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    Listeria Found in Eggo Waffles Prior To Shortage

    Kellogg's downplays link between contamination and flooding of plant

    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.

    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....
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    Mortgage Delinquencies Still Climbing

    Rate is approaching 10 percent

    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.

    Mortgage Delinquencies Still Climbing...
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      Suit Says Facebook Scammed Gamers Out of Information, Cash

      Developer accused of tricking players into unwanted monthly charges

      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."

      Suit Says Facebook Scammed Gamers Out of Information, Cash...
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      Retailers Applaud GAO Report On Interchange Fees

      Government agency finds fees rapidly increasing

      By Mark Huffman

      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.

      Retailers Applaud GAO Report On Interchange Fees...
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      Subaru Wins IIHS 2010 Safety Competition

      Winners now required to provide good protection in rollovers

      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.

      Subaru Wins IIHS 2010 Safety Competition...
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      Lawsuit Says Hyundai Airbags Fail to Deploy

      Disturbing trend for Korean automaker

      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.

      Lawsuit Says Hyundai Airbags Fail to Deploy...
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      How To Get The Most Out Of Consumer Protection Laws

      Consumer Reports'money advisor offers tips

      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.

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

      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.

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

      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).

      Perfect Flame Gas Grills Sold at Lowe's Are Recalled...
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      Sprint Nextel Agrees To Restitution For Minnesota Customers

      Company settles state lawsuit over extended contracts and fees

      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.

      Sprint Nextel Agrees To Restitution For Minnesota Customers...
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      FTC Files Contempt Citation Against Blue Hippo

      Agency claims company has ignored 2008 court order

      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.

      FTC Files Contempt Citation Against Blue Hippo...
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      No Eggo To Leggo? Kellogg Confirms Waffle Shortage

      Company says flood damage has slowed resupply

      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.

      No Eggo To Leggo? Kellogg Confirms Waffle Shortage...
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      Complete MoisturePlus Class Action Certified in California

      Eye solution said to insufficiently guard against dangerous bacteria

      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.

      Complete MoisturePlus Class Action Certified in California...
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      Florida Attorney General Warns Big Banks On Modifications

      Consumers complain about getting a runaround from servicers

      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."

      Florida Attorney General Warns Big Banks On Modifications...
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      Senate Committee Slams Abusive Marketers

      Consumers tricked into spending billions, investigators find

      By Mark Huffman

      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.

      Senate Committee Slams Abusive Marketers...
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      Study: Pregnant Women 'Contaminated With Chemicals' From Everyday Products

      Report outlines dangers to mothers and children alike

      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.

      Study: Pregnant Women 'Contaminated With Chemicals' From Everyday Products...
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      Study Claims Phthalates Exposure In Pregnancy Diminishes Masculinity

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

      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.

      Study Claims Phthalates Exposure In Pregnancy Diminishes Masculinity...
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      Vonage To Pay $3 Million To Settle Consumer Complaints

      Thirty-two states brought action against 'deceptive' tactics

      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.

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