraud schemes like the one unraveled today," said Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. "These charges expose the corrupt conduct of industry insiders who allegedly manipulated the mortgage markets to fraudulently obtain millions in loans. What is especially disturbing is that two of the alleged fraudsters were attorneys who used their law degrees to cheat the system and line their pockets. We will continue to prosecute corrupt custodians of the mortgage markets to the full extent of the law because our financial system depends on it."

      The twelve defendants include settlement attorneys, attorneys involved in mortgage loan closings, loan officers, loan processors, as well as individuals who produced false identification documents, secured the fake buyers, and those who pretended to be the fraudulent identities at the closings. All defendants are charged with Conspiracy to Commit Bank Fraud and Wire Fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years' imprisonment.

      New York Makes Arrests In Mortgage Fraud Ring...

      Beware Of Chimney Repair Scams

      Phony repair jobs a seasonal concern

      As weather turns colder and homeowners begin using their fireplaces again, chimney fires aren't the only hazard they face. This is the time of year the old "chimney repair scam" makes a reappearance.

      In New Jersey, the Division of Consumer Protection says it has received 24 consumer complaints related to chimney and fireplace repairs between September 2008 and August 2009.

      "Fall is the busy season for cleaning chimneys and removing creosote generated by wood-burning fireplaces. It's also the time of year when consumers should be cautious when someone offers to check their chimney and make repairs," said David Szuchman, New Jersey's Consumer Affairs Director.

      In New Jersey -- and in many other states -- anyone offering to perform chimney repairs must be registered as a Home Improvement Contractor under state law. Chimney sweeps who only clean chimneys and do not perform repairs usually don't face such requirements.

      Consumers should always demand a written contract that specifies the work to be performed, the materials that will be used and the total price, for any home improvement project costing more than $500.

      "It's always a good idea to obtain more than one bid," Szuchman said. "Multiple bids allow consumers to verify that different contractors are finding the same type of problem when each performs an inspection," said.

      Consumers should be alert to the following scenarios as possible scams:

      • Someone comes unsolicited to your home, offers to do a free inspection of your chimney and offers a "special deal" to fix an alleged problem.

      • Someone claims to be "working in the neighborhood" and has leftover supplies to repair your chimney but the work has to be done right away.

      • Someone is unwilling to show you the problem area and explain the problem in detail.

      In most states, a consumer has the right to cancel a home improvement contract within 72 hours of signing the contract. A consumer should not feel pressured into allowing work to begin immediately.

      Consumers who have limited mobility and cannot climb ladders should be cautious about claims of loose bricks or missing mortar if someone goes onto their roof to inspect the chimney.

      Consumers also should make sure all required permits have been issued by their municipal construction code office prior to the contractor beginning work.

      Beware Of Chimney Repair Scams...

      Coors Faces Class Action

      Alleges "Silver Ticket Sweepstakes" provided bogus entry codes

      A beer-drinking football fan has filed suit against MillerCoors, alleging that the brewing titan gave him no chance of winning a sweepstakes being marketed to Coors Light drinkers.

      Mario Aliano, of Illinois, picked up a case of ice cold Coors Light after he saw an ad touting the "Coors Light Silver Ticket Sweepstakes," a contest entering Coors drinkers to win NFL-themed prizes. The sweepstakes offers a grand prize of two tickets to a 2009 regular-season NFL game, and a "first prize" of a $100 gift certificate to the NFL's online store. The sweepstakes runs from August 1 until October 31.

      Under the terms of the sweepstakes, a unique code is placed in each Coors Light carton. Consumers can either enter the code on the official sweepstakes website or text it to a Coors-provided phone number to see if they have won.

      Aliano took the beer home and twice tried to enter his code on the sweepstakes website. Both times, Aliano's suit claims, he received an error message calling his code "invalid." He then attempted to have Coors text the results to his cell phone, but again received the same message.

      The suit says that Coors printed ads for the sweepstakes right on the side of Coors Light cartons, enticing shoppers already perusing the beer aisle to opt for a case of the infamous "Silver Bullet."

      Aliano is bringing the suit as a class action, on behalf of everyone in the U.S. who bought sweepstakes-eligible Coors or Coors Light beer and were told they had an invalid code. Aliano's complaint alleges that Coors issued around five million tickets bearing invalid codes, and that, had class members known this, they wouldn't have bought the beer in the first place. The complaint points out that a consumer would have no way of knowing if his code was invalid before entering it on the website.

      While Aliano's outrage will probably resonate with football fans and Coors drinkers everywhere, the case will likely be an uphill battle for the putative class. First, and most importantly, it will be very difficult to prove that every class member bought the beer in anticipation of entering Coors's sweepstakes. There are plenty of consumers who buy Coors on a regular basis, and many of them are football fans anyway -- after all, Coors is the official beer of the NFL. Individual issues of causation routinely doom consumer class actions, and Aliano is likely to have a hard time convincing a judge that his case is appropriate for class treatment.

      Additionally, and more fundamentally, Aliano doesn't explain why he thinks that millions of consumers have received invalid codes. The complaint alleges that Coors has received "hundreds" of complaints about the issue, but goes no further than that. Granted, the barest factual allegations are enough to file a complaint, but Aliano seems to be stretching a bit here.

      Miller and MolsonCoors, two giant American brewers, merged in 2007 to better compete with brewers like Anheuser Busch (which has since merged with InBev, a Belgian company). Coors has had its share of high-profile directors, including current chairman Pete Coors, who made an unsuccessful 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

      A beer-drinking football fan has filed suit against MillerCoors, alleging that the brewing titan gave him no chance of winning a sweepstakes being marketed...

      Senate Urged To Pass Food Safety Modernization Act

      Leafy greens, eggs, & tuna top list of riskiest FDA-regulated foods

      Leafy greens, eggs, and tuna are on the top of a list of the ten riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Those and seven other foods account for nearly 40 percent of all foodborne outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated food, according to a new report.

      That's no reason to forgo the occasional salad Nioise, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which wrote the report, nor need one pass up tomatoes, sprouts, and berries, even though those foods are also on the list. But the nonprofit watchdog group says the presence of so many healthy foods on such a list is exactly why the United States Senate should follow the House and pass legislation that reforms our fossilized food safety laws.

      The FDA is responsible for regulating produce, seafood, egg and dairy products, as well as typical packaged foods such as cookie dough and peanut butter -- nearly 80 percent of the food supply. More than 1,500 separate, definable outbreaks were associated with the top 10 riskiest FDA-regulated foods, causing nearly 50,000 reported illnesses. Since most foodborne illnesses are never reported, these outbreaks are only the tip of a large, hulking iceberg.

      "Outbreaks give the best evidence of where and when the food safety system is failing to protect the public," said CSPI staff attorney Sarah Klein, the lead author of the report. "It is clearly time for FDA's reliance on industry self-regulation to come to an end. The absence of safety plans or frequent inspections unfortunately means that some of our favorite and most healthful foods also top the list of the most risky."

      CSPI identified 363 outbreaks linked to iceberg lettuce, romaine, spinach, and other leafy greens, variously contaminated with E. coli, Norovirus, or Salmonella, and causing 13,568 cases of illness. Manure, contaminated irrigation water, or poor handling practices are all possible culprits in those outbreaks. The FDA does not currently require farms and processors to have written food safety plans, nor does it provide specific safety standards for even the largest growers to meet.

      Eggs were linked to 352 outbreaks and 11,163 illnesses; tuna to 268 outbreaks and 2,341 cases of illness, and oysters -- despite their limited consumption -- to 132 outbreaks causing 3,409 illnesses. Outbreaks involving potatoes don't seem to make headlines, but nevertheless they are linked to 108 outbreaks and 3,659 cases of illness. Cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts, and berries round out the top 10 list. The data come from CSPI's Outbreak Alert! Database, which includes outbreaks from 1990 to 2006, using data collected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources.

      In July, the House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act with broad, bipartisan support. That measure would give FDA authority to require food processors to design and implement food safety plans, provide specific safety standards that growers would have to meet, and require FDA to visit high-risk facilities every 12 months or less, and most other facilities every 3-4 years. In the Senate, similar legislation, sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), is pending.

      "As consumers, we don't have the power to check on these products," said Kathleen Chrismer, whose 9-year-old daughter Rylee Gustafson was hospitalized for a month after becoming seriously ill from eating spinach salad contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. "Without a better system to protect us, we are totally at the mercy of the next outbreak."

      Senate Urged To Pass Food Safety Modernization Act...