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    States Step Up Pressure On Mortgage Fraud

    Illinois, New Jersey among states taking action

    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.

    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...
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    Vendors Gouge Parents Over Scarce Zhu Zhu Pets

    Shortage of popular toy causes price jumps

    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."



    Vendors Gouge Parents Over Scarce Zhu Zhu Pets...
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    Walmart Gets a Black Eye on Black Friday

    Shoppers find advertised items sold out before sale begins


    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.

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

      Many 'bargains' turn out not to be such bargains


      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.



      Does It Really Pay To Go Shopping On Black Friday?...
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      Stork Craft Facing Wave of Lawsuits

      Crib recall exposes flaws in Canadian consumer protection laws

      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.



      Stork Craft Facing Wave of Lawsuits...
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      Microsoft May Face Class Action Over Xbox Live Ban

      Up to 1 million gamers barred for pirating games

      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.



      Microsoft May Face Class Action Over Xbox Live Ban...
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      Recall of Drop-Side Cribs Continues 2009 Pattern

      Feds acknowledge faster response is warranted

      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."

      Recall of Drop-Side Cribs Continues 2009 Pattern 2009...
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      Consumers May Soon See Fewer Scam Ads

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


      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.

      Consumers May Soon See Fewer Scam Ads...
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      Deadline For Chinese Drywall Claims Looms

      Private class action claims due before December 2

      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.



      Existing Home Sales Jump 10 Percent...
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      Hy Cite Refunds Still Available to California Consumers

      Brown: Company 'hoodwinked' consumers using deceptive tactics

      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.

      Hy Cite Refunds Still Available to California Consumers...
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      Consumers Warned About 'The Twelve Scams of Christmas'

      Cybercriminals take advantage of the holiday season

      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.



      Consumers Warned About 'The Twelve Scams of Christmas'...
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      Stork Craft, Fisher-Price Cribs Recalled

      At least four deaths blamed on recalled drop-side cribs

      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).

      Stork Craft, Fisher-Price Cribs Recalled...
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      Social Networking Explodes As Job-Search Tool

      Sites offer many benefits, but pitfalls abound

      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.



      Social Networking Explodes As Job-Search Tool...
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      Consumer Reports Takes on Pushy Retail Practices

      New campaign unveils survey of top holiday shoppping turnoffs

      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.



      Consumer Reports Takes on Pushy Retail Practices...
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      Barnes & Noble Enters E-Book Wars

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

      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.



      Barnes & Noble Enters E-Book Wars...
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      CSPI Gives Movie Popcorn Two Thumbs Down

      Lab tests show theater snacks pack on calories, sodium

      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?"



      "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

      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.

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