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Vendors Gouge Parents Over Scarce Zhu Zhu Pets

Shortage of popular toy causes price jumps

Vendors Gouge Parents Over Scarce Zhu Zhu Pets...

Relief is apparently on the way for frantic parents scurrying to find the hottest toy of the 2009 holiday season -- the Zhu Zhu Pet hamsters. But many buyers are finding themselves at the mercy of online vendors who are selling the toys at exorbitant prices.

The St. Louis-based Cepia LLC, maker of the popular toys, has increased production of its "smart pets," and is now turning out some 200,000 Zhu Zhu hamsters daily.

"We have ramped up production of Zhu Zhu Pets in China," said Natalie Hornsby, the company's director of marketing and brand development. "We originally worked with one major factory. We are now working with four factories."

Zhu Zhu Pet hamsters do not make a mess, never die, and have no odor. But the toys move like real hamsters and can make more than 40 different sound effects, depending on their environment. Those sounds include toilet-flushing, teeth-brushing, and even alarm-clock noises.

ConsumerAffairs.com today checked on the availability of the five different Zhu Zhu Pets online at Toys "R" Us, Target, and Wal-Mart. None of the store's Web sites had any of the toy hamsters in stock.

The toys normally retail for $9.99, but ConsumerAffairs.com discovered some online vendors are gouging consumers by charging up to six times that amount.

On Amazon.com, for example, some vendors today were selling the Zhu Zhu Pet named Mr. Squiggles, "the hamster who loves to explore," for as much as $99.99. The lowest-priced Zhu Zhu pet found was the "laid-back surfer hamster" named Chuck, who was listed at $40.95 plus $4.49 shipping.

Outraged

Hornsby said the company was upset that some vendors are exploiting the current shortage of Zhu Zhu Pets. "We do not condone the price gouging that is occurring on eBay and Amazon," Hornsby said.

But what options are there for parents trying to make their child's Christmas wish for a Zhu Zhu Pet come true?

"We are advising consumers to call retailers and check for shipment dates," Hornsby said. "Typically you have the best chance to get a Zhu Zhu pet if you arrive just before store opening."

Toys "R" Us said it will continue to receive Zhu Zhu Pets throughout December. Company spokeswoman Jennifer Albano also said customers can sign up for e-mail alerts to notify them when Zhu Zhu pets are available in stores.

"On Saturday, we did send out an e-mail to alert customers to the availability of the pets at stores nationwide on Sunday," Albano said.

But customers who received that e-mail learned they had to be one of the first 50 shoppers at their local Toys "R" Us store on Sunday, in order to "have the opportunity" to buy a Zhu Zhu Pet.

"On Black Friday, we also had 100 Zhu Zhu pets at each store at midnight," Albano said. "And we did get additional pets throughout the day. We are getting more shipments."

"My daughters wanted them"

But that news comes a few days late for a Missouri mom who paid considerably more than the retail price to get the pets.

Christy M., of Kansas City, didn't want to risk disappointing her two young daughters on Christmas morning. "I paid $30 a piece and bought two of them," she said.

Christy also paid $40 for a Zhu Zhu Pet house. "It's okay, though. My daughters wanted them," she said.

Cepia introduced Zhu Zhu pets to the country in August 2009. The company initially held special promotions during major league baseball games and asked celebrities to deliver the toys to various children's hospitals. Since then, Zhu Zhu Pets have become a craze among kids nationwide.

"We are humbled by our success," Hornsby said, "and thank consumers for their incredible support."



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States Step Up Pressure On Mortgage Fraud

Illinois, New Jersey among states taking action

Home mortgage modification has proved very hard to achieve. So, if a company makes it sound easy & promises they can make it happen, it may be wise to exer...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 30, 2009
Getting a home mortgage modification has proved very hard to achieve so far. So, if a company makes it sound easy and promises they can make it happen, it may be wise to exercise a bit of skepticism.

In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed lawsuits against three companies she says were operating mortgage rescue fraud schemes. The suits were filed against Loan Mod One, LLC; Freedom Mortgage Team, Inc.; and Living Modifications Corp.

"With home foreclosure rates steadily on the rise, we are working closely with our federal partners to leverage all available resources to stop mortgage rescue fraud," Madigan said. "Homeowners who believe they are at risk of losing their homes need to know that free, legitimate help is available. These rescue fraud schemers are not going to help modify your loan, work with your lender or represent you in court. Theyre simply going to take your money and run."

"Victims of fraud"

In New Jersey, meanwhile, nine companies have been cited for allegedly offering loan modification services to consumers without a license.

The nine companies each were cited for violating the state's Consumer Fraud Act for engaging in unconscionable commercial practices by allegedly offering to negotiate mortgage modifications without being licensed as a debt adjuster by the Department of Banking and Insurance.

"Homeowners looking for mortgage help instead are becoming victims of fraud, and risk ending up in a worse situation," New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram said. "We want these nine unlicensed debt-adjuster companies to reimburse consumers for fees paid and to comply with our laws."

The Notices of Violation are the latest in an on-going series of actions taken by the Attorney General and the state's Division of Consumer Affairs to protect consumers in the current mortgage and home foreclosure crisis. To date, 11 civil lawsuits have been filed against 102 defendants who allegedly committed mortgage or foreclosure fraud against consumers.

The Division also filed suit against a Lakewood-based firm, United Credit Adjusters, and obtained a court judgment in July that permanently barred the company from performing credit counseling, credit repair or debt adjuster work in New Jersey.

The nine companies each sent a Notice of Violation on November 24 are Affordable Finance, LLC; EZ Financial Solutions, LLC; Home Rescue Today.com' Best Response Loan Mod; Legal Loan Modifications, Inc; Premier Service Consultants, LLC; RJD Consulting, Inc.; United Global Services, LLC; and Xtra Financial, LLC.

Each company has been assessed a $5,000 civil penalty, in addition to making consumer restitution.

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Walmart Gets a Black Eye on Black Friday

Shoppers find advertised items sold out before sale begins

Black Friday sale has given Walmart a black eye with many of its customers who showed up before the crack of dawn Friday, only to find the sale items they ...


Its Black Friday sale has given Walmart a black eye with many of its customers who showed up before the crack of dawn Friday, only to find the sale items they wanted already sold out. Other stores also had their share of problems.

"On November 27, I arrived Walmart in Iron Mountain, MI at 4:30am. I was there to purchase a 32" emerson tv and a laptop computer," said Stacey of Goodman, Wis. "What I found interesting is that there were customers inside shopping. I heard many complaints from these customers that all the electronics were sold out at 3:30am. How can this be when the ad did not say anything about pre-sales? When I asked an associate, they told me that there were special purchase tickets given out starting at midnight!"

Kenya of Harrisburg, Pa., had a similar experience: "In every advertisment that Walmart displayed for Black Friday stated that prices and items would be available at 5:00 am. However the laptops that they had in their advertisement for 199.00 were all sold out by 2:30 am," she said in her complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

In a Nov. 23 news release, Walmart said it would "help shoppers get a jumpstart on Christmas shopping by offering unbeatable prices1 on hundreds of items via a string of Thanksgiving-weekend-savings events."

"Beginning at 5 a.m. on Nov. 27, store items from electronics to toys to apparel will feature prices that are sure to be at the top of gift lists this holiday season. Starting today, all of these special values can be viewed online at Walmart.com," the news release stated. Similar claims were made in advertisements published and broadcast nationwide.

The news release and ads left shoppers with the impression that the sale prices would not go into effect until 5 a.m. Friday: "Hit the Stores Friday Morning: $3 sleepwear for the family, a $298 laptop and more, Walmarts day-after-Thanksgiving event from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. highlights the gifts moms want for their family. All items are available in limited quantities. Sorry, no rainchecks."

But in numerous complaints, consumers said that the "no rainchecks" provision was the only part of the promotion that stuck.

"I arrived at 2:30 in the morning to find out that management of the store had handed out all the tickets for the sale items already. I called and complained and they said the tickets weren't to be handed out till 5:00 and when I explained what the situation was all they could say was there was nothing that they could do," said Mark of Kosciusko, Miss.

"Walmart has managed to put alot of stores out of business to only go to hell farther down the road by hiring incompetent employees," Mark said.

More complaints

Other Black Friday complaints included:

Best Buy Maureen of Aiken, S.C., said she went to her local Best Buy at 5 a.m. Friday to snap up a Samsung washer-dryer combination that was on sale.

"There were two different sales associates located in appliances to handle the sales. Both of their computers were down for approx. 30 minutes. We were told to make things faster for when the computers came back up to fill out the sales forms for what we wanted. We were also told there was 300 sets," Maureen wrote. She said a sales associate assured her they would get their order.

"When the computers came back up we gave all our information, paid for the set and was told someone would call us for delivery directions. About 7 that night we got a call saying they wanted to refund our money because they don't have any left. Had we been told at 5:45 AM we could have gone to Sears (which was 45 minutes closer to our home) and gotten their special," she said.

In Phoenix, Joseph rushed to Best Buy to buy a Sony laptop advertised for $399.

"After I went home and looked at the receipt, the was an additional charge of $49.99 from the Geek Squad for Standard Security and Performance. I talked to the manager at the location. He said there are a couple of laptop has been modified by the Geek Squad. If I receive the laptop, I have to pay for it. If I do not want to pay for it, I need to bring it back to the store and the Geek Squad will remove it. After that, they will remove or refund the $50.

That explanation didn't satisfy Joseph. "I felt cheated," he said.

Sears "I decided to go to Black Friday at Sears," said Jo of Memphhis. "We arrived at 3:50a.m. I went to the back to get the ripster stick that was 34.99 and was told that it was not going to be at that store. I showed them the ad and it wasn't anything that they could do."

"If it was only at certain stores that should have been in the ad. I missed out on other store who carried this item because I wanted to get the item at Sears," Jo said.

Target "A few hundred customers waited for hours for the Target store to open so we could purchase the heavily advertised $249 Westinghouse TV," said Frederick of Rockland, Mass. "They had FOUR available for sale but managed to have the area full with the $500 TV's. Classic Bait and Switch. I have been a long term customer but you won't find me at Target again."

Radio Shack Jose of New York, NY, said salespeople at his local Radio Shack told him to wait until Black Friday to buy the flat-screen TV he wanted. But when he went to the store Friday morning, "the cheaper name brand was on sale but not in stock! ... Not in stock? They never had it in the first place," Jose charged.



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Stork Craft Facing Wave of Lawsuits

Crib recall exposes flaws in Canadian consumer protection laws

Stork Craft Facing Wave of Lawsuits...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 27, 2009
The manufacturer of recently-recalled cribs is now facing a wave of class actions across Canada, as the incident exposes deep flaws in the country's product safety laws.

Stork Craft Manufacturing, a leading manufacturer of children's products, recalled over two million cribs because of a design defect that can cause strangulation of infants.

Over 1.2 Stork Craft- and Fisher Price-branded cribs were recalled in the U.S., and an additional million were targeted in Canada. The manufacturer has advised consumers to wait for a free repair kit before using the crib again, and to find a safe sleeping environment for their children in the meantime.

Stork Craft, headquartered in Richmond, B.C., is now named in class actions in at least six provinces, many of which question the manufacturer's response to the recall. Tony Merchant of the Merchant Law Group is behind many of the lawsuits. He told The Canadian Press that consumers don't want the free repair kit; they want their money back, and the crib out of their house.

I haven't talked to a single solitary person who is prepared to go on using this crib, whether they tinker with it or make repairs or not, Merchant said. People say, I am not going to gamble on killing or injuring my child.

Merchant has signed up around 1,000 Canadian consumers so far, and expects more to join in the near future. He is also consulting with an American law firm about the possibility of joining U.S. consumers. Regardless of whether that effort is successful, there is little doubt that the recall will be the subject of vigorous litigation in the U.S.

Flaws found

Meanwhile, the incident has highlighted deep flaws in Canada's consumer-protection laws.

A top official for Health Canada, the government agency in charge of public health, told the Canadian Senate that mandatory reporting of serious incidents would have gone a long way toward preventing or at least severely curbing the incidents. The House of Commons has unanimously endorsed a proposed law that would make such reporting mandatory.

Paul Glover, the Health Canada official, also pointed out that the most his agency can currently do is urge companies to recall products voluntarily. The proposed legislation would give Health Canada the authority to institute mandatory recalls.

More disturbingly, Canadian news sources have reported that Health Canada received the first complaints of defective Stork Craft cribs 14 years ago, but didn't become fully aware of the situation until the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) alerted them in August to complaints from American consumers. The two agencies then began working in tandem to assess the gravity and scope of the defect.

The recall covers Stork Craft drop-side cribs and Stork Craft drop-side cribs with the Fisher-Price logo. Cribs without a plastic trigger or one-hand drop-side hardware are not implicated. CPSC, Health Canada, and Stork Craft know of at least 110 incidents where the cribs' drop-side detached, 67 in the U.S. and 43 in Canada. At least four deaths, all of them in the U.S., have occurred as a result of the defect.

Consumes with questions or in need of information, or who want to order the free repair kit, can contact Stork Craft toll-free anytime at (877) 274-0277 or at www.storkcraft.com.



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Does It Really Pay To Go Shopping On Black Friday?

Many 'bargains' turn out not to be such bargains

Does It Really Pay To Go Shopping On Black Friday?...


There are two types of holiday shoppers; those for whom a Black Friday outing is part of their holiday tradition, and those who wouldn't go near a shopping mall on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Like Lt. Col. Kilgore, in Apocalypse Now, who loved "the smell of napalm in the morning," dedicated Black Friday shoppers live for the pre-dawn mall arrival, the crush of humanity as the doors open, and the swinging elbows at the bargain bin.

While it may be invigorating, retail experts say very few Black Friday shoppers actually end up saving money. And some of the "bargains" aren't available or turn out not to be bargains at all.

For starters, most stores don't have that much marked-down inventory. The ad in the paper may scream "door-buster sales" and have a ridiculously low price, but the fine print says things like "while supplies last" or "limited quantities."

Looking Behind The Ads

This week PC World dug deeper into Best Buy's advertised Black Friday loss-leader, an HP laptop for $197. Could the computer be any good, the magazine wondered, or a piece of junk.

It turns out the HP G60-507DX regularly lists for $550, has a DVD drive, 2GB of RAM and Windows 7, not Vista. So, is it worth braving the mob?

"Yes, if you need a laptop, or know someone who does," the magazine says. "This system has 'student notebook' written all over it."

But what are your chances of getting one? That's an entirely different question. Best Buy says it will have at least five of these models available per store. So if you're among the first shoppers through the door and don't take more than 30 seconds to make up your mind, you might be in luck.

But five might turn out to be a plentiful number, compared to other products in other stores. In years past some chains have had as few as two of their advertised specials on hand. And they're not handing out rain checks, either. Even if they do offer a rain check, there's no guarantee they'll every restock that particular item, especially if it's a closeout.

Shop Carefully For Electronics

Consumers should look closely at electronics equipment like computers and big screen TVs that are being offered at fire sale prices. Technology changes very quickly and last years model may be slightly different than this year's.

It might be perfectly acceptable for many consumers, especially at a bargain prices, but consumers should understand what it is exactly they're getting. However, a mad rush for limited quantities of merchandise doesn't exactly lend itself to careful comparison shopping.

Also, don't be tempted by what seems to be an extremely low price, especially if it still happens to be available at 3:00 pm. Steven Vaughn-Nichols, who write the Cyber Cynic blog at ComputerWorld, says you have to read the fine print.

"I've seen several netbooks deals that sound great, until I looked closer and saw that they require pricey, two-year mobile phone contracts on top of the up-front price," he writes.

Retailers are under more scrutiny this year to be more truthful about their offers, to prevent the kind if shopper hysteria witnessed in recent years. The trampling death of a Long Island Wal-Mart employee on the last Black Friday should have served as a wake-up call for retailers - and maybe for consumers too.

After all, Cyber Monday is still ahead. There will still be plenty of bargains and, best of all, you can shop in the safety of your own home or office.



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Consumers May Soon See Fewer Scam Ads

Google banning advertisers, not just ads, from its ad network

Consumers May Soon See Fewer Scam Ads...


We've all seen them; those little ads on the side of whatever Web page we're looking at that promise a flatter belly, whiter teeth, or the chance to make thousands of dollars a month just by searching the web.

In the month of November alone, ConsumerAffairs.com has received nearly 100 complaints about these companies and their sales practices.

Nearly every complaint is identical -- the consumer is lured by a "trial size" of some wonder product and thinks he or she will only have to pay for shipping, which is usually a small amount, around $2. Within days, a full-size bottle of whatever he or she ordered arrives in the mail.

Unbeknownst to them, however, they have only a day or two to return it. If they don't, they're signed up for "memberships" to online "clubs," and then, most frustratingly, slammed with several shockingly large fees.

"I learned a valuable lesson." Karen of LaVerne, California told ConsumerAffairs.com. "There is no trial size at a reduced rate for the product."

Geraldine of Dawsonville, Ga., thought she was ordering a trial of Resveratrol for $1.95 but ended up with a full bottle of it and no information. Soon after that, another full-size bottle arrived. When she called her credit card company, she made an awful discovery.

"In addition to the $1.95, which had been billed and paid, there were two new unauthorized charges," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "There was one charge for $87.62 on 11/4 by Improved Health, and another charge made on 11/11 for $87.62 by Youth Supp. Each charge had a different toll-free number. I called the one associated with the 11/4 charge and after waiting for 45 minutes, was disconnected. Called again and waited about 30 minutes before I finally spoke to a representative.

Geraldine said she was told that she was on an auto-ship program and every 30 days the company would ship a bottle of this stuff to the tune of $87.62 each.

"She said I had 15 days to return the first bottle if I didn't want to stay in the program," Geraldine said. "None of this was communicated on the website where I ordered the sample. She asked if I read the terms and conditions, but I saw nothing there with terms and conditions. I realized immediately that I've been scammed."

Finding Loopholes

Because these companies have found loopholes in the system to get their ads featured via Google AdSense and the Google Affiliate Network, used by many reputable websites, Google has only been banning ads one at a time.

As recently as June, Google appeared a bit more relaxed about questionable ads. When contacted by ConsumerAffairs.com concerning scam ads that even used the word "Google" in its name, a spokesman declined to comment but said "Our legal team reviews them and takes appropriate action if necessary." But they weren't doing much more. Until now.

Last week, Google started banning the advertisers instead of the ads. In the past, when Google banned a URL, the advertiser would just create a new URL, shilling the same products. Now, the advertiser is banned and put on notice that it is no longer allowed to sell anything through Google's ad systems.

Cable TV, as well as the Internet, is littered with ads for companies that range from abusive to outright scams. Very few media outlets, however, have done much to police their advertisers. Google appears to be taking that step -- preventing questionable ads from showing up on reputable Web sites where readers often assume that just because an ad is on a site they trust, it must be legitimate.

Website publishers note that -- unlike print publications -- ads are not inserted into Web pages in advance but, for the most part, are inserted "on the fly," each time a reader opens the page. With tens of thousands of advertisers in Google and other large programs, publishers say it's simply not possible for them to preview each ad that might, or might not, run on their site.

While Google has taken a positive step to clean up its ad network, consumers also have the responsibility to exercise greater care when they consider offers made over the Internet. Offers that sound "too good to be true" are usually scams. Also, if you are required to give someone your credit card number in order to receive a "free" sample, you should expected unauthorized charges.

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Toyota Announces Expanded Recall to Fix Runaway Acceleration

Accelerator pedals will be reshaped and replaced in Toyota, Lexus models

Toyota Announces Expanded Recall to Fix Runaway Acceleration...


Toyota says it will replace or reshape accelerator pedals on 3.8 million vehicles in an attempt to deal with an unintended acceleration problem that has resulted in at least one fatal accident. It's the largest recall in the company's history.

Toyota and Lexus vehicles affected by the recall are:

• 2007-2010 Camry
• 2005-2010 Avalon
• 2004-2009 Prius
• 2005-2010 Tacoma
• 2007-2010 Tundra
• 2007-2010 Lexus ES 350
• 2006-2010 Lexus IS 250 and IS350

Toyota also said it will install a brake override system on the Camry, Avalon and Lexus models. The override will shut off all engine power if drivers press both the brake and accelerator pedals simultaneouls. Toyota said the override is intended to be "an extra measure of confidence."

Toyota said it is in the process of completing development of these actions and for the ES350, Camry, and Avalon will start notifying owners of the involved vehicles via first-class mail by the end of this year. The remedy process regarding the other five models will occur on a "rolling schedule" during 2010, the company said.

Toyota said its dealers will be trained and equipped to make the necessary modifications to these models starting at the beginning of 2010. Initially, it said dealers will be instructed on how to reshape the accelerator pedal for the repair. As replacement parts with the same shape as the modified pedal become available, they will be made available to dealers for the repair, beginning around April 2010. Customers who have had the remedy completed will have the opportunity to receive a new pedal if they desire.

Critics have complained that Toyota did not exactly leap at the opportunity to recognize and fix the problem and consumers have been complaining about the sudden acceleration for years.. Initially, the company blamed the problem on floor mats sliding forward but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) called that statement "inaccurate and misleading."

Toyota eventually conceded that it was the design of the accelerator pedal that was causing the problem.

"I have had three accidents or near accidents with my new 2009 Toyota Prius due to a combination of mysterious acceleration and loss of brakes," Paul of Sedona, Arizona, told ConsumerAffairs.com. My car suddenly seemed to accelerate on its own and my brakes failed. How I stopped my car I will never know."

Not only were consumers skeptical, so was the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Earlier this month, NHTSA issued a highly unusual statement scolding Toyota for what it called "inaccurate and misleading" information in Toyota press release about the recall.

"NHTSA has told Toyota and consumers that removing the recalled floor mats is the most immediate way to address the safety risk and avoid the possibility of the accelerator becoming stuck. But it is simply an interim measure," NHTSA said. "This remedy does not correct the underlying defect in the vehicles involving the potential for entrapment of the accelerator by floor mats, which is related to accelerator and floor pan design."

Will the pedal reshaping work? A former Toyota engineer now with Edmunds.com says it should.

"Our tests have confirmed that an out of position floor mat can cause the throttle to stick because of the shape and geometry of the current gas pedal," Automotive News quoted Dan Edmunds as saying. He was senior chassis development engineer for Toyota's Technical Center before joining Edmunds.com.

"Temporarily shortening and replacing the accelerator pedals are viable solutions to alleviate the problem," Edmunds said.

Reports from Tokyo say Toyota has set aside more than $5 billion to replace the accelerator pedals on all of the 3.8 million vehicles. The company says the cost will have no sigifnicant effect on its business.

"The safety of our owners and the public is our utmost concern and Toyota has and will continue to thoroughly investigate and take appropriate measures to address any defect trends that are identified," Toyota said in a statement.

Owners who have further questions can visit www.toyota.com or www.lexus.com or contact the Toyota Customer Experience Center at 1-800-331-4331 or Lexus Customer Assistance at 1-800-295-3987.

Under the pedal

The problem with the floor mats is not that they can slip over the accelerator and push it down -- but rather that the mats can slide under the pedal and push it forward, which in the worst case can result in full-throttle acceleration that defies an instant solution. Many Toyotas have "On" and "Off" buttons that take three seconds to operate.

No one knows how many accidents may have been caused but an August tragedy on a San Diego freeway put the problem at the top of the auto safety agenda. In that accident, a California highway patrolman and his family were killed in their runaway Lexus ES 350. Someone calling from the car before it crashed at over 100 miles per hour said they couldn't stop it. Seconds later, it struck an SUV.

Others have escaped injury, but only narrowly. Radha of Philadelphia was in a parking lot earlier this year when his 2009 Prius began accelerating unexpectedly.

"I went all in for the brakes -- no reaction from the car," he said. "Car crashed into a light pole, tilted to its right crashed down in parking spot right next to where I wanted to park. With me hanging by the seat belt, car still accelerating, I went for the power button. No response to that either.

Radha managed to crawl through the window to escape from the car, the engine running wide open as the car lay on its side. When police arrived, they managed to switch the car off, Radha said.

Mary of Medford, Oregon, also reported that four incidents of unintended acceleration in her 2007 Prius were accompanied by an apparent lack of response from the brakes. She said her dealer was able to duplicate the problem twice but couldn't resolve it.

"It has nothing to do with the floor mat," Mary said.

Toyota recalled 55,000 Camry and Lexus models in September 2007 following complaints of runaway acceleration. Owners of the popular Prius Hybrid had also complained of the problem but were not included in that recall, though Prius models are included in the current recall.

 



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Recall of Drop-Side Cribs Continues 2009 Pattern

Feds acknowledge faster response is warranted

Recall of Drop-Side Cribs Continues 2009 Pattern 2009...

The recall of more than 2.1 million Stork Craft drop-side cribs, including about 147,000 Stork Craft drop-side cribs with the Fisher-Price logo, is just the latest in a series of actions involving children's products this year.

In January, Stork Craft announced the recall of more than 500,000 cribs. And this past summer, Simplicity announced it was recalling more than 500,000 cribs.

As part of the most recent recall, involving approximately 1,213,000 units distributed in the United States and 968,000 units distributed in Canada, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is urging parents and caregivers to stop using the recalled cribs immediately, wait for the free repair kit that converts the drop-side on these cribs to a fixed side and not to attempt to fix the cribs without the kit.

They also are advising parents to find an alternative, safe sleeping environment for their baby.

However, obtaining the repair kit has not been easy.

    • Teryn L. of Spanish Fort Ala., tells ConsumerAffairs.com that when she ordered the replacement brackets back in January, she was told they would be shipped and arrive in ten business days. After a month, she says, she received nothing, adding, "I have tried to call the company and I get a recording that says the mailbox is full or the number stays busy all day." Teryn says her daughter is now sleeping in a Pack-n-Play, which is not intended for sleeping full time.
    • Iwona L. of Addison Ill., tells us of a similar problem. "I have been unable to contact them. The phone is constantly busy and the website is unable to download. How do they expect customers to get in touch with them without sufficient customer service representatives attending to the phones?"

Could be quicker

The head of the CPSC acknowledges that her agency did not move quickly enough to get the Stork Craft cribs off the market. "We were not advancing this case as quickly as possible," said Chairman Inez Tenenbaum in an interview with The Associated Press. "So, I put all of the resources for the agency on this project so that they could accomplish this goal of recalling the crib."

Alan Korn, executive director of Safe Kids USA, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that he's gratified by the increased attention being paid by CPSC. "There does seem to be that there's a new day at the agency," Korn said. "We're hopeful that the agency will be more aggressive for products like cribs, bassinets and playpens."

Korn stresses that "cheaper is not better," when it comes to infant products. He says the recalls are usually the lower price cribs "where the hardware is weaker - it's plastic, maybe the craftsmanship isn't there." If possible, Korn advises, parents should upgrade the crib purchases.

Safe Kids USA says that if there's any product that needs to be particularly safe for infants, its cribs because, says Korn, this is "where we leave children unattended for long periods of time." He calls incidents involving cribs, particularly when there are deaths, "very alarming."

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Microsoft May Face Class Action Over Xbox Live Ban

Up to 1 million gamers barred for pirating games

Microsoft May Face Class Action Over Xbox Live Ban...

Microsoft's decision to ban a swath of Xbox 360 users from Xbox Live has prompted calls for a class action lawsuit, with a Tulsa-based law firm asking affected gamers to share their stories.

Microsoft banned between 600,000 and 1 million users from Xbox Live, the popular service that allows gamers to play with each other online and download games to their consoles, after learning that users illegally downloaded pirated games from file-sharing sites.

The ban also affected gamers who modified their Xbox consoles to enable them to play pirated games. The company issued a terse statement warning consumers that modifying their Xbox 360 console violates the Xbox Live terms of use, will void their warranty and result in a ban from Xbox Live.

While Microsoft's actions look reasonable on their face, an intellectual property law firm is suggesting that the action was conveniently timed to maximize profits for the software giant. Abington IP says that Microsoft's ban was 'conveniently' timed to coincide with the release of the new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 game and less than two months after the release of the very popular Halo 3: ODST game.

The firm alleges that anticipation of the games' releases led to a spike in new Xbox Live subscriptions, and that Microsoft waited until after the games' debut to institute the ban. Abington also points out that, without the ban, Modern Warfare 2 and Halo 3 might have suffered diminished sales (presumably because consumers could simply download the games illegally).

The firm takes pains on its website to note that PIRACY IS A LEGITIMATE CONCERN for Microsoft and other content producers., but quickly pivots to accuse Microsoft of using copyright laws as a sword to fill its coffers at the expense of law-abiding gamers. Specifically, Abington says that the sweeping ban affected law-abiding users, and that guilty parties lost access to functions that have nothing to do with piracy.

In its statement, Microsoft was adamant that only gamers engaging in illegal piracy were affected by the ban.

That might be true, although, like most online communities, Xbox Live seems to have a bit of a big-brother quality to it. On the Xbox support page, Xbox Live Director of Programming Larry Hryb said that Xbox officials monitor players not only for blatant violations like racism and profanity but also for just being an all around poor sport and ruining the game for others. That standard seems to give little indication of if or when a user might find himself banished from the Xbox Live kingdom.

Microsoft is apparently not scared by the suit, asserting that it is well within its legal rights to ban these users from Xbox Live.

Abington is asking banned Xbox Live subscribes who had a modified console, and who were not refunded a prorated sum for the time left on [their] subscription or have experienced other problems as a result of being banned to contact them. The firm, which handles primarily copyright, trademark, and patent cases, has offices in Tulsa, Wichita, and Dallas.



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Deadline For Chinese Drywall Claims Looms

Private class action claims due before December 2

Existing Home Sales Jump 10 Percent...

Residents of Florida and the Gulf Coast, whose homes were repaired after hurricanes with allegedly defective Chinese drywall, are running out of time to file claims against the manufacturer.

Knauf Plasterboard Co. Ltd. is one of several Chinese drywall manufacturers accused in a private class action lawsuit pending in federal court in Louisiana, of importing defective drywall into the United States during the recent housing boom and the aftermath of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

The company has agreed to accept service of a single lawsuit that will be filed on December 9, 2009 in the Louisiana federal court. However, under the court's order, homeowners with homes containing the allegedly defective Knauf drywall who wish to be included in the lawsuit must submit claims to the lead counsel in the lawsuit on or before December 2, 2009.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said his office is not a party to the suit, but he urged affected homeowners considering whether they should submit a form and participate in the action to consult with a private attorney regarding any legal questions. McCollum said he cannot offer legal advice as to whether a homeowner should join the legal proceeding.

Affected consumers who wish to be included as plaintiffs in this litigation against Knauf must submit a completed transmittal chart and proof that their properties contain Knauf-manufactured drywall. McCollum said the information must be received by Plaintiffs' Lead Counsel by December 2, 2009.

McCollum listed the plaintiffs' Lead Counsel as Arnold Levin of Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He said claims may be submitted by e-mail at the following e-mail address: alevin@lfsblaw.com. They may also be faxed to the attention of Arnold Levin, Esq. at 215-592-4663.

Acceptable forms of proof include photographs of the drywall found in the consumer's home, with any labeling clearly shown.

The defective drywall allegedly emits unpleasant and potentially harmful sulfur gasses that not only corrode metal found throughout homes, in air conditioners and household appliances, but may adversely affect residents' health.

Florida has an estimated 35,000 homes that may contain Chinese drywall, including Knauf Chinese drywall. The number of homes affected in Florida constitute approximately 30 percent of the homes in the United States containing the allegedly defective product, McCollum said.

The Chinese drywall is believed to have been used primarily in homes built or remodeled between 2004 and 2008.



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Hy Cite Refunds Still Available to California Consumers

Brown: Company 'hoodwinked' consumers using deceptive tactics

Hy Cite Refunds Still Available to California Consumers...

California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. and the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs announced today that $100,000 in consumer refunds are still available as part of a settlement reached last year with Hy Cite Corp. after the company "hoodwinked" consumers into buying its high-priced cookware using deceptive in-home demonstrations and scare tactics.

Brown urges consumers who were scammed by Hy Cite to contact the Los Angeles County Department of Consumers Affairs at 1-800-593-8222 to claim their refund.

"Hy Cite hoodwinked hundreds of consumers into purchasing high-priced pots and pans by using deceptive in-home demonstrations and scare tactics," Brown said. "We want people to know that if they were scammed by HyCite, there's refund money available for them. While $250,000 has already been paid to victims as part of our settlement, $100,000 in refunds remains unclaimed."

In September 2008, Brown's office secured a $1 million settlement with Hy Cite, requiring the company to pay $350,000 in restitution to consumer victims. As part of the settlement, the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs agreed to distribute the restitution funds, $100,000 of which remains unclaimed.

Prior to the settlement, Brown's office investigated Hy Cite and found that the company violated the state's unfair competition and false advertising laws, as well as a previous injunction prohibiting such practices.

Hy Cite's victims were mostly Spanish-speaking consumers living in predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Southern California. To get into homes, salespeople told consumers that they had won a prize or asked them to participate in opinion polls. Once inside, salespeople often used high-pressure, deceptive tactics, including in-home demonstrations of their products.

'Tests' of cookware

For example, salespeople regularly performed bogus "tests" on the victim's cookware, claiming that non-stick or aluminum cookware was unsafe for families and could lead to illness.

One test involved heating a mixture of baking soda and water in consumers' pans to produce a bad-tasting paste. The salespeople claimed their tests showed that toxic chemicals were transferred into the family's food through their existing cookware. Hy Cite's "Royal Prestige" cookware ranged in price from $2,000 to $4,500 per set.

Costs further escalated when consumers agreed to pay for the pots and pans through the Hy Cite's financing plan. Under these terms, while the company promised low rates, consumers were instead stuck with interest rates of 24% or higher, leading to missed payments, damaged credit scores and collection calls.

Brown's office also found that the company used two separate credit structures for customers based on ethnicity: one for "Anglo" customers, who were offered 90-day payment deferral, contract cancellation, and the use of post-dated checks; and one for Latino customers, which included none of these options.

In addition to the restitution and penalties, last year's settlement required Hy Cite to pay for an independent monitor to conduct in-depth interviews with future consumers of Hy Cite products. The settlement also set forth strict requirements on what salespeople say before and during sales presentations.

 

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Social Networking Explodes As Job-Search Tool

Sites offer many benefits, but pitfalls abound

Social Networking Explodes As Job-Search Tool...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 23, 2009
As the nation's job seekers attempt to find any advantage in a tight job market, more and more are turning to social networking to stand out from the crowd.

However, while these sites have the potential to revolutionize the job search, they could also prove harmful for those who rely too heavily on them or misuse them, warns one employment authority.

"The job search has changed radically over the last two decades with the advent of electronic mail, the Internet, social networking, smart phones, etc," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., which provides job-search training and counseling to those who have lost their job. "However, it is important to remember that all of these technologies simply enhance the job search; they will never replace the face-to-face connections that are critical to a successful search.

"That being said, we feel that these new networking tools are essential and now advise all of the job seekers going through our program to open LinkedIn.com accounts and to consider other services such as Facebook and Twitter," said Challenger. "Of course, many of the job seekers going through our program do not need the advice as they are already among the millions who have signed up on social networking sites in recent years."

The number of people belonging to social networking sites has grown exponentially in the last five years. It is now estimated that 51 percent of online U.S. adults utilize social networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn, according to a recent survey by Forrester Research. In 2007, just 25 percent of users reported using such sites.

One reason the number of social networkers is on the rise is due to increased use among business professionals. In fact, the most rapidly growing age group represented on Facebook is the 35-and-older population.

Meanwhile, a study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project reveals that 19 percent of Internet users are sharing personal and business updates on Twitter or other status-update services, compared with eleven percent earlier this year.

"Social networking is an easy way for job seekers to build their network by reaching out to former colleagues and classmates, as well as fellow alumni and industry professionals. Job seekers can then use their networks to uncover available positions and to establish relationships with hiring managers or contacts who can give them a recommendation," said Challenger.

Job seekers are not the only ones taking advantage of these new tools. Employers are also jumping on the social networking bandwagon. A recent survey by Jobvite found that 80 percent of companies use or are planning to use social networking sites to fill vacant positions.

While LinkedIn is still the most popular site used by employers, with 95 percent of companies using it, Facebook and Twitter are gaining ground. The use of Facebook has grown from 36 percent of recruiters in 2008 to 59 percent in 2009, while Twitter is currently being used by 42 percent of recruiters.

"Social networking should be used cautiously, however," warns Challenger. "As these sites become increasingly intertwined, it will becomes easier and easier for potential employers to access the more personal aspects of job seekers' lives."

Status updates on Facebook can now be sent automatically to Twitter followers. A similar cross-service status updates was recently initiated between Twitter and LinkedIn. The problem, said Challenger, is that people tend to use these services in different ways, and these ways are not always compatible with the job search.

In fact, a job seeker is twice as likely to be eliminated from consideration than be hired based on his or her social networking site content, according to a survey of human resources professionals by Careerbuilder.com.

In the survey, 35 percent of those asked said they ceased consideration of an applicant due to a social networking gaffe, with reasons ranging from provocative/inappropriate photographs and information to candidates having poor communication skills. Only 18 percent said they offered a position to a prospective employee due to social networking research, attributing that decision to seeing the candidate as a good fit for the company or the candidate's site conveying a professional image.

"Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the Internet is the permanency and pervasiveness of any and all information that finds its way there," said Challenger. "Comments on a friend's blog, reviews on consumer sites and inside jokes made for a private audience on a social networking site's public group page are all available at the click of a mouse to potential employers."

The other danger is that many job seekers tend to let the Internet become their primary, if not sole, job-search tool. It is too easy to simply sit in front of one's computer all day, scanning job boards and expanding one's virtual network through LinkedIn. "In the end, face-to-face meetings are still the most effective relationship-building tool available," said Challenger.



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Consumer Reports Takes on Pushy Retail Practices

New campaign unveils survey of top holiday shoppping turnoffs

Consumer Reports Takes on Pushy Retail Practices...

November 23, 2009
Consumer Reports has unveiled its latest public-education campaign that takes aim at pushy holiday-season retail practices. The campaigns centerpiece is a full-page ad in USA Today that will run on November 24, 2009 that highlights three of the top holiday-shopping annoyances as determined by a nationally-representative survey of Americans by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

The list of holiday annoyances that Americans were asked about was generated by the readers of Consumerist.com, a member of the Consumer Reports family.

The ad takes the form of a Dear Shopper letter highlighting pushy holiday-season practices and the percentage of Americans that find them annoying:

• 52 percent said pushing store credit cards at the register;

• 58 percent said cashiers that ask for phone number or other personal information; and

• 62 percent said being hounded with the extended warranty sales pitch.

The ad goes on to highlight closed checkout lanes as 72 percent of consumers were annoyed by stores that never open all of the checkout lanes.

This ad holds up a mirror to the American public, letting them know that they are not alone this holiday-shopping season, said Jim Guest, president and CEO of Consumer Reports. Consumers have told us that they just want a hassle-free and convenient shopping experience. We really hope this list of holiday annoyances is a wake-up call for the retail industry.

Previous Consumer Reports public education campaigns during the holiday period have focused on gift cards, extended warranties and consumer debt.

In 2007, the organization took on the retail sector and the ubiquitous gift card with a full-page ad in the New York Times, which advised consumers that $8 billion in gift cards go unused and wind up back in the pockets of retailers. The campaign called on retailers and the National Retail Federation to eliminate expiration dates and service fees.

In 2006, Consumer Reports took out a full-page ad in USA Today advising consumers to skip the extended warranty. That ad was rebutted by a full-page ad one week later from the Service Contract Industry Council. Following this campaign, the Consumer Electronics Association reported consumer interest in purchasing extended warranties fell 20 percent.

As part of the public-education campaign, Consumer Reports will also launch a holiday shopping hub at www.ConsumerReports.org that will reveal the full list of complaints and offer consumers advice on how to be prepared this shopping season.



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Stork Craft, Fisher-Price Cribs Recalled

At least four deaths blamed on recalled drop-side cribs

Stork Craft, Fisher-Price Cribs Recalled...

November 23, 2009
More than 1.2 million Stork Craft and Fisher-Price cribs are being recalled in the United States because of an infant entrapment and suffocation hazard blamed for at least four infant deaths. Nearly 1 million additional cribs are being recalled in Canada.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said parents and caregivers should immediately stop using the recalled cribs, wait for the free repair kit, and should not attempt to fix the cribs without the kit. They should find an alternative, safe sleeping environment for their baby.

Consumers should contact Stork Craft to receive a free repair kit that converts the drop-side on these cribs to a fixed side. For additional information, contact Stork Craft toll-free at (877) 274-0277 anytime to order the free repair kit, or go to www.storkcraft.com.

The cribs' drop-side plastic hardware can break, deform, or parts can become missing. In addition, the drop-side can be installed upside-down, which can result in broken or disengaged plastic parts. All of these problems can cause the drop-side to detach in one or more corners. When the drop-side detaches, it creates space between the drop-side and the crib mattress. Infants and toddlers can become entrapped in the space which can lead to suffocation. Complete detachment of drop-sides can lead to falls from the crib.

CPSC, Health Canada, and Stork Craft are aware of 110 incidents of drop-side detachment; 67 incidents occurred in the United States and 43 in Canada. The incidents include 15 entrapments; 12 in the U.S. and three in Canada. Four of the entrapments resulted in suffocation: a 7-month-old in Gouverneur, N.Y.; a 7-month-old in New Iberia, La.; a 6-month-old in Summersville, W.Va.; and a 9-month-old in Bronx, N.Y.

Included in these incidents are 20 falls from cribs; 12 in the U.S. and eight in Canada. Fall injuries ranged from concussion to bumps and bruises. The cribs involved in these incidents had plastic drop-side hardware that had broken, missing, or deformed claws, connectors, tracks, or flexible tab stops; loose or missing metal spring clips; stripped screws; and/or drop-sides installed upside-down.

This recall involves Stork Craft drop-side cribs and Stork Craft drop-side cribs with the Fisher-Price logo. This recall does not involve any cribs that do not have a drop-side. This recall does not involve any cribs with metal rod drop-side hardware. It involves only those cribs with plastic trigger and one-hand-system drop-side hardware.

This recall includes Stork Craft cribs with manufacturing and distribution dates between January 1993 and October 2009. This recall also includes Stork Craft cribs with the Fisher-Price logo that have manufacturing dates between October 1997 and December 2004. The Stork Craft cribs with the Fisher-Price logo were first sold in the U.S. in July 1998 and in Canada in September 1998. The cribs were sold in various styles and finishes.

The manufacture date, model number, crib name, country of origin, and the firm's name, address, and contact information are located on the assembly instruction sheet attached to the mattress support board. The firm's insignia 'storkcraft baby' or 'storkling' is inscribed on the drop-side teething rail of some cribs. In Stork Craft cribs that contain the 'Fisher-Price' logo, this logo can be found on the crib's teething rail, in the manufacturer's instructions, on the assembly instruction sheet attached to the mattress support board, and on the end panels of the Twinkle-Twinkle and Crystal crib models.

Major retailers in the United States and Canada sold the recalled cribs including BJ's Wholesale Club, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Meijer, Sears, USA Baby, and Wal-Mart stores and online at Amazon.com, Babiesrus.com, Costco.com, Target.com, and Walmart.com from January 1993 through October 2009 for between $100 and $400.

The cribs were manufactured in Canada, China and Indonesia.

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

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Feds Find Link Between Chinese Drywall And Corrosion In Homes

CPSC to look into possible fixes

Feds Find Link Between Chinese Drywall And Corrosion In Homes...

The Consumer Product Safety Commission says results from a major indoor air study of 51 homes combined with initial reports from two studies of corrosion in homes with Chinese drywall shows a strong association between homes with the problem drywall and the levels of hydrogen sulfide in those homes and corrosion of metals in those homes.

By identifying this association, the Interagency Drywall Task Force plans to move forward to develop protocols that will identify homes with this corrosive environment and can determine the effectiveness of remediation methods.

"We now have the science that enables the Task Force to move ahead to the next phase -- to develop both a screening process and effective remediation methods," said Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. "Ongoing studies will examine health and safety effects, but we are now ready to get to work fixing this problem."

The 51 home study contracted by CPSC was done by Environmental Health & Engineering (EH&E;), an internationally known environmental testing firm based in Massachusetts. In addition, two preliminary reports on corrosion safety issues are being released.

The Sandia National Laboratories' (SNL) Materials and Engineering Center is studying the long-term electrical safety hazards of conductor metal components. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is studying the corrosion effects on fire safety components taken from complaint homes.

Findings

The EH&E; study compared 41 "complaint" homes in five states selected from CPSC's consumer incident report database, with ten noncomplaint homes built around the same time in the same area as the complaint homes. Homes were sampled between July and September 2009.

EH&E; found that hydrogen sulfide gas is the essential component that causes copper and silver sulfide corrosion found in the complaint homes. Other factors, including air exchange rates, formaldehyde and other air contaminants contribute to the reported problems.

In ways still to be determined, hydrogen sulfide gas is being created in homes built with Chinese drywall. Earlier studies found large amounts of elemental sulfur in the Chinese drywall. CPSC is investigating drywall from other sources that may mimic the problems found with Chinese drywall. The agency also is meeting with drywall manufacturers and others who are studying this issue to take their findings into consideration.

EH&E; exposed copper and silver test strips, known as coupons, in homes for a period of about two weeks. The coupons showed significantly higher rates of corrosion in complaint homes than in the control homes. The dominant species of corrosion on the coupons was copper sulfide and silver sulfide, as determined by additional laboratory tests. Visual inspection and evaluation of ground wire corrosion also revealed statistically significant greater ground wire corrosion in complaint homes compared to non-complaint homes.

The EH&E; study also found that by using hand-held x-ray fluorescence (XRF) and Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) instruments, they were able to detect markers that could identify Chinese-made dry wall at a sheet-by-sheet level.

While drywall-related corrosion is clearly evident, long-term safety effects are still under investigation. Like the EH&E; study, initial reports available today from SNL and NIST show copper and silver sulfide corrosion on samples of metal taken from homes with problem drywall. These ongoing investigations will help the CPSC identify the nexus of problem drywall and long-term safety issues.

In addition, the EH&E; study found elevated formaldehyde readings in both the control and complaint homes. This is typical for new, more air-tight homes due to items such as cabinets and carpets that emit formaldehyde. Both formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide are known irritants at sufficiently high levels. The concentrations measured in this study were below those levels. Investigators believe that the additive or synergistic effects of these and other compounds in the subject homes could cause irritant effects evident in the homes.

Next Steps

• CPSC continues to search for homes exhibiting the corrosion and health effects under study. In addition to a direct call to consumers, CPSC is contacting governors of all states, all territories and the District of Columbia, to ensure that all homes with these problems have been reported to CPSC.

• the Interagency Task Force established an Identification and Remediation Protocol Team of scientists and engineers. This Team will use the results of the EH&E; study and other information to design a cost-effective screening protocol to identify homes with this problem. Professional air sample testing, and destructive testing of drywall can carry high costs. The Protocol Team will develop quick, cost-efficient evaluation methods to identify homes with these problems. The Protocol Team will also look at remediation protocols, to see what cost-efficiency improvements to current remediation practices, if any, may be available, and what guidance should be issued on doing the work safely.

• investigations currently underway by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, SNL and NIST and others will continue toward identifying additional information on any possible long-term health and safety issues.

The Identification and Remediation Protocol Team will use information from the EH&E; study and other information to begin evaluating remediation protocols. Homes that have undergone remediation are expected to yield valuable information that will be helpful for homeowners.

Other Ongoing Efforts

The Interagency Task Force, working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is monitoring imports of possible Chinese drywall. Officials say they believe that no new Chinese drywall has entered the United States in 2009. Owners of known U.S. inventories of Chinese drywall have been notified of this ongoing investigation. They have indicated that the drywall boards will not be sold.

Further, CPSC has secured the cooperation of the Chinese Government to help identify the sources and causes of this problem. The agency also is working with an ASTM committee that has just initiated discussions on the formulation of a proposed new standard on inspection of drywall for air quality issues.

Recommendations to Affected Homeowners

To date, CPSC has received more than 2000 reports from 32 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico from consumers and homeowners concerned about problem drywall in their homes.

Homeowners who believe they may have problem drywall should immediately report to CPSC by calling 800-638-2772 or logging on to www.CPSC.gov. Those with impaired hearing or speech may access the phone number through TTY by calling the toll-free Federal Relay Service at 800-877-8339.

Federal and state health experts suggest these steps to improve indoor air quality and to reduce exposure to substances that can cause health concerns:

• Open windows as much as possible to let in fresh air.

• Keep the temperature inside homes at the lowest comfortable setting.

• Run the air conditioner or dehumidifier.

• Also, spend as much time outdoors in fresh air as possible.

• Do not smoke, and especially do not smoke indoors. Cigarette smoke contains, among other contaminants, formaldehyde.

 



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Consumers Warned About 'The Twelve Scams of Christmas'

Cybercriminals take advantage of the holiday season

Consumers Warned About 'The Twelve Scams of Christmas'...

As cybercriminals begin to take advantage of the holiday season, McAfee, Inc. is warning consumers about the "Twelve Scams of Christmas" -- the 12 most dangerous online scams that computer users should be cautious of this holiday season.

According to Consumer Reports 2009 State of the Net Survey, cybercriminals have bilked $8 billion from consumers in the past two years, and McAfee warns consumers not to fall victim to the top scams this year.

"Cybercriminals' use their best schemes during the holidays to steal people's money, credit card information, social security number and identity," said Jeff Green, senior vice president of McAfee Labs. "These thieves follow seasonal trends and create holiday-related Web sites, scams and other convincing e-mails that can trick even the most cautious users."

McAfee's Twelve Scams of Christmas

Scam I: Charity Phishing Scams -- Be Careful Who You Give To

During the holiday season, hackers take advantage of citizens' generosity by sending e-mails that appear to be from legitimate charitable organizations. In reality, they are fake Web sites designed to steal donations, credit card information and the identities of donors.

II: Fake Invoices from Delivery Services to Steal Your Money

During the holidays, cybercriminals often send fake invoices and delivery notifications appearing to be from Federal Express, UPS or the U.S. Customs Service. They e-mail consumers asking for credit card details to credit back the account, or require users to open an online invoice or customs form to receive the package. Once completed, the person's information is stolen or malware is automatically installed on their computer.

III: Social Networking -- Cybercriminal "Wants to be Your Friend"

Cybercriminals take advantage of this social time of the year by sending authentic-looking "New Friend Request" e-mails from social networking sites. Internet users should beware that clicking on links in these e-mails can automatically install malware on computers and steal personal information.

Scam IV: The Dangers of Holiday E-Cards

Cyber thieves cash in on consumers who send holiday e-cards in an effort to be environmentally conscious. Last holiday season, McAfee Labs discovered a worm masked as Hallmark e-cards and McDonald's and Coca-Cola holiday promotions. Holiday-themed PowerPoint e-mail attachments are also popular among cybercriminals. Be careful what you click on.

Scam V: "Luxury" Holiday Jewelry Comes at a High Price

McAfee Labs recently uncovered a new holiday campaign that leads shoppers to malware-ridden sites offering "discounted" luxury gifts from Cartier, Gucci, and Tag Heuer. Cybercriminals even use fraudulent logos of the Better Business Bureau to trick shoppers into buying products they never receive.

Scam VI: Practice Safe Holiday Shopping -- Online Identity Theft on the Rise

Forrester Research Inc. predicts online holiday sales will increase this year, as more bargain hunters turn to the Web for deals. While users shop and surf on open hotspots, hackers can spy on their activity in an attempt to steal their personal information. McAfee tells users never to shop online from a public computer or on an open Wi-Fi network.

Scam VII: Christmas Carol Lyrics Can Be Dangerous -- Risky Holiday Searches

During the holidays, hackers create fraudulent holiday-related Web sites for people searching for a holiday ringtone or wallpaper, Christmas carol lyrics or a festive screensaver. Downloading holiday-themed files may infect one's computer with spyware, adware or other malware. McAfee found one Christmas carol download site that led searchers to adware, spyware and other potentially unwanted programs.

Scam VIII: Out of Work -- Job-Related E-mail Scams

The U.S. unemployment rate recently spiked to 10.2 per cent, the highest level since 1983. Scammers are preying on desperate job-seekers in the poor economy, with the promise of high-paying jobs and work-from-home moneymaking opportunities. Once those interested submit their information and pay their "set-up" fee, hackers steal their money instead of following through on the promised employment opportunity.

Scam IX: Outbidding for Crime -- Auction Site Fraud

Scammers often lurk on auction sites during the holiday season. Buyers should beware of auction deals that appear too good to be true, because often times these purchases never reach their new owner.

Scam X: Password Stealing Scams

Password theft is rampant during the holidays, as thieves use low-cost tools to uncover a person's password and send out malware to record keystrokes, called keylogging. Once criminals have access to one or more passwords, they gain vast access to consumers' bank and credit card details and clean out accounts within minutes. They also commonly send out spam from a user's account to their contacts.

Scam XI: E-Mail Banking Scams

Cybercriminals trick consumers into divulging their bank details by sending official-looking e-mails from financial institutions. They ask users to confirm their account information, including a user name and password, with a warning that their account will become invalid if they do not comply. Then they often sell this information through an underground online black market.

McAfee Labs believes cybercriminals are more actively scamming consumers with this tactic during the holidays since people are monitoring their purchases closely.

Scam XII: Your Files for Ransom -- Ransomware Scams

Hackers gain control of people's computers through several of these holiday scams. They then act as virtual kidnappers to hijack computer files and encrypt them, making them unreadable and inaccessible. The scammer holds the user's files ransom by demanding payment in exchange for getting them back.

McAfee advises Internet users to follow these five tips to protect their computers and personal information:

• Never Click on Links in E-Mails: Go directly to a company or charity's Web site by typing in the address or using a search engine. Never click on a link in an e-mail.

• Use Updated Security Software: Protect your computer from malware, spyware, viruses and other threats with updated security suites.

• Shop and Bank on Secure Networks: Only check bank accounts or shop online on secure networks at home or work, wired or wireless. Wi-Fi networks should always be password-protected so hackers cannot gain access to them and spy on online activity.

Also, remember to shop only on Web sites that begin with https://, instead of http://.

• Use Different Passwords: Never use the same passwords for several online accounts. Diversify passwords and use a complex combination of letters, numbers and symbols.

• Use Common Sense: If you are ever in doubt that an offer or product is not legitimate, do not click on it. Cybercriminals are behind many of the seemingly "good" deals on the Web, so exercise caution when searching and buying.



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Barnes & Noble Enters E-Book Wars

But Nook is in short supply until January, dampening its holiday prospects

Barnes & Noble Enters E-Book Wars...

What do the killer whale, koala bear and bookstores all have in common? They all appear to be on the verge of extinction.

Book sales have been on the decline and while Harry Potter and Sarah Palin have brought sales up, there just arent enough giant releases to captivate audiences into spending $25 or more on a new book. The industry's answer seems to be moving with the times and pushing the printed word into the digital world.

Bookeen released the Cybook Opus and Sony has the Reader, but the most well-known has been Amazon's Kindle, at least until now. Barnes & Noble, the biggest bricks-and-mortar book retailer, is hypeing the launch of its e-reader, the Nook, setting up a head-to-head battle with the Kindle.

But whether Nook slugs it out with the Kindle for the hearts of holiday shoppers is questionable. The company has now delayed shipment of the device into January 2010 for any orders received after Nov. 20, blaming high demand.

Hoping to salvage some holiday sales, Barnes & Noble is offering a "Nook holiday certificate" that tells the recipient the e-reader will arrive "early in 2010."

At first glance Nook is a flashy hand-held one would expect to feature an Apple logo. It runs on the Android platform originally developed by Google and the company says third-party apps could make an appearance in the future.

E-books will be displayed on Nook's six-inch E Ink screen, which features a touchscreen on the bottom to allow easy access to your Nook library. Nook sports a 2-gig hard drive that Barnes & Noble says will hold close to 1,500 e-books, all of which can be downloaded online using a built-in Wi-Fi supported by AT&Ts 3G Network.

Enter the Nook

Perhaps Nook's most distinguishing feature is LendMe, which gives users the ability to share an e-book for up two weeks with someone else. E-books can be sent to another Nook or to an iPhone, iPod touch or any home computer with the Barnes & Noble e-reader software.

The lending feature can only be used once per book and won't be available on all titles.

Nook users will also have the ability to enter any Barnes & Noble retail store and view a huge selection of e-books for up to one hour. This try before you buy model could be Nook's biggest selling point to consumers. The company likes it because it requires users to actually be in the store, increasing the chances theyll buy something.

The Kindle also lets users preview books but in most cases limits the sample to a single chapter.

Both the Nook and Kindle retail for $259 and the average e-book will run around $9.99. Unfortunately though, Barnes & Noble members won't get their usual 10 percent discount on e-books or Nook itself. The company said the unit is already priced as low as production costs will allow.

Besides books, Nook features an mp3 player and The Daily, a feature on Nook's touchscreen that gives users instant access to a variety of online content like articles and news updates.

Like the Kindle, Nook allows readers to view newspaper and magazine articles, though with only limited illustrations and lacking most of the design elements that make print versions more aesthetically appealing.

Both utilize the 3 Ink screen display which supposedly eliminates glare and makes reading possible in any situation. However, my colleague Truman Lewis has been testing a Kindle 2 since last March and disputes this claim.

"The 3 Ink screen may reduce glare but it is not glare-free," Lewis said. "In fact, the relatively low contrast makes the screen quite hard to read under some circumstances."

Not too hot

Even worse, said Lewis, is that the screen seems sensitive to heat.

"When the ambient temperature is high -- say, at the beach or in your backyard on a hot summer day -- the letters tend to fade into obscurity, achieving a genuine tabula rasa effect that may not be what most readers were anticipating," he said. Lewis said he plans a follow-up review shortly.

One thing Nook lacks is the Kindle's somewhat controversial text-to-speech function, which allows users to have selected texts read aloud by a computerized voice.

However, the Authors Guild -- already locked in seemingly mortal combat with Google -- is considering legal action against Amazon, claiming the text-to-speech feature violates the law. Audio book publishers are also disgruntled, saying the feature runs the risk of hurting their business. That argument is likely to be settled in court.

Nook niggles

Nook downsides -- other than availability -- are few but apparent. Its claimed battery life is slightly shorter than the Kindles, 10 days to around 14 for the Kindle. Nook is also a little bulkier than the Kindle, even with its touchscreen keyboard.

While Nook and Kindle are obviously similar in many ways, Barnes & Noble hopes to position its product as the iPod of e-readers. In a holiday season when consumers may be tightly budgeted, Barnes & Noble is betting its sleek, shiny and bell-and-whistle-filled e-book will buck the economy trend, and be a holiday hit.

But it's a little hard to see how that will happen, given that Nooks will be in tight supply until at least January while Amazon shows no signs of rationing the Kindle.



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CSPI Gives Movie Popcorn Two Thumbs Down

Lab tests show theater snacks pack on calories, sodium

"Sitting through a two-hour movie isn't exactly like climbing Mt. Everest," Hurley said. "Why do theaters think they need to feed us like it is?"...

It's hard to picture someone wolfing down three McDonald's Quarter Pounders with 12 pats of butter while watching a movie.

But according to new laboratory analyses commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), that food is nutritionally comparable to what you'd find in a medium popcorn and soda combo at Regal, the country's biggest movie theater chain: 1,610 calories and three days' worth -- 60 grams -- of saturated fat.

"Regal and AMC are our nominees for Best Supporting Actor in the Obesity Epidemic," said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley. "Who expects about 1,500 calories and three days' worth of heart-stopping fat in a popcorn and soda combo? That's the saturated fat of a stick of butter and the calories of two sticks of butter. You might think you're getting Bambi, but you're really getting Godzilla."

Regal says its medium popcorn has 720 calories and that its large has 960. But CSPI's lab tests found that those numbers were understated. Regal's medium and large sizes each had 1,200 calories and, thanks to being popped in coconut oil, 60 grams of saturated fat. (The large size looks bigger, thanks to its titanic tub, but it costs a dollar more and comes with a free refill.)

A "small" at Regal has 670 calories and 34 grams of saturated fat. That's about as many calories as a Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza -- except the popcorn has three times the saturated fat.

Even shared with another person, that size provides nearly an entire day's worth of the kind of fat that clogs arteries and promotes heart disease. And every tablespoon of "buttery" oil topping adds another 130 calories. Asking for topping is like asking for oil on French fries or potato chips, according to CSPI.

AMC, the second largest theater chain, also pops in coconut oil but has smaller serving sizes. Its large popcorn has 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat, CSPI found. That's like eating a pound of baby back ribs topped with a scoop of Hagen-Dazs ice cream -- except that the popcorn has an additional day's worth of saturated fat.

A medium has 590 calories and 33 grams of saturated fat; and a small has 370 calories and a day's worth -- 20 grams -- of saturated fat. (Like Regal, AMC reports calorie counts lower than those returned in CSPI's lab tests.)

Third-largest Cinemark pops in heart-healthy canola oil. A large has 910 calories with 4 grams of saturated fat; a medium has 760 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat; and a small has 420 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat.

Though popping in canola gives this chain's popcorn far less saturated fat than its competitors, it's almost as high in calories and has the most sodium -- about twice as much as Regal or AMC. With 1,500 milligrams of sodium -- a day's worth of sodium for most people -- a large popcorn without topping from Cinemark will be less likely to clog your arteries but more likely to elevate your blood pressure.

And while Cinemark uses a "buttery" oil topping similar to the toppings used at Regal and AMC, at some outlets, particularly in the West, it uses a topping made with real butter. That version has 9 grams -- half a day's worth -- of saturated fat per tablespoon.

CSPI also took a look at the soft drinks and candies sold at the movies. A small non-diet soda ranges from 150 calories at Cinemark to 300 calories at Regal. Mediums have 300 calories at AMC and Cinemark and 400 calories at Regal. With 33 teaspoons of sugar in nearly 2 quarts -- 54 ounces -- Regal has the most outsized large soda, with 500 calories.

The oversized boxes and bags (four to five ounces) of candy sold at movie chains are universally high in calories. A five-ounce bag of Twizzlers has 460 calories and 15 teaspoons of sugar. A 7-ounce box of Nerds has 790 calories and 46 teaspoons of sugar.

Chocolate candies like Butterfinger Minis, Raisinets, Sno-Caps, or M&M's have between 400 and 500 calories and at least a half day's worth of saturated fat. An 8-ounce bag of Reese's Pieces is just a cup of candy. But with 1,160 calories and 35 grams of saturated fat, it's like eating a 16-ounce T-bone steak plus a buttered baked potato.

"Sitting through a two-hour movie isn't exactly like climbing Mt. Everest," Hurley said. "Why do theaters think they need to feed us like it is?"

 



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California Targets Church Kiosk Scammers

Attorney General says 30 churches sold shoddy equipment

"Instead, the churches were enticed into expensive leases, which the leasing companies aggressively enforced, even after learning of the alleged scam."...

Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. announced today that his office has launched an investigation into whether four individuals defrauded more than 30 African American churches in Southern California by forcing them to pay up to $45,000 for shoddy computer kiosks originally presented as cost-free. These individuals--Michael Morris, Willie Perkins, Tonya Wilson, and Wayne Wilson--are also suspected of targeting dozens of churches in at least ten other states.

Additionally, Brown is investigating what role three national leasing companies-Balboa Capital Corporation; United Leasing Associates of America Ltd.; and Banc of America Leasing and Capital, LLC-may have played in facilitating this scam.

"These individuals sold the churches on the promise of free services and advertising revenues," said Brown. "Instead, the churches were enticed into expensive leases, which the leasing companies aggressively enforced, even after learning of the alleged scam."

Since 2000, Morris, Perkins, Wilson and Wilson have operated two companies-Urban Interfaith Network and Television Broadcasting Online-that peddled computer kiosks to African American churches throughout the country. In California, these individuals targeted neighborhood churches in Compton, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Moreno Valley, Murrieta, Pasadena, Perris, Pomona, Rialto, Riverside and San Bernardino.

These individuals purportedly pitched the kiosks to church leaders as cost-free, high-tech devices that could serve as electronic message boards, print retail coupons from local businesses and generate advertising revenue.

Once a church agreed to house a kiosk, the individuals presented it with a lease agreement from United Leasing Associates of America Ltd. or Balboa Capital Corp (who later sold some of its leases to Banc of America Leasing and Capital, LLC). The individuals repeatedly assured church leaders that Urban Interfaith Network, Television Broadcasting Online or other church-friendly corporate sponsors would cover all leasing costs.

Instead, churches were left with leases as high as $45,000 per year for what amounted to little more than desktop computers and printers housed in podium-sized wooden boxes. Many of the kiosks did not function.

Even after learning of the alleged scam, leasing companies continued to aggressively enforce the terms of the leases, filing lawsuits against churches to collect payment, interest and late fees. For example:

• Los Angeles-based Bryant Temple AME Church was sued by Balboa Capital Corp. to collect on a kiosk lease even after the church informed the company that it had been defrauded into signing the lease. For months, the church pooled funds together to pay down the lease and avoid the cost of litigation, however, it has recently decided to stop making payments to Balboa.

• Los Angeles-based True Way Missionary Baptist Church contends in its own lawsuit against United Leasing Associates of America, Ltd. that even after learning of the alleged scam, the leasing company collected payments on the lease by debiting the church's bank account without authorization. The lawsuit further contends that United obtained a default judgment in Wisconsin for over $30,000 for a kiosk that the leasing company knew was worth only $2,000.

• San Bernardino-based Ecclesia Christian Fellowship Church was sued by Balboa Capital Corp. and Banc of America Leasing and Capital, LLC to collect on two separate kiosk leases. The two leasing companies continue to aggressively pursue their lawsuits.

• San Bernardino-based New Hope Missionary Baptist Church was sued by Banc of America to collect payment on two leases it purchased from Balboa Leasing. The church filed a countersuit contending that Balboa, working with Urban Interfaith Network and Television Broadcasting Online, defrauded the church. Balboa's motion to dismiss the church's countersuit was overruled in court.

• Brown has served investigative subpoenas on the three leasing companies: United Leasing Associates of America Ltd.; Balboa Capital Corporation; and Banc of America Leasing and Capital, LLC; and the two companies operated by Morris, Perkins, Wilson and Wilson: Urban Interfaith Network and Television Broadcasting Online.

• Last month, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox filed criminal charges against Morris and Perkins, including: one count of racketeering, one count of conspiracy to commit false pretenses over $20,000, four counts of false pretenses over $20,000 and four counts of fraudulently obtaining a signature.

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Mortgage Delinquencies Still Climbing

Rate is approaching 10 percent

Mortgage Delinquencies Still Climbing...

Amid encouraging signs of a housing and overall economic turnaround, danger signals continue to flash. Among them is a report from the nation's mortgage bankers showing homeowners continue to fall behind on their payments.

At the end of the third quarter, the Mortgage Bankers Association says 9.64 percent of all outstanding mortgage loans were delinquent, a record high. The records are based on MBA data dating back to 1972.

MBA defines delinquent mortgages as those where at least one payment is past due. However, it doesn't include loans that have begun the foreclosure process. Foreclosures are also near an all-time high.

The percentage of loans in the foreclosure process at the end of the third quarter was 4.47 percent, an increase of 17 basis points from the second quarter of 2009 and 150 basis points from one year ago. The combined percentage of loans in foreclosure or at least one payment past due was 14.41 percent on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, the highest ever recorded in the MBA delinquency survey.

Increases Driven by Prime and FHA Loans

"Despite the recession ending in mid-summer, the decline in mortgage performance continues," said Jay Brinkmann, MBA's Chief Economist. "Job losses continue to increase and drive up delinquencies and foreclosures because mortgages are paid with paychecks, not percentage point increases in GDP. Over the last year, we have seen the ranks of the unemployed increase by about 5.5 million people, increasing the number of seriously delinquent loans by almost 2 million loans and increasing the rate of new foreclosures from 1.07 percent to 1.42 percent."

While subprime loans started the mortgage meltdown, it's prime fixed-rate loans that continue to drive it. MBA says prime loans - made to borrowers with good credit - continue to represent the largest share of foreclosures started and the biggest driver of the increase in foreclosures.

The group noted that 33 percent of foreclosures started in the third quarter were on prime fixed-rate and loans and those loans were 44 percent of the quarterly increase in foreclosures. The foreclosure numbers for prime fixed-rate loans will get worse, MBA predicts, because those loans represented 54 percent of the quarterly increase in loans 90 days or more past due but not yet in foreclosure.

"The performance of prime adjustable rate loans, which include pay-option ARMs in the MBA survey, continue to deteriorate with the foreclosure rate on those loans for the first time exceeding the rate for subprime fixed-rate loans," Brinkmann said. "In contrast, both subprime fixed-rate and subprime adjustable rate loans saw decreases in foreclosures."

FHA Loans Surge

Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the foreclosure rate on FHA loans also increased, despite having a large increase in the number of FHA-insured loans outstanding. The number of FHA loans outstanding has increased by about 1.1 million over the last year, often taking the place of subprime mortgages that are no longer available.

FHA loans are designed to help first time buyers get into the housing market. Unlike conventional loans, they require small down payments - often less than five percent.

Once again the states of Florida, California, Arizona and Nevada have a disproportionate share of the mortgage problems. According to the report, they had 43 percent of all foreclosures started in the third quarter, down only slightly from 44 percent both last quarter and the third quarter last year. They had 37 percent of the nation's prime fixed-rate loan foreclosure starts and 67 percent of the prime ARM foreclosure starts. As of the end of September, 25 percent of the mortgages in Florida were at least one payment past due or in foreclosure.

"The outlook is that delinquency rates and foreclosure rates will continue to worsen before they improve," Brinkmann said.



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Suit Says Facebook Scammed Gamers Out of Information, Cash

Developer accused of tricking players into unwanted monthly charges

Suit Says Facebook Scammed Gamers Out of Information, Cash...

Facebook is facing another class action lawsuit, this time from users who say they were scammed by misleading ads that show up in Facebook-sponsored games. Also named as a defendant is Zynga, the video game developer that provides the bulk of games featured on Facebook.

The plaintiffs say they were duped into handing over personal information in exchange for "cash" that could be redeemed while playing games like "Mafia Wars" and "Farmville." A number of Facebook games feature "virtual currency" that can be used to reach new levels of the game or buy tools necessary for optimal success. Players can earn cash by achieving certain benchmarks or buying it outright with actual money.

There is also a third, less taxing route: some prominently placed ads feature "special offers," in which players participate in a short exercise with the hope of receiving virtual cash for their efforts. One example cited by the plaintiffs is an "IQ test" that requires consumers to provide their cell phone number; participants are told that their score will be sent to them via text message.

In reality, however, they have "subscribed to a useless SMS service" and will now receive a monthly charge for their efforts. These charges are small enough that consumers often don't become aware of the scam, but if they do, they "are met with hurdles as they attempt to cancel the service and/or obtain a refund," according to the suit.

Zynga came out of nowhere to become one of the worlds premier game developers. Founded in 2007, the company now has over 200 million users, and provided six of Facebook's 10 most popular games last month. But despite its impressive rise and continuing popularity, almost a third of the company's revenues come from "commercial offers" like those targeted in the suit.

Moreover, the suit offers some juicy self-incriminating evidence from the mouth of Zynga's CEO. In a speech last spring, Mark Pincus admitted to pushing shady ads on consumers in an attempt to turn a profit. Pincus said that when he started his business, "I needed revenues right [expletive] now ... So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away."

He went on to admit that a toolbar forced on consumers in exchange for "poker chips" is impossible to get rid of once it's been downloaded. The plaintiffs cite this speech in their complaint and indicate that it will be a key piece of evidence in an eventual trial.

The plaintiffs, represented by Sacramento-based Kershaw, Cutter & Ratinoff, are seeking damages, attorneys' fees, and a permanent injunction. The suit alleges violation of the Unfair Competition Law, violation of the Consumers Legal Remedies Act, and unjust enrichment.

The suit comes during a moment of respite for Facebook, just two months after the social-networking king settled another ad-related class action. That suit concerned Facebook's "Beacon" system, which tracked and recorded users' consumer activity, in some cases posting it to their "news feed" for the entire online world to see.

Facebook discontinued the system as a result of the suit, with company spokesman Barry Schnitt confiding that the company "learned a great deal from the Beacon experience."



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Ohio Sues Credit Rating Agencies

Accused of 'spectacularly misleading' ratings

The fallout from last year's credit collapse continues as another state has sued the nation's credit agencies, accusing them of misleading investors....

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Listeria Found in Eggo Waffles Prior To Shortage

Kellogg's downplays link between contamination and flooding of plant

Kellogg's has blamed the shortage of its popular breakfast foods on flooding and equipment changes and repairs at the company's bakery in Atlanta, Georgia....

It appears there's more to the story behind the nationwide shortage of Eggo waffles.

Kellogg's has blamed the shortage of its popular breakfast foods on flooding and equipment changes and repairs at the company's bakery in Atlanta, Georgia.

But ConsumerAffairs.com has confirmed the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) in September found Listeria monocytogenes in a sample of Eggo Buttermilk Waffles made at the Atlanta plant. Health officials took the sample during a routine inspection of the facility.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says eating foods contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes can cause listeriosis, a serious infection that primarily affects the elderly, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems.

After the discovery, Kellogg's closed the plant during most September and October to clean and sanitize the facility.

The company also recalled approximately 4,500 cases of its Eggo Cinnamon Toast Waffles and Toaster Swirlz Cinnamon Roll Minis made at the plant. Georgia officials said there are no reports of any illnesses linked to the recalled waffles.

A Kellogg's spokesperson today downplayed the relationship between the Listeria contamination and the current waffle shortage.

"Just as the Atlanta facility was about to resume production, excessive rain in the region caused flooding at the facility which delayed the start up," spokeswoman Kris Charles said in an e-mail sent to ConsumerAffairs.com. "The plant is now operational."

Charles said the company is working "around the clock" to get Eggo waffles back on store shelves. But the waffle shortage, she added, will continue through the first half of 2010.

In the meantime, Charles said Kellogg's will allocate available products to its customers based on an "historical percentage of business."

Consumers with questions or concerns about the waffle shortage can contact Kellogg's at 866-971-3320.

 



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Retailers Applaud GAO Report On Interchange Fees

Government agency finds fees rapidly increasing

Retailers Applaud GAO Report On Interchange Fees...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 19, 2009
Consumers aren't the only ones who sometimes feel like they're being victimized by credit card companies. Lately, retailers have the same feeling.

While consumers pay higher and higher interest rates, retailers complain that interchange fees -- what they pay to credit card processors on consumer transactions -- are also going up at an increasing rate.

This week the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the watchdog arm of Congress, reported that credit card companies and their issuing banks profit significantly from interchange fees while merchants and consumers face escalating costs.

"The GAO report verifies what retailers, small and large, have been saying for years. Congress must act to reform this broken system and prevent credit card giants and their issuing banks from continuing to impose unjustifiable fees on retailers and their customers," said John Emling, senior vice president for government affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Retailers claim fees have tripled

Interchange fees are imposed by credit card companies and issuing banks as a fee for processing credit and debit card transactions. However, RILA says these fees have tripled in the United States since 2001, to $48 billion in 2008, despite advances in technology that have reduced other comparable transactional costs. Today, for most retailers, the cost of processing paper checks is less than the cost of accepting credit and debit cards, the group said.

"Although issuers incur costs for offering cards, concerns remain about the extent to which interchange fee levels closely relate to the level of card program expenses or whether they are set high so as to increase issuer profits," the GAO said in its report. "In a competitive market, the price of the product and the cost of producing it would be closely aligned. However, producers with market power-such as monopolists or those offering goods not generally offered by others-have the ability to charge high, noncompetitive prices."

In 2008, Visa and MasterCard represented 71 percent of the credit card market and 88 percent of all interchange fees were collected by the top ten managing banks. The report also takes issue with credit card industry claims that interchange fees had not increased.

Caps on fees?

"Visa and MasterCard officials told us that their average effective interchange rates applied to transactions have remained fairly constant in recent years when transactions on debit cards, which have lower interchange fee rates, are included," the GAO said. However, our own analysis of Visa and MasterCard interchange rate schedules shows that the interchange rates for credit cards have been increasing and their structures have become more complex, as hundreds of different interchange fee rate categories for accepting credit cards now exist."

The GAO report suggests capping or limiting interchange fees would reduce fee costs most directly, and that it was reasonable to think these savings would be passed along to consumers. The report says that was the case in Australia, when that country took similar action.

"Yesterday's GAO Report moves the debate for meaningful interchange fee reform to a new level," Emling said. "By refuting the falsehoods and misrepresentations of reform opponents, this report was proof-positive that Congress must follow the lead of more than 30 other countries and reform an out of control system that harms merchants and consumers."

Congress debated legislation last year that would have applied new regulations to interchange fees, but it failed to pass.



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How To Get The Most Out Of Consumer Protection Laws

Consumer Reports'money advisor offers tips

How To Get The Most Out Of Consumer Protection Laws...

If you've gotten a raw deal from a retailer, the law is often on your side, but many consumers are unaware of these protections when trying to solve disputes.

People often make the wrong assumptions about what the laws allow, or they rely on misinformation from friends, family, or merchants.

"There are recourses available to consumers, but often people don't know about them," said Noreen Perrotta, Finance Editor, Consumer Reports Money Adviser. "From getting rain checks from your local supermarket when they are out of the spaghetti sauce they advertised as half off to doing a credit-card chargeback after your refrigerator dies three months after the warranty expires, in many cases, consumers may have more rights than they think."

Here are some common scenarios and tips from Consumer Reports Money Adviser experts on how to get satisfaction:

Scenario 1

• In mid-November, you order an MP3 player online for your nephew's holiday gift. The merchant promises you'll have it on time, but the gift arrives two days after the family's holiday gathering.

The law:

The federal Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Trade Regulation Rule requires stores to ship telephone, mail, fax, and Internet orders within 30 days. If the merchant promises an earlier shipment date, it must meet that deadline. If the retailer has a reasonable basis for not getting your order out on time, it must obtain your consent to the delay. And if you don't respond or consent, the merchant must issue a refund. Merchants have more time -- 50 days instead of 30 -- to make the shipment if you're also applying for credit.

You should know:

The clock begins running on shipping deadlines when the seller receives a properly completed order, including any advance payments. So if you're expecting a shipment and the retailer tries to contact you about a delay, be sure to respond or your order will be canceled, even if you still want it.

Scenario 2

• Your supermarket advertises your favorite spaghetti sauce at half off. When you get there, the store tells you it ran out and you're out of luck.

The law:

The federal Retail Food Store Rule requires grocers to provide rain checks on advertised items or to substitute an equivalent product. But stores can get around that by demonstrating they ordered sufficient quantities to meet reasonably anticipated demand.

You should know:

The federal law applies only to food stores, but states may have broader rules. For example, Connecticut's rain-check law applies to sellers of most products, with exceptions for seasonal items, products covered by store- or department-wide discounts, clearance items, and automobiles, among others.

Scenario 3

• Your new TV breaks down just weeks after you bought it. The company says it will fix it under the manufacturer's warranty, but you have to ship it back at your own cost.

The law:

Although that warranty may require you to pay for shipping, you should expect to get what you paid for without paying additional costs. If neither the retailer nor manufacturer will make good, you might be able to cancel the sale under the implied warranty of merchantability -- this is an unwritten state-mandated promise that your purchase will perform as commonly

expected and will last a reasonable amount of time. Again, this is where a chargeback or the threat of legal action might help.

You should know:

If you have a full warranty instead of a limited one, you cannot be charged for shipping or reinstallation. And a full warranty cannot be limited to the first purchaser of the product.

Scenario 3

• After telling a salesperson that you needed a washing machine that can handle 15-pound loads, you bought the one he recommended, only to discover later that it can't. Now the store won't take it back.

The law:

By providing a machine that doesn't meet your stated needs, the merchant breached an implied warranty: that of fitness for a particular purpose. You have a right to cancel the sale. If the store won't honor your request to take the washer back, cancel the sale on your credit card, if possible. You may need to initiate (or at least threaten) legal action.

You should know:

It can be difficult proving that you specified a certain requirement to the salesperson. So it's best to verify a product's capability or get the store's written assurance before you buy.

Scenario 4

• You go to the bridal salon to pick up your wedding dress only to find that the store has disappeared, along with your deposit.

The law:

If you paid by credit card, you probably can contest the charges. If you used cash, check, or debit card and the store went bankrupt, you can make a claim with the bankruptcy court as an unsecured creditor. You'll probably be eligible for priority status for up to $2,425 of the amount owed. But you may end up with pennies on the dollar after waiting months or years.

You should know:

Check with your local or state consumer-affairs officials, who often intervene on consumers' behalf in such situations.



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Subaru Wins IIHS 2010 Safety Competition

Winners now required to provide good protection in rollovers

Subaru Wins IIHS 2010 Safety Competition...

Nineteen cars and eight SUVs have earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) Top Safety Pick award for 2010. And -- for the first time -- good performance in a roof strength test to measure protection in a rollover is required to win.

The IIHS Top Safety Pick recognizes vehicles that do the best job of protecting people in front, side, rear, and now rollover crashes based on good ratings in institute tests. Winners also must have electronic stability control, which research shows significantly reduces crash risk. This is the second time the Institute has tightened criteria since announcing the first recipients in 2005.

Subaru is the only manufacturer with a winner in all four vehicle classes in which it competes. The automaker earned five awards for 2010. Ford and subsidiary Volvo have six winners, and Volkswagen/Audi had five.

Chrysler earned four awards, continuing a recent trend of improving the crashworthiness of its vehicles. Two new small cars, the Nissan Cube and Kia Soul, join the Top Safety Pick list for 2010.

"With the addition of our new roof strength evaluation, our crash test results now cover all 4 of the most common kinds of crashes," said Institute president Adrian Lund. "Consumers can use this list to zero in on the vehicles that are on the top rung for safety."

Good rollover ratings

A new requirement for strong roofs winnows the list of Top Safety Pick winners from a record 94 in 2009. The addition of this criterion recognizes manufacturers with vehicles that provide good protection in rollovers, which kill more than 9,000 people in passenger vehicles each year. The first rollover ratings were released in March.

Vehicles rated good have roofs more than twice as strong as the current federal standard requires. The Institute estimates that such roofs reduce the risk of serious and fatal injury in single-vehicle rollovers by about 50 percent compared with roofs meeting the minimum requirement.

"Cars and SUVs that win Top Safety Pick are designs that go far beyond minimum federal safety standards," Lund pointed out.

Missing the mark

Not a single model from the world's biggest automaker by sales is represented among this year's winners. Toyota and its Lexus and Scion subsidiaries had a strong showing in 2009 with 11 winners but were shut out for 2010. Four other manufacturers whose vehicles have earned Top Safety Pick in the past didn't have a qualifying vehicle for 2010: BMW, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Saab. The Honda Accord picked up the award the past 2 years, but the 2010 didn't earn the required good roof strength rating to qualify (the roof is rated acceptable). The Ford Fusion is another midsize car that dropped off the list for the same reason.

"Honda and Ford would have to make only minor changes to achieve good ratings for roof strength, as the Accord and Fusion just missed the mark," Lund explained.

The midsize Toyota Camry would have qualified with good ratings, except for its rear crash evaluation. This car's seats and head restraints are rated marginal for protection against whiplash injury. A change to good would have earned the Camry a Top Safety Pick for 2010.

Other automakers have improved head restraints to win. For example, inadequate head restraints kept earlier Chrysler models from earning awards, but in 2010 the Chrysler Sebring, Dodge Avenger and Journey, and Jeep Patriot all earned good ratings and Top Safety Pick. Likewise, General Motors upgraded the seats and head restraints in the Chevrolet Malibu to win.

Volvo glitch

The Institute identified a problem with the Volvo XC60 in the side test. A piece of plastic trim on the driver seat pushed against a service release button for the safety belt, which then detached from its anchor during the test.

"This would be a serious issue if it happened in a real crash, but it's not likely to happen and it's fixable," Lund explains. "Still, belts shouldn't come loose in a crash test. Volvo is fixing the problem so it won't be an issue with XC60 models produced after November 2009. Top Safety Pick applies only to these modified XC60s." Consumers who own 2010 XC60s already on the road should see their Volvo dealer for repairs, Lund advised.

Improved protection

Front and side impacts and rollovers killed 24,056 passenger vehicle occupants in 2008. Rear-end crashes usually aren't fatal but result in a large proportion of crash injuries. Neck sprain or strain is the most commonly reported injury in two-thirds of insurance claims for injuries in all kinds of crashes.

"In safety terms, we've come very far, very fast in just the past decade," Lund said. When the Institute began conducting frontal tests for consumer information in 1995, few vehicles earned top ratings. Now almost all do. Most cars failed the side tests we added in 2003. Test results in that initial round were so bad we nearly broke our budget for repairing the crash test dummy, but now most vehicles ace the side test thanks to side airbags and stronger side structures. Factor in improved head restraints to protect against whiplash and electronic stability control to prevent crashes, and consumers are the clear winners."

Safety equipment is increasingly standard. Ninety-two percent of 2010 model cars, 99 percent of SUVs, and 66 percent of pickup trucks have standard side airbags with head protection. Electronic stability control is standard on 85 percent of cars, 100 percent of SUVs, and 62 percent of pickups.

"Now that roof strength is a priority, we think manufacturers will move quickly to bolster roofs to do well in our roof strength test. This means consumers likely will have more Top Safety Pick choices for 2011," Lund predicted.Keep in mind vehicle size and weight, he adds, because larger, heavier vehicles generally afford better protection in serious crashes than smaller, lighter ones. Even with a Top Safety Pick, a small car isn't as crashworthy as a bigger one.

The Institute awarded the first Top Safety Pick winners to 2006 models and then raised the bar the next year by requiring good rear test results and electronic stability control as either standard or optional equipment. Early this year the Institute alerted auto manufacturers to the new criteria for roof crush and asked them to nominate candidates for testing.

How vehicles are evaluated

The Institute's frontal crashworthiness evaluations are based on results of 40 mph frontal offset crash tests. Each vehicle's overall evaluation is based on measurements of intrusion into the occupant compartment, injury measures recorded on a Hybrid III dummy in the driver seat, and analysis of slow-motion film to assess how well the restraint system controlled dummy movement during the test

.

Side evaluations are based on performance in a crash test in which the side of a vehicle is struck by a barrier moving at 31 mph. The barrier represents the front end of a pickup or SUV. Ratings reflect injury measures recorded on 2 instrumented SID-IIs dummies representing a 5th percentile woman, assessment of head protection countermeasures, and the vehicle's structural performance during the impact.

Rear crash protection is rated according to a two-step procedure. Starting points for the ratings are measurements of head restraint geometry -- the height of a restraint and its horizontal distance behind the back of the head of an average-size man. Seat/head restraints with good or acceptable geometry are tested dynamically using a dummy that measures forces on the neck. This test simulates a collision in which a stationary vehicle is struck in the rear at 20 mph. Seats without good or acceptable geometry are rated poor overall because they can't be positioned to protect many people.

In the roof strength test, a metal plate is pushed against one side of a roof at a constant speed. To earn a good rating for rollover protection, the roof must withstand a force of four times the vehicle's weight before reaching five inches of crush. This is called a strength-to-weight ratio. For an acceptable rating, the minimum required strength-to-weight ratio is 3.25. A marginal rating value is 2.5. Anything lower than that is rated poor.

 

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Lawsuit Says Hyundai Airbags Fail to Deploy

Disturbing trend for Korean automaker

Lawsuit Says Hyundai Airbags Fail to Deploy...

A class-action lawsuit filed this week claims that Hyundai's air bag sensors don't accurately distinguish between children and adults, increasing the chances that an airbag won't properly deploy in the event of an accident.

The suit, filed by Ohio residents Christopher and Nancy Kearney, says that the Kearneys' 2006 Sonata sedan automatically disabled the airbag when Nancy sat in the front seat, despite the fact that she weighs approximately 115 pounds.

Rob Carey, an attorney with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, said in a statement that Hyundai was aware of the problem but "failed to recall the cars and make certain the problem was fixed to ensure people are safe in the cars that Hyundai sold." Hyundai's actions "put thousands of consumers like the Kearneys at risk," Carey said.

Carey claimed that Hyundai received complaints about the problem years ago but failed to disclose it to consumers. The firm said it has received complaints from several Hyundai owners who said their cars' airbag systems deactivated after mistaking an adult -- one as heavy as 130 pounds -- for a child.

Overly cautious

Ironically, the defect may have resulted out of an abundance of caution in the wrong direction. The highest-profile airbag deaths over the past few decades have been those of children sitting in the front passenger seat when the airbags deployed. As of 1997, 49 children had been killed in such a situation, and another 19 had suffered serious injuries. Airbag weight sensors, which use the passenger's weight to determine whether an airbag should be deployed, were introduced in an effort to stem this trend.

But the downside may be that the sensors are too acute, and may mistake small adults for children. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) notes on its website that "Many advanced frontal air bag systems automatically turn off the passenger air bag when the vehicle detects a small-stature passenger or child."

Newer technological advances allow airbags to adjust the speed and extent of their deployment depending on the size and weight of the driver or passenger. Some cars without rear seats, primarily trucks and sports cars, come equipped with an airbag "on/off switch," allowing passengers to completely disengage the airbag and minimize the risk of children passengers being injured or killed by the device. Certain individuals, such as those with medical conditions or who are especially short, can apply to NHTSA to have an aftermarket on/off switch installed.

The Kearneys' suit covers all Hyundai vehicles for model years 2006 through 2009, about 1.3 million cars in all. They allege breach of warranty, violation of the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, and violations of several California consumer protection laws.

A number of Hyundai owners have written to ConsumerAffairs.com to complain that of airbag defects similar to the Kearneys'. Dawn of Greensboro, NC wrote:

"Bought a 2008 Hyundai Santa Fe. Passenger side airbag does not register me. I am 5'3" 105 pounds. Took to both dealers and they state their is nothing they can do about. Tell me to restart car and sit perfect. DO that and it still does not work. So basically sit like a statue even when your driving on long trips? I told one dealership Hyundai has a huge lawsuit coming when someone dies for airbag not deploying. Currently awaiting for a part for drivers side airbag because right now that is not working either!"

The wife of Brian of Granite Falls, WA suffered severe injuries when her Sonata failed to deploy its airbag:

"My wife was driving toward an intersection when a F-250 Ford pickup came out of an alley way on her left, striking the drivers door of our 2009 Sonata, pushing the door & door pillar about a foot into the drivers sest at chest level totaling our car, (car had 5000 miles on it), no air bags deployed, the roof, rear door & quarter panel were also damaged. Hyundai said air bags worked properly? My wife has 8 broken ribs, had a collapsed lung, back & neck pain, two days in ICU, and one week in the hospital, was home eight weeks before she could go back to work part time, our medical insurance was used up in the emergency room, we have'nt received all the medical bills yet but am told will be in the hundred thousand range."

Despite the disturbing pattern alleged in the Kearneys' suit and in the above complaints, airbags' benefits still vastly outweigh their dangers. To minimize the risk of injury, it is imperative to buckle your seat belt and not sit too close to the steering wheel or dashboard.

 

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Perfect Flame Gas Grills Sold at Lowe's Are Recalled

Perfect Flame Gas Grills Sold at Lowe's Are Recalled...

November 18, 2009
More than 600,000 Perfect Flame SLG Series gas grills sold at Lowe's Stores are being recalled. The burners can deteriorate causing irregular flames and the lids of some models can catch fire, posing fire and burn hazards to the consumer.

The firm has received about 40 reports of fires from the burners deteriorating and about 23 reports of the lids catching fire. The firm is aware of one report of an eye injury requiring surgery and 21 incidents of minor burns to the hands, arms or face.

The recalled grills are SLG series 'Perfect Flame' brand outdoor propane or natural gas grills. The grills are stainless steel and painted black or gray metal. The model numbers affected by this recall are listed below. The model number can be found in the compartment under the cooking chamber. No other Perfect Flame model numbers are included in this recall.

ModelReplacement BurnersReplacement Lid
SLG2006BYesNo
SLG2006BNYesNo
SLG2006CYesNo
SLG2006CNYesNo
SLG2007AYesYes
SLG2007BYesYes
SLG2007BNYesYes
SLG2007DYesNo
SLG2007DNYesNo
SLG2008AYesYes

The grills were sold exclusively at Lowe's retail outlets nationwide from September 2005 through May 2009 for between $200 and $550 (U.S.) and in Canada from December 2007 through May 2009 for between $200 and $250 (CAN). They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately stop using the product and contact L G Sourcing to receive free replacement burners and, depending on the model of the grill owned, a free replacement lid.

For additional information, contact the firm toll-free at (888) 840-9590 anytime, or visit www.lowes.com

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

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California Settles with Wells Fargo, Recovers $1.4 Billion for Investors

Attorney General accuses bank of leaving customers out in the cold

California Settles with Wells Fargo, Recovers $1.4 Billion for Investors...

Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. today filed suit against three Wells Fargo affiliates to recover $1.5 billion for California investors who purchased auction-rate securities based on "false and deceptive" advice that these financial instruments were "as safe and liquid as cash."

"Wells Fargo's affiliates promised investors auction-rate securities were as safe and liquid as cash, when in fact they were not, and now investors are unable to get their money when they need it," Attorney General Brown said. "This lawsuit seeks to recover $1.5 billion for Californians and holds these companies accountable for giving investors false and deceptive advice."

Auction-rate securities are investments with long-term maturity dates (e.g., bonds) that Wells Fargo and other banks marketed as short-term investments equivalent to cash. These investments paid a slightly better rate of return than a bank account. And, investors could sell the securities at regular weekly or monthly auctions which provided the promise of liquidity.

In February 2008, these auctions froze up nationwide, and investors were no longer able to redeem their securities for cash, as promised. This left approximately 2,400 Californians who had invested with Wells Fargo without access to more than $1.5 billion. Almost 40 percent of Wells Fargo's auction-rate securities were held by Californians, far more than any other state nationwide.

By August 2008, major financial institutions including UBS, Citigroup, Wachovia, and Merrill Lynch met their obligations to investors and restored the cash value of these securities. The three Wells Fargo affiliates, however, have refused to do so.

Consequently, Attorney General Brown filed his complaint in San Francisco Superior Court today to restore the cash value of these securities, force the companies to disgorge any subsequent profits tied to the securities, and obtain civil penalties of $25,000 per violation. This could amount to hundreds of millions in civil penalties.

The suit contends that three Wells Fargo's affiliates — Wells Fargo Investments, LLC, Wells Fargo Brokerage Services, LLC, and Wells Fargo Institutional Securities, LLC — violated California's Securities Law by:

• Routinely misrepresenting, marketing and selling auction-rate securities as safe, liquid and cash-like investments similar to certificates of deposit or money-market accounts and omitting material facts in violation of California Corporations Code 25401;

• Offering and selling, as a broker-dealer, securities by means of a manipulative, deceptive or other fraudulent scheme, device, or contrivance in violation of California Corporations Code 25216(a);

• Marketing and selling auction-rate securities to investors for whom these investments were unsuitable in violation of California Corporations Code 25216(c) and California Code of Regulations, title 10, section 260.218.2; and

• Failing to supervise and adequately train sales agents pushing these investments in violation of California Corporations Code 25216(c) and California Code of Regulations, title 10, section 260.218.4.

In marketing and selling these investments, Wells Fargo's affiliates ignored clear industry and internal warning about risk and previous auction failure:

• In March 2005, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the "Big 4" accounting firms, and the Financial Accounting Standards Board all determined that auction-rate securities should not be considered "cash equivalents."

Despite these warnings, Wells Fargo's affiliates continued to aggressively sell and falsely market auction-rate securities as safe, liquid, cash-like investments until the nationwide auction markets froze in February 2008.

In marketing and selling these investments, Wells Fargo's affiliates failed to inform investors about how auction-rate securities or the auction process worked and the risks and consequences of auction failure.

Following the collapse of these auctions, Wells Fargo's affiliates took advantage of the situation and offered loan programs to those who needed immediate access to the money tied up in these investments.

Investments ranged from $25,000 to millions, and investors included small businesses and small business owners, retirees, married couples, and other hard working Californians. These investors were led to believe they were putting their savings and assets into a safe and accessible place, but instead, they were left without access to their cash, leading to serious hardship. For example:

• A Southern California woman suffering from lung cancer and needing extra funds to help treat her illness sold her home and put the money into a Wells Fargo savings account. A Wells Fargo agent later recommended she put the money into an account with a higher interest rate. When the woman told the agent she needed to access the money and could not afford to lose any of it, she was reassured that her money would be safe like cash. Without disclosing the nature of the investment, the agent invested the funds in auction-rate securities and when the auctions failed, the woman could not access her money.

• A Bay Area company invested $400,000 in a money market account until it was solicited by phone to invest in what was described to them as a liquid, money market-like-account. They were told the only difference was the amount of notice needed to pull the funds (one week vs. one day). The funds were intended to help the business expand, but after the auctions failed, employees were instead laid off. The company was never informed that they were investing in auction-rate securities or that there were substantial risks tied to the investment.

 

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Florida Attorney General Warns Big Banks On Modifications

Consumers complain about getting a runaround from servicers

Florida Attorney General Warns Big Banks On Modifications...

The rising chorus of consumer complaints about the mortgage modification process is getting some attention.

In Florida, Attorney General McCollum has sent a letter to the Florida executives of Bank of America, JP Morgan/Chase, Wells Fargo and Wachovia, telling them to provide homeowners with a fair and efficient loan modification process. McCollum also requested the executives meet with him to discuss the banks responsibility to help solve the housing crisis.

"In my capacity as Florida's Attorney General, I have heard from hundreds of homeowners across our state who are desperately trying to save their homes by reducing their monthly payments or modifying the terms of their mortgage," wrote the Attorney General.

ConsumerAffairs.com hears from frustrated homeowners almost every day. Roy, of Clearlake, Calif., voiced frustration at trying to modify his Bank of America mortgage.

"They have been sitting on my loan modification for months," he told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I call them and they sayt hey received it but no one is assigned to it and its been expedited, but its been almost 5 months. I finnaly called H.U.D but it may be to late."

Christopher, of Anza, Calif., said he ran into a roadblock when he tried to modify his loan with Litton.

"Litton Loan Servicing offered us a trial loan modification, we made the three payments -- they closed out our loan modification without notifying us, and afterwards stated they needed an IRS form and didn't have it, so they turned us down," he told ConsumerAffairs.com. "We provided the IRS form at the time of application for the loan modification - they never said anything about it after that."

Pattern of frustration

McCollum says residents have his state have had similar experiences.

Homeowners who experienced excellent customer service from their banks at the time they originated their loans are now frustrated and disillusioned by the lack of response and cooperation they have received from their banks, McCollum said.

A recent report by the National Consumer Law Center suggests there is a very good reason so many consumers seem to be getting the runaround when they try and modify their mortgages. The reports says loan servicers, who do not own the loans, actually stand to sprofit if the troubled property goes to foreclosure.

The report, "Why Servicers Foreclose, When They Should Modify, and Other Puzzles of Servicer Behavior," reveals that servicers, unlike investors or homeowners, generally dont risk losing money on foreclosures.

"One common sense solution to the foreclosure crisis is to modify the loan terms in more instances," said Diane Thompson, a NCLC attorney and author of the report. "Foreclosures are a costly ordeal for the homeowner, the lender, and the community. Yet they continue to outstrip loan modifications because servicers have no incentive to help borrowers stay in their homes."



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Sprint Nextel Agrees To Restitution For Minnesota Customers

Company settles state lawsuit over extended contracts and fees

Sprint Nextel Agrees To Restitution For Minnesota Customers...

The length of cell phone contracts and early termination fees lie at the crux of a recent standoff between the State of Minnesota and Sprint Nextel. In this case, the telecom provider is the one that blinked.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson says consumers who believe that Sprint Nextel extended their cell phone contracts without their permission or did not disclose either the length of the contract or the applicable penalties for early termination may file a claim for monetary relief under a consent judgment she worked out with the company.

Sprint Nextel requested that at least 439,000 Minnesota residents pay early termination penalties between July 1999 and December 2008. An additional 450,000 customers are currently under contracts with Sprint Nextel which contain early termination penalties, and those customers would be eligible to file claims if their contracts were extended without permission or full disclosure.

Swanson filed a lawsuit against Sprint Nextel in September, 2007 alleging that the company often extended consumers' existing contracts for up to two years without their permission when they made small changes to their wireless phone service, such as adding or decreasing minutes or adding or dropping a family member.

The lawsuit alleged that Sprint Nextel charged penalties of up to $200 per line if the consumer cancelled the extended contracts. A review of ConsumerAffairs.com's complaint database shows widespread complaints about contract extensions and early termination fees by all wireless providers, including Sprint Nextel.

'Secret extensions'

"Sprint Nextel customers whose contracts were secretly extended when they made small changes to their plans or who were charged hidden early termination penalties now have a way to request their money back or for the penalties to be waived," Swanson said.

Minnesotans who became customers of Sprint Nextel after September 26, 2001 may submit a claim to the Attorney Generals Office if they believe that:

• Sprint Nextel enrolled them in a contract or extended their contract without their authorization or knowledge; or

• Sprint Nextel did not adequately disclose the length of the wireless contract or contract extension or the early termination fees that applied.

Applicable relief may include, among other things:

• A refund of the early termination fees and any related taxes and fees the consumer paid as a result of terminating the contract.

• A reversal of any early termination fees and any related taxes and fees that the consumer was charged but did not pay, including the reversal of any adverse reporting to any credit reporting agency.

• A release of the consumer from the terms of their current wireless contract without penalty.

The consent judgment bans Sprint Nextel from extending consumers' wireless contracts without their consent and requires the company to make clear and conspicuous disclosures about contract lengths and applicable early termination penalties and to document the consumers consent to the new contract.



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Complete MoisturePlus Class Action Certified in California

Eye solution said to insufficiently guard against dangerous bacteria

Complete MoisturePlus Class Action Certified in California...

A California judge has certified a class action against the manufacturer of Complete MoisturePlus, a brand of contact lens solution that is alleged to have caused widespread and vision-threatening eye infections.

Complete MoisturePlus, used by around 10 percent of contact-wearers nationwide, has been linked to a serious type of eye infection called acanthamoeba keratitis. In its early stages, the infection causes redness, eye pain, discharge, and blurred vision; eventually, many victims permanently lose their eyesight. Once it has set in, the infection is extremely difficult to treat. Corneal transplant, which costs thousands of dollars and carries risks of its own, is often the only option for those who want to have their vision restored.

Acanthamoeba keratitis is caused by acanthamoeba, a bacteria found in water, soil, and sewage. The infection is rare, and usually strikes users who improperly handle, store, and disinfect their lenses, or who allow them to come into contact with water by showering, bathing, or swimming with their contacts still in.

Supposed contamination of Complete MoisturePlus led to two recalls of the solution in less than a year. In November 2006, Advanced Medical Optics recalled 2.9 million packets of the solution -- 183,000 of them in the U.S. -- claiming that a water-borne organism infected the solution at the company's China plant.

In May 2007, the company recalled another slew of solution bottles, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warning that users of Complete MoisturePlus were at least seven times more likely to develop acanthamoeba keratitis than were users of other solutions.

In its 2006 recall, Advanced Medical Optics specifically dismissed any concerns about the solution's overall formula, blaming the problem entirely on the China infection. Ron Labriola, the attorney for the plaintiffs, acknowledged the China infection but said the larger problem is indeed the solution's makeup.

Specifically, Labriola blamed Propylene glycol, an ingredient found in Complete MoisturePlus, which causes acanthamoeba to form a sort of protective cocoon around itself, according to a recent CDC finding. The CDC's study even went so far as to suggest that infections caused by Complete MoisturePlus were never the result of an infection, but instead resulted from the solution's inability to kill dangerous bacteria.

Abbott Medical Optics, which bought Advanced Medical Optics earlier this year, has an annual revenue of over $1 billion, but it will be shelling out its fair share of legal fees over the next few years. In addition to Labriola's suit, the company is facing over 70 personal injury claims, and at least one other class action.

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Study: Pregnant Women 'Contaminated With Chemicals' From Everyday Products

Report outlines dangers to mothers and children alike

Study: Pregnant Women 'Contaminated With Chemicals' From Everyday Products...

The number of studies warning consumers about the dangers to babies in the womb from chemicals found in everyday products continues to rise. Another study released today found mothers' bodies were "contaminated with chemicals" from a variety of consumer products.

The study, performed by The Washington Toxins Coalition (WTC),Commonweal, and The Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition detected such toxins in the women's bodies as phthalates, bisphenol-A (BPA), and "Teflon chemicals."

The study was billed as the first of its kind because it tested the blood and urine from pregnant women during their second trimesters.

The environmental groups said their findings show policy changes are needed to protect pregnant women and their unborn children from toxic chemicals.

"This study reveals that children spend their first nine months in an environment that exposes them to known toxic chemicals," said Erika Schreder, WTC staff scientist, who authored the report. "Pregnant women can't avoid every exposure to these chemicals because they are in so many products. They can't shop their way out of this problem. We need policies that keep toxic chemicals away from pregnant women and the most vulnerable -- the developing fetus."

The findings come just one day after a study published in the International Journal of Andrology revealed women exposed to higher levels of two types of phthalates during their pregnancies had sons with "less masculine" play behaviors.

"Invaded by toxins from all angles"

In the WTC study, researchers tested pregnant women from Washington, California, and Oregon and discovered:

• Every woman was exposed to BPA, the hormone disrupting chemical used to make polycarbonate plastic and the lining for food cans. BPA is linked to cancer, early puberty, diabetes, obesity, and reproductive problems, researchers said;

• Each woman had at least two and as many as four "Teflon chemicals," or perfluorinated compounds, in her blood. Those chemicals are used to create stain-protection products and non-stick cookware and are linked to low birth weight, obesity, and cancer, the groups said.

• Every woman had mercury in her blood. Mercury is known to harm brain development, researchers said. The National Academy of Sciences has also reported that 60,000 children each year may suffer brain problems as a result of exposure to mercury in the womb. This exposure can affect their ability to play and learn.

• Every woman was exposed to at least four phthalates, the plasticizers and fragrance carriers found in shower curtains, shampoo, soaps and other consumer products. Phthalates are linked to reproductive problems and asthma.

The findings shocked and angered women in the study.

"I consider myself more conscious than most of what chemicals I expose myself to on a regular basis," said Connie Galambos Malloy, of Oakland, California. "Of course I did everything I could to protect my baby before he was born. However, this study shows that, despite my best efforts, my body has been invaded by toxins from all angles. I'm angry that chemical companies can get away with putting harmful chemicals on the market."

Medical professionals said the study shows tougher laws are need to protect pregnant woman and their babies.

"With increasing rates of chronic diseases, like asthma, diabetes, and breast cancer, we need to update our country's laws to ensure that harmful chemicals aren't used in products mothers and children use everyday," said Dr. Rich Grady, pediatric urologist at Seattle Children's Hospital. "As this study shows, even the most careful mother can't protect herself from exposures to chemicals, so the answer is to phase them out of products."

Charlotte Brody, a registered nurse and National Field Director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign, agrees.

"Since 1976, only 200 chemicals out of the 80,000 on the market have been tested for health and safety," Brody said. "Clearly our current laws are failing us. We're calling on policymakers at all levels of government to reform our outdated laws."

The groups involved this latest study have urged Congress to reform what they call the "outdated" Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the current federal law for regulating chemicals.

Specifically, the groups want legislative changes that would:

• Immediately start action to eliminate chemicals that build up in our bodies or are passed on to the next generation;

• Reduce the use of chemicals that can cause serious health problems, such as cancer and reproductive harm, or lead to learning disabilities;

• Require companies to make products only with chemicals that are fully tested for safety and to disclose all information on the chemicals' hazards;

• Preserve the states' rights to adopt legislation that sets higher chemical safety standards than federal law.

What you can do

Health and environmental experts alike recommend several ways you can reduce or eliminate exposure to unsafe chemicals, including:

• Avoid buying processed foods. According to U.S. News and World Report, one study found that prepared lunches had high levels of phthalates because food workers wore plastic gloves during the preparation.

• Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers.

• Look for cosmetics that are phthalate-free. Hair sprays, nail polish, deodorants, and other cosmetics contain phthalates, but the ingredients may only identify them as "fragrances."

• Limit children's exposure to soft plastic toys.

• Ventilate homes and offices. Many building materials and household items contain phthalates that experts say can get in the air and dust. Also keep vinyl tiles, imitation leather furniture, and other products that contain phthalate materials out of kids' rooms.

• Read labels. Many common household consumer products contain phthalates. Some companies, however, are advertising their phthlates-free stance, and have come out with toys and baby products that do not contain the chemicals.

• Use environmentally-friendly products. Experts say these products not only protect consumers, but also the earth. They include chlorine-free paper, non-PVC plastics, and mercury-free thermometers.

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FTC Files Contempt Citation Against Blue Hippo

Agency claims company has ignored 2008 court order

FTC Files Contempt Citation Against Blue Hippo...

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has asked a federal court to find Blue Hippo in contempt of a 2008 court order that required it to end abusive consumer practices.

Since the order, the FTC estimates Blue Hippo has collected more than $15 million from consumers to finance computers, but elivered neither the financing nor the financed computers.

The FTC alleged that less than one percent of consumers who signed up with BlueHippo received the financed computers they applied for, and undisclosed conditions to redeem store credits were rigged to discourage consumers from using them.

In a contempt motion lodged with the court, the FTC charged that BlueHippo has flouted a settlement reached with the agency last year, continuing to deceive thousands of financially strapped consumers with phony promises that it would help them purchase a computer even if they have credit problems.

The 313 complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com over the last 12 months bolster the agency's claims that Blue Hippo has continued to exploit consumers.

"Blue Hippo was supposed to send me a computer a year ago," Luis, of Chiefland, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I constantly keep calling them regarding this computer and they always answer the same as usual. Their response is that I have to call back in four weeks. Blue Hippo has taken 1,000 dollars from my checking account."

2008 settlement

The FTC reached a settlement with Baltimore-based BlueHippo in April 2008 that required the company to pay $3.5 million for consumer redress and barred the defendants from further deceiving customers. According to the FTCs 2008 complaint, BlueHippo Funding, LLC and affiliate BlueHippo Capital, LLC offered to extend credit to consumers to finance purchases of personal computers and other consumer electronics with down payments of $99 to $124, and a year of weekly or bi-weekly payments ranging from $36 to $88.

BlueHippo promised to deliver the product once the consumer made 13 weekly payments. But most consumers did not receive the computers they ordered in the time promised, even after they had made 13 weeks of payments, the Commission alleged. The Commission charged that BlueHippos marketing tactics were deceptive, and violated the FTC Act and other federal credit statutes.

In addition, the computers provided are often out of date models with little memory -- the type of machine that can be bought at a discount store for less than $400. Consumers often had to pay Blue Hippo as much as $2000 before receiving one of these computers.

"Years of broken promises by BlueHippo have left consumers seeing red," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "We're putting companies like this on notice: If you mistreat consumers and thumb your nose at the courts, we will hold you accountable."

Same old song

Even after this settlement order was entered by the court, BlueHippo continued to deceive consumers, according to the FTC. The company aggressively marketed itself as a computer finance company and spent the rest of 2008 signing up customers and taking their money, but failing to provide them with financed computers.

The FTCs contempt motion alleges that between April and December of 2008, more than 35,000 customers contracted for BlueHippos computer financing deal. But the company provided, at most, a single financed computer, failing to provide financed computers even for 2,477 customers who managed to meet the companies conditions. Complaints about the company poured into the Better Business Bureau. On top of all that, BlueHippo failed to submit a report to the FTC showing how it was complying with the settlement, as required by the order.

Finally, in April, 2009, after the FTC notified the court that BlueHippo was violating the settlement, the company began ordering thousands of computers. Even so, the FTC alleges that BlueHippo failed to order computers for 1,015 of the 2,477 consumers who had qualified for financing by making 13 consecutive payments and completing the required paperwork.

For the 1,462 consumers who finally received a computer, BlueHippo did not even order -- let alone ship -- the computers within the three- to four-week time frame the company had advertised. On average, it took about six months between the time these consumers qualified for their computers and the time BlueHippo ordered the machines, according to the FTCs contempt motion.

The FTCs contempt motion also charged that BlueHippo failed to disclose key aspects of its refund policy. In particular, the company promised that while consumers who canceled their order after seven days could not obtain cash refunds, they could get "store credit," which could be used to buy desktop computers, laptops, monitors, software, and televisions. But it failed to tell consumers that they would have to send a money order to cover undisclosed shipping and handling fees, as well as taxes, even if they had more than enough store credit to cover these costs -- and that they could only order one item at a time.

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No Eggo To Leggo? Kellogg Confirms Waffle Shortage

Company says flood damage has slowed resupply

No Eggo To Leggo? Kellogg Confirms Waffle Shortage...

If you're having trouble finding Eggo waffles in your grocer's freezer, you're not alone.

Kellogg, the maker of the popular breakfast food, confirms there is a nationwide shortage of its frozen waffles.

The company blames the shortage on flood damage at its bakery in Atlanta, Georgia.

Kellogg also said it was making equipment changes and repairs to its largest waffle bakery, and that action is taking longer than expected. No other Kellogg frozen products are affected by these issues, the company said.

"Eggo is working around the clock to bring everyone's favorite waffles back to store shelves as quickly as possible," the company said. "We hope to regain full distribution of Eggo products by the middle of 2010. This is a top priority for (the) Kellogg Company."

In the meantime, Kellogg says it will allocate available products to customers based on what the company calls "historical percentage of business." Consumers with questions or concerns about the waffle shortage can contact the company at 866-971-3320.



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Senate Committee Slams Abusive Marketers

Consumers tricked into spending billions, investigators find

Senate Committee Slams Abusive Marketers...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 17, 2009
After years of consumer complaints about unauthorized charges by abusive Internet marketers, the Senate Commerce Committee has sprung into action.

At a hearing this week, the committee issued a report, Aggressive Sales Tactics on the Internet and their Impact on American Consumers," accusing several firms of tricking consumers into signing up for worthless services that siphon money from their credit card or bank accounts each month.

"After six months, this Committee has found that the companies we are investigating have figured out very clever ways to manipulate consumers buying habits so they can make a quick buck, said committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). "American consumers have been complaining for years about these misleading practices and asking for answers -- and rightly so."

Rockefeller and other committee members were responding to mounting consumer complaints, such as those received by ConsumerAffairs.com. Take this one from Tracy, of Vienna, West Virginia:

"Simple escapes authorized my credit card unknowingly for 189.95," she told ConsumerAffairs.com last month. "I have never even heard of this company. We had no membership number to even look up with them. They were using an address from 4 years ago. How did they get access to my credit card number?"

In nearly every case, these abusive practices stem from a relationship between two marketers. Tracy probably made a purchase using her credit card. Unknown to her, the company she was doing business with had a marketing agreement with a "third party" company, which was marketing a travel discount member service called Simple Escapes.

The agreement allows the third party firm to also market to Tracy, and if she agrees to do business with them, they can immediately access her credit card, getting her credit card information from their marketing partner. However, Tracy has no way of knowing that.

Buying something without realizing it

The company hawking Simple Escapes was required to present its offer to Tracy in a "clear and conspicuous" manner and get her consent before charging her credit card. But Tracy said she was completely unaware that any transaction was taking place. Tracy, in effect, bought something without realizing it.

"Millions of Americans are getting hit with these mystery charges every month -- we have to do all we can to protect the hard working families relying on us to look out for their wallets and well-being," Rockefeller said.

Committee investigators singled out three firms as among the worst offenders. The committee said Vertrue -- which at one time operated Simple Escapes --, Affinion, and Webloyalty "exploit consumers' expectations about online shopping to trick them into joining their membership clubs.

Affinion, Vertrue, Webloyalty, and their e-commerce partners have earned over $1.4 billion in revenue with their misleading tactics, the committee report said. There have been more than 30 million consumer enrollments in these clubs and several million people are unknowingly enrolled in these clubs at any one time.

More than 450 e-commerce websites and retailers have partnered with Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty to employ aggressive sales tactics against their online customers splitting the revenue about 50-50, according to investigators. Eighty-eight companies have made more than $1 million by partnering with Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty, including Classmates.com, which made more than $70 million.

And what of the "benefits" consumers are supposed to reap by being members of these discount programs? The committee found that almost no one receives the "cash back award" that Affinion, Vertrue, and Webloyalty offer to online customers at the time of enrollment.

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Recommended Changes to Breast Cancer Screenings Cause Controversy

Analysis recommends scrapping most annual exams

Recommended Changes to Breast Cancer Screenings Cause Controversy...

A comprehensive analysis of various mammography screening schedules suggests that biennial (every two years) screening of average risk women between the ages of 50 and 74 achieves most of the benefits of annual screening, but with less harm.

The results, which represent a unanimous consensus of six independent research groups that make up the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), are published in the November 17, 2009 Annals of Internal Medicine.

However, the recommendations are not being universally welcomed.

In a statement, the American Cancer Society (ACS) said it "continues to recommend annual screening using mammography and clinical breast examination for all women beginning at age 40." The society says its experts made their recommendation on the basis of the same data reviewed by the USPSTF, along with information the USPSTF did not consider. "When recommendations are based on judgments about the balance of risks and benefits, reasonable experts can look at the same data and reach different conclusions," ACS added.

Opposition is even stronger from the American College of Radiology. The group warns that if the "cost-cutting" recommendations are adopted as policy, "two decades of decline in breast cancer mortality could be reversed and countless American women may die needlessly from breast cancer each year."

Carol H. Lee, M.D., chair of the College's Breast Imaging Commission, says "these unfounded USPSTF recommendations ignore the valid scientific data and place a great many women at risk of dying unnecessarily from a disease that we have made significant headway against over the past 20 years."

Researchers from CISNET, the NCI-funded Cancer Intervention and Surveillance Modeling Network, used independent models to examine 20 screening strategies with different starting and stopping ages and intervals. Modeling estimates the lifetime impact (outcomes including benefits and harms) of breast cancer screening mammography.

The CISNET models link known data across the course of life and include national data on age-specific breast cancer incidence, mortality, mammography characteristics and treatment effects.

"It's reassuring that all CISNET modeling groups came to the same conclusion even when applying different models to these data," says the paper's lead author, Jeanne S. Mandelblatt, MD, MPH, of Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, a CISNET member. "While the findings represent a comprehensive review of existing data, decisions about the best screening strategy depend on individual and public health goals, resources, and tolerance for false-positive mammograms, unnecessary biopsies and over-diagnosis."

The CISNET analysis shows that screening every other year maintains almost all of the benefit (an average of 81 percent) of annual screening with almost half the number of false-positives.

Compared with no screening, mammography screening every other year from ages 50 to 69 achieves a median reduction in breast cancer mortality of 16.5 percent over a lifetime. If screening is started at age 40 versus 50 and performed every other year, there is a median mortality reduction of 19.5 percent (an additional one woman per 1000), but an increase in false-positives, unnecessary biopsies, and anxiety.

"False-positives" represent mammograms read as abnormal that often require further follow-up in women who are found to not have cancer. An "unnecessary biopsy" occurs after a false positive mammogram when the biopsy is normal.

"Over-diagnosis" is the detection of a cancer through screening that otherwise never would have produced symptoms or affected the woman's health. Since usually it is not possible to determine which cancers will progress, almost all cancers detected during screening are treated.

Mandelblatt says the benefits of biennial screening are consistent with what is known about the breast cancer's biology. In the majority of women, most tumors are slow growing and this proportion increases with age, so that there is little loss in survival benefit across the population for screening every year versus every other year.

For women with aggressive, faster growing tumors, annual screening is not likely to make a difference in survival. For these women, different approaches may be needed and is an important area of on-going research.

While the model results confirmed that mammography saves lives, Mandelblatt explains that there are smaller overall benefits from starting screening earlier than age 50 because few women develop breast cancer in the younger age groups, and screening younger women is accompanied by a large number of false-positive mammograms. "This can lead to stress for women and unnecessary biopsies. We need more research to understand how to tailor screening by individual risk," she says.

"These modeling data represent an average finding regarding the population of women so it can't be emphasized enough that women need to talk to their health care provider for a screening program that is best for them," Mandelblatt concludes.

 



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Study Claims Phthalates Exposure In Pregnancy Diminishes Masculinity

Researcher says young boys less likely to play with male-centric toys

Study Claims Phthalates Exposure In Pregnancy Diminishes Masculinity...

A study released today claims pregnant women exposed to higher levels of two types of phthalates had sons with "less masculine" play behaviors.

Phthalates are colorless chemicals primarily used in many consumer products. Research evidence has indicated the chemicals may lower testosterone levels in humans and animals.

The study, published in the International Journal of Andrology, examined what researchers called the "two phthalates of most concern" -- diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) -- that are used in food processing, soaps, cosmetics, air fresheners, and medical tubing.

Researchers found women exposed to higher levels of DEHP and DBP during their pregnancies had preschool aged sons who were less likely to play with "male typical" toys and games. Those "male typical" toys and games include trucks and play fighting.

The study's lead researcher, Dr. Shanna Swan, professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and director of the university's Center for Reproductive Epidemiology, said the findings are important for two reasons:

• They suggest that early exposure to phthalates can influence brain development.

• They are consistent with previous studies that have found DEHP and DBP can lower testosterone in humans, and are associated with genital changes in boys, including smaller genitals and incomplete descent of the testicles.

"There are definitely more studies needed on this (issue)," Swan said. "But the implications (of the study) are potentially profound and far-reaching. And what strengthens our findings is they are consistent with rodent studies and with earlier studies...that found these phthalates lower testosterone."

But The American Chemistry Council (ACC) downplayed the study, saying Swan used "unproven methods" to reach conclusions that are "not based on the weight of the scientific evidence surrounding the safety of phthalates."

"People need to pay attention"

In Swan's study, researchers asked a group of mothers who previously had provided urine samples during their pregnancies, and whose children were in preschool, to answer questions about the play behaviors in their kids.

Researchers then examined the scores of the Pre-School Activities Inventory (PSAI) and other questions about the parents, their education, and their attitudes about their children's play.

"In these 145 preschoolers, born to mothers we had recruited when they were pregnant, we found that prenatal exposure to two phthalates -- DEHP and DBP -- was significantly associated with less masculine play behavior in boys," Swan said. "No other phthalate metabolites showed associations with boys' play behavior scores and no strong association was seen in girls for any phthalates."

Swan said examining the play behaviors in these boys was a natural follow-up to her previous study with this same group of moms.

In that 2005 study -- which many considered controversial at the time -- Swan found that pregnant women with higher levels of phthalates in their urine had sons with genital birth defects.

The boys, for example, were more likely to have "less fully" descended testicles, shorter or smaller penis size as measured by the volume, scrotums that were smaller and less distinct, and short anal-genital distances (AGD). Researchers say that measurement is an indicator of testosterone levels.

Prior to the 2005 study, scientists had linked phthalate exposure to malformed sex organs in male lab animals -- a condition known as "The phthalate syndrome" in rodents.

Neither of these studies, however, suggests a link between phthalates exposure in pregnant women and homosexuality, Swan pointed out.

"The question of homosexuality always comes up in connection with these studies," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "And there is no data linking play toys (which ones a child chooses) or early behavior to later sexual preferences or sexual identity."

Asked why consumers should care about these latest findings, Dr. Swan said, "It's hard to say on an individual basis, but if you ask people if they care about ingesting a chemical that might make moms have sons with less masculine behaviors, they do care. This does matter to people because they call and ask me what they can do to avoid phthalate exposure."

Swan hopes consumers -- especially pregnant women or women thinking about get pregnant -- will walk away with two key messages from this new study.

"I want them to be aware that the fetus is not protected by placenta...that everything they do while they are pregnant has the potential to affect the fetus," said Swan. "Most women already know that, but what they may not know is the major source of phthalates is in processed foods. And people need to pay attention to how and what foods they buy, where they store them, and how they cook them to make them as phthalate-free as possible."

"More sensationalistic than scientific"

The ACC, however, said consumers shouldn't worry about phthalates, calling them "among the most thoroughly studied family of compounds in the world ... (with) a long history of safe use."

The organization also criticized Swan's findings and her research methods.

"This study shows once more that Swan uses unproven methods to compile questionable data to reach conclusions that are consistent with her well-publicized opinion, which is not based on the weight of the scientific evidence surrounding the safety of phthalates," said Steve Risotto, senior director of phthalate esters at the ACC.

"Dr. Swan's recognition that the study results are 'not straightforward' is an understatement," Risotto said. "The researchers biased the results by using mothers from their previous study. These mothers may have had much higher levels of concern about their young boys' behavior, because Swan has repeatedly declared that phthalate exposure is reason for alarm."

"It appears that the researchers selectively excluded data, eliminating certain subjects from the analysis, in order to strengthen their conclusion. Even the phraseology of the paper is more sensationalistic than scientific," he added.

"Doing the best science I can"

Swan isn't swayed by her critics.

"That is their job -- to protect their products," she told us. "I do the best science I can and I will keep doing the best science I can. And people will view it as they want."

Swan also said it's "unlikely" that her research is biased. The women in the group, she said, didn't know that phthalates were the focus of the study. They also didn't know their phthalate levels.

"We looked at a number of variables including parental age, education and their attitudes towards children's play," Swan explained. "In particular, we asked whether the mother would discourage a boy from playing with 'girl-typical' toys...all these were controlled for in our analysis.

"It is possible, however, that other uncontrolled factors could influence how the mother completed the questionnaire," she added, "but these are unlikely to be related to the mother's phthalate exposure."

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where phthalate metabolite levels were determined, also did not know the PSAI test results or any data about the women in the study, Swan said.

What about concerns that her findings are based on a small "focus group" of just 145 children?

"Sample size alone doesn't trump (a study's findings)," Swan said, adding federal officials have pulled drugs off the market based on the adverse reactions of just a few people.

Investigations into the developmental and neurological effects of prenatal phthalate exposure in humans are far from over, Swan said.

"We're funded to repeat the study from early pregnancy on," she said, adding that grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the US Environmental Protection Agency paid for her current study.

"We are going to recruit 800 women and follow those kids much better than with the first group. We'll be looking at neurological development and phthalate exposure and we'll also reconnect with our 145 children to see how they're doing at an older age."

"We're excited to be funded to do that and are glad the scientific community feels it's important."

Swan's next study will also measure other chemicals in the mothers' urine -- such as bisphenol-A -- to examine their effects on behaviors and development.

"Don't panic"

In the meantime, what advice does Swan offer consumers who are worried about their exposure to phthalates, which are now restricted from use in U.S. toys?

"Don't panic," she says. "When people ask me how they can reduce their risks from exposure to phthalates, which they often do, I tell them not to panic. If they want to take action, they can. That's an individual choice."

To reduce their exposure to these chemicals, Swan and other experts say consumers should:

• Avoid buying processed foods. According to U.S. News and World Report, one study found that prepared lunches had high levels of phthalates because food workers wore plastic gloves during the preparation.

• Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers.

• Look for cosmetics that are phthalate-free. Hair sprays, nail polish, deodorants, and other cosmetics contain phthalates, but the ingredients may only identify them as "fragrances."

• Limit children's exposure to soft plastic toys.

• Ventilate homes and offices. Many building materials and household items contain phthalates that experts say can get in the air and dust. Also keep vinyl tiles, imitation leather furniture, and other products that contain phthalate materials out of kids' rooms.

• Read labels. Many common household consumer products contain phthalates. Some companies, however, are advertising their phthlates-free stance, and have come out with toys and baby products that do not contain the chemicals.

 



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Three More Cases Of Swine Flu In Pets

FDA approves additional vaccine for use

Three More Cases Of Swine Flu In Pets...

Health officials have confirmed three new cases of the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus in pets, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a fifth vaccine for use against the disease.

The latest cases involve three ferrets in Oregon, according to The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The new findings bring the total number of confirmed H1N1 cases involving ferrets in that state to four.

The diagnosis comes just days after a cat in Iowa tested positive for the H1NI virus. That cat, diagnosed earlier this month, was the first feline in the country with a confirmed case of the H1N1 strain of influenza.

In the Oregon case, the ferrets that tested positive for the virus are among a group of nine that lived with a family near the city of Roseburg. All nine ferrets had flu-like symptoms, but state health officials said the family only took three of the animals to a veterinarian.

Those three ferrets tested positive for the H1N1 virus, said Dr. Emilio DeBess, the Oregon state public health veterinarian. Family members who owned the ferrets, Dr. DeBess added, were sick with flu-like symptoms the week before the animals became ill.

There are no indications the ferrets passed the virus to other people or animals, Dr. DeBess said.

Oregon health officials in early October confirmed the first case of H1N1 in a ferret. All of the sick ferrets have since recovered, health officials said.

In the Iowa case, health officials suspect the cat caught the H1N1 virus from its owners, who were sick with that strain of the flu.

The cat has recovered and there are no signs it passed the virus to any other humans or animals, officials said. Besides the Iowa cat and the Oregon ferrets, health officials have confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus in pigs and birds.

The AVMA said these cases illustrate that some viruses can spread from people to animals. The organization said pet owners should contact their veterinarians if their animals show any signs of illness.

Oregon's Dr. DeBess also urged pet owners to take simple precautions to reduce the spread of the H1N1 virus from themselves to their animals.

"Wash your hands, cover your cough and your sneeze, and do your best to prevent contaminating objects your pet may come into contact with," he said. "The key message is to protect your animals much like you protect your family."

The AVMA will continue to track cases of the H1N1 virus in animals and post those findings on its Web site, the organization said.

New vaccine details

The new vaccine approved by the FDA against the H1N1 virus is manufactured by ID Biomedical Corp. of Quebec, Canada, owned by GlaxoSmithKline PLC.

As with the four previous 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccines licensed by the FDA on Sept.15, 2009, ID Biomedical Corporation will manufacture its H1N1 vaccine using the established, licensed egg-based manufacturing process used for producing seasonal flu vaccine.

Potential side effects of this H1N1 vaccine are expected to be similar to those of the seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccines. The most common side effect is soreness at the injection site. Others may include mild fever, body aches and fatigue for a few days after the inoculation.

As with any medical product, unexpected or rare serious adverse events may occur. The FDA is collaborating with other government agencies to enhance adverse event safety monitoring during and after the H1N1 2009 vaccination program.

ID Biomedical's H1N1 monovalent vaccine will be produced in multi-dose vials, in a formulation that contains thimerosal.

As more vaccines become available, there is concern that Internet scamsters will try to take advantage of the spreading fears about flu.

ConsumerAffairs.com recently reported warnings from the FDA on Internet sales of purported swine flu drug products.



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California Arrests Alleged Mastermind of Multimillion-Dollar Ponzi Scheme

Attorney General hits alleged culprit with 100 criminal counts

California Arrests Alleged Mastermind of Multimillion-Dollar Ponzi Scheme...

November 16, 2009
Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. today announced the arrest of William Arthur Sassman II who "looted" the life savings of dozens of investors to bankroll his lavish lifestyle and prop up a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme.

Sassman, 41, of Sacramento, was arrested at his residence this morning on a total of 100 counts: 43 counts of grand theft, 40 counts of misrepresentation or omission in the sale of a security, 16 counts of first-degree burglary and 1 count of use of a device, scheme, or artifice to defraud in the sale of a security. If convicted, Sassman faces up to 52 years in prison. Sassman is being held in the Sacramento County Jail and bail has been set at $3.2 million.

"William Arthur Sassman solicited millions of dollars from California investors with promises of high returns on business and real estate investments," Brown said. "In reality, Sassman looted their savings to prop up a Ponzi scheme, so he could buy homes and Ferraris."

Over the past decade, Sassman used four companies-InTex, LLC; Formulating Insurance Agency (FIA); Formulating Investments (FI); and Systematic Management Services (SMS)-to solicit investments ranging from approximately $10,000 to $500,000 from more than 50 individuals across Northern California and beyond.

Sassman, a licensed insurance agent, convinced investors, many of whom were senior citizens, to shift their savings from IRAs, annuities, life insurance accounts, 401(k)s and certificates of deposit to "high return" investments with his companies. These investments included foreclosed properties and real estate in Georgia, Mare Island and Vallejo; a strip mall in Folsom; commercial property in El Dorado Hills; the production of a laptop computer stand called the "Notefloat" and annuity, stock and foreign currency investments.

However, Sassman made few, if any, of these investments and rarely paid the double to triple digit returns he promised. Instead, Sassman spent investors' millions financing his lavish lifestyle, including $1.1 million on his American Express card, $300,000 on automobiles, $75,000 at Polo Ralph Lauren and three homes.

The limited funds Sassman invested were channeled into other illegal operations including a "stock trading program" run by a group indicted in federal court earlier this year for running a Ponzi scheme and a European investment scam that promised a 200 percent profit in 45 days or 800 percent annually.

As Sassman burned through investor funds, he paid returns to early investors by using funds from new ones. Investors are still owed close to $4.4 million, and additional losses could reach $3 million.

In September 2009, Sassman and his companies filed for bankruptcy.

Some of Sassman's victims

In October 2004, a Sacramento resident invested more than $250,000 in FIA. Sassman promised her a seven percent annual return. Her money was combined with money from other investors for a total of more than $700,000. Of that money, approximately $400,000 was spent on Sassman's personal expenses, more than $50,000 went to Sassman's wife, and more than $34,000 was paid in returns to other investors. The victim lost $170,000 of her investment.

In late 2005, Sassman promised a Rancho Cordova woman that if she closed her $78,000 life insurance policy and invested the funds with him, she would receive an 8 percent return on her investment. In early 2009, the victim was diagnosed with cancer and her son took over her finances. Her son contacted Sassman and requested $7,000 from his mother's investment to help pay for her medical expenses. Sassman promised to send a check, which never arrived. Soon after, the victim's son contacted Sassman and asked him to return the entire balance of the $78,000 investment. Sassman sent a check for $14,000 that bounced. The victim's investment was never returned.

In January 2007, a Sacramento couple invested more than $80,000 with Sassman's company SMS to be invested into real estate and to earn interest. Sassman informed the couple that their money had been used to purchase property, which was undergoing renovation. The couple was unaware that their entire investment had been used to pay other investors.

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Toyota Ready to Expand Safety Recall Beyond Floor Mats

Reports say carmaker has set aside $5 billion to replace accelerator pedals

Toyota Ready to Expand Safety Recall Beyond Floor Mats...


It's not just American car manufacturers who are sometimes slow to recognize and admit safety problems in their vehicles. In September, Toyota grudgingly agreed to recall about 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus models because of reports of unintended acceleration.

The company set no land speed records with the recall. Consumers had been complaining about the sudden acceleration for years. And many were not happy with Toyota's explanation of the problem. The company blamed the frightening out-of-control spurts of speed on floor mats which supposedly could slide onto the accelerator, pressing it to the floor but many Toyota owners find the explanation unconvincing.

"I have had three accidents or near accidents with my new 2009 Toyota Prius due to a combination of mysterious acceleration and loss of brakes," Paul of Sedona, Arizona, told ConsumerAffairs.com. My car suddenly seemed to accelerate on its own and my brakes failed. How I stopped my car I will never know."

Not only were consumers skeptical, so was the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Earlier this month, NHTSA issued a highly unusual statement scolding Toyota for what it called "inaccurate and misleading" information in Toyota press release about the recall.

"NHTSA has told Toyota and consumers that removing the recalled floor mats is the most immediate way to address the safety risk and avoid the possibility of the accelerator becoming stuck. But it is simply an interim measure," NHTSA said. "This remedy does not correct the underlying defect in the vehicles involving the potential for entrapment of the accelerator by floor mats, which is related to accelerator and floor pan design."

Now what?

So much for buying a few million floor mats. The auto industry is now abuzz with speculation about what Toyota will have to do to remedy the problem to NHTSA's satisfaction. Reports from Tokyo say Toyota has set aside more than $5 billion to replace the accelerator pedals on all of the 3.8 million vehicles, although the company has so far denied those reports.

It's not clear exactly what changes will be made but it apparently involves a complete redesign of the accelerator pedal.

The problem with the floor mats is not that they can slip over the accelerator and push it down -- but rather that the mats can slide under the pedal and push it forward, which in the worst case can result in full-throttle acceleration that defies an instant solution. Many Toyotas have "On" and "Off" buttons that take three seconds to operate.

No one knows how many accidents may have been caused but an August tragedy on a San Diego freeway put the problem at the top of the auto safety agenda. In that accident, a California highway patrolman and his family were killed in their runaway Lexus ES 350. Someone calling from the car before it crashed at over 100 miles per hour said they couldn't stop it. Seconds later, it struck an SUV.

Narrow escapes

Others have escaped injury, but only narrowly. Radha of Philadelphia was in a parking lot earlier this year when his 2009 Prius began accelerating unexpectedly.

"I went all in for the brakes -- no reaction from the car," he said. "Car crashed into a light pole, tilted to its right crashed down in parking spot right next to where I wanted to park. With me hanging by the seat belt, car still accelerating, I went for the power button. No response to that either.

Radha managed to crawl through the window to escape from the car, the engine running wide open as the car lay on its side. When police arrived, they managed to switch the car off, Radha said.

Mary of Medford, Oregon, also reported that four incidents of unintended acceleration in her 2007 Prius were accompanied by an apparent lack of response from the brakes. She said her dealer was able to duplicate the problem twice but couldn't resolve it.

"It has nothing to do with the floor mat," Mary said.

Affected models

Toyota and Lexus vehicles affected by the recall are:

• 2007-2010 Camry

• 2005-2010 Avalon

• 2004-2009 Prius

• 2005-2010 Tacoma

• 2007-2010 Tundra

• 2007-2010 ES 350

• 2006-2010 IS 250 and IS350

Toyota recalled 55,000 Camry and Lexus models in September 2007 following complaints of runaway acceleration. Owners of the popular Prius Hybrid had also complained of the problem but were not included in that recall, though Prius models are included in the current recall.

 



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Vonage To Pay $3 Million To Settle Consumer Complaints

Thirty-two states brought action against 'deceptive' tactics

Vonage To Pay $3 Million To Settle Consumer Complaints...

Internet telephone provider Vonage says it will pay $3 million to 32 states who sued the company on behalf of consumers. Without admitting to any wrongdoing, Vonage also said it would give refunds to affected consumers and change its business practices.

Since 2002, Vonage has offered a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service, which allows for telephone voice transmission over a high-speed Internet connection. In its newspapers, TV, direct mail and Internet advertising, Vonage failed to clearly communicate to prospective customers that they must be equipped with high-speed Internet in order to use its services.

Many customers, particularly senior citizens, were not clearly informed of this requirement and were unable to use the service. Yet Vonage required them to pay activation/cancellation and return shipping fees for computer-related equipment. Todays agreement makes full and clear disclosures a priority requirement.

Similarly, the states argued that Vonages "free trial" or "risk free" offers put many at a disadvantage when they attempted to cancel their service at the close of the trial period. Customers who chose to cancel had to do so by telephone and receive a "return authorization number" before returning Vonage's VoIP computer device. Many customers reported unreasonably long wait times before reaching a company representative.

Through this settlement, Vonage is held accountable for customer service and advertising practices that led Ohioans to be confused and dissatisfied," said Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. "As a result, consumers who had an issue with the company as far back as 2004, still have the opportunity to get a refund by filing a complaint with my office within the next 120 days."

Consumer confusion

Customers who thought they had canceled the service complained that they continued to receive monthly bills from the company. Others asserted that Vonage debited funds from their checking accounts, even after the customers attempted to cancel their Vonage service. The assurance of voluntary compliance prohibits Vonage from billing any customers after they have canceled within the free trial period.

"This agreement is designed to ensure that Vonage fully discloses all of its fees and conditions for the services it offers," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "It is also a helpful reminder that consumers should always read the fine print before signing up for a telecom service to search for any extra costs associated with enrolling in programs or services."

The states' investigation found that Vonages use of the phrase "free trial" was deceptive. Despite free service offers, Vonage charged many customers activation fees, shipping and handling fees, taxes, universal service fees, regulatory recovery fees and emergency 911 fees, none of which were clearly disclosed in advance.

The agreement prohibits future misrepresentations of service by Vonage and requires the company to fully and clearly disclose all terms associated with promotional offers. Vonage must also ensure that customers who accept the free trial offer receive the VoIP computer adapter within the promised seven to 10 days. Many complained of not receiving the device until near the end of the trial period, which restricted their ability to try out the service over time.

Under today's agreement, Vonage is also paying refunds to eligible customers who experienced problems and have not already received refunds.



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DOT Fines Ultimate Fares $600,000 For Advertising Violations

Company failed to state full fare to customers

DOT Fines Ultimate Fares $600,000 For Advertising Violations...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 13, 2009
A U.S. Department of Transportation administrative law judge (ALJ) has okayed a set of stiff fines levied against the Internet travel agency Ultimate Fares and its owner for violations of advertising regulations.

ALJ Richard C. Goodwin has fined the company $600,000 and its owner, owner Roni Herskovitz, $30,000. The order also bars Herskovitz from any involvement in the online air travel agency business for 12 months.

An investigation by DOT's Aviation Enforcement Office found that Ultimate Fares failed to include the federal excise tax and the service fee it charged to consumers in fares published on its website between March 2008 and September 2009. This violated the Department's requirement that published airfares must state the full price to be paid including service fees and any ad valorem tax, such as the Federal excise tax, which is assessed as a percentage of the fare.

Ultimate Fares continued to omit the tax from its stated fares even after the enforcement office began its investigation, and also failed to disclose which flights were being operated on a code-share basis as required by the Department's rules.

Ultimate Fares has been the subject of numerous consumer complaints:

• Sandeep A. from Nesconset, N.Y., tells ConsumerAffairs.com, "After giving my credit card number and no confirmation from the company after 48 hours regarding my flight, the company has put me on phone hold in excess of 30 minutes on three occasions and no response even after getting in touch with the operators. They can't tell me even if the tickets are going to be ready for the international travel."

• Darlene K. of Brick, N.J., writes ConsumerAffairs.Com that after receiving confirmation of her booking of a flight to Reno, she and her husband arrived at the airport to find they had no reservations. "As a result, I needed to purchase new airline tickets at a cost of $1427. I also had to cancel my time-share reservation at an additional cost of $189. We also needed to purchase our hotel accommodations at a cost of $621.22. Due to Ultimate Fares' negligence, we encountered monetary hardship, unnecessary stress and an enormous amount of time trying to resolve this problem to no avail."

• Dror Z. of Toronto writes ConsumerAffairs.com, "I booked a flight from NYC to Mumbai, India through ultimatefare.net, which is the website for Ultimate Fares Inc. I paid with my debit card. By the day of traveling, the money was not collected from my account and when I arrived to the airport, the ticket was cancelled. In the days before the flight, I sent a few e-mails to the customer support department, but all I got back was an automatic response that the message was received but no action was taken. A month later I found out that the money was taken, since I needed it and it wasn't there. I've contacted them over the phone and via e-mail but the money was not returned to me. About two months ago I have contacted Ultimate Fares Inc. again, demanding my money back. Again I was moved from one agent to the other and at the end, no action was taken. I was forced to borrow $600 from various people. I needed a medical treatment, and couldn't get it because I didn't have money to pay for it."

The fine -- the largest ever assessed for advertising violations -- will become final in 30 days unless the Department decides to review the action or a petition for review is filed.



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Marsh & McLennan Settles Investor Suit For $400 Million

Alleged scheme caused stock to lose half its value

Marsh & McLennan Settles Investor Suit For $400 Million...

When insurance broker Marsh & McLennan came under investigation for bid rigging in 2004, its share price lost half its value. Now, some investors in the company will get some of their money back.

The company announced today it will pay $400 million to settle a lawsuit, led by pension funds in New Jersey and Ohio. The firm earlier negotiated an $850 million settlement with the State of New York, which brought the first case.

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray says today's settlement holds Marsh accountable for its wrongdoing and requires the company to compensate investors for their injuries.

"Through violations of securities laws, Marsh harmed the investments and retirement benefits of workers in Ohio and across the country," Cordray said. "This massive fraud was built on unethical and illegal practices and violated the best interests of clients and shareholders alike."

The Public Employees Retirement System of Ohio, the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio and the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation, together with the State of New Jersey Department of Treasury, Division of Investments, have served as lead plaintiffs representing shareholders in the case.

Investors harmed

Marsh is one of the world's largest providers of insurance brokerage and consulting services. In the lawsuit against Marsh, the lead plaintiffs sought redress for investors who were harmed by Marsh's failure to disclose an alleged scheme that generated substantial earnings from illegal, anticompetitive arrangements with insurance carriers.

The alleged scheme involved steering business to certain insurance carriers in exchange for kickbacks known as "contingent commissions." According to the complaint, in some instances Marsh even generated fake bids to shield participating insurance carriers from competition. The alleged scheme violated numerous laws.

In 2005 Marsh & McLennan agreed to pay $850 million in restitution to policyholders harmed by its actions and adopt a new business model that avoids similar conflicts of interest.

According to the original complaint, filed by then-New York Attorney General Elliott Spitzer, Marsh collected approximately $800 million in contingent commissions in 2003. The complaint alleged that those commissions were tainted by conflicts that harmed Marsh's customers -- large corporations, small and mid-size busineses, municipal governments, school districts and some individuals.

Cordray says Marsh never revealed this scheme to the investing public, despite the huge role contingent commissions played in the company's earnings. Marsh's improper business practices came to light in October 2004 after Spitzer's investigation revealed an industry-wide scandal involving price-fixing and improper bid manipulation activities.

Within days of that news, Marsh & McLennan Companies lost $9 billion in market capital as its stock price collapsed. Shareholders, including many in Ohio, suffered tremendously, Cordray said.



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How Much Protection Does Overdraft Fee Rule Provide?

Banks could drop unprofitable customers

How Much Protection Does Overdraft Fee Rule Provide?...

The Federal Reserve this week issued a new rule requiring banks to allow customers to decide whether they want the automatic "courtesy" overdraft protection, that covers debit card purchases when they overdraw their accounts, but nicks them with a hefty fee.

Under the new Fed rules, bank customers must be allowed to "opt-in" for this protection. It addresses a longstanding consumer complaint that paying the overdraft fees is much worse than having a purchase denied due to insufficient funds.

While the new rule should go a long way in mitigating this consumer complaint, some think it doesn't go far enough. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has drafted legislation that also allows bank customers to "opt-in" to overdraft protection.

"I'm glad that the Federal Reserve has recognized the need to address outrageous overdraft policies by requiring a strong affirmative opt-in to debit-card overdraft plans, and I commend Chairman Bernanke for taking the regulators in this direction," Maloney said. "The Fed's rule is an endorsement of the need for more overdraft protection for consumers."

But Maloney said Congress still needs to act on the issue. She says there are shortcomings in the new Fed rule that her bill would address.

"The Fed still allows institutions to charge an unlimited quantity of overdraft fees, would do nothing to make fees proportional to the amount of the overdraft, and would not address the manipulation of posting order of charges to accounts," Maloney said. "Under the Fed's new rule, a $5 cup of coffee could still become a $40 cup of coffee after an overdraft fee is added!"

Maloney says her bill, H.R. 3904, caps the quantity of fees at one per month or six per year, requires that fees be reasonable, and prohibits posting-order manipulation, and includes all transactions, not just debit cards. She says her bill has wide support, including from House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, who is a co-sponsor.

Unintended Consequences

But as with the credit card reforms passed earlier this year, some in the financial industry warn of unintended consequences. They point out that banks will likely respond to rule changes - that remove billions from their revenue lines each year - with some rule changes of their own.

For example, Tim Smith, CEO of Probity Financial Services and the former President of a nationwide bank consulting firm, says nothing in the new Fed rule or the Maloney bill requires banks to keep customers.

What will banks do when a consumer hits the six overdraft fee maximum in a year? Smith says the most likely outcome will be to close their accounts, just as credit card companies have been closing many cardholder accounts in the wake of the credit card reform bill.

Smith cites an FDIC study of bank overdraft programs to suggest more than one in ten checking accounts would fall into this category. He says these consumers may be forced to turn to check cashing services and prepaid debit card services to meet their spending needs, both of which are likely to be just as expensive as bank's overdraft programs.

"Banks can and should adapt to limitations placed on their aggressive overdraft policiesBut, let's be honest, if Congress establishes a limit on the number of overdrafts a bank can charge in a given year, there is a very real possibility that millions of consumers will be forced out of the banking system," Smith said. "This is a classic case where the intentions are good, but the outcome will likely be very different than what Congress envisions."



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Celebration Studios Owner Pleads Guilty To Theft

Closes book on New Jersey bridal nightmare

Celebration Studios Owner Pleads Guilty To Theft...

The owner of a now-defunct New Jersey wedding photography studio has pleaded guilty to theft charges, bringing to a close one of the state's biggest consumer nightmares for brides.

Marc S. Schwartz, 47, of Randolph, N.J., pleaded guilty Wednesday to fourth-degree theft of services before a New Jersey Superior Court judge.

Schwartz is the former owner of Celebration Studios, which contracted to provide still and video photography services at weddings throughout New Jersey. In 2005 ConsumerAffairs.com began receiving numerous complaints from New Jersey brides who said they had paid thousands of dollars up front for the company's services but had not gotten any pictures.

In January 2008 the company closed its doors and went out of business, causing even more consternation.

"I hired them for both photo and video for my wedding on December 5, 2004," said Jennifer, of North Bergen, NJ. "I received my proofs but didn't receive any prints, albums or video footage. They were never available to make appointments and never attempted to help me get all that I paid for."

Brides complained that they paid as much as $6,000 in advance but never received any pictures. One year ago, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office obtained a court order, allowing it to retrieve the stashed merchandise and begin distributing it to customers of the now-defunct Morris County photography company. The court also ordered subcontractors who had worked for Celebration Studios, some of whom were never paid, to turn over their materials as well.

Happy ending

While the story had a happy ending, many brides received their wedding pictures years after their wedding had taken place.

Under Schwartz's plea agreement, he must pay $75,000 in restitution to eight photographers, and the state will recommend that Schwartz be sentenced to one year of probation. In pleading guilty, Schwartz admitted that he hired the photographers to take photos and videos for Celebration Studios and failed to pay them in accordance with their agreements.

In addition, a plea was entered on behalf of the corporate defendant, Celebration Studios, to a third-degree charge of theft by failure to make required disposition of property. The company, through its attorney, admitted that it engaged in theft and fraudulent business practices by entering into contracts with customers and receiving money for wedding photography services and products that were paid for, but not delivered.

"We took swift legal action through the Division of Consumer Affairs to ensure that any photos and videos that were in the possession of Celebration Studios were secured for the affected couples," said New Jersey Attorney General AnneMilgram.

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Virginias Price Gouging Statute Activated As Storm Batters the East

Tropical Storm Ida and coastal Nor'easter bring high water, power failures

Virginias Price Gouging Statute Activated As Storm Batters the East...

Virginia Attorney General Bill Mims has announced that the state's Anti-Price Gouging Statute, which prohibits the charging of unconscionable prices for necessary goods and services, has been activated as the remnants and Tropical Storm Idea and a coastal Nor'easter bringing flooding and tidal surges along the Eastern Seaboard.

Storm surges and localized flooding were being reported up and down the East Coast, as far north as New Jersey and throughout the Gulf Coast and Southeastern regions. Oil companies raced back to the Gulf as Ida moved ashore and, in Mobile, Alabama, a new cruise ship -- the Carnival Fantasy -- arrived a day late for its maiden voyage to the Mexican coast.

In Virginia's Chesapeake Bay communities, many homeowners awoke this morning to find boat docks underwater and electrical service interrupted. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Gov. Tim Kaine declared a state of emergency in Virginia last night. By law, Virginias price-gouging statute goes into effect upon the issuance of a declared state of emergency by the Governor.

The Virginia Post-Disaster Anti-Price Gouging Act, which became law July 1, 2004, prohibits the charging of "unconscionable" prices for "necessary goods and services" in the affected areas within Virginia for the 30-day period following the disaster that resulted in the declared state of emergency.

The basic test under the statute is whether the price charged for the goods or services "grossly exceeds" the price charged within 10 days before the disaster. "Necessary goods and services" includes those goods or services for which demand does, or is likely to, increase as a result of the disaster.

The Attorney Generals Office has reached seven legal settlements with gas stations over price gouging after a state of emergency was declared Sept. 10, 2008 as Hurricane Ike approached the Gulf Coast.

Virginias Post-Disaster Anti-Price Gouging Act leaves room for standard market forces to work in times of disaster and prohibits only the charging of unconscionable prices for necessary goods and services during these rare times, Attorney General Mims said. Hopefully Virginia retailers will be aware of this laws current activation, and keep it in mind as they proceed with business during this flooding and storming. We intend to enforce our statute, as our record of law suits and settlements demonstrates. We will continue to do so in a reasonable and fair manner.

Anyone who suspects price gouging should report it to the Office of Consumer Affairs -- 804-786-2042



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American Home Mortgage Servicing Agrees To 8200 Modifications

Subprime loans orginated by H&R Block, Option One

American Home Mortgage Servicing Agrees To 8200 Modifications...

American Home Mortgage Servicing has reached a settlement with the State of Massachusetts, agreeing to modify 8,200 mortgages held by Massachusetts homeowners.

The firm had previously been blocked by a state court from foreclosing on the mortgages, originated by H&R Block Mortgage and Option One Mortgage. The mortgages were the subject of a lawsuit last year by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The suit alleged Option One and H&R Block Mortgage originated the risky subprime loans with reckless disregard for whether borrowers would be able to afford their loan payments -- a practice that has contributed significantly to the foreclosure crisis in Massachusetts, Coakley says. Under the agreement, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, AHMSI will be required to provide affordable loan modifications to certain borrowers who fall behind in their mortgage payments.

The Attorney General's litigation with Option One, H&R Block Mortgage, Block Financial Corp., and their parent company, H&R Block, Inc., is ongoing, and is expected to go to trial in 2010. The lawsuit is seeking redress for the damage incurred by homeowners and Massachusetts communities as a result of the unfair and deceptive lending practices of the defendants. The lawsuit also alleges civil rights violations because the defendants' policies and practices resulted in discriminatory pricing to the detriment of black and Hispanic borrowers; disparate pricing violates antidiscrimination laws.

In April 2008, AHMSI purchased the right to service the Option One and H&R Block Mortgage loans. As a result, AHMSI was named as a defendant in the office's ongoing enforcement action, and became subject to certain obligations under a preliminary injunction issued by the Suffolk Superior Court in November 2008, which limited the defendant's ability to foreclose on the loans originated by Option One and H&R Block Mortgage. The Attorney General's complaint did not allege loan origination misconduct by AHMSI, and the company cooperated with the Attorney General in reaching this agreement.

"Our office continues to work to protect homeowners from the fallout of the subprime lending crisis in Massachusetts, and to assist those homeowners who fell victim to unfair and deceptive lending practices to stay in their homes," Coakley said. "Our agreement with AHMSI is another step toward that goal, and it will provide much-needed relief to thousands of homeowners. As I said in testimony to Congress earlier this year, I believe that loan modifications are key to stemming the tide of foreclosures in our state and across the nation."

The agreement provides that borrowers holding Option One and H&R Block Mortgage loans now serviced by AHMSI will receive a number of significant benefits, including:

• Loan modifications for eligible borrowers who are unable to make their scheduled payment and are more than 45 days past due in their mortgage payments. AHMSI will modify those loans through a variety of steps to provide borrowers affordable monthly mortgage payments. The steps include reduced interest rates, extended amortization periods, and, if necessary, principal forbearances.

• Relocation payments of $3,000 to $7,500 for delinquent borrowers who do not qualify for loan modifications, and alternatives to foreclosure, such as deeds-in-lieu of foreclosure.

• Opportunities for the Attorney General's Office to object to foreclosures and denials of loan modifications, including a requirement that AHMSI obtain court approval to foreclose upon a loan where AHMSI and the Attorney General's Office cannot resolve an objection.



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Boomers Entering Their 60s With More Disabilities

UCLA study finds older generation appears healthier

Boomers Entering Their 60s With More Disabilities...

Baby boomers are supposed to be different, the first generation to redefine retirement and aging on their own terms; robust, active and energetic.

Could that all be just self-congratulatory hype?

Researchers at UCLA have concluded that Baby Boomers may well be entering their 60s suffering far more disabilities than their counterparts did in previous generations.

In the study, which will be published in the January 2010 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from the division of geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA found that the cohort of individuals between the ages of 60 and 69 exhibited increases in several types of disabilities over time. By contrast, those between the ages of 70 and 79 and those aged 80 and over saw no significant increases - and in some cases exhibited fewer disabilities than their previous groups.

While the study focused on groups born prior to the post-World War II Baby Boom, the findings hold "significant and sobering implications" for health care because they suggest that people now entering their 60s could have even more disabilities, putting an added burden on an already fragile system and boosting health costs for society as a whole, the researchers say.

New Pressures On Health Care System

If this is true, it's something we need to address," said Teresa Seeman, UCLA professor of medicine and epidemiology and the study's principal investigator. "If this trend continues unchecked, it will put increasing pressure on our society to take care of these disabled individuals. This would just put more of a burden on the health care system to address the higher levels of these problems."

The researchers used two sets of data -- the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) for 1988-94 and 1999-2004 - to examine how disabilities for the three groups of adults aged 60-69, 70-79, and 80 and older had changed over time.

They assessed disability trends in four areas: basic activities associated with daily living, such as walking from room to room and getting into and out of bed; instrumental activities, such as performing household chores or preparing meals; mobility, including walking one-quarter mile or climbing 10 steps without stopping for rest; and functional limitations, which include stooping, crouching or kneeling.

The study focused primarily on trends for the more recent 60-69 age group -- those born between 1930 and 1944, just before the start of the Baby Boom, whose data was included in the 1999-2004 NHANES. In particular, researchers felt this group could offer insights into the health of the Boomers following them, who are now entering their 60s.

Older generation has fewer disabilities

The researchers found that between the periods 1988-94 and 1999-2004, disability among those in their 60s increased between 40 and 70 percent in each area studied except functional limitations, independent of sociodemographic characteristics, health status and behaviors, and relative weight. The increases were considerably higher among non-white and overweight subgroups.

By contrast, the researchers found no significant changes among the group aged 70 to 79, while the 80-plus group actually saw a drop in functional limitations.

One reason for this uptick, researchers say, is that disabilities may be linked with the changing demographic make up of the U.S. population. The fastest growing segments of the population, they say, are over-represented when it comes to obesity, for example.

The researchers note that their controls for differences in socio-demographics, health status and health behavior do not completely explain the increase in disability trends among the 60- to 69-year olds. Still, the trends within that group "are disturbing," Seeman said.

"Increases in disability in that group are concerning because it's a big group," she said. "These may be people who have longer histories of being overweight, and we may be seeing the consequences of that. We're not sure why these disabilities are going up. But if this trend continues, it could have a major impact on us, due to the resources that will have to be devoted to those people."

 



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Protecting Your Credit Card From Unauthorized Charges

Think before giving anyone your credit card information

Protecting Your Credit Card From Unauthorized Charges...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 11, 2009
As the economy has worsened, the number of scams targeting credit and debit cards appears to be on the rise. Consumers should carefully protect their credit card information to prevent becoming a victim.

An unauthorized charge can be when someone has stolen your credit card or its number and expiration date. The law is very clear about consumers' rights in these cases.

By reporting the unauthorized charges to your credit card company's fraud department, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says consumers can limit their liability for unauthorized credit card charges to $50, under the Fair Credit Billing Act.

To take advantage of the law's consumer protections, you must:

• Write to the creditor at the address given for "billing inquiries," not the address for sending your payments. Include your name, address, account number and a description of the billing error, including the amount and date of the error.

• Send your letter so that it reaches the creditor within 60 days after the first bill containing the error was mailed to you. If the address on your account was changed by an identity thief and you never received the bill, your dispute letter still must reach the creditor within 60 days of when the creditor would have mailed the bill. This is why it's so important to keep track of your billing statements and immediately follow up when your bills don't arrive on time.

• Send your letter by certified mail, and request a return receipt. This will be your proof of the date the creditor received the letter. Include copies (NOT originals) of sales slips or other documents that support your position. Keep a copy of your dispute letter.

The creditor must acknowledge the consumers' complaint in writing within 30 days after receiving it, unless the problem has been resolved. The creditor must resolve the dispute within two billing cycles (but not more than 90 days) after receiving the letter.

Other unauthorized charges

But many unauthorized charges are made, not by people who physically steal your credit card, but by companies that claim you have made a legitimate purchase. Usually a consumer has never heard of the company making the charge, so rightly feels they could not have authorized the charge.

"I recently noticed a charge to my checking account for 11.99 from "great Fun CT," Jeanette, of East Rutherford, N.J., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "After further investigation I realized these charges were being charges to my checking account on a monthly basis starting Dec. of 08."

Jeanette tracked down the company, Trilegiant, and was told they had proof she had registered for the "membership" and agreed to pay the monthly fee. She was told a copy of the authorization would be mailed to her, but she says it never came.

These types of unauthorized charges stem from "negative option" marketing practices, where the consumer may accept a "free" gift but provide their credit card number for a small shipping and payment fee. Later much larger fees appear on their credit card bill. When they complain, the company claims they agreed to purchase additional "services," with the agreement buried in the fine print.

Clear and conspicuous

How does the law treat these kinds of unauthorized purchases? The FTC says the law requires that any additional sale to the consumer must be stated in a "clear and conspicuous" manner. That leaves plenty of gray area for the company and the consumer to disagree over what is "clear and conspicuous."

To fight these types of unauthorized charges, consumers should ask their credit card company to challenge the charge as fraudulent. According to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, actions that a bank can take in reviewing a claim are:

• Looking at the transaction in light of other purchases,

• Reviewing if the goods were delivered to the residence or place of business,

• Comparing signatures, requesting a police report,

• Requesting documentation to assist in validating the claim,

• Requesting a signed written statement from the cardholder or authorized user, and

• Requesting information about the cardholder's knowledge of the person who allegedly used the card or of that person's authority to do so.

The bank will notify you of the results of their investigation.

Avoiding the hassle

Consumers, of course, want to avoid having to go through this hassle in the first place. That requires being very careful in how you use your credit card.

For starters, never agree to accept a "free" gift or "trial" offer, especially if it is offered at the conclusion of a legitimate transaction in which you have used your credit card. Plenty of well known companies that you have done business with have had third party marketing agreement with other marketers, sharing your credit card information without your knowledge or consent.

Be especially careful with your debit card, since it is an entryway to your bank account. Money removed from your account in an unauthorized transaction is almost impossible to recover.

Be very leery of any telemarketer who requests your bank information or your credit card number "for verification." Keep in mind that, since 1996, a seller or telemarketer is required by law to obtain your verifiable authorization to obtain payment from your bank account.

That means whoever takes your bank account information over the phone must have your express permission to debit your account, and must use one of three ways to get it.

The person must tell you that money will be taken from your bank account. If you authorize payment of money from your bank account, they must then get your written authorization, tape record your authorization, or send you a written confirmation before debiting your bank account.

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Study Finds Sexual Problems in Human Males Exposed to High BPA Levels

Researcher: latest findings 'can't be dismissed'

Study Finds Sexual Problems in Human Males Exposed to High BPA Levels...

By Truman Lewis
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 11, 2009
Barely one week after Consumer Reports found unexpectedly high levels of the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) in name-brand food products, a federally-financed study says the substance appears to cause erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems in men. A study released last month linked exposure to BPA during pregnancy to hyperactivity and aggression in girls.

BPA, a synthetic version of estrogen, is used in everything from plastic baby bottles to canned food linings and has been detected in the urine of 93 percent of the U.S. population. It has been linked to a wide array of health effects including reproductive abnormalities, heightened risk of breast and prostate cancers, diabetes, and heart disease.

The latest study, published in the journal Human Reproduction, was conducted on male workers at four factories in China, is the first to study the effects of BPA on human males. Previous studies have used mice and rats, a point often seized upon by industry-backed critics who have claimed there is no evidence of ill effects on humans.

"Critics dismissed all the animal studies," said De-Kun Li of the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute, which conducted the study with funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, The Washington Post reported. "Now we have a human study and this can't just be dismissed."

Nevertheless, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) -- which represents the chemical industry -- was quick to discount the findings.

This study of occupational exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) among male factory workers in China provides interesting new information, although its relevance to average consumers who use products containing minute amounts of BPA is limited, at best," said Steven G. Hentges, Ph.D., of the ACC's Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group. "Based on the significant differences between occupational exposure and consumer exposure, the studys authors state, the findings from this study probably do not apply to populations that are exposed to low levels of BPA." he noted.

600 workers

Researchers followed more than 600 workers over a five-year period and compared their sexual well-being with that of male workers in other Chinese plants where no BPA was present. They found that men handling BPA were four times as likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction and seven times as likely to have difficulty ejaculating.

Researchers said they did not have to wait long to see the results of BPA exposure. Within just a few months of starting to work at the factories, the study's subjects began to develop sexual dysfunction.

While exposure levels in the Chinese group were as much as 50 times what an average U.S. male faces, Li said the findings nevertheless raise questions about the safety of exposure at lesser levels.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) last week said it would spend $30 million to examine the safety of BPA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to release its own findings from an ongoing study within the next month.

A recent EPA study found that exposure to low levels of BPA had no effect on a range of reproductive and behavioral activities measured. But the FDA's scientific advisory board has cited more than 100 studies linking BPA with health effects and the Obama administration has pressed agencies to take a "fresh look" at the issue.

FDA panel

An FDA special scientific advisory panel reported in late 2008 that the agency's basis for setting safety standards to protect consumers was inadequate and should be reevaluated. A congressional subcommittee determined in 2009 that the agency relied too heavily on studies sponsored by the American Plastics Council. The FDA, now under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg, is expected to announce soon its reassessment of BPA safety. Bills are currently pending in Congress that would ban the use of BPA in all food and beverage containers.

Consumers who are concerned might be able to reduce, though not necessarily eliminate, their dietary exposure to BPA by taking the following steps:

• Choose fresh food whenever possible.

• Consider alternatives to canned food, beverages, juices, and infant formula.

• Use glass containers when heating food in microwave ovens.



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Class Action Suit Filed Against AARP

Alleges group misled consumers as to extent of medical insurance coverage

Couple files class action lawsuit claiming that ads led them to believe the group's Medical Advantage Plan which is no longer being sold through AARP was a...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 11, 2009
AARP is taking more heat over marketing of one of its insurance plans, as a Texas couple files a class action lawsuit claiming that ads led them to believe the group's Medical Advantage Plan -- which is no longer being sold through AARP -- was a primary insurance plan, rather than one providing limited coverage for crucial medical care.

James and Alison Halperin received a packet touting the Medical Advantage Plan in early 2008, and were so excited that they dropped their existing policy and signed up. Shortly thereafter, Alison was diagnosed with breast cancer and informed that she would need costly surgery. In case that wasn't bad enough, the Halperins were treated to another kick in the gut when they found out their new AARP-provided plan wouldn't cover the urgent procedure.

The Halperins' policy, provided by UnitedHealth Group, is a so-called limited benefit plan: its coverage is limited to a specific dollar amount. Typical insurance plans, by contrast, cover a percentage of all health-related costs, regardless of how high the bill ends up being. Unfortunately for the Halperins, AARP's plan is especially stingy in its coverage of surgical procedures, providing anywhere from a few hundred to $10,000, depending on what kind of surgery is needed.

The plan's appeal lies in its relatively low premiums, attractive for consumers who might have trouble attaining a traditional plan or who are struggling in the still-gloomy economy. The plans are targeted to consumers between 50 and 64. An AARP spokesman said the plans were not designed to be comprehensive insurance, nor should they be communicated in this manner.

The Halperins accuse Washington, D.C.-based AARP of violating the city's Consumer Protections Procedure Act. Their complaint alleges that AARP has preyed upon Plaintiffs and thousands of Americans over age 50 by luring unsuspecting consumers in need of affordable health care to enroll in AARPs health insurance program.

Plan canceled

The Halperins' allegations are only the latest in a series of claims that AARP misled consumers as to the extent of the plan's coverage. Last year, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa sent a letter to AARP's then-CEO Bill Novelli voicing concerns that consumers who purchased the plan might not realize that it only provides limited coverage. Grassley also sounded the alarm about Essential Plus Health Insurance, a second AARP policy with similar terms as the Medical Advantage Plan.

Insurance is supposed to limit your exposure to the potentially high cost of a serious illness, Grassley told USA Today. These plans do the opposite.

The ensuing firestorm led AARP to stop offering the plans, technically known as "fixed-cash benefit indemnity plans."

Unkind year

All in all, 2009 has not been kind to AARP.

Approximately 60,000 seniors have canceled their memberships since July, apparently in protest of the group's support for health insurance reform. A competing, conservative-backed group creatively named the American Seniors Association has been trying to woo AARP members over to its side. While AARP originally refused to back a specific bill, the group last week endorsed the Affordable Health Care for America Act, the bill currently snaking its way through Congress.



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Hospital Readmission Rate High For Medicare Heart Failure Patients

Research shows need for improved care

Hospital Readmission Rate High For Medicare Heart Failure Patients...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 11, 2009
Almost a quarter of heart failure patients insured by with Medicare are back in the hospital within a month after discharge, researchers report in Circulation: Heart Failure, a journal of the American Heart Association.

Each year, from 2004 through 2006, more than a half million Medicare recipients over age 65 went to the hospital for heart failure and were discharged. And each year, about 23 percent returned to the hospital within 30 days -- signaling a need to improve care, researchers said. Readmission rates for all causes were almost identical all three years.

"I was hoping for improvement and was disappointed to find that was not the case," said Joseph S. Ross, M.D., M.H.S., the study's lead author and an assistant professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "Despite the increased focus on the need to reduce readmissions, about a quarter of patients are back into the hospital within 30 days."

Heart failure occurs when a heart weakened by disease can no longer pump effectively. Before discharge heart failure patients should receive written information on:

• Eating a proper diet;

• Engaging in appropriate physical activity;

• Taking medicines correctly;

• Monitoring their weight; and

• Knowing what to do if their symptoms worsen.

However, the current fee system in the United States doesn't encourage a focus on prevention, researchers said. In their analysis, they report doctors and hospitals are financially awarded more for treating and hospitalizing patients, not for preventing hospitalizations through such strategies as disease management.

"Physicians aren't paid to coordinate care," Ross said. "That physician is busy seeing patients and that's what they're paid to do. If we want to deliver better care, this trend is what we need to address."

Another barrier to optimal care is a lack of communications between doctors who care for patients in the hospital and the patients' regular physicians who help patients manage their chronic disease, Ross said. The disruption to the continuum of care can have a negative effect on the patient.

The average age of patients in the study was 80 years and more than half (57 percent) were women. Most patients had multiple chronic diseases: 60 percent had heart arrhythmias; 73 percent had atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries; 49 percent had diabetes; and 29 percent had kidney failure.

"Coming back and forth into the hospital isn't good for patients, and it isn't good for the healthcare system," said Ross, who plans to research the reasons heart failure patients are readmitted to the hospital. "This is a tremendous challenge."

Findings of the study are important for patients and hospitals, Ross said.

"Patients should use this information to vet hospitals, to look at the quality of care delivered there and ask questions about the care they receive," he said. "Hospitals should consider the rehospitalization rate a grade which, from these findings, needs improvement."



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Class Action Filed Against SnapNames.com

Company VP may have submitted thousands of false bids to inflate sale prices

SnapNames.com, a prominent domain auction site, has been served with a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of consumers defrauded by a company vice pres...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 11, 2009
SnapNames.com, a prominent domain auction site, has been served with a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of consumers defrauded by a company vice president who allegedly submitted bids in an attempt to artificially drive up prices.

According to the complaint, filed Monday in a Miami court, Nelson Brady, Vice President of Engineering at SnapNames, submitted bids in tens of thousands of auctions over a four-year period, forcing good-faith bidders to shell out extra cash for their desired domains.

SnapNames announced the scandal in a notice sent out last week. The statement included the stunning admission that the fraudulent bids affected a full five percent of auctions since 2005 no small amount, given that the site holds hundreds of auctions every day. The company says that the employee flew under management's radar, setting up an account under a false name. This is a clear violation of our internal policy and was not approved by the company, according to the statement.

Perhaps anticipating litigation, SnapNames immediately promised rebates to consumers affected by Nelson's actions, to avoid any question about whether the company benefited from this conduct. Rebates will be for the difference between the prices they [consumers] paid in winning auctions, and the prices they would have paid had the employee not bid in the auctions. How the company plans to determine the difference between those two amounts is anybody's guess, although it says it will appoint an auditor to evaluate each consumer's claim.

The case is being handled by Santiago Cuerto, a Miami-based lawyer with the Cuerto Law Group. He filed the suit after his brother, who participated in auctions on SnapNames during the relevant time period, learned of the scam.

Cuerto told PC Magazine that his brother had suspected false bidding on a number of domain auction sites. He's been frustrated by the process for years, Cueto said of Carlos Cuerto. I think the entire industry needs to be cleaned up. To that end, Cuerto said he won't hesitate to file additional suits against other domain name sites if and where phantom bidding is occurring.

Brady, who used the handle Halvarez, apparently attracted the attention of fellow bidders long before the scandal was uncovered. A namepros.com thread from early 2006 features one frustrated user asking for good tactics on beating this guy on snapnames. Further downthread, a fellow bidder asks, Is that guy 'halveraz'? He seems to be there most of the time on my names, and I operate in a very specialized niche.

Users on a March 2009 dotweekly.com thread expressed a mixture of curiosity and grudging respect for the phantom bidder. User Acro notes that Our buddy 'halvarez' has transformed this practice into a science at Snapnames. Farther down, Ms Domainer remarks, Halvarez is legend; he has appeared in many of my auctions, tucked safely in the middle of the bidding list. A user named Tony says, In defense of 'Halvarez', he doesnt back out of domain bids.

SnapNames is encouraging those with questions to contact the company at (866) 690-6279 or support@snapnames.com. The company has also posted an FAQ page on its website. The Cuerto Law Firm is asking for affected consumers to contact them at (305) 777-0377 or info@cuertolawgroup.com.

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Target Settles New Jersey Consumer Charges

Sold expired infant formula at some stores

Target Settles New Jersey Consumer Charges...

National retailer Target has agreed to pay $375,000 to settle New Jersey charges that it sold infant formula and non-prescription drugs beyond expiration dates, sold merchandise that did not match posted prices, and failed to post prices on its merchandise.

The settlement also resolves allegations that Target failed to maintain sufficient quantities of advertised merchandise, failed to post its rain check policy, failed to post bicycle safety notices, and violated a previous Consent Order with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.

As part of the settlement, Target has voluntarily created a new senior management position, entitled Group Pricing Compliance Specialist, whose duties include monitoring compliance with Target's policies as well as the settlement terms as to price accuracy. Target has also agreed to provide all Target employees in the state with initial training as to price accuracy. The compliance position and the initial training shall be in effect for two years.

"We will continue to monitor all major retail chains to ensure that consumer rights are protected and out-of-date non-prescription drugs and infant formula are not available for sale on store shelves," said New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram.

The Office of the Attorney General, the Division of Consumer Affairs, and the Office of Weights and Measures filed suit against Target in September 2008, after inspections of 21 of the company's 40 New Jersey stores by investigators from the Division's Office of Consumer Protection and the Office of Weights and Measures.

Under the settlement, Target has agreed not to sell or offer for sale any non-prescription drugs or infant formula beyond their expiration dates, to check the expiration dates before displaying such merchandise for sale, to conduct weekly checks of the expiration dates of the merchandise offered for sale and to arrange for the destruction or return to the manufacturer or supplier of any expired merchandise removed from the store shelves.

Further, Target agreed not to sell or offer for sale merchandise at a price that exceeds the price posted at the point of display. Target also agreed not to sell or offer for sale any merchandise unless the total selling price is plainly marked by a stamp, tag, label or sign. In addition, Target agreed to have a sufficient quantity of advertised merchandise to meet anticipated demand or shall advertise merchandise as available in limited quantities. Finally, Target agreed to conspicuously post its raincheck policy as well as the notices required by the state's Bicycle Safety Act and Regulations.

The $375,000 settlement amount represents $350,000 in civil penalties, $10,000 to reimburse the state's attorney fees, and $15,000 to reimburse the state's investigative costs.



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Companies Sued For Credit Card Interest Rate Scheme

Consumers warned about telemarketers' claims of immediate savings

Companies Sued For Credit Card Interest Rate Scheme...

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed suit targeting a telemarketing scam that promises to reduce consumers' credit card interest rates immediately, but ultimately fails to achieve any savings for consumers.

"During these difficult economic times, consumers are understandably looking for ways to ease the burdens of rising debt," Madigan said. "But I urge consumers to be wary when solicitors try to make tempting claims of 'immediate' savings. In such cases, the schemers rarely deliver and usually leave consumers in an even worse financial situation than before."

Madigan filed suit against Priority Direct Marketing International, Inc. (PDMI), a Bedford, Texas-based telemarketing firm run by its President, William Fithian, and Advanced Management Services NW, LLC (AMS), a Spokane, Wash.-based firm owned by Ryan Bishop.

The suit claims that the two companies work in a concerted telemarketing scheme to solicit and enroll consumers in deceptive debt negotiation service agreements that promise to immediately reduce consumers' credit card interest rates, with a guaranteed savings of $2,500.

PDMI and AMS telemarketing representatives allegedly promise consumers that the companies will negotiate with consumers' credit card companies to lower interest rates, and will provide full refunds if they are unsuccessful.

After consumers agree to enroll in the program, the telemarketing schemers allegedly charge consumers' credit cards for set up fees ranging from $391 up to $1,590, the suit contends. The defendants allegedly tell consumers that these fees will be reimbursed at a later date by the consumers' banks. Only after consumers' credit cards are charged for the setup fees do they receive any documentation on the program's terms and conditions, which on several points, contradict the telemarketers claims in their sales solicitations.

Specifically, PDMI and AMS misleadingly claim that they can guarantee an interest rate reduction for all customers or provide full refunds in instances where rate reductions are not secured. When customers have requested refunds, after the defendants have failed to negotiate any interest rate reductions, the defendants allegedly refuse altogether or give refunds minus a non-refundable $199 fee that was not disclosed during the sales pitch.

Madigan's lawsuit charges the defendants with violating the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act by misrepresenting the services they provide to consumers and the effects the services will have on consumers' credit.

The suit asks the court to enter a permanent injunction barring the defendants from engaging in debt settlement in Illinois and to order the defendants to pay restitution for complainants, civil penalties of $50,000 for violating the Consumer Fraud Act, and an additional $50,000 for each violation committed with the intent to defraud.

Madigan advises consumers looking for legitimate financial assistance to consider credit counseling services that charge modest fees and provide true financial and budget counseling based on a consumer's personal circumstances.



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Florida Accuses Loan Modifiers Of Fraud

Companies charged homeowners upfront fees

Florida Accuses Loan Modifiers Of Fraud...

States continue to step up pressure on companies marketing loan modification services to distressed homeowners, calling some of these operations out and out scams.

In Florida, Attorney General Bill McCollum has sued two Central Florida companies and their owner over allegations they charged up-front fees for foreclosure rescue-related services.

National Payment Modification Company and The Bostonian Group, LLC, which conducts business under the name People's First, allegedly charge up to $2,500 in up-front fees to homeowners trying to rescue their homes from foreclosure.

Also named in the lawsuit is William Rodriguez, the owner of both companies, who was a founding owner of Wineberg, Lopez, & Rodriguez Company. The Attorney General's Office sued Wineberg, Lopez, & Rodriguez Company in March and obtained an emergency injunction barring the company from charging homeowners any fee in advance for providing foreclosure-related rescue services. That case is still pending in Orange County Circuit Court.

An investigation conducted by members of the Attorney General's Economic Crimes Division, working as part of the Attorney General's Mortgage Fraud Task Force, determined that both companies charge the up-front fee and divide it into five equal payments secured by post dated checks.

Each check, according to the lawsuit, is associated with a separate "sub-contract" or step in the loan modification process. Consumers complained that both companies cash the post-dated checks even though the companies have not begun negotiations or even contacted the consumers' lenders.

The Attorney General's Office is seeking permanent injunctions prohibiting the companies from charging up-front fees, restitution on behalf of injured consumers, civil penalties of $15,000 for each violation, and reimbursement for attorney's fees and costs related to the investigation.

The Attorney General's Office has filed numerous civil lawsuits to enforce the state law prohibiting companies from charging up-front fees for foreclosure-related rescue services and is currently investigating over 75 additional companies.

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Avoid Fraud When Holiday Shopping Online

AutoTrader.com offers smart buying tips

Avoid Fraud When Holiday Shopping Online: With the holiday season rapidly approaching, more and more consumers will be turning to the Web to purchase gifts...

With the holiday season rapidly approaching, more and more consumers will be turning to the Web to purchase gifts for family and friends. According to the National Retail Federation, nearly half of consumers plan to use the Internet to purchase holiday gifts this year. But these shoppers need to be aware and prepared for a very real concern when surfing the Web -- online fraud.

In conjunction with International Fraud Awareness Week (November 8 to 14), AutoTrader.com, is setting out to help educate consumers on how to protect themselves when shopping online.

"The Internet has made shopping easier than ever, even for high-ticket items such as homes and vehicles," says Sid Kirchheimer, author of Scam Proof Your Life. "But with this increased convenience comes a growing number of scams, especially during the busy holiday shopping season, and there's a greater need for people to learn what to look out for and how to protect themselves."

Kirchheimer offers the following online fraud awareness tips when shopping online:

• Research Prices. When researching cars and other big-ticket items for sale online, similar items typically fall into a general price range. If one falls way below that range, be suspicious. Scammers use ridiculously low prices to lure consumers to their ads. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

• Don't Fall For Sob Stories. Beware of "act now" low-ball price offers accompanied with a story that speaks of some hardship on the seller's part -- such as a soldier needing to sell a car quickly before being deploying to Iraq, or a recent divorcee wanting to sell her husband's belongings. These bogus ruses usually just empty your wallet, as the items typically don't exist.

• Don't Rush. A seller pushing to rush a transaction could be trying to prey on a consumer's desire for the item.

• Watch for "Scammer Grammar." Many scammers posting fraudulent ads are based overseas, and English is not their native tongue. In online ads or in email correspondence, watch for frequent misspellings, misused words or other errors not likely to be made by someone fluent in English.

• Make Phone Contact. Be suspicious of sellers who want to correspond only by email -- and are not willing to provide a telephone contact number.

• No Wire Transfers! A wire transfer is the quickest way to lose money -- especially if it's sent overseas, outside the jurisdiction of U.S. officials. If buying a car or another large item locally, make an in-person transaction with cash, money order or another method sanctioned by a bank. If buying from a more distant seller, talk to a bank or reputable escrow service about ways to safely conduct this transaction.

• Never Go Alone. When meeting a seller to look at a car or other big-ticket items or to conclude the transaction, always go with a friend and, if possible, meet in a public place during the day.

• Don't Go Off-Site. Many scammers cruise reputable online auction sites, but may entice you to go offline for a similar item. Others will email a link to another site, claiming that it is helping with the transaction. But once you leave a reputable site, your vulnerability to a financial swindle or identity theft increases.

• See the Product. Many scammers post ads for cars and other items that don't even exist -- they simply steal the pictures and descriptions from other sources. When buying any high-ticket item, insist that you see it in person, get proof it is owned by the seller and be able to have it inspected before any money is exchanged.

• Use Common Sense. If a shopping experience does not feel right, pay attention to the warning signs and verify that the site and seller are safe before proceeding with the transaction.

"It's easy to fall into a trap when shopping online if you're not prepared or don't know what to look out for," said Keely Funkhouser, director of fraud prevention strategies at AutoTrader.com. "But by following just a few simple tips, consumers can be more confident and careful when using the Web to make any online purchases."



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Tagged To Pay New York $500,000 In Penalties

Company 'hijacked' users' address books to send out spam

Tagged To Pay New York $500,000 In Penalties...

From the very beginning, the social networking site Tagged.com rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, reading users' email address books and sending out promotional email to their lists of contact.

It not only angered consumers but drew the attention of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who says his office has stopped the company from misappropriating the contacts lists and identities of its members and from sending out millions of deceptive and unsolicited promotional emails.

Through an agreement with Cuomo's office, the company must pay $500,000 in penalties and costs to the state and adopt industry-leading measures regarding the access and use of its members' personal information.

"Unsuspecting users had no idea that Tagged had hijacked the email addresses of their colleagues, families and friends for the purpose of blasting them with spam," Cuomo said. "This agreement holds the company accountable for its invasion of privacy and puts the proper safeguards in place to keep it from happening again."

In June, Cuomo announced his notice of intent to sue the company for deceptive acts after his office became aware that Tagged had sent more than 60 million misleading emails to unsuspecting recipients stating that Tagged members had posted private photos online for their friends to view.

In reality, no such photos existed and the email was not from their friends. When recipients of these fraudulent emails tried to access the photos, they were told that they had to sign up for Tagged.com. The company would then deceptively gain access to the new members' personal email contacts to send out more fraudulent invitations.

The invitations were constructed to appear as if they had been sent directly from members' personal email accounts instead of from Tagged.com. The emails falsely stated that "[name] sent you photos on Tagged."

If a member had added a personal image to the website, Tagged also included that picture in these fraudulent email solicitations. Many consumers had no idea that Tagged had accessed their email contact lists or used their photos until they were told by family, friends and business contacts that the company had sent out invitations in the consumers' names.

As a result of the settlement with the company, Tagged must adopt a series of stringent reforms designed to set an industry standard for how social networking sites send out invitation emails. Tagged must provide clear and conspicuous disclosures when asking for access to a new user's email contacts and will no longer access those contacts or send messages on behalf of a Tagged member without that member's informed permission. Before sending out email invitations, the company must also verify the emails with new members to make sure they do not inadvertently invite everyone on their contact lists.

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Florida Most Dangerous State For Pedestrians

Nine of top 10 most dangerous metros in the south

Florida Most Dangerous State For Pedestrians...

Florida has plenty of sunshine for taking long walks, but it also has the worst record in the nation when it comes to pedestrian accidents.

A new report by Transportation For America (T4), a coalition of transportation policy groups, has found that the Orlando, Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville metro areas are the top four most dangerous cities for walking. Memphis, Tenn., is number five.

Using federal statistics, the report says that in the last 15 years, more than 76,000 Americans have been killed while crossing or walking along a street in their community. More than 43,000 Americans -- including 3,906 children under 16 -- have been killed this decade alone.

"This is the equivalent of a jumbo jet going down roughly every month, yet it receives nothing like the kind of attention that would surely follow such a disaster," the authors write.

Children, the elderly, and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in this figure, but people of all ages and all walks of life have been struck down in the simple act of walking, the report states.

While most of these incidents are officially listed as accidents, T4 said it sees a pattern in the overwhelming majority of these deaths.

Dangerous by design

"They occurred along roadways that were dangerous by design, streets that were engineered for speeding cars and made little or no provision for people on foot, in wheelchairs or on a bicycle," the report said.

Nine of the 10 most dangerous cities for pedestrians are in the south, and T4 says that drives home the point that design is a factor. Most of these cities developed following World War II, and their street and highway design facilitated the use of automobiles, not foot traffic.

While it is still unnecessarily dangerous for pedestrians to walk, health experts are making the case that it can be just as deadly not to walk. Even as these preventable deaths mount, there has been a growing recognition that walking and bicycling -- what many now refer to as "active transportation" are critical to increasing levels of healthy exercise and reducing obesity and heart disease.

T4 says it has become increasingly clear that these clean, human-powered modes of transportation are an essential part of efforts to limit the negative impacts of traffic congestion, oil dependency and climate change. In recent years, it notes, community after community has begun to retrofit poorly designed roads to become complete streets, adding sidewalks and bicycle lanes, reducing crossing distances and installing trees and crosswalks to make walking and biking safer and more inviting. The resulting safer streets have saved the lives of both pedestrians and motorists even as they promote health by leading many residents to become more physically active.

"There still is a long way to go to repair the damage done to communities in the past, even as we begin to shift policies and design philosophy to build streets that are safer for pedestrians and motorists alike," the authors write. "However, there are a growing number of excellent models to build on and thousands of communities eager to move forward."

The coalition says the upcoming rewrite of the nation's transportation policy presents a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to create safer streets that will be critical to keeping our neighborhoods livable, our population more fit and our nation less dependent on foreign oil.

 



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Companies Warned Against Marketing Illegal Flavored Cigarettes

FDA letters spell out consequences

Companies Warned Against Marketing Illegal Flavored Cigarettes...

In an effort to more strictly enforce the flavored cigarette ban provision of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (Tobacco Control Act), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has sent out several warning letters to companies continuing to sell illegal flavored cigarettes to consumers in the United States through their Web sites.

The letters direct the companies to cease the marketing and sale of these products immediately or to take other appropriate action to bring the products into compliance with the law. Failure to do so may result in additional regulatory actions such as seizure or injunction. In addition, FDA requested a written response from each of the companies within 15 days outlining the corrective actions taken.

Enforcement of the flavored cigarette ban is FDA's effort to remove cigarettes that contain certain candy or fruit flavors from the marketplace. The agency believes removing these products from the market will assist in the prevention of children and adolescents from starting to smoke and in the reduction in death and disease caused by smoking.

"FDA takes the enforcement of this flavored cigarette ban seriously," said Lawrence R. Deyton, M.S.P.H, M.D., director of FDA's Center for Tobacco Products. "These actions should send a clear message to those who continue to break the law that FDA will take necessary actions to protect our children from initiating tobacco use."

The Tobacco Control Act, which was passed by Congress and signed by the president in June 2009, specifically called for a ban on cigarettes containing certain characterizing flavors. On Sept. 14, 2009, FDA sent a letter to regulated industry reminding them that the ban would go into effect on Sept. 22, 2009. FDA also stated in the letter that any company that continued to sell such products after the Sept. 22, 2009, effective date might be subject to FDA enforcement actions.

Since the effective date of the ban, FDA has examined products offered for import and searched the Internet to identify illegal products. As a result, the agency issued several warning letters to companies and Web sites that continued to market and sell these illegal products over the Internet to consumers in the United States. The warning letters were the result of Internet searches conducted by FDA's Office of Enforcement and the Center for Tobacco Products.

 



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Class Action Says Kellogg Sugar-Coats Cereal's Health Benefits

Company claims Cocoa Krispies boost immunity to illness

Class Action Says Kellogg Sugar-Coats Cereal's Health Benefits...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 9, 2009
Kellogg is facing a class action suit over its claim that Cocoa Krispies help boost children's immunity to illness. The suit is the latest in a series involving allegedly dubious claims about everyday food products, particularly cereals.

The suit, filed in federal court in California, says that Kellogg makes false and misleading statements about the chocolatey, sweetened rice cereal. Kellogg claims that eating just three-fourths of a cup of Cocoa Krispies will boost a family's immunity to illness. The company also boasts via TV ads, the internet, and the cereal box itself that the cereal provides 25 percent of of needed antioxidants and nutrients, and is an excellent source of vitamins A, B, C, and E.

The class counters that Kellogg has no scientific basis for its claim that eating Cocoa Krispies will help fight illness or otherwise promote good health. It says that Kellogg's sole motive is to attract consumers looking for functional foods those that provide some health benefit besides merely providing nutrition. Because Kellogg's claims are not backed up by clinical trials or other reliable evidence, the plaintiffs say the company has prioritized profits ahead of its customers.

The suit essentially accuses Kellogg of throwing a couple of antioxidants into Cocoa Krispies so it can then claim that the cereal is providing indispensable nutrients. The plaintiffs also say that any possible benefits are likely canceled out by the cereal's sugar, chocolate, high-fructose corn syrup and/or partially-hydrogenated oils. Indeed, the plaintiffs suggest, these ingredients may actually negatively affect consumers' health.

Cocoa Krispies aren't likely the first thing that come to mind when parents think of a healthy cereal. Introduced in 1958, the product is basically standard Rice Krispies injected with chocolate. The cereal is perhaps best known for its ability to rapidly turn standard-issue milk into chocolate milk. And, even if it does provide some health benefit, the cereal is a full 40 percent sugar by weight. One serving three-fourths of a cup contains 10.5 grams of sugar, and less than a gram of fiber.

By contrast, a one-cup serving of Wheaties provides only 4.2 grams of sugar and a full three grams of fiber. Frosted Mini Wheats, another Kellogg product, may be sugar laden at nearly 12 grams per serving, but they also provide almost six grams of fiber 25 percent of the daily requirement.

The plaintiffs say that Kellogg's immune-boosting claim is particularly egregious in light of the current H1N1 ('swine') flu epidemic in California and the rest of the nation. They are seeking an injunction and restitution for cereal purchased in reliance on Kellogg's claims.

The class isn't alone in crying foul over Kellogg's campaign. Last week, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera wrote a letter to the company's CEO, asking for proof of Kellogg's claims. A spokesman for Herrera told SFWeekly.com that the content and prominence of Kellogg's claims is a significant departure from normal marketing-speak.

The suit comes on the heels of a similar action filed against General Mills regarding its claim that eating Cheerios reduces cholesterol and thus helps fight heart disease. There, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) warned General Mills that it was promoting Cheerios as if the cereal were a drug, intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease. That case is pending in a New Jersey federal court.



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Maclaren USA Recalls Strollers Following Fingertip Amputations

Children's fingers can get caught in the hinge mechanism

Maclaren USA Recalls Strollers Following Fingertip Amputations...

November 9, 2009
Maclaren USA is recalling about 1 million strollers following several reports of infants' fingertips being amputated by the hinge mechanism when the stroller is being unfolded.

The firm has received 15 reports of children placing their finger in the stroller's hinge mechanism, resulting in 12 reports of fingertip amputations in the United States. Consumers have also complained to ConsumerAffairs.com about other problems with the expensive strollers, most notably the wheels breaking off unexpectedly.

This recall involves all Maclaren single and double umbrella strollers. The word 'Maclaren' is printed on the stroller. The affected models included Volo, Triumph, Quest Sport, Quest Mod, Techno XT, TechnoXLR, Twin Triumph, Twin Techno and Easy Traveller.

The strollers were sold at Babies'R'Us, Target and other juvenile product and mass merchandise retailers nationwide from 1999 through November 2009 for between $100 and $360. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled strollers and contact Maclaren USA to receive a free repair kit.

For additional information, contact Maclaren USA toll-free at (877) 688-2326 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or visit the firm's Web site at www.maclaren.us/recall.

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

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Class Action Accuses PG&E of Overcharges

Utility accused of negligence, fraud in SmartMeter program

California man filed suit against Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), alleging that the company's SmartMeter program consistently overcharges him for ga...

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Forest Labs Still Struggling To Meet Armour Thyroid Demand

Mystery about the shortage remains unresolved

Forest Labs Still Struggling To Meet Armour Thyroid Demand...

Chances are you've never heard of a drug called Armour Thyroid. However, if you suffer from a thyroid condition, chances are good you not only know about it, but have spent the last few months in a vain attempt to find it.

"I was told today that I would no longer be able to get my prescription of Armour Thyroid filled due to a shortage in the product," Catherine, of Farmersville, Texas, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "How can a company have a shortage of a product that millions of Americans depend on for their very lives? My mother passed away when I was 15 from an untreated thyroid problem. I myself have already had a heart attack due to complications from my thyroid.

"I am unable to take the synthetic thyroid meds, due to allergic reactions. I sit here now, looking at my own daughter and grieving the thought of not being alive to see her graduate, get married, have children, all due to the fact that I can't get my medication."

Catherine, and hundreds more thyroid patients, have contacted ConsumerAffairs.com since April, when the product began to fall into short supply. Many are distraught that the drug is not available, saying it has been the only thing that has helped their thyroid condition and allow them to live a normal life.

Armour Thyroid is a "natural" hormone replacement therapy because the thyroid glands are collected from pigs. The thyroids are processed, dried, powdered, and compounded to produce Armour Thyroid tablets.

Armour Thyroid is produced by a pharmaceutical firm called Forest Laboratories. In a statement on its Web site, the company has apologized for the supply interruption. It also has some good news.

"A supply of powdered Thyroid gland, the active ingredient of Armour Thyroid, has been made available to Forest by its supplier," the company said. "Forest has produced and shipped a limited supply of 1 grain, also known as 60 mg. We understand that this limited distribution will not meet the current anticipated demand for the product, and we continue to work diligently to meet demand. Although Forest is addressing the backlog of Armour Thyroid as quickly as possible, we are not prepared at this time to give a definitive date by which the product will be fully restocked."

Why the shortage?

The mystery remains about the reason for the sudden shortage. The Internet has been rife with rumors about possible causes - everything from the government diverting ingredients for swine flu vaccine to an FDA determined to phase out the drug.

The problem for many thyroid patients, they contend, is the synthetic replacement for Armour Thyroid not only doesn't work, but comes with nasty side effects.

"Throughout the years I've tried three different times to switch (to synthetics) and it made me feel so bad I'd rather go without anything than to use it and I take 180 mg/day," Susan, of Vallejo, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "My heart raced and my pounded, I had trouble swallowing and felt shaky to the point my hands would visibly shake and I couldn't concentrate. My hair was falling out to the point the shower drain would get clogged."

 



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FDA Warns of Salmonella Risk in Beef Hooves, Pig Ears

Pets and humans at risk from contaminated pet chews

FDA Warns of Salmonella Risk in Beef Hooves, Pig Ears...

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns pet owners not to give their pets beef hooves or pig ears made by a California company because of possible salmonella contamination.

FDA officials late Thursday cautioned pet owners about the potentially-tainted products, made by Pet Carousel of Sanger, California, and distributed in bulk and retail packaging to stores nationwide.

Pet Carousel made the products under conditions that facilitate cross-contamination within batches or lots, the FDA said. No illnesses are linked to these products, but the FDA advised pet owners not to handle these items or give them to their pets.

FDA officials said this alert covers pig ear products with the brand names Doggie Delight and Pet Carousel and beef hooves that have the brand names Choo Hooves, Dentleys, Doggie Delight, and Pet Carousel. All sizes and lots of these products made by Pet Carousel are included in this warning.

FDA officials in September tested pig ears made by Pet Carousel and discovered the products contained salmonella.

Those findings prompted FDA officials to inspect Pet Carousels manufacturing facilities. During that inspection, the agency took additional pet treat samples and found salmonella present in beef hooves, pig ears, and in the manufacturing environment, the FDA said.

Dentley Beef Hoof

The agencys warning comes on the heels of a national recall issued by PetSmart of two Dentley Beef Hoof products because of possible salmonella contamination.

Those recalled products are:

• Dentley's Bulk Cattle Hoof UPC# 73725703323, use by date of 10/14/2012;

• Dentley's 10 Pack Beef Hooves UPC# 73725736055, use by date of 10/14/2012.

Pet Carousel shipped the recalled hooves from its California plant to three PetSmart distribution centers in Ottawa, Illinois, Groveport, Ohio, and Newnan, Georgia.

Some PetSmart stores -- not all -- received the recalled products. The national pet retailer, however, recalled all the items from all its U.S. stores as a precaution earlier this week. PetSmart also put a register block to prevent the sale of the recalled hooves in its stores, removed the items from the PetSmart.com Web site, and notified PetPerks customers who purchased the products.

Salmonella is a type of bacteria that can cause health problems in humans and animals, the FDA said. People handling dry pet food or pet treats can become infected with salmonella, especially if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after handling the products.

Healthy people infected with salmonella may experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever. In some cases, salmonella can cause arterial infections, endocarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart), arthritis, muscle pain, eye irritation, and urinary tract symptoms.

Pet owners who have any of those symptoms after handling these pet products should immediately contact their doctor.

Pets with salmonella infections may become lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever and vomiting, the FDA said. Some pets may only experience a decrease in their appetites, fever, and abdominal pain. Pets that have any of those symptoms should be seen by a veterinarian.

Easily spread

The FDA also warned that infected pets can spread the bacteria to other animals or humans.

Pet owners who purchased the recalled products should immediately discontinue use and return the hooves for a full refund.

More information about the recall is available on the companys Web site . Pet owners can also contact PetSmarts Customer Service at 1-888-839-9638.

In the meantime, the FDA said it will continue to investigate this matter to determine the source of the salmonella contamination.

Consumers with complaints about these or other FDA-regulated pet treats or food can call the FDA consumer complaint coordinator in their area.

 

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Unemployment Rate Hits 10.2 Percent In October

Rate may understate actual number of jobless

Unemployment Rate Hits 10.2 Percent In October...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 6, 2009
The number of people officially out of work went over the 10 percent mark in October, as the Labor Department put the unemployment rate at 10.2 percent, the highest in 26 years.

The U.S. economy lost another 190,000 jobs during the month. Some economists believe the actual rate is much higher, since some people may have given up looking for a job. Even more previously fulltime employees are now working only part time.

According to the October report, the largest job losses came in retailing, construction and manufacturing. While not many sectors added to their job rolls, health care was an exception, with 29,000 new employees.

The numbers took no one by surprise, as an increase to a double-digit jobless rate has been anticipated for some time. The question, however, is when Americans can expect an improvement. Economists commenting in various media reports suggest a recovery in the labor market will be a long time in coming.

"We may be looking at very high (unemployment)levels, barring a policy response, for several years into the future," Dean Baker, a director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told the New York Times.

While joblessness continues to rise, U.S. companies appear to have regained their economic footing. The third quarter earnings season has been marketed with better than expected earnings, helping the stock market continue its rally. However. A number of these companies have said their return to profitability was aided by cutting overhead, including jobs.

On Thursday members of Congress overwhelming voted to extend unemployment benefits for up to 20 weeks, a sign lawmakers also expect a long, slow recovery in the jobs market.



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Pennsylvania Settles With Bankrupt Debt Collector for $2.5 Million

American Corrective Counseling Services posed as District Attorney in letters to check bouncers

Pennsylvania Settles With Bankrupt Debt Collector for $2.5 Million...

According to the plaintiffs, ACCS has spent the past few years fraudulently telling consumers they were in danger of prosecution for writing bad checks, and offering to clear up the problem in return for a fee. The company's letters were designed to look like they were sent by a Pennsylvania District Attorney's office, and told consumers who bounced checks that they were required to pay fees and attend a "financial accountability class." In many cases, the letter indicated that the class itself cost nearly $200.

The letters were misleading and manipulative, according to Donald Driscoll, an attorney for the plaintiffs. Driscoll, of the Pittsburgh-based Community Justice Project, said that consumers who bounce checks are only subject to prosecution if the act was intentional.

American Corrective Counseling Services (ACCS) admits no wrongdoing under the agreement.

The Pennsylvania settlement is only the latest in a series of lawsuits concerning the company's scheme. Public Citizen, another consumer advocacy group, has brought similar suits against ACCS in Florida, California, and Indiana. Deepak Gupta, a Public Citizen attorney, called the company's practices "a misuse of public authority" and "a scam." He said ACCS is, for all intents and purposes, "renting out the name and authority of the prosecutor."

In fact, the company did contract with District Attorney's offices in a number of states, with DAs receiving a portion of fees collected by ACCS. These kickbacks added up -- Los Angeles alone has collected $1 million in the past four years.

A contract between ACCS and the San Bernadino, California, District Attorney, provides that ACCS will oversee the diversion seminars, and provide counseling services and administrative assistance to the DA. The contract goes on to state, however, that the DA retains its full prosecutorial discretion, and must approve in advance any mailings sent out regarding fees or the diversion program. ACCS's actions appear to be in direct contravention of that contract.

Gupta said he doesn't think District Attorneys were aware of the company's wrongdoing. "There have been prosecutors who've looked into this and realized what's going on and dropped it," he said.

ACCS sent out about 2 million letters per year, threatening cash-strapped consumers with prison and considerable fines unless they complied with the letter's orders. Many letters contained the bold, all-caps heading, "Official Notice -- Immediate Action Required," and went on to detail the sobering consequences of a failure to pay up.

A sample letter to a Florida consumer warns that "a felony conviction under this statute [for writing bad checks] is punishable by up to five (5) years in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000. Misdemeanor crimes are punishable by up to sixty (60) days in jail and/or $1,000 in fines." The letter goes on to promise that "[the District Attorney's Office] will not initiate prosecution proceedings against individuals who comply with the diversion program."

ACCS, based in California, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, likely in response to the lawsuits. The company has since reorganized as the National Collective Group, under which, according to Gupta, it continues its scam unfazed. ACCS's insolvency means that any settlement funds will come from the company's insurer.

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Should You Walk Away From Your Underwater Mortgage?

Law professor sees 'moral double standard'

Should You Walk Away From Your Underwater Mortgage?...

Millions of American homeowners are "underwater" on their mortgages -- owing more than the value of their homes. A University of Arizona law professor is rocking a few boats in the mortgage world by suggesting they would be better off walking away.

Brent White, whose article will be published in this month's issue of Arizona Legal Studies, says fear, guilt and shame are what keep many homeowners from making what he calls rational economic decisions.

"These emotional constraints are deliberately cultivated by the government and lenders who self-servingly tell borrowers that they have a moral and social obligation to pay their underwater mortgages," said White, an associate professor at UA's James E. Rogers College of Law. "Meanwhile, lenders ruthlessly seek to maximize profits or minimize losses irrespective of concerns of morality or social responsibility."

White calls this a double standard, one that has resulted in "distributional inequalities."

He argues that while irresponsible lenders have received government bailouts, responsible homeowners "who just happened to buy at the wrong time continue to bear a disproportionate burden of the housing collapse."

In his article, White cited figures finding that, in the second quarter of this year, more than 15 percent of homeowners had negative equity that was more than 20 percent of the value of their homes. Also, more than 22 percent had negative equity that amounted to at least 10 percent of the value of their homes.

Problem concentrated in a few states

This situation is exaggerated in a number of states, including California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona. Cities that have reached the 60 percent threshold, including Miami Beach, Fla.; Las Vegas, Nev.; Bakersfield, Calif.; and Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale. Numerous cities in California also make the list, including Fresno, Madera and Yuba City.

"The government, lenders, and credit-counseling agencies bombard homeowners with moral and fear-laden messages that overstate the consequences of foreclosure," said White. "Moreover, as a way of enforcing the double moral standard, lenders hold borrowers' credit scores as collateral and will trash it in retaliation for the borrower's exercise of their contractual option to default. Lenders don't want these houses and, with the government's help, do what they can to scare and shame borrowers into making what is in many cases a bad financial decision to stay in their home."

But White, whose article is already gaining attention across the nation, said he is not advocating that people walk away from their mortgages.

Instead, he is simply pointing out that there is a double standard: lenders are expected to minimize their economic loses regardless of moral concerns, while homeowners are expected to behave in "morally responsible" ways regardless of the economic costs.

No moral expectations for lenders

"To the contrary, walking away may be the most financially responsible choice if it allows one to meet one's unsecured credit obligations or provide for the future economic stability of one's family," he said.

White also suggested limiting the ability of lenders to report mortgage defaults to credit reporting agencies and, at a minimum, housing counseling agencies should give homeowners accurate information about both the advantages and disadvantages of letting go of their homes -- rather than simply telling them that foreclosure should be avoided at all cost.

"The current housing bust should be viewed for what it is: a failure to regulate -- not a moral failure on the part of American homeowners," White said. "That being the case, it is time to take morals out of the picture and search for an equitable solution to the negative equity problem."



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NHTSA Scolds Toyota's 'Misleading' Statements

Just removing floor mats doesn't fix the problem, agency says

NHTSA Scolds Toyota's 'Misleading' Statements...

The nation's automotive safety watchdog has taken the unusual step of correcting what it calls "misleading" information from a car manufacturer, in this case, Toyota.

In a statement, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was correcting what it called "inaccurate and misleading" information in a Toyota press release, concerning its recent recall of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus models.

In late September, Toyota recalled 3.8 million Lexus and Toyota models because the floor mats can slide onto the accelerator, potentially causing uncontrolled acceleration. Owners of the affected models were told to remove the floor mats until they can be replaced with a safer version.

This week Toyota issued a press release stating that NHTSA had reached a conclusion "that no defect exists in vehicles in which the driver's floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured." Not so, the agency said.

Must Address Design Flaw

"NHTSA has told Toyota and consumers that removing the recalled floor mats is the most immediate way to address the safety risk and avoid the possibility of the accelerator becoming stuck. But it is simply an interim measure," NHTSA said in a statement. "This remedy does not correct the underlying defect in the vehicles involving the potential for entrapment of the accelerator by floor mats, which is related to accelerator and floor pan design."

In other words, Toyota can't resolve the problem simply by removing the floor mats. They must address what safety researchers see as a design flaw.

"Safety is the number one priority for NHTSA and this is why officials are working with Toyota to find the right way to fix this very dangerous problem," the agency said. "This matter is not closed until Toyota has effectively addressed the defect by providing a suitable vehicle based solution."

 

Toyota issued a statement Wednesday saying it did not intend to offer misleading information. Toyota and Lexus vehicles affected are:

2007-2010 Camry

2005-2010 Avalon

2004-2009 Prius

2005-2010 Tacoma

2007-2010 Tundra

2007-2010 ES 350

2006-2010 IS 250 and IS350

Toyota recalled 55,000 Camry and Lexus models in September 2007 following complaints of runaway acceleration. Owners of the popular Prius had also complained of the problem but were not included in that recall, though Prius models are included in the most recent recall.

Toyota said earlier that a fatal crash involving a Lexus ES350 in San Diego had been preliminarily blamed on an all-weather floor mat interfering with the accelerator pedal. 20070-2008 ES350 models were included in the 2007 recall.

 



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Iowa Cat Diagnosed with Swine Flu

First reported human-to-feline transfer of the illness

Iowa Cat Diagnosed with Swine Flu...

By Lisa Wade McCormick
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 5, 2009
Iowa health officials have confirmed the first official case of the 2009 H1NI influenza virus in a cat.

The Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) on Tuesday said a 13-year-old indoor cat had contracted the virus from someone in its household.

This was a human-to-feline transfer of the virus, thats what we believe happened, IDPH veterinarian, Dr. Ann Garvey, told ConsumerAffairs.com today. There were two people in the household with symptoms of the virus.

It is not common for cats to get the influenza A virus, she added. (But) this is not completely unexpected, as other strains of influenza have been found in cats in the past. There have been cases of cats getting the H5N1 Avian strain. And in those cases, there was no evidence that the cats transferred the virus back to humans. The cats became a dead-end host.

The Iowa cat and its owners have recovered from their illnesses, Dr. Garvey said, and there are no signs the feline passed the virus to other people or animals.

Before this diagnosis, however, health officials had confirmed the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus in ferrets, pigs, and birds.

Dr. Garvey said the Iowa cat had symptoms that are similar to humans with the H1NI virus: malaise, loss of appetite, and respiratory issues. The cat, however, did not have a fever, she said.

The cats owners took the feline to the Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center at Iowa State Universitys College of Veterinary Medicine, where it tested positive for the H1N1 virus.

The test results came back late last week, Garvey said, adding veterinarians gave the feline supportive care and made sure it did not become dehydrated. Those tests were confirmed earlier this week.

To protect your familys pets from contracting the H1N1 virus, Dr. Garvey recommended the same common sense measures used to prevent exposure of the illness in humans:

• Wash your hands frequently;

• Cover your mouth when you cough and your nose when you sneeze;

• Minimize your contact with your dogs, cats, or other household pets if you have any flu-like symptoms

Pet owners who notice any signs of respiratory illness or other influenza-like symptoms in their animals should contact their veterinarians, Dr. Garvey said.

Meanwhile, the American Veterinary Medical Association is now tracking all cases of H1N1 in animals and will post updates on its Web site.



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Verizon Wireless To Increase Termination Fees to $350

Company targets high-end "advanced devices" for price hike

Verizon Wireless To Increase Termination Fees to $350...

A memo leaked from Verizon Wireless confirms that the company is increasing its early contract cancellation fees to as high as $350 for what it calls its "advanced devices."

The memo, obtained by tech blog The Boy Genius Report, states that an "advanced device"'s cancellation fee will drop by $10 for each month completed under contract.

Though the company did not specify what it meant by "advanced devices," Boy Genius Report's Andrew Munchbach speculated it was targeted at high-end smartphones like the recently announced DROID, which runs the open-source Android platform and was built by Motorola, and is scheduled to debut November 15.

"Anyone considering abandoning plans to buy the DROID after hearing this news, or are you just going to get yours before November 15th?" Munchbach asked. "Or will you actually be an honest person and actually honor the contract you sign?"

Wireless termination fees are not only a bane for customers, but a frequent target of criticism from Congress and policy advocates. The telecom industry claims the fees are necessary to recoup the costs of producing, selling, and marketing the handsets.

Critics say the fees are designed to keep customers from shopping around for the best provider, by locking them into a contract with steep charges.

Free Press' Josh Levy said the move was "outrageous." "Early termination fees are universal across the industry, and they're universally detested by consumers," Levy said.

"In fact, the average subsidy of a wireless handset in 2008 was $14.33," he said, "so a $175 fee is already more than 10 times the average subsidy. So what justification could there be for doubling the fee?"

Under threat of increased regulation from Congress, all four of the major wireless carriers in America voluntarily began prorating their termination fees over the life of an average two-year contract.

Numerous state courts have also ruled that the fees are "unconscionable" under state law, and carriers have settled many other lawsuits to avoid a ruling against them, preferring to lobby Washington for weaker federal laws that would usurp the state consumer protections.

Verizon Wireless recently announced that it would end its exclusivity agreement on its handsets, enabling smaller carriers to sell them six months after release.

The move was largely considered symbolic, as it only applied to carriers with 500,000 customers or less -- and 90 percent of the market is controlled by the same four carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless itself.

 

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Schumer Moves to Clean Up Credit Reporting Ads

Plan would require companies that offer free credit reports to provide free reports

Schumer Moves to Clean Up Credit Reporting Ads...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 4, 2009
We've all seen the TV commercial featuring the guys in silly costumes singing about free credit reports. U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer calls such ads a "long-running scam" and says he wants the Federal Trade Commission to put a stop to it.

The New York Democrat says such companies dupe millions of consumers into buying credit monitoring services by offering a so-called "free credit report" and then tacking on a costly monthly subscriptions charge that can cost hundreds of dollars a year. His plan would require any company that purports to offer a free credit report to disclose that consumers do not have to pay for their services in order to get a free credit report and disclose in their advertising that consumers are entitled to a free credit report from the government once a year.

In addition, Schumer says his plan would require these companies, when someone requests their free report, to show that report on the computer screen before the customer provides their credit card information, that way the consumer has the choice of subscribing for year round credit monitoring. Nine million people spend a total of $650 million to $700 million annually on the services, according to Carter Malloy, a Stephens Inc. analyst.

"If these companies want to say -- or sing for that matter -- that they are giving people free credit reports, then they can't charge people $15 a month, simple as that," Schumer said. "For years, these companies have said with a smile that they will provide a free credit report -- even though the government already requires a credit report be provided for free every year - and then suddenly, months later consumers get a bill in the mail for their credit monitoring services. My plan would finally bust up this scam and give consumers some honest choices."

The commercials in question can be very catchy, and they may serve as a reminder to consumers to be vigilant about monitoring their credit. However, these ads, among many others that promote similar services, Schumer says "take advantage of Americans' very real worries about identity theft in a misleading and deceptive way, by tricking them into paying for reports they are entitled to get for free."

ConsumerAffairs.com has received scores of complaints about the practices of these kinds of companies. Among them:

• James M. of Maple Grove, Minn., tells us "I requested on freecreditreport.com my annual free credit report. Before I could receive my free credit report, I was required to enter my credit card number. This month I noticed a charge of $14.95 on my credit card for my 'free' credit report. Upon inquiry, I was told that I am automatically entered into a subscription service and that I have only 7 days to cancel. This is a SCAM and a FRAUD. I did not request nor do I want this service. This a bogus scam layered over into what is supposed to be a free report."

• Kim M. of League City, Texas writes ConsumerAffairs.com, "I pulled my credit report through freecreditreport.com. A couple of months later a $15.88 charge showed up on my card account from them. I called them and they said that when I pulled my credit I was enrolled in a credit-monitoring program that was free for the first couple of months and because I didn't cancel it they started charging me. I didn't even know I was enrolled. This is a scam!"

In 2003, Congress passed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, which required that all Americans be allowed to access one free credit report annually from each of the three credit reporting bureaus, including the company that produces the FreeCreditReport.com commercials. In 2009, Congress added a requirement that the FTC issue new rules to prevent deceptive advertising. The FTC is currently considering proposals pursuant to that requirement.

Schumer is calling on the FTC to implement two important changes as part of its rulemaking. First, he asked the FTC to impose new regulations requiring that television advertisements include the exact same disclosure that is already present on websites and print mailings to inform consumers that they are entitled to a free credit report annually from the government, and that any offer that comes with strings attached is entirely unrelated to the website www.annualcreditreport.com. Consumers who still wish to enroll in credit monitoring services may do so, but they won't be fooled into thinking that they need to pay a subscription service for access to their credit reports.

He also asked the FTC to require those companies that continue to advertise free credit reports to provide consumers with their credit reports before they turn over their credit card information to sign up for the service. This way, consumers can actually get the free credit report that is advertised without being locked in to paying a monthly fee.

Schumer says if the FTC can't impose these rules through regulation, he will propose additional legislation.



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Feds Launch New Study of BPA Safety, Industry Critics BlastConsumer ReportsStudy

Latest study may provide more guidance on relative safety of widely-used chemical

Feds Launch New Study of BPA Safety, Industry Critics Blast <em>Consumer Reports</em> Study...

Industry mouthpieces cranked up a predictable response to a Consumer Reports study that said the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) can be found in a diverse assortment of canned foods including those labeled "organic," and even in some foods packaged in "BPA-free" cans. Who's right? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) plans to spend $30 million to find out.

"We are extremely disappointed that Consumer Reports failed to provide its readers with the full story on BPA in canned foods," said Dr. John Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, Inc. (NAMPA) said in a statement. "BPA-based epoxy coatings in metal packaging provide real, important and measurable health benefits by reducing the potential for the serious and often deadly effects from food-borne illnesses."

"This packaging enables the high temperature sterilization of food products when initially packaged and continuously protect against microbial contaminants. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) records, there has not been an incidence of food-borne illness resulting from a failure of metal packaging in the U.S. in more than 30 years," Yost said.

The new government study will examine the safety of BPA and could result in recommendations for further curbs on its use. Also, the FDA is expected to release the findings from its own ongoing study of BPA sometime in the next month, officials said.

We know that many people are concerned about Bisphenol A and we want to support the best science we can to provide the answers, said Linda Birnbaum, director of the NIEHS, in a statement.

BPA has been detected in the urine of more than 90 percent of Americans and animal studies have linked it with infertility, weight gain, behavioral changes, early onset puberty, prostate and breast cancer and diabetes. The New research will focus on low-dose exposures to BPA and effects on behavior, obesity, diabetes, reproductive disorders, asthma, cardiovascular diseases and various cancers. Researchers will also see if the effects of BPA exposure can be passed from parents to their children.

Minds made up

But industry-leaning critics who rushed to attack the Consumer Reports study appear to already have their minds made up. In a strongly-worded statement, the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) called the Consumer Reports findings "false."

"Consumer Reports made so many factual errors in presenting its data on BPA in canned goods that no-one (sic) could have possibly read the actual research. Call for ban on chemical puts public at risk from deadly food borne pathogens," said Trevor Butterworth, who is the editor of the organization's Web site.

Butterworth, who has degrees in philosophy from Trinity College Dublin, regularly issues broadsides against press coverage that STATS deems unworthy, unbalanced or misleading. STATS is loosely affiliated with George Mason University, a Virginia state university whose main campus is in Fairfax, just outside Washington, D.C., where STATS has its office. The president of STATS is S. Robert Lichter, a GMU communications professor who holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.

"Consumer Reports have come out with a purported investigation into the chemical Bisphenol A that shows scant familiarity with any of the risk assessments of the chemical. Given that BPA is used to prevent food spoilage in cans, and given that food spoilage can lead to bacterial infection putting people at risk from botulism, and given that there is no safe and effective alternative as yet for BPA, these errors and exaggerations and omissions are not trivial," Butterworth said.

STATS claims its goal is "to correct scientific misinformation in the media and in public policy resulting from bad science, politics, or a simple lack of information or knowledge; and to act as a resource for journalists and policy makers on major scientific issues and controversies." However, its findings are nearly always presented in an adversarial, take-no-prisoners format that leaves little room for disagreement or scientific discourse.

"Consumer Reports seems to be oblivious to the extensive research on BPA carried out by the European Union, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others, all of which refutes the magazines claims about the chemical," Butterworth fumed.

Very specific

In fact, Consumer Reports was very specific in reporting what it did and did not find and noted throughout its report that there is continuing research into the effects of BPA, which has been used for years in clear plastic bottles and food-can liners. Its report dealt largely with the concentrations of BPA found in various food products and did not claim to break new ground about the possible long-term effects of BPA ingestion.

BPA has been restricted in Canada and some U.S. states and municipalities because of potential health effects. There are currently no federal restrictions on BPA in food packaging, although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is soon expected to announce the results of its most recent study.

Federal guidelines currently put the daily upper limit of safe exposure at 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. But that level is based on experiments done in the 1980s rather than hundreds of more recent animal and laboratory studies indicating that serious health risks could result from much lower doses of BPA.

Several animal studies show adverse effects, such as abnormal reproductive development, at exposures of 2.4 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day, a dose that could be reached from a person eating one or a few servings daily or an adult daily diet that includes multiple servings of canned foods containing BPA levels comparable to some of the foods the magazine tested.

In keeping with established practices that ensure an adequate margin of safety for human exposure, Consumer Reports noted that food-safety scientists generally recommend limiting daily exposure to BPA to one-thousandth of that level, or 0.0024 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, significantly lower than FDA's current safety limit.

"The findings are noteworthy because they indicate the extent of potential exposure," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of Technical Policy, at Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "Children eating multiple servings per day of canned foods with BPA levels comparable to the ones we found in some tested products could get a dose of BPA near levels that have caused adverse effects in several animal studies. The lack of any safety margin between the levels that cause harm in animals and those that people could potentially ingest from canned foods has been inadequately addressed by the FDA to date."

Consumer Reports noted that its tests convey a snapshot of the marketplace and do not provide a general conclusion about the levels of BPA in any particular brand or type of product tested and added that levels in the same product purchased at different types or places or in other brands of similar foods might differ from the test results.

 



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More Phishing Scams Target Facebook

One scam downloads password-stealing Trojan

More Phishing Scams Target Facebook...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

November 4, 2009
Facebook users are being warned about another phishing scam. This one has the objective of tricking users into providing their email address and password, then hijacking it to make unauthorized posts.

For example, if a victim provides their login information, the virus executes a program that posts 25 messages on the walls of the user's friends. If the user tries to delete the wall posts, the program automatically posts more messages.

The victims are tricked into executing the virus by clicking on a link, preceded by the questions, "Hi, is this you?"

It's not known if this latest scam is related to another phishing scheme that surfaced last week that appears to be more sinister in nature. It also tries to steal user names and passwords by claiming to be a message from Facebook about enhanced security. It purportedly takes users to a site where they can update their security.

However, victims who follow through with the scammers' request are in for a nasty surprise. They are promoted to download an "update tool" that, in reality, is the Zeus Trojan, malware that hackers use to steal bank account information.

Computer security experts have been following the progress of the Facebook phishing campaign and describe it as widespread. AppRiver said at one point it was tracking more than one thousand spam messages per minute per domain.

Because of the increase in phishing attacks launched through social networking sites, many companies are discouraging or prohibiting employees from visiting these sites at works. According to an October study commissioned by Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing company, 54 percent of U.S. companies have told employees to stay away from social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, while on the job.

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Consumer Reports: Fewer People Tipping in 2008 Holiday Season

Tough economy breeds less generosity

Consumer Reports: Fewer People Tipping in 2008 Holiday Season...

Consumers have become more choosy about whom and how much to tip at the holidays, according to a new survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

How much and whom to top to has always been a tricky decision, one that may get harder in these tough economic times. During the 2008 holidays fewer people than in the previous year tipped their newspaper carrier, barber, mail carrier, hairdresser, manicurist, and garbage collector.

The poll of more than 1,800 U.S. residents was conducted in January, shortly after the 2008 holiday season, when people could best remember what they gave. A separate survey CR conducted in October 2009 shows that the downward trend might continue: 26 percent of Americans who usually tip or give a gift to a service provider said they would spend less this holiday season than last. Just six percent said they planned to spend more.

The big recipients were house cleaners, with 58 percent of people who employ them tipping them with cash, check or a gift card and 17 percent tipping them with a gift last year. House cleaners also received a larger gratuity than other service providers, averaging about $50 or an equivalent gift per tip.

Consumer Reports found other service providers included in the survey received, on average, tips valued between $10 and $40 per gift. Average cash or noncash tips were also smaller for some occupations. The median tip value for manicurists was $10, half the amount given during the prior holiday season; the median tip for pet-care providers dropped from $30 to $25.

Samantha von Sperling, owner and director of the New York-based image consulting firm Polished Social Image Consultants, says she's not surprised that people are cutting back on their holiday tipping. She tells ConsumerAffairs.com that the economy, for many people has reached a "critical point where the trickle-down effect has people who managed to survive the first year of the recession are now finding themselves struggling to get through the second year."

von Sperling suggests that those who are unable to provide cash gratuities to service people for the holiday put things on a more personal level. In lieu of cash, she suggests "spending a weekend baking cookies, wrap them up nicely and give them to everybody" who would normally receive a cash gratuity. These, she says, "are things we could do in order to still be gracious and polite so that at least people know that we care about them and hopefully understand that we just can't afford tipping this year.

"Families are looking for ways to balance their financial concerns with the need to thank people who have helped them during the year," said Tobie Stanger, the magazine's senior editor. "This year, tipping is more of a challenge than ever, but CR's survey shows that people are still trying to do it, for the most part."

Dr. Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, says much of the information on tipping is anecdotal. But he tells ConsumerAffairs.com that we do know that "people who are more price sensitive tend to tip less than those who are not price sensitive."

Rounding out the list of other service providers who received cash, a check or a gift card and who typically receive holiday tips in the survey: hairdresser (36 percent), manicurist (33 percent), newspaper carrier (30 percent), barber (26 percent), pet-care provider (26 percent), child's teacher (20 percent), mail carrier (13 percent), lawn-care crew (18 percent), and garbage collector (6 percent).



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Florida Seeks Injunction To Stop Timeshare Sales

Marketing operations called 'complete sham'

Florida Seeks Injunction To Stop Timeshare Sales...

The State of Florida has gone to court to block two related South Florida timeshare resale marketing companies from operating in the state. The suit claims the defendants preyeed on desperate timeshare owners trying to unload their properties.

Attorney General Bill McCollum filed a lawsuit and has requested an emergency injunction against Universal Marketing Solutions, Creative Vacation Solutions, and owner/manager Jennifer Kirk.

The suit claims the companies allegedly collected over $4 million in marketing fees on a monthly basis, but rarely if ever marketed, advertised, or facilitated sales for the timeshare owners who had contracts with the companies. The injunction requests the companies' cease doing any timeshare business while the lawsuit is pending.

An investigation conducted by the Attorney General's Economic Crimes Division indicated that Kirk and her companies were charging marketing fees as high as $2,500 for timeshare resale advertising services. The companies were soliciting hundreds of consumers nationwide via the Internet and though aggressive telemarketing calls, allegedly making empty promises and false misrepresentations that they would actively match timeshare sellers with prospective buyers.

According to the lawsuit, when prospective buyers contact the companies to purchase a timeshare, no attempt would be made by the companies to match those prospective buyers with sellers who had contracted with the companies, thus making the advertising and marketing claims a complete sham.

Advance fees

To solicit more customers, the companies allegedly boasted of their "superior marketing tools," including marketing events, presentations and seminars. Kirk and her companies allegedly claimed they could "definitely" sell timeshares within a certain period of time and that they had buyers waiting with approved financing to buy the consumers' timeshare. Consumers were also verbally assured contract terms during telemarketing calls, but were furnished contracts with entirely different terms regarding the resale services.

Additionally, the companies would allegedly charge consumers' credit cards or cash consumers' checks without and/or before obtaining a signed written contract from the consumer delineating all the terms and conditions of the services to be provided.

Consumers who complained to the Attorney General's Office reported that the companies have not performed the promised services and that they were unable to contact the companies or get refunds. The Attorney General's Office believes that there could a total of more than 400 victims affected by the two companies' deceptive practices, and has been receiving approximately 10 complaints per day against these companies.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction prohibiting the defendants from engaging in any timeshare resale business while the litigation is pending. The lawsuit also requests full restitution on behalf of all victimized consumers, civil penalties, and reimbursement for fees and costs related to the investigation.

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Tests Find Wide Range Of BPA In Canned Soups, Juice And More

Highest levels detected in some samples of green beans and soups

Tests Find Wide Range Of BPA In Canned Soups, Juice And More...


The latest tests of canned foods, including soups, juice, tuna, and green beans, have found that almost all of the 19 name-brand foods tested contain measurable levels of Bisphenol A, or BPA.

The new findings by Consumer Reports show that BPA can be found in a diverse assortment of canned foods including those labeled "organic," and even in some foods packaged in "BPA-free" cans. The magazine's tests of a few comparable products in alternative types of packaging showed lower levels of BPA in most, but not all cases.

"The findings are noteworthy because they indicate the extent of potential exposure," said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of Technical Policy, at Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "Children eating multiple servings per day of canned foods with BPA levels comparable to the ones we found in some tested products could get a dose of BPA near levels that have caused adverse effects in several animal studies. The lack of any safety margin between the levels that cause harm in animals and those that people could potentially ingest from canned foods has been inadequately addressed by the FDA to date."

The Food and Drug Administration is soon expected to announce the findings of its most recent reassessment of the safety of BPA. The chemical has been linked to a wide array of health effects including reproductive abnormalities, heightened risk of breast and prostate cancers, diabetes, and heart disease.

Consumers Union has previously called on manufacturers and government agencies to act to eliminate the use of BPA in all materials that come in contact with food and beverages. In the wake of CR's new finding, Consumers Union sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg reiterating its request that the agency act this year to ban the use of BPA in food- and beverage-contact materials.

Consumer Reports' tests convey a snapshot of the marketplace and do not provide a general conclusion about the levels of BPA in any particular brand or type of product tested. Levels in the same product purchased at different types or places or in other brands of similar foods might differ from the test results. CR tested three different samples of each canned item for BPA and found:

Green beans

Highest levels of BPA in our tests were found in some samples of canned green beans and canned soups.

• Canned Del Monte Fresh Cut Green Beans Blue Lake had the highest amount of BPA for a single sample in Consumer Reports tests, with levels ranging from 35.9 parts per billon (ppb) to 191 ppb. Progresso Vegetable Soup BPA levels ranged from 67 to 134 ppb. Campbell's Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup had BPA levels ranging from 54.5 to 102 ppb.

• Average amounts in tested products varied widely. In most items tested, such as canned corn, chili, tomato sauce, and corned beef, BPA levels ranged from trace amounts to about 32 ppb.

Given the significance of BPA exposure for infants and young children, CR tested samples of Similac Advance Infant Formula and Nestl Juicy Juice All Natural 100 percent Apple Juice. The findings revealed:

• Similac liquid concentrate in a can averaged 9 ppb of BPA, but there was no measurable level in the powdered version.

• Nestl Juicy Juice in a can averaged 9.7 ppb of BPA, but there were no measurable levels in the samples of the same product packaged in juice boxes.

Juicy Juice

"The BPA levels in our samples of Nestl Juicy Juice, at about 9 ppb, were not among the highest in the foods we tested. However, considering how many servings of juice young children may consume daily, a child still could exceed a level that Consumers Union thinks would provide an adequate margin of safety," said Dr. Rangan. Bypassing metal cans in favor of other packaging such as plastic containers or bags might lower but not eliminate exposure to BPA, but this wasn't true for all products tested.

• Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup in plastic packaging contained detectable amounts of BPA but at levels that were significantly lower than the same brand of soup in the can. StarKist Chunk Light canned tuna averaged 3 ppb of BPA, but BPA levels in the same brand in a plastic pouch weren't measurable.

• Bird's Eye Steam Fresh Cut Green Beans, frozen in a plastic bag, contained very low levels of BPA, about 1 ppb or less.

• However, in one item tested, the alternative packaging contained higher levels of BPA than the canned version. Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli in Tomato and Meat Sauce packaged in a plastic container with a metal peel-off lid had BPA levels 1.5 times higher than the same brand of food in metal cans.

"BPA-free"

BPA was found in some products packaged in cans that claimed to be "BPA-free."

• Although tests of the inside of the cans found that the liners were not epoxy-based, suggesting BPA was not used, samples of Vital Choice's tuna in "BPA-free" cans were found to contain an average of 20 ppb of BPA and those of Eden Baked Beans in "BPA-free" cans averaged 1 ppb BPA.

BPA, which has been used for years in clear plastic bottles and food-can liners, has been restricted in Canada and some U.S. states and municipalities because of potential health effects. But, there are no federal restrictions on BPA in food packaging.

Federal guidelines currently put the daily upper limit of safe exposure at 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. But that level is based on experiments done in the 1980s rather than hundreds of more recent animal and laboratory studies indicating that serious health risks could result from much lower doses of BPA.

Several animal studies show adverse effects, such as abnormal reproductive development, at exposures of 2.4 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day, a dose that could be reached from a person eating one or a few servings daily or an adult daily diet that includes multiple servings of canned foods containing BPA levels comparable to some of the foods the magazine tested.

In keeping with established practices that ensure an adequate margin of safety for human exposure, Consumer Reports' food-safety scientists recommend limiting daily exposure to BPA to one-thousandth of that level, or 0.0024 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, significantly lower than FDA's current safety limit.

FDA panel

An FDA special scientific advisory panel reported in late 2008 that the agency's basis for setting safety standards to protect consumers was inadequate and should be reevaluated. A congressional subcommittee determined in 2009 that the agency relied too heavily on studies sponsored by the American Plastics Council. The FDA, now under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg, is expected to announce soon its reassessment of BPA safety. Bills are currently pending in Congress that would ban the use of BPA in all food and beverage containers.

Consumers who are concerned might be able to reduce, though not necessarily eliminate, their dietary exposure to BPA by taking the following steps:

• Choose fresh food whenever possible.

• Consider alternatives to canned food, beverages, juices, and infant formula.

• Use glass containers when heating food in microwave ovens.



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At Least 2 Deaths Reported in Massive E.Coli Ground Beef Recall

Fairbank Farms reports over 500,000 pounds contaminated

Deaths Reported in Massive E.Coli Ground Beef Recall...

26 people have been sickened and 2 people may have died due to ingesting ground beef contaminated with a potentially fatal strain of E.coil, health officials said Monday.

New York company Fairbank Farms of Ashville, New York has recalled more than 500,000 pounds of ground beef due to the contamination.

One of the deaths was a New York adult with several underlying health complications, said officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The other was a previously reported death in New Hampshire due to complications from the infection.

The CDC said there were a total of 28 cases of infection, including 16 hospitalizations. The agency said all but three of the infections were in the northeastern United States, with the majority in New England.

Fairbank Farms confirmed on Friday that approximately 545,699 pounds of its fresh ground beef products -- sold under seven different store labels -- may contain the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7E, which causes bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and can lead to kidney failure.

The company sold the recalled products to distributors in eight states, including Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The company since learned some of its customers may have redistributed the tainted ground beef to other states.

"Our current priorities are to inform the public and address their concerns," Ron Allen, CEO of Fairbank Farms, said in a written statement. "Further, we want to help them to identify and remove any of the recalled products that may be in their freezers."

All the recalled beef is past its expiration date by 23-32 days, Allen said, and is longer being sold as "fresh" in supermarkets.

"We are urging consumers to check their freezers for ground beef products that are listed in the recall," Allen said. "Consumers who identify these products should return them to the point of purchase for a full refund."

List of recalled products

The ground beef products included in this "high health risk" recall are:

• Trader Joe's products: 1-pound packages of "Trader Joe's Butcher Shop Fine Quality Meats Ground Beef 85/15," and 1-pound packages of "Trader Joe's Butcher Shop Fine Quality Meats Ground Beef 80/20." Those two products may have sell-by dates of October 6 or 7, 2009. Also recalled are 1-pound trays of "Trader Joe's Butcher Shop Fine Quality Meats Ground Beef Patties 96/4 Extra Lean," and 1-pound trays of "Trader Joe's Butcher Shop Fine Quality Meats Ground Beef Patties 85/15."

• Price Chopper products: 1- and 2.5-pound trays of "Price Chopper Meatloaf & Meatball Mix," 1-pound trays of "Price Chopper Extra Lean Ground Beef 96/4," and 1-pound trays of "Price Chopper Fresh Ground Beef Chuck For Chili 80 Percent Lean 20 Percent Fat."

• Lancaster and Wild Harvest products: 1-pound trays of "Lancaster Brand 96/4 Extra Lean Ground Beef," 1-and 2-pound trays of "Lancaster Brand 90/10 Ground Beef," and 1-pound trays of "Wild Harvest Natural 85/15 Angus Ground Beef."

• Shaw's products: 1- and 2-pound trays of "Shaw's Fresh Ground Beef 93/7," 1-, 2- and 3-pound trays of "Shaw's Fresh Ground Beef 80/20," 1- and 3-pound trays of "Shaw's Fresh Ground Beef 75/25," 1.3-pound trays of "Shaw's Fresh Ground Sirloin Beef Patties 90/10," 1.3-pound trays of "Shaw's Fresh Ground Round Beef Patties 85/15," 1.3-pound trays of "Shaw's Fresh Ground Beef Patties 80/20," 3-pound trays of "Shaw's Fresh Ground Beef Patties Family Pack 80/20," 1-pound trays of "Shaw's Angus Ground Beef 85/15," 1-, 2- and 3-pound trays of "Shaw's Fresh Ground Beef 85/15," 1-pound trays of "Shaw's 90 Percent Natural Ground Beef," 1-pound trays of "Shaw's 85 Percent Natural Ground Beef," 1-, 2- and 3-pound trays of "Shaw's Fresh Ground Sirloin 90/10," and 1-pound trays of "Meatloaf & Meatball Mix"

• BJ's products: 5-pound trays of "Fresh Ground Beef, Contains 15 Percent Fat" patties, 3- and 5-pound trays of "Lean Ground Beef, Contains 7 Percent Fat," and 2.5-pound trays of "Meatloaf & Meatball Mix"

• Ford Brothers products: 3-pound trays of "Fresh Ground Beef, Contains 20 Percent Fat" patties;

• Giant products: 1-pound trays of "Giant Extra Lean Ground Beef 96/4," 1-pound trays of "Giant Meatloaf & Meatball Mix," 1-pound trays of "Giant Nature's Promise Ground Beef," and 1-pound trays of "Giant Nature's Promise Ground Beef Patties."

All the recalled packages have the establishment number "EST. 492" inside the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) mark of inspection or on the nutrition label.

The recall also includes cases of 10-pound Fairbank Farms fresh ground beef chubs (for store grind) with sell by dates of October 3, 2009, October 4, 2009, or October 5, 2009. Those dates, however, may not be on the package labels. The company distributed these products to retailers in Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia for further processing.

Fairbank Farms said it packaged the potentially tainted beef on September 15 and 16, 2009, and the retail stores may have labeled the products with sell-by dates from September 19 through 28, 2009, unless otherwise noted.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said it learned about the possible contamination while investigating a cluster of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses.

FSIS officials, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health and agriculture departments, discovered a link between the recalled ground beef and illnesses in Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Fairbank Farms' consumer hotline at 1-877-546-0122.

Safety tips for cooking beef

FSIS officials said consumers should only eat raw meat products that have been cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, which will kill harmful bacteria.

The agency also offered the following safety tips for handling fresh and frozen ground beef:

• Wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and poultry. Wash cutting boards, dishes and utensils with hot, soapy water. Immediately clean spills.

• Keep raw meat, fish, and poultry away from other food that is not being cooked. Use separate cutting boards for raw meat, poultry and egg products and cooked foods.

• Color is not a reliable indicator that ground beef or ground beef patties have been cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria, like E. coli O157:H7. The only way to be sure ground beef is cooked high enough is to use a thermometer to measure the internal temperature.

• Refrigerate raw meat and poultry within two hours after purchase or one hour if temperatures exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Refrigerate cooked meat and poultry within two hours after cooking.

Consumers can contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHOTLINE or visit the agency's Web site for additional food safety tips.

 



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Mazda Recalls B Series Trucks

A component of the cruise control deactivation switch may deteriorate over time and develop a leak..

Mazda Recalls B Series Trucks...

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Breast Cancer Lawsuit Alleged Needless Suffering, Death

$17.5 million settlement reached in Newfoundland, Labrador suit

Breast Cancer Lawsuit Alleged Needless Suffering, Death...

A $17.5 million preliminary settlement has been reached in a lawsuit alleging severe flaws in a Canadian health care provider's breast cancer screening. Hormone receptor tests administered by Eastern Health Corp. returned scores of incorrect results over an eight-year period, leading to needlessly harsh treatment for hundreds of breast cancer patients, and may have contributed to over a hundred deaths.

The deal between Eastern Health Corp. and breast cancer patients in the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador came after three days of mediation supervised by a former Ontario judge.

Doctors routinely order hormone receptor tests for newly-diagnosed breast cancer sufferers, and use them to determine the best course of treatment. Patients with tumors that test positive for estrogen and progesterone generally have a better prognosis, partly because such tumors grow more slowly.

Additionally, patients whose tumors are being strengthened by estrogen and progesterone can be treated with anti-estrogen prescription drugs, such as Tamoxifen and Anastrozole. Patients with negative test results generally have to resort to far harsher treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation.

According to the suit, at least 425 breast cancer patients were given incorrect hormone test results between 1997 and 2005. A number of these patients underwent chemotherapy and surgery even though their cancer could likely have been treated with anti-estrogen drugs. The suit was brought on behalf of approximately 2,000 patients tested during the relevant period.

Over 100 patients who received incorrect results have died. While it's impossible to say that hormone testing would have saved their lives, it's a possibility that's hard to ignore.

In addition to the $17.5 million, the settlement mandates the creation of a panel to implement recommended changes to Eastern Health's breast cancer protocol. Under the terms of the agreement, victims of Eastern Health's botched tests will be given seats on the committee and a consultant will give a report on the panel's progress in 2012. Eastern Health is also required to construct a memorial and issue a public apology.

Eastern Regional Integrated Health Authority CEO Vicki Kaminski immediately broadcast that apology. The class members are sincere, honest people who have been wronged and harmed, and this settlement is meant as a sincere apology to them, Kaminski said in a statement. She added that no amount of money can adequately compensate people who have experienced this kind of error in their medical treatment.

How the money will be disbursed, and how much will be picked up by Eastern Health insurer Healthcare Insurance Reciprocal of Canada, won't be announced until the settlement is formally approved by the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Eastern Health describes itself as the largest integrated health authority in Newfoundland and Labrador, the coastal province in northeastern Canada.

 



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