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Study: Ginkgo Biloba Doesn't Slow Cognitive Decline

Widely used supplement not effective in reducing dementia

Study: Ginkgo Biloba Doesn't Slow Cognitive Decline...

Lots of older adults who purchase the herbal supplement Ginkgo biloba, in hopes it will keep them mentally sharp, may be wasting their money. That's the finding of researchers reporting their results in the latest issue of the Journal of American Medicine.

"Ginkgo biloba is marketed widely and used with the hope of improving, preventing, or delaying cognitive impairment associated with aging and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer disease," the authors write. "Indeed, in the United States and particularly in Europe, Gingko biloba is perhaps the most widely used herbal treatment consumed specifically to prevent age-related cognitive decline."

However, evidence from large clinical trials regarding its effect on long-term cognitive functioning is lacking.

Beth E. Snitz, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues analyzed outcomes from the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study to determine if Gingko biloba slowed the rate of cognitive decline in older adults who had normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study.

The GEM study previously found that Gingko biloba was not effective in reducing the incidence of Alzheimer dementia or dementia overall. The randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial included 3,069 community-dwelling participants, ages 72 to 96 years, who received a twice-daily dose of 120-mg extract of Gingko biloba or identical-appearing placebo.

The study was conducted at six academic medical centers in the United States between 2000 and 2008, with a median (midpoint) follow-up of 6.1 years. Change in cognition was assessed by various tests and measures.

In this study, the largest randomized controlled trial of Gingko biloba to report on outcomes to date, the researchers said they found no evidence for an effect of Gingko biloba on global cognitive change and no evidence of effect on specific cognitive domains of memory, language, attention, visuospatial abilities and executive functions.

They also found no evidence for differences in treatment effects by age, sex, race, education or baseline cognitive status.

"In sum, we find no evidence that Gingko biloba slows the rate of cognitive decline in older adults. These findings are consistent with previous smaller studies examining prevention of decline and facilitation of cognitive performance and with the 2009 Cochrane review of Gingko biloba for dementia and cognitive impairment."

 



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Ford, MIT Team Up To Reduce Driver Stress

Study aims to improve driving safety, overall wellness

Ford, MIT Team Up To Reduce Driver Stress...

As Americans fight through the most stressful time of the year, Ford Motor Company and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are teaming up to study driver workload and identify new opportunities to use in-vehicle technologies to improve driver safety by lowering stress.

The idea is to see how the car can potentially enhance overall human wellness, become an oasis from stressful situations, and increase driver attention and safety.

Partnering with MIT's AgeLab, the project will identify specific stress-inducing driving situations, monitor a driver's reaction to the situations using biometrics, and evaluate methods to incorporate new stress-reducing features into the next generation of Ford products.

A six-month effort beginning this January will focus on human interaction with a specially equipped 2010 Lincoln MKS, a vehicle already recognized for its advanced safety features.

"We strongly believe that driving can be made safer by reducing the stress load placed on a driver," said Jeff Rupp, Ford manager, Active Safety Research. "Through the use of our existing technologies such as Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning or SYNC, our voice-activated communications system, we are proactively guiding drivers away from difficult situations."

"The goal of this program is to take this one step further by creating the most comfortable driving environment possible so that our driver is always relaxed, calm and able to perform at peak performance," added Rupp.

The current undertaking is the next step in the effort to study and, eventually, significantly improve driver wellness. Ford and MIT's AgeLab, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation's New England University Transportation Center, have been working since 2004 to develop vehicle systems that detect the state of a driver at key points in time. The project expects to use this information to adjust systems in the car in ways that reduce driver stress. One of the goals is to make driving as enjoyable as it used to be.

"Today's driver is feeling a greater level of anxiety than in the past, both from situations inside and outside the vehicle," said Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of AgeLab and the leader of the initiative. "This arises in part from the chronic stress in individuals' daily lives combined with longer commute times, increased driving demands due to traffic congestion and deteriorating infrastructure."

By monitoring biometrics such as heart rate, skin conductivity and eye movement, researchers at MIT have been working to develop a specific set of parameters for an embedded detection system that could be engineered into future Ford vehicles.

"Increasing human-vehicle connectivity through biometrics may provide the next major breakthrough in vehicle safety and lead the development of aware vehicle systems," said Bryan Reimer, an AgeLab research scientist working on the project.

Ford and MIT expect to conclude this phase of the study in July 2010. Findings of the study will be made public shortly after its conclusion.

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Medical Device Maker Pays $5 Million to Resolve Federal Charges

Colorado company illegally imported unapproved technology

Medical Device Maker Pays $5 Million Resolve Federal Charges...

Spectranetics Corporation, a Colorado-based medical device manufacturer, has agreed to pay the federal government $4.9 million in civil damages plus a $100,000 forfeiture to resolve claims against the company.

The U.S. Justice Department says the claims arise from allegations that the company illegally imported unapproved medical devices and provided them to physicians for use in patients, conducted a clinical study in a manner that failed to comply with federal regulations and promoted certain products for procedures for which the company had not received Food and Drug Administration approval or clearance.

The company manufactures, distributes and sells certain medical lasers and peripheral devices for those lasers. The government's probe centered specifically on the CVX-300 Medical Laser and the CliRpath Turbo Laser Catheter, the TURBO Elite Laser Ablation Catheter, and the TURBO-Booster Laser Guide Catheter.

In resolving this matter, Spectranetics has entered into a civil settlement agreement and a non-prosecution agreement with the Justice Department and a corporate integrity agreement with the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services.

According to the non-prosecution agreement, officers and employees who acted on behalf of the company engaged in multiple areas of wrongdoing. Specifically, Spectranetics illegally imported unapproved medical devices from overseas manufacturers and distributed those devices for use in human patients, and failed to meet its reporting obligations to FDA regarding a study named "CORAL" (COronary graft Results after Atherectomy with Lasers) and another associated study in connection with some of its devices.

Under the terms of the non-prosecution agreement, Spectranetics has accepted responsibility for its conduct, has instituted remedial measures to prevent this conduct in the future, and will continue to cooperate in the ongoing criminal investigation. Under the agreement, Spectranetics escapes criminal prosecution. Under the civil settlement agreement, the government asserts that Spectranetics caused false claims to be submitted to the Medicare Program during portions of the time period from 2003 to 2008.

"It is important to hold those who submit false claims to Medicare responsible for their actions," said U.S. Attorney David Gaouette. "Settlements such as this help to protect the integrity of the Medicare system."

 



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California Class Action Says BMW Software Causes Engine Problems

Accuses BMW of installing updates without customers' permission

California Class Action Says BMW Software Causes Engine Problems...

A class action filed in California yesterday says that software unilaterally installed by BMW on several turbocharged models led to dangerous turbo lag and other engine problems.

The suit, brought in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, implicates the BMW 1-, 3-, and 5-Series lines, as well as the Z4 convertible, X5 sport utility, and X6 crossover. All subject vehicles were manufactured between 2007 and 2010 and are equipped with the "N54" engine, a three-liter six-cylinder motor equipped with a twin turbo.

According to the suit, BMW tried to remedy an "undisclosed defect" with the cars by installing an updated version of its so-called "Engine Control Unit" (ECU) software. The defect allegedly originated in the cars' turbochargers, fuel pumps, gas waste mechanisms, and/or turbo software.

The plaintiffs contend that BMW installed the updated ECU software without customers' permission and, in some cases, without their knowledge. The complaint says that BMW installed the software "whenever one of the vehicles in question appeared in the service department of a BMW dealership, regardless of the reason for the service visit." Thus, consumers who experienced "problems with loud rattling...under the hood," for example, were unwittingly outfitted with updated ECU software and sent on their way.

Shortly after the software update, consumers began to complain of engine problems, specifically "loss of power in the lower RPM [revelations per minute] range, decreased fuel efficiency, and most notably, turbo acceleration lag."

Turbo lag, a little-known but potentially dangerous phenomenon, describes a delay between the time a turbocharged car's accelerator is depressed and the time its engine develops enough power to properly accelerate. Turbo lag presents an especially serious risk if it occurs on a highway on-ramp or other area where traffic is moving quickly.

According to the suit, BMW at first dismissed consumers' complaints, assuring them that their respective experiences were "normal." As the complaints continued to grow in number, BMW allegedly installed more ECU updates in a futile attempt to make the problems go away. The plaintiffs also contend that BMW quietly did away with ads bragging that the automaker "eliminated turbo lag altogether."

The class is being represented by Wayne Barney of Orange County. Barney began experiencing turbo lag after his 2007 BMW 335i was serviced for a faulty fuel pump. Barney communicated his concerns to BMW several times, but was "repeatedly assured that he was mistaken about the existence of any problems."

The suit alleges breach of implied and express warranties; breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing; deceptive trade practices; and breach of the Magnuson-Moss Act, a federal statute that governs consumer product warranties. The plaintiffs accuse BMW of "us[ing] ECU software to deceive its customers and avoid the cost and labor of properly resolving the hardware problems, which required actual engine work and/or part replacement that was covered under BMW's warranty." The class is seeking compensatory damages and an injunction.

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Tylenol Arthritis Pain Caplet Recall Expanded

All lots now included

Tylenol Arthritis Pain Caplet Recall Expanded...

The voluntary recall of Tylenol Arthritis Pain Caplets is being expanded.

McNeil Consumer Healthcare and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) FDA say the recall now includes all available product lots of the medication's 100-count bottles, with the distinctive red EZ-OPEN CAP.

The recall was launched back in November because of consumer reports of an unusual moldy, musty, or mildew-like odor that was associated with nausea, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea.

The odor is caused by the presence of a chemical -- 2,4,6-tribromoanisole -- believed to be the breakdown of a chemical used to treat wooden pallets that transport and store packaging materials. The health effects of this compound have not been well studied, and to date all of the observed events reported to McNeil were temporary and non-serious.

Lot numbers in the expanded recall include:

• 07CMC011, 07DMC022, 07DMC024, 07FMC032, 07FMC033, 07GMC038,

• 07GMC039, 07HMC045, 07HMC051, 07HMC053, 07JMC064, 07JMC069,

• 07JMC070, 07JMC071, 07XMC055, 07XMC058, 07XMC062, 08AMC002,

• 08AMC005, 08CMC026, 08DMC029, 08EMC037, 08EMC039, 08FMC044,

• 08FMC045, 08GMC050, 08GMC053, 08GMC063, 08GMC065, 08JMC103,

• 08JMC109, 08JMC110, 08JMC111, 08KMC124, 08KMC127, 08KMC131,

• 08KMC132, 08XMC093, 08XMC094, 08XMC095, 09AMC010, 09CMC041,

• 09EMC075, 09EMC079, 09EMC076, 09GMC096, 09GMC097, 09GMC099,

• 09JMC118, 09JMC126, 09KMC133, 09KMC134, 09XMC114, 09XMC116

The Tylenol Arthritis Pain Caplet 100-count product lot numbers can be found on the side of the bottle label.

Consumers who purchased the medication from the lots included in this recall should stop using the product and contact McNeil for instructions on a refund or replacement.

For these instructions or information regarding how to return or dispose of the product, consumers should call 1-888-222-6036 (Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern Time, and Saturday-Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time) or visit the company Web site at www.tylenol.com.

Consumers who have medical concerns or questions should contact their healthcare provider. Any adverse reactions may also be reported to the FDA's MedWatch Program by fax at 1-800-FDA-0178, by mail at MedWatch, FDA, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20852-9787, or on the MedWatch website at www.fda.gov/medwatch.



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LG Recalls Portable Dehumidifiers

LG Recalls Portable Dehumidifiers...

December 30, 2009
LG Electronics is recalling about 98,000 portable dehumidifiers. The power connector for the dehumidifiers compressor can short circuit, posing fire and burn hazards to consumers.

LG has received 11 reports of property damage incidents involving arcing, heat, smoke, including four fires that spread to the building structure and involved significant smoke/water damage. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves 30-pint portable dehumidifiers sold under the brand names in the chart below. The dehumidifiers are white with a red shut-off button, controls for fan speed and humidity control and a front-loading water bucket. Goldstar or Comfort-Aire is printed on the front. The model and serial numbers are printed on the interior of the dehumidifiers and can be viewed after the water bucket is removed.

BrandModel No.Serial Number RangeSold at
GoldstarGHD30Y7611TAxx00001~08400
611TAxx08401~40600
612TAxx00001~20400
612TAxx21001~30600
Home Depot
GoldstarDH305Y7612TAxx00001~00600
701TAxx00001~16800
702TAxx00001~03000
Wal-Mart
Comfort-AireBHD-301-C611TAxx00001~01697
612TAxx00001~04200
701TAxx00001~00578
710TAxx00001~00599
Heat Controller Inc.

The dehumidifiers were sold at The Home Depot, Walmart and Heat Controller Inc. nationwide from January 2007 through June 2008 for between $140 and $150. They were made in China.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled dehumidifier, contact LG to determine if it is included in the recall and return it to an authorized LG service center for a free repair.

For additional information, contact LG toll-free at (877) 220-0479 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday and between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. CT on Saturday for the location of an authorized LG service center for the repair, or visit the firms Web site at www.30pintdehumidifierrecall.com

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

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Irregular Arm Swing May Point To Parkinson's

New research could lead to earlier diagnosis

Irregular Arm Swing May Point To Parkinson's...

In many cases by the time Parkinson's disease is diagnosed, irreparable damage is already done.

But now, new research by a team of neurologists finds that the manner in which people walk -- including irregular arm swings -- may be a very early marker for the disease.

"This type of early detection research will be critical to advancing the science of therapeutic interventions hoping to slow disease progression," National Parkinson Foundation spokesman Peter N. Schmidt told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Further, the National Parkinson Foundation is supporting the introduction of such quantitative measures and has launched a major initiative around tracking the progression of such measures throughout the course of the disease."

Parkinson's is an age-related disorder involving loss of certain types of brain cells and marked by impaired movement and slow speech.

Xuemei Huang, associate professor of neurology at the Penn State Hershey College of Medicine, believes this kind of early detection may help physicians apply treatments to rein in further brain cell damage until strategies to slow disease progression are available.

"The disease is currently diagnosed by tremors at rest and stiffness in the body and limbs," Huang says. "But by the time we diagnose the disease, about 50 to 80 percent of the critical cells called dopamine neurons are already dead."

The new research, findings of which appear in the current issue of Gait and Posture, confirms Huang's clinical impression that in people with Parkinson's, one arm swings much less than the other as a person walks.

"We know that Parkinson's patients lose their arm swing even very early in the disease but nobody had looked using a scientifically measured approach to see if the loss was asymmetrical or when this asymmetry first showed up," says Huang.

"Our hypothesis is that because Parkinson's is an asymmetrical disease, the arm swing on one arm will be lost first compared to the other," Huang adds.

The researchers compared the arm swing of 12 people diagnosed three years earlier with Parkinson's, with eight people in a control group.

The Parkinson's patients were asked to stop all medication the night before to avoid influencing the test results.

The team used special equipment to measure movement accurately, including reflective markers on the study participants and eight digital cameras that captured the exact position of each segment of the body during a walk.

"Images from the cameras were sent to a computer where special software analyzed the data" explains Huang. "When a person walks, the computer was able to calculate the degree of swing of each arm with millimeter accuracy."

Analysis of the magnitude of arm swing, asymmetry, and walking speed revealed that the arm swing of people with Parkinson's has remarkably greater asymmetry than people in the control group; one arm swung significantly less than the other in the Parkinson's patients.

When the participants walked at a faster speed, the arm swing increased but the corresponding asymmetry between them remained the same.

"We believe this is the first demonstration that asymmetrical arm swings may be a very early sign of the disease," says Huang.

While slightly irregular arm swing occurs in people without Parkinson's, the asymmetry is significantly larger in those suffering from the disease.

"Our data suggests that this could be a very useful tool for the early detection of Parkinson's," notes Huang.

"There are wide scale efforts to find drugs that slow cell death. When they are found, they could be used in conjunction with this technique to arrest or perhaps cure the disease because they could be given before great damage has occurred."

 



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Six Arrested For Exploiting Nursing Home Residents

Mississippi attorney general charges money taken from residents

Six Arrested For Exploiting Nursing Home Residents...

December 29, 2009
Six persons connected to a Jackson, Miss., nursing home have been arrested and charged with exploiting vulnerable adults.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who announced the arrests, said the six were either employees of the Belhaven Senior Care facility or owned the company.

Those arrested are:

• Ponchie McCollough, age 36, of 308 William McKinley, Jackson, MS, a social worker with the facility, was indicted on one count of conspiracy and 19 counts of Felony Exploitation of a Vulnerable Adult. McCollough remains in jail and bond has not been set, but arraignment is set for January 8, 2010.

• Brad Burt, age 35, of 688 Watts Lane, Brookhaven, MS, an administrator with the facility, was indicted on one count of felony exploitation of a vulnerable adult and 14 counts of accessory after the fact in felony exploitation of a vulnerable adult. He is currently out on $75,000 bond.

• Justin Johnson, age 30, of 23 Meadowbrooke Rd, Natchez, MS, Director of Operations for Trend Consultants (owner of Belhaven Senior Care), was indicted on 14 counts of accessory after the fact in felony exploitation of a vulnerable adult. He is currently out on $25,000 bond.

• Tina Brewer, age 43 of 2017 Eleanor4 St, Vidalia, LA, AR Billing Specialist for Trend Consultants, was indicted on 14 counts of accessory after the fact in felony exploitation of a vulnerable adult. She is currently out on $25,000 bond.

• Jessica McKinney, age 21, of 1921 Chandler Drive, Jackson, MS, a friend of McCollough, was indicted on one count of conspiracy and two counts felony exploitation of a vulnerable adult. Bond has been set at $5,000.

• Madeline Floyd, age 23 of 1256 Woodvillage Apartments, Jackson, MS, a friend of McCollough, was indicted on one count of conspiracy and one count of felony exploitation of a vulnerable adult. Floyd's bond was set at $5,000, but she remains in jail.

In each case, McCollough is alleged to have misappropriated resident's funds under the guise of spending down accumulated funds so that residents would not lose Medicaid benefits. The funds, however, were not used for the residents needs, but were allegedly retained by McCollough and other defendants.

Once the matter was discovered by officials of Trend Consultants, some of the defendants are accused of trying to cover up the alleged wrongdoing in an effort to avoid returning the funds to the residents.

"Within the indictments, there are 21 separate incidents of exploitation involving eight residents of Belhaven Senior Care," said Hood, "A total of $25, 785 was taken from the victims."

On December 3, 2009, owners of Trend Consultants agreed to return $25,785.00 to the eight residents and paid a penalty to the State in the amount of $77,355.00. The agreement absolved the corporation, but not the individual employees who are accused of committing crimes individually. Their court dates are pending.

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Appeals Court Dismisses Suit Against Consumer Site

Nemet Chevrolet accused ConsumerAffairs.com of defamation

Appeals Court Dismisses Suit Against Consumer Site...

A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit filed against ConsumerAffairs.com by Nemet Chevrolet Ltd., a New York City auto dealer.

Nemet, which operates Nemet Chevrolet in Jamaica, Queens, and other dealerships in the New York area, argued that statements published on the ConsumerAffairs.com Website were defamatory and claimed that at least some of the 49 complaints were created by the consumer site rather than by disgruntled customers.

In its notice of appeal, Nemet contended that U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the Eastern District of Virginia erred by dismissing Nemet's lawsuit and a subsequent amended complaint.

But in its opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said Nemet's pleading "does not show, or even intimate" that ConsumerAffairs.com contributed to the allegedly fraudulent nature of the complaints.

As to Nemet's claims regarding the alleged "drafting or revision" of complaints by ConsumerAffairs.com, the appeals court said it found the claims "threadbare."

ConsumerAffairs.com argued that it has immunity from defamation and tortious interference under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was enacted by Congress to preserve the "vibrant and competitive free market" of ideas on the Internet.

'Victory for consumers'

"We are grateful to the Court for protecting our readers' right to free expression," said ConsumerAffairs.com President and Editor In Chief James R. Hood. "This is a victory for consumers who every year become more adept at sharing and seeking out mutually beneficial information through the Internet."

"We believe that our site, and the many other review, complaint and opinion sites on the Internet, serve as an invaluable asset not only to consumers but to businesses who seek to provide the highest possible levels of service and quality to their customers," Hood said.

Nemet had sought injunctive relief and $500,000 in damages and $1,500,000 in punitive damages.

The long-running case was not the first time Nemet has sued the consumer site. In July 2006, the company filed suit in New York Eastern District Court in Brooklyn. That case was dismissed Oct. 11, 2006 by Judge Brian M. Cogan.

 

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Missouri Continues Auto Warranty Crackdown

Attorney general sues total of 10 marketers

Missouri Continues Auto Warranty Crackdown...

Marketers hawking extended auto warranties of dubious value are increasingly coming under scrutiny by law enforcement. Since many of these campaigns are aimed at senior citizens, many state attorneys general have stepped up their efforts to prevent fraud.

In Missouri, Attorney General Chris Koster has sued four more companies he says were selling bogus auto warranty products.

Koster said the businesses he has filed suit against today used misleading telemarketing, letters, and postcards to market what appeared to be "extended auto warranties" to consumers, but actually were "service contracts" or "automotive additives."

He said the businesses would lead consumers to mistakenly believe their current vehicle warranties were about to expire and that they would not have another opportunity to purchase an extended warranty unless they acted immediately. Many potential customers were not informed that the businesses were not affiliated with the dealership or manufacturer from whom the customers bought their vehicles.

Many consumers were unaware they were not actually purchasing auto warranties until they received an auto additive in the mail. The companies sold the products as auto additives to avoid Missouri's service contract laws, which provide some minimal protection for consumers. Consumers did not realize the limited value of the products they were purchasing.

"This extended warranty scam is nothing but a 'bait and switch' scheme that preys on consumers' fears having inadequate vehicle warranty coverage," Koster said. "The 'bait' is to lure vulnerable consumers into extending or purchasing 'auto warranties.' Then the 'switch' is to sell them service contracts, or worse, auto additive warranties with inferior or negligible repair coverage, then making it almost impossible for the consumers to cancel the contract or get refunds.

"I believe this warranty business is rampant with fraud, and Missouri continues to be at the center of this deception," Koster said. "This office will continue to pursue and prosecute businesses such as these that target unsuspecting, innocent consumers."

Koster filed lawsuits against six companies using these scams in November.

The four businesses Koster sued are:

• Carhill Enterprises, Inc., d/b/a Consumer Protection Services, St. Louis

• CarSafe, LLC, d/b/a Dealer Preferred Warranties, LLC, St. Charles

• Dealership Services, St. Louis

• Dealership Warranties, Inc., St. Louis County

Koster is asking the court to issue preliminary and permanent injunctions requiring the companies to comply with Missouri's Merchandising Practices Act; provide full restitution to victims and to the state; and pay civil penalties and court costs.

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Public Citizen: Tamiflu Doesn't Work on Flu Complications

Questions industry-funded tests assuring efficacy

Public Citizen: Tamiflu Doesn't Work on Flu Complications...

Tamiflu, the anti-flu drug being snapped up in record amounts, does not prevent serious complications from the flu and should not be used for routine control of the flu in healthy adults, according to Public Citizen.

The group is calling for an independent review of raw data from clinical trials funded by Tamiflu's maker, Roche. The company has claimed that the drug dramatically reduced hospital admissions as well as bronchitis and pneumonia. But a recent investigation by the British Medical Journal and British TV Channel 4 concluded that such claims were meritless.

In the wake of widespread media coverage of the H1N1, or swine flu, virus, Tamiflu sales have skyrocketed. In October, 2.5 million prescriptions were filled in the U.S. compared with just 35,000 prescriptions in October 2008. For the past 12 months, 6.8 million prescriptions were written, compared with 4.3 million the previous 12 months.

"Tamiflu is being erroneously peddled as a panacea to flu," said Sidney Wolfe, M.D., director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "In fact, no research exists to support this in healthy adults. At best, it can modestly reduce some minor flu systems in such people for a day."

FDA spokeswoman Patricia El-Hinnawy tells ConsumerAffairs.com that "controlled clinical trials conducted among outpatients with acute uncomplicated seasonal influenza reported a reduction of approximately 1 day in the duration of illness when antiviral treatment with oseltamivir (Tamiflu) was initiated within 48 hours of illness compared with placebo."

All of the clinical research conducted to determine the effectiveness of Tamiflu on healthy adults has been funded by the drug's manufacturer, Roche, Public Citizen said. The British investigation involved a review of all published studies examining the effects of Tamiflu in preventing serious complications of the flu in otherwise healthy adults.

The authors concluded that we "have no confidence in claims that [Tamiflu] reduces the risk of complications and hospital admission in people with influenza," and they wrote that it should not be used in routine control of seasonal influenza. There was also concern about underreporting of side effects of the drug.

El-Hinnawy responds that "a manufacturer conducts clinical trials according to FDA requirements, as part of the application for approval of a drug. The data from the trials are reviewed as part of the application 'package'." She adds that "if claims are being made by the company that are not substantiated by the data we reviewed, then the FDA's Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications (DDMAC) would become involved, but, nothing at this point in time would lead us to require an independent review of the data./p>

Although the data available were gathered before the H1N1 virus made its appearance, the results can probably be extrapolated to H1N1 because it is another variety of flu, Wolfe said.

El-Hinnawy notes that there are some observational studies in the published literature assessing potential benefits of Tamiflu in reducing complications, including deaths, among hospitalized patients with 2009 H1N1. But, she says, "There are limitations to these studies and therefore they are not generally included in product labeling."



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FDA Warns Nestle On Drink Mix Marketing

Agency says products mis-branded as drugs

FDA Warns Nestle On Drink Mix Marketing...

December 26, 2009
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has sent a warning letter to Nestle HealthCare Nutrition, admonishing it against promoting its BOOST Kid Essentials Nutritionally Complete Drink as a medical food.

The letter said the company has improperly labeled the dirnks on its Web site as treatment for the medical condition failure to thrive. The FDA said under regulations, the product is mis-branded because the label is false or misleading in that the product is labeled and marketed as a medical food but does not meet the statutory definition of a medical food under the Orphan Drug Act.

The therapeutic claims on your website establish that this product is a drug because it is intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, the letter states. The marketing of this product with these claims violates the Act.

Misbranded Food

The Orphan Drug Act defines "medical food" as "a food which is formulated to be consumed or administered internally under the supervision of a physician and which is intended for the specific dietary management of a disease or condition for which distinctive nutritional requirements, based on recognized scientific principles, are established by medical evaluation."

FDA said it considers the statutory definition of "medical food" to narrowly constrain the types of products that fit within this category. In addition to other criteria, medical foods must be for the dietary management of a specific disorder, disease, or condition for which there are distinctive nutritional requirements and must be intended to be used under medical supervision.

There is no evidence that patients with the medical condition of "failure to thrive" have distinctive nutritional requirements or unique nutrient needs, as required by the statute, the FDA said. No established distinctive nutritional requirement exists for the conditions for which your product is promoted as a medical food, and your BOOST Kid Essentials Nutritionally Complete Drink product therefore does not meet the statutory or regulatory definition of a medical food. Accordingly, your product is misbranded.

In a separate letter, the FDA warned Nestle that it had made unauthorized nutrient content claims about Juicy Juice Brain Development Fruit Juice Beverage, Juicy Juice All-Natural 100% Juice Orange Tangerine and Juicy Juice All-Natural 100% Juice Grape. The agency said Nestle used the statement "no sugar added" on the brain development drink. That type of claim is not permitted for foods intended for children under age 2, the letter said.



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Possibily Tainted Beef Recalled In Six States

E. coli outbreak traced to Oklahoma plant

Possibily Tainted Beef Recalled In Six States...

National Steak and Poultry, an Owasso, Okla., meat packer, is recalling approximately 248,000 pounds of beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. The U.S. Department of Agricultures Food Safety and Inspection Service said it discovered the problem while probing a cluster of illnesses.

Working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health and agriculture departments, FSIS said it determined that there is an association between non-intact steaks (blade tenderized prior to further processing) and illnesses in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota and Washington.

The agency said it continuing to work with the CDC and affected state public health partners on the investigation. Anyone with signs or symptoms of foodborne illness should consult a physician.

The products subject to recall include:

4-ounce NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN STEAK, with an identifying case code of SC68408.

6-ounce NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN STEAK, with an identifying case code of SP680608.

8-ounce NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN STEAK, with an identifying case code of SC68808 9

-ounce NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN STEAK, with an identifying case code of SC68908.

NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY BONELESS BEEF TIPS, with an identifying case code of 69108.

NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN STEAK with an identifying case code of XXSP68008.

NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY SAVORY SIRLOIN TIPS with an identifying case code of XX69008.

5-ounce NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY BACON WRAPPED BEEF FILLET, with an identifying case code of 23508.

NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY USDA SELECT BEEF SHOULDER MARINATED TENDER MEDALLIONS with an identifying case code of 23289.

NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY 75% BONELESS BEEF TRIMMINGS, with an identifying case code of 33575.

NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY BEEF TRIMMINGS, with an identifying case code of 36545.

NATIONAL STEAK AND POULTRY BEEF SIRLOIN PHILLY STEAK, with an identifying case code of 88008.

4-ounce EGN BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN STEAK, with an identifying case code of 680425.

7-ounce EGN BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN TRI TIP STEAK, with an identifying case code of 69725.

9-ounce EGN BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN TRI TIP STEAK, with an identifying case code of 680925.

7-ounce KRM BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN STEAK, with an identifying case code of 680715.

9-ounce KRM BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN STEAK, with an identifying case code of 680915.

12-ounce KRM BONELESS BEEF SIRLOIN STEAK, with an identifying case code of 680215.

8-ounce CARINOS BONELESS BEEF OUTSIDE SKIRT STEAK, with an identifying case code of 130874.

CARINOS BONELESS BEEF OUTSIDE SKIRT STEAK PIECES, with an identifying case code of 13074.

MOES BEEF STEAK, with an identifying case code of 78027.

Each package bears a label with the establishment number EST. 6010T inside the USDA mark of inspection, respective case codes cited above, and packaging dates of 10/12/2009, 10/13/2009, 10/14/2009, or 10/21/2009. These products were shipped to restaurants nationwide.

E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, kidney failure. The very young, seniors and persons with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness. Individuals concerned about an illness should contact a physician.



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FCC Wants More Answers On Verizon Termination Fees

Commissioner unsatisfied with telecom's response

FCC Wants More Answers On Verizon Termination Fees...

When word got out that Verizon was increasing its contract early termination fees (ETFs) to as high as $350 for its high-end phones, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wanted answers. And now that it's finally gotten a response, at least one Commissioner isn't happy with what they received.

Verizon's senior vice-president for regulatory affairs, Kathleen Grillo, said that the increased termination fees were necessary due to the higher costs of marketing and advertising smartphones, in addition to the actual costs of subsidizing the handsets themselves.

"Verizon Wireless incurs additional costs to sign up customers, such as advertising costs, commissions for sales personnel, and store costs," she wrote. "These costs are higher for Advanced Devices: for example, it takes more time (and hence increases the cost to Verizon Wireless) for sales and customer care representatives to handle customer inquiries regarding the complex advanced features and functionalities of Advanced Devices."

That answer didn't make new Commissioner Mignon Clyburn very happy. In her response, she said that Verizon had a "shifting and tenuous rationale" for its actions.

"Consumers already pay high monthly fees for voice and data designed to cover the costs of doing business," she said. "So when they are assessed excessive penalties, especially when they are near the end of their contract term, it is hard for me to believe that the public interest is being well served."

Clyburn also had questions about Verizon's Mobile Web service. Consumers and tech reporters had noted that the service's usage plan kicked in the moment you accessed the service, even if done accidentally or only for a moment, and the resultant $1.99 charge was a hidden fee for Verizon.

In the telecom's response, Grillo said that "In order to protect customers from minimal, accidental usage charges, Verizon Wireless does not charge users when the browser is launched, and opens to the Verizon Wireless Mobile Web homepage. If the browsing session ends there without the customer navigating to another webpage, the customer will not incur charges for Mobile Web browsing."

Clyburn was unconvinced, saying that "recent press reports and consumer complaints strongly suggest otherwise."

Verizon's ETF hike has put the issue back in the hot seat in recent weeks. For many years, wireless companies have claimed that ETFs were necessary to subsidize the costs of handsets, while critics claimed they were a tactic designed to lock consumers into long-term contracts while companies reaped profits.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 42 percent of wireless customers surveyed would not switch from their current carrier to another for fear of incurring a termination fee. The GAO also criticized the FCC for not doing enough to investigate complaints about wireless service by customers.

Advocacy groups such as Consumer Action have been pushing consumers to pay attention to contract changes and new additions to their terms of service, which can often be used to escape a cell phone contract without penalty -- but only with savvy negotiation.

 

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Pop-Up Security Warnings Pose Threats

'Malvertising' a growing problem, FBI says

Cyber criminals use botnets -- collections of compromised computers -- to push the software, and advertisements on websites deliver it. This is known as ma...

Those computer pop-ups that drive us all nuts are more than just annoying: they can be dangerous.

The FBI is warning consumers that pop-up security messages that appear while you are online may contain a virus that could harm your computer, cause costly repairs or -- even worse -- lead to identity theft. The messages contain scareware -- fake or rogue anti-virus software that looks authentic.

The message may display what appears to be a real-time, anti-virus scan of your hard drive. The scareware will show a list of reputable software icons; however, you can't click a link to go to the real site to review or see recommendations.

Cyber criminals use botnets -- collections of compromised computers -- to push the software, and advertisements on websites deliver it. This is known as malicious advertising or "malvertising."

Once the pop-up warning appears, it can't be easily closed by clicking the "close" or "X" buttons. If you click the pop-up to purchase the software, a form to collect payment information for the bogus product launches. In some instances, the scareware can install malicious code onto your computer, whether you click the warning or not. This is more likely to happen if your computer has an account that has rights to install software.

Downloading the software could result in viruses, malicious software called Trojans, and/or keyloggers -- hardware that records passwords and sensitive data -- being installed on your computer. Malicious software can cause costly damages for individual users and financial institutions. The FBI estimates scareware has cost victims more than $150 million.

Sandra from Alvarado, TX, knows exactly what the FBI is talking about. "This pop-up starts scanning your computer and tells you you have a virus, and asks if you want to get rid of it," she writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "It looks like your own security such as Norton, McAfee, and AVG. If you tell it yes it attaches to your computer, when you realize it is not your security product, and you try to uninstall it, it is almost impossible.

This version "blocked every program I tried to go into, Sandra says. "It would not let me put in passwords, told me they were unsafe programs. If you go to the home page for 'personal anti-virus,' they want you to pay $59.95 for the program. To get rid of it I had to go into program files, because the uninstall icon it put on the screen would not work."

Because cyber criminals use easy-to-remember names and associate them with known applications, the FBI advises consumers to research the exact name of the software being offered. In addition, precautions should be taken to ensure operating systems are updated and security software is current.

Consumers receiving these anti-virus pop-ups should close the browser or shut down the computer system and run a full anti-virus scan whenever the computer is turned back on.

Anyone experiencing the anti-virus pop-ups or a similar scam is urged to notify the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) by filing a complaint at www.ic3.gov.

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California Animal Shelters Overrun With Chihuahuas

Popular pet dogs need homes for the holidays

California Animal Shelters Overrun With Chihuahuas...

 

It's a big problem that comes in a small package -- the "Chihuahua" problem.

California animal shelters are overflowing with the tiny dogs popularized by such movies as "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and "Legally Blonde." But animal control officials hope pet lovers in that state and others will give these Chihuahuas a home for the holidays.

"We probably have more than 20 Chihuahuas in our shelter," said Deb Campbell with San Francisco's Animal Care and Control. "There're just so many of them. And people are bringing them in pretty much daily."

Campbell's shelter isn't the only one in the Golden State with a burgeoning population of abandoned Chihuahuas. "This seems to be consistent with just about all California shelters," Campbell told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Southern California is experiencing the same thing and many shelters in the bay area are overflowing with Chihuahuas."

Earlier this month, San Francisco's Grateful Dogs Rescue group said 31 of the 66 dogs in its foster care program were Chihuahuas or Chihuahua-mixes. The "featured dog" on its Web site today was a Chihuahua-mix named Cecil.

"Must-have dogs"

Campbell and other animal control officials attribute part of the "Chihuahua problem" to movies and advertisements that prominently feature the "Taco Bell" dogs. All that exposure, coupled with pictures of celebrities sporting their Chihuahuas, transformed the breed into trendy must-have dogs.

"A lot of breeders feed into whatever dog is in the media and crank them out to meet demand," Campbell said. "But they went overboard. Backyard breeders also jumped on board and pretty soon, the number of dogs out there had gone past the demand."

The ailing economy has also played a major role in this Chihuahua problem, Campbell said. "The downturn in the economy has affected a lot of people with pets," she said. "Many pets are now being left at shelters, and all shelters are being flooded with animals."

"It's horrible that so many people are being forced to give up their animals," she added. "These are animals that have been loved members of the family. These people are devastated. It's so sad that they can't care for the pets anymore."

Campbell encouraged anyone looking for a Chihuahua or other dog this holiday season to consider getting one from a shelter.

"We've recently had people come in with purebreds that have AKC (American Kennel Club) papers," she said. "Most people think they can only find big, bruising dogs, like Chows and Pit Bulls, at a shelter. They don't think you can find small, lap dogs or purebreds at the shelter. But consumers can go to just about any shelter and find a Chihuahua or a great small dog to adopt."

Twelve of the Chihuahuas in Campbell's shelter were scheduled to be airlifted on Tuesday to New York. But the snow storm that blanketed the East Coast over the weekend delayed those plans.

"We're now looking at flights in early January," Campbell said, adding Virgin America airlines agreed to transport the dogs free of charge. But why fly the dogs across the country to New York?

"While we are overflowing with Chihuahuas in California, there seems to be a lack of them on the East Coast," Campbell said.

Earlier this month, she and other humane workers in California asked the public to help them with the unprecedented number of Chihuahuas in their shelters. They had one simple wish: Find these dogs a home for the holidays.

"We adopted six right after our press conference and then five more about a week later," Campbell said. "We then heard from shelters on the East Coast that wanted the dogs."

Campbell's shelter is now working with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York to place many of the Chihuahuas.

"After our appeal, [the New York ASPCA was] overwhelmed with calls from people wanting our dogs," Campbell said. "So there's definitely a need there."

Puppy mill problems

Getting a dog at a shelter, instead of a pet store or Web site, is also a message the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is spreading this holiday season.

Consumers who buy a dog from a pet store or online vendor, the animal rights organization warned, could unknowingly fuel the billion-dollar puppy-mill industry.

Puppy mills are mass commercial breeding operations that churn out two to four million puppies each year, the HSUS said. Those puppies, they said, are raised in deplorable conditions and often have health problems, genetic defects, and behavioral issues.

"The Humane Society of the United States braces itself every year for the upsetting calls that come in right after the holidays," says Stephanie Shain, senior director of the puppy mills campaign for HSUS. People call about sick or dying puppies who were purchased for the holidays.

"We encourage people who want a new pet to first consider adoption from local shelters and rescue groups, which are filled with healthy, loving dogs who need a family of their own this holiday."

During a November 2008 interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, Shain predicted that puppy mills would soon start churning out Chihuahuas. Her comments came shortly after the release of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

"The breed all depends on what public wants," she told us. "It's driven by consumers' demands. And we have concerns about Chihuahua right now. When any breed gets that much media attention, there is a huge surge in demand and people wanting to capitalize on that demand."

Campbell and other California shelters are now dealing with the consequences of unscrupulous breeders who exploited the demand for Chihuahuas and cranked out too many of the little dogs for their financial gain.

But the shelters are commitmented to finding good homes for all the Chihuahuas and the other dogs and cats in their facilities.

"These Chihuahuas are still available for adoption and consumers can come to our shelter and get one or any of our other great dogs," Campbell said. "And we definitely have more cats than dogs, some of which are purebred."

"My message to pet owners looking for a dog this holiday season is to never be afraid to go to a shelter," she added. "It will make an amazing difference in your life and in the life of an animal."

"They're losing money left and right"

Companies such as the Hartz Mountain Corporation are stepping forward to help animal shelters weather the economic climate.

In July, Hartz pledged to donate more than three million dollars in pet supplies and treats to animal shelters and food banks across the U.S. and Canada. The company is also soliciting help from pet lovers to nominate local animal shelters and food banks for donations of pet supplies.

"The economic downturn has had a profound effect on the financial welfare of families, many of whom have been forced to surrender their beloved pets to shelters," said Bob Shipley, Hartz Senior Vice President of Customer Relations Development. "Yet shelters report that donations are down by as much as 30 percent."

"We hope that our Hartz Shelter Program will help shelters feed and care for abandoned animals and enable at-risk families to keep their pets," Shipley added.

Campbell applauds Hartz' commitment to help shelters nationwide. "Shelters are struggling right now," she said. "Contributions are down. They're losing money left and right."

 

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Michigan Busts Ponzi Scheme Targeting Seniors

Attorney General charges three over $350 million fraud

Mike Cox announced the arrest of three individuals accused of cheating 125 Michigan seniors out of their life savings by selling them time-shares in foreig...

December 22, 2009
Attorney General Mike Cox today announced the arrest of three individuals accused of cheating 125 Michigan seniors out of their life savings by selling them time-shares in foreign resort properties that exceeded what were truly available.

Jeffrey Ron Mitchell, 39, of Walled Lake, Robert Valeri, Sr., 59, of South Lyon, and Robert Antonio Valeri, Jr., 32, of Canton allegedly participated with Indiana resident and scam mastermind Michael Kelly in a massive Ponzi scheme, selling time shares in the form of an unregistered security called a "Universal Lease" through a company called Resort Holdings International.

The Attorney General's office accused them of targeting senior citizens and retirees with marketing efforts that illegally promoted the lease as a safe investment opportunity with the promise of large monetary returns.

While seniors purchasing the lease were allegedly given the option to use the vacation property during specified times over a 25 year term, they were also given the option of having a purported third-party management company arrange for the rental of the unit during the same time period for a guaranteed 9 percent return--whether the unit was rented or not. They were encouraged to elect the latter option and everyone who purchased the lease did.

In reality, Kelly also controlled the third-party management company. The investment scheme took in an estimated $350,000,000 nationwide and as much as $9 million in Michigan. It imploded due to deliberate overselling of shares in the Universal Lease program, leaving investors with empty pockets and broken promises.

"Our parents and grandparents spent their lives working hard to provide for their families and to build the Michigan we enjoy today," said Cox. "They deserve to know that their investments are being made safely and that those who would steal from them are being held accountable."

Mitchell, Valeri, Sr. and Valeri were arrested today and are charged with Conducting Criminal Enterprise (Racketeering), a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $100,000 and Conspiracy to Sell an Unregistered Security, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. Mitchell and Valeri, Sr. are also charged with Selling an Unregistered Security and Omitting to Disclose Material Information during the Sale of a Security, both felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or a $25,000 fine.

Each were arraigned in 19th District Court before Judge Richard Wygonik and assigned a $25,000 personal bond. Preliminary exams are scheduled for March 19.

Kelly is in federal custody and is facing federal fraud and securities charges.

The federal court has created a restitution fund, and Kelly's assets have been seized and are being controlled by court order. The value of the seized property is estimated at between $160,000,000 and $175,000,000. Michigan residents who were taken in by the Resort Holdings scheme have the opportunity to recover at least a portion of their investment.

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Polaris Recalls Sportsman ATVs

Polaris Recalls Sportsman ATVs...

December 22, 2009
Polaris Industries is recalling about 8,500 ATVs from the 2009-2010 model years. The front suspension ball joint stem can separate from the steering knuckle and cause the rider to lose steering control, posing a risk of injury or death to riders.

Polaris has received 19 reports of incidents involving the recalled ATVs. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves model year 2009 and 2010 Polaris Sportsman ATVs (models listed below) with certain VIN numbers. The ATVs were manufactured between January and August 2009. The VIN number and manufacture date are located on the right front of the ATV on the frame rail next to the front shock.

Model YearModel Name
2009Sportsman XP 550
2009Sportsman XP 550 EPS
2010Sportsman 550
2010Sportsman X2 550
2010Sportsman Touring 550
2009/2010Sportsman XP 850
2009/2010Sportsman XP850 EPS
2010Sportsman Touring 850

Polaris dealers nationwide sold the ATVs from February 2009 through November 2009 for between $7,500 and $10,800. They were made in the United States.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled ATVs and contact their local Polaris dealer to determine if your model and VIN number are included in this recall and to schedule a free repair. Polaris is directly contacting registered owners about the recall.

For additional information, contact Polaris toll-free at (888) 704-5290 between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit the companys Web site at www.polarisindustries.com.

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

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Top 10 Scams Of 2009

Scam artists go upscale, adopt corporate image

Scam artists grew ever more sophisticated in 2009, moving away from spam emails and fast-talking telemarketers towards a more "corporate" image....

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Pennsylvania AG Files Suit Against Fraudulent Warranty Company

Eagle Warranty closed doors despite thousands of outstanding claims

Pennsylvania AG Files Suit Against Fraudulent Warranty Company...

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett has filed suit against a company he alleges sold thousands of fraudulent warranties to unsuspecting consumers.

Eagle Warranty, based in Eynon, Pa., sold warranties for used cars, working in tandem with dealers in a number of states.

Eagle offered four-year warranties, ranging from $400 to $2,500. According to Corbett's suit, the company authorized a number of repairs but then failed to pay for them, leaving consumers to fend for themselves when confronted with payment demands from repair shops. A number of consumers received checks from Eagle, only to have them bounce when they tried to cash them.

In a statement, Corbett said that consumers "believ[ed] that they were protecting their vehicles and guarding against future repair expenses," but instead have encountered "unanswered calls, unpaid claims, bounced checks, unrepaired vehicles and worthless warranties."

On December 11, Eagle promptly closed its doors, dashing any hope that the company was in the process of getting its act together.

Nils Frederiksen, a Corbett spokesman, told the Scranton Times-Tribune that Eagle boasted on its website of having 65,000 customers. Frederiksen said that Corbett's office is treating all of those customers as "potential victims."

Corbett is seeking compensatory damages and a penalty of up to $3,000 per consumer for violations of the Consumer Protection Law, which renders illegal unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive practices used in commerce. The statute gives the attorney general the power to bring a suit whenever he "has reason to believe that any person is using or is about to use any method, act or practice" prohibited by the law.

The suit also requests an injunction barring Eagle from selling any used car warranties until it has fully compensated all of its alleged victims. Corbett has already achieved a preliminary injunction freezing Eagle's bank accounts and other assets; a court will decide on Tuesday whether to extend the injunction.

Corbett's office has received at least 160 complaints about Eagle. ConsumerAffairs.com has received several complaints as well. Bill of Farragut, TN provides a representative account:

"I purchased the extended warranty 18 mos. ago when I purchased a 03 saab 93 from a dealer. There have been alot of mechanical problems ... Chad at Eagle Warranty claims told me they would be responsible for 767.38 ... I have talked to him and left messages at least 20 times since and he refers me to Holley in accounting. The last time she actually answered the phone she said a check would be mailed out on Aug. 17th. It did not happen and she has avoided answering all calls since. I cannot get in touch with her after trying 40 times ... I am out 2200.00 plus a week of car rental that was authorized and not payed for at 150.00, plus 120.00 of cell phone bill over and above our normal plan because of all the calls to Eagle."

Katheryne of Los Angeles, CA, found herself shafted after Eagle shut its doors:

"I purchased a used 2002 Honda Accord on 12/11/08 from Emmons Motor Company of Pasadena, Texas and with this purchased a $1400.00 warranty (4 yrs unlimited mileage and unlimited repairs Liberty plan). Emmons informed me that Eagle Warranty Corp. closed down and that I must file a complaint with Attorney General of Pennsylvania (which I am currently doing). Emmons informed me that there are other consumers in my situation also."

In addition to Eagle, the suit names as defendants Charles Yaskulski, the company's president, and Charles Yaskulski Jr., a vice president and the elder Yaskulski's son.

Eagle provided warranties for dealerships in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Texas, Delaware, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

Consumers who have experienced a problem with an Eagle warranty should call the Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-441-2555 or file a complaint at www.attorneygeneral.gov.

 

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Seven More Banks Fail

Toll for year rises to 140

Seven More Banks Fail...

It was a busy week for federal banking regulators, who shut down failed banks in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois and Michigan. The seven failed banks pushed the toll for 2009 to 140.

Troubled real estate loans, both residential and commercial, lie behind many of the banks' problems. Most of this week's failed banks are in states that have seen both real estate values plummet and foreclosures skyrocket.

The latest failed banks are:

• First Federal Bank of California, a Federal Savings Bank, Santa Monica, California. As of September 30, 2009, it had approximately $6.1 billion in total assets and $4.5 billion in total deposits. It was taken over by OneWest Bank, FSB, Pasadena, California.

• Imperial Capital Bank, La Jolla, California. As of September 30, 2009, it had approximately $4.0 billion in total assets and $2.8 billion in total deposits. It was taken over by City National Bank, Los Angeles, California.

• Independent Bankers' Bank, Springfield, Illinois. As of September 30, 2009, it had approximately $585.5 million in assets and $511.5 million in deposits. FDIC created a bridge bank to take over its operations, Independent Bankers' Bank Bridge Bank.

• New South Federal Savings Bank, Irondale, Alabama. As of September 30, 2009, it had approximately $1.5 billion in total assets and $1.2 billion in total deposits. It was taken over by Beal Bank, Plano, Texas.

• Citizens State Bank, New Baltimore, Michigan. As of September 30, 2009, it had $168.6 million in total assets and $157.1 million in total deposits. FDIC created a new bank, Deposit Insurance National Bank of New Baltimore, to take over its operations.

• Peoples First Community Bank, Panama City, Florida. As of September 30, 2009, Peoples First Community Bank had approximately $1.8 billion in total assets and $1.7 billion in total deposits. It was taken over by Hancock Bank, Gulfport, Mississippi.

• RockBridge Commercial Bank, Atlanta, Ga. As of September 30, 2009, it had approximately $294.0 million in total assets and $291.7 million in total deposits. The FDIC was unable to find another financial institution to take over the banking operations of RockBridge Commercial Bank. As a result, checks to the retail depositors for their insured funds will be mailed on Monday.

Besides being a busy week for the FDIC, it was a costly one as well. The agency estimates the total cost to the Deposit Insurance Fund for closing these seven banks is $1.8 billion.



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New York Announces Settlement With Three Home Health Agencies

Cuomo's suit accused company of employing unqualified aides

New York Announces Settlement With Three Home Health Agencies...

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has announced a settlement with three home health agencies that are alleged to have defrauded Medicaid by billing the system for hundreds of unqualified health aides.

The settlement was reached with Brooklyn-based B&H Health Care Services Inc., doing business as Nursing Personnel Home Care; Excellent Home Care Services LLC, also of Brooklyn; and Manhattan-based Extended Nursing Personnel CHHA LLC of Manhattan. Cuomo's suit accused all three of sending hundreds of health aides with little or no training to provide health care for elderly and indigent New Yorkers.

Under the terms of the settlement, the three providers will return $23,963,100 to Medicaid, with $14,377,860 of that going to New York State. It is the largest settlement reached between New York's Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU) and the state's home health care industry. The MFCU is the largest unit in the Attorney General's criminal division and has the sole responsibility to prosecute wrondoing related to patient care in hospitals and nursing homes, as well as by home health agencies.

In order to become certified, home health aides in New York must complete a program licensed by either the Department of Health or the Department of Education. Any training program requires at least 75 hours of training, 16 of which must be supervised by a registered nurse. Cuomo's investigation revealed that health aides for the three agencies were operating with false credentials, many of which were sold by "schools" purporting to train home health aides. In addition to the civil suit, Cuomo's investigation resulted in convictions for improperly certified aides, the schools that provided their credentials, and the companies that employed them. More prosecutions are pending.

The suit, filed in May 2008, was part of Cuomo's "Operation Home Alone," a three-year-old investigation of home health care agencies in New York. The investigation was aided by allegations from two whistleblowers, who filed claims under both the federal False Claims Act and state laws. The False Claims Act, also known as the "Lincoln Law," encourages individuals to come forward with evidence of fraud against the government by promising them a substantial portion of any eventual recovered damages. The law has netted about $22 billion for the government since 1986, when significant changes to the satute expanded liability against alleged wrongdoers.

In a statement, Cuomo said, "The size of this settlement underscores the seriousness of the allegations and the importance of vigorous oversight of the Medicaid program and the medical care of our loved ones." He went on to assert that home health providers, which are funded by taxpayer dollars, "have an obligation to ensure that the health care workers they employ are qualified for the job."

This week, California Attorney General Jerry Brown announced that he has settled a suit accusing Schering-Plough of its own brand of Medicaid fraud. Brown's suit accused the pharmaceutical giant of inflating the price of drugs, including Albuterol, used to treat ashtma and other breathing problems. Brown's settlement, which netted $21.3 million, is one of three settlements that netted a grand total of $69 million.

 



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Visa Pledges Help On Unauthorized Charges

Identifying merchants with excessive cardholder disputes

After years of consumer complaints about unauthorized charges on their credit cards by scammers and unscrupulous businesses, Visa says it plans to help....

After years of consumer complaints about unauthorized charges on their credit cards by scammers and unscrupulous businesses, Visa says it plans to help.

The company said it is aware of the growing number of abusive "negative option" marketing practices that "sell" consumers products without their consent and that it plans to better publicize the way consumers can fight back.

"Most e-commerce merchants care about their customers and conduct business fairly, but even a few bad actors can cause consumer distrust," said William M. Sheedy, Group President, The Americas, Visa Inc. "We want to let consumers know more about the protections they have against these types of practices and how to pursue a reversal of charges if they've been charged improperly."

Visa's response follows a letter from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) asking credit card processors to do a better job of protecting consumers from the negative option, especially when it involves a "free trial." Unauthorized charges topped ConsumerAffairs.com's annual "Top 10 Scams of 2009."

With free trials with a negative option feature, a company takes a consumer's failure to cancel as permission to begin charging. While many merchants use this billing process appropriately, others pre-check consent boxes, bury the details of the offers in the terms and conditions and make cancellations or returns difficult, catching consumers in a cycle of recurring charges for products and services they do not want.

According to a Visa survey, 29 percent of American consumers have fallen victim to deceptive marketing when unscrupulous e-commerce merchants require them to cancel or opt-out of a recurring charge for future products or services.

Visa said it monitors its payment network to identify merchants with excessive levels of cardholder disputes, which may indicate the use of deceptive marketing practices. In fact, merchants who use deceptive marketing practices have up to 20 times as many consumer disputes as the average e-commerce merchant, according to Visa's figures. Visa requires the merchant and its bank to take corrective action to reduce excessive consumer disputes, or risk termination of Visa acceptance privileges.

ConsumerAffairs.com regularly receives thousands of complaints about unauthorized charges. These charges can be for a product, such as a "trial-size" bottle of supplements, or a services, such as a "discount club" membership.

Visa offered these tips to online shoppers on how to spot deceptive free trial offers and deceptive negative option features, and how to deal with unauthorized charges:

• Take time to read and understand all terms and conditions, so a free trial doesn't turn into a costly purchase you didn't intend to make.

• Pay particular attention to any pre-checked boxes before you submit your payment card information for an order. Failing to un-check the boxes may bind you to terms and conditions you're not interested in.

• Review card statements when you get them for any unauthorized charges, and notify the card issuer promptly of any unusual activity or unauthorized charges.

• Try to resolve the situation with the merchant. If you're unsuccessful, contact the card issuer immediately to dispute the charge.

What kind of negative option marketing is acceptable? According to the FTC, it must meet these criteria:

• Disclosing material terms in an understandable manner, without making them unnecessarily long or inconsistent;

• Making the disclosures clear and conspicuous by placing them where consumers are likely to look on Web pages, by labeling disclosures (and links to them) to indicate their importance and relevance, and by using easy-to-read fonts and colors;

• Disclosing the offer's material terms before the consumer incurs a financial obligation;

• Getting consumers' affirmative consent to the offer by, for example, having them click "I Agree" And without relying on pre-checked boxes;

• Not impeding the effective operation of promised cancellation procedures and honoring cancellation requests that comply with such procedures.

If a consumer is charged in any way, other than those listed above, the consumer should contest the charges.



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4 Ways To Avoid Costly Cell Phone Fees

Consumer group offers ways around contract "gotchas"

"I'd like to see more data on whether or not there is a direct relationship between the manufacturer price and the ETF fee," he added. "I bet the phone is ...

If you're like most Americans, you're probably looking to save money any way you can at the moment. One easy way to do that is to switch from your current cell phone plan to a cheaper service. But many people are afraid to switch carriers or plans, for fear of being dinged with an expensive contract "early termination fee (ETF)," which can average $175 dollars, and as much as $350 if you're a Verizon customer.

San Francisco-based Consumer Action, in partnership with low-cost mobile carrier TRACFone, is advocating for consumers to dodge the ETF trap, claiming that even a heavy cancellation fee penalty can be offset by the savings gained from several months of low-cost cell phone service. As Consumer Action Executive Director Ken McEldowney put it in a press conference today, "informed consumers can make smart choices in the marketplace...consumers have a golden opportunity to save hundreds of dollars by making a switch in wireless carriers."

McEldowney and Consumer Action outlined four steps wireless customers can take to avoid getting slammed with termination fees:

• Determine if you are in the ETF "penalty box." Not sure if you face an ETF? Get on the phone with your cell phone company and find out what penalty (if any) you would face for switching providers. If youve had your cell phone and current plan for two years or more, you may be out of the ETF penalty box. All four of the major wireless carriers -- AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile, have prorated their ETFs over the life of a two-year contract, but many customers will still find themselves owing some amount when renewal time arrives.

• Do the math on your cell phone penalty. Dont just take a penalty at face value if it is in the range of $150-$200. If you are now paying $90 a month for basic cell phone service and switch to a cheaper cell phone service, you can "pay off" a $150 penalty in just three months. After that point, you would be saving $45 a month compared to your current plan.

• If you are out of the penalty phase and want to stay out of it, avoid being lured back into it by your cell phone provider. When contract renewal time arrives, many providers will offer discounts on phones, more minutes on your current plan, and many other enticements in order to sign up for another contract -- which carries another hefty ETF with it.

•If you want to switch, keep an eye out for your cell provider changing the terms of the contract. Under certain circumstances, major changes by your cell provider to the terms of the contract you signed can be used as the basis for escaping early termination fees. If you are interested in switching cell phone providers and want to avoid an ETF, be on high alert for bill inserts, emails and phone calls that spell out new terms and ask for you to agree to them. Keep in mind that your cell phone provider doesnt want you to use the contract term changes as a basis for switching, so this may all be buried in the fine print.

For more adventurous customers, McEldowney recommended using a contract-swapping service, where another person takes on the contract in exchange, but warned that it can be relatively costly, though still cheaper than paying an ETF.

Although a low-cost carrier like TRACFone would obviously benefit from more wireless customers switching to its cheaper and prepaid services, McEldowney emphasized that they were not directing the course of Consumer Action's initiative against ETFs. "We retain editorial control," he said.

One correspondent brought up the claim that the wireless industry often makes -- that contracts and ETFs are necessary in order to subsidize the sale of handsets at low prices, and recoup the company's investment. McEldowney was skeptical, saying that if the wireless industry was worried about that, they "didn't think clearly about their 'Buy one, get one free' offers."

"I'd like to see more data on whether or not there is a direct relationship between the manufacturer price and the ETF fee," he added. "I bet the phone is far cheaper."

As part of a recent filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), several consumer groups, including Consumers' Union and Free Press, claimed that the average cost of a wireless phone to a carrier is $14.33 -- and that even the cheapest ETF of $175 represents a profit over ten times greater than the cost of the phone itself.

Termination fees have been a hot topic in the industry for years, and have been getting attention on Capitol Hill of late. The FCC sent an inquiry to Verizon asking it to justify its termination fee hike, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report recently claiming that 42 percent of wireless customers would not switch carriers for fear of incurring a fee.

 

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Blackberry Data System Down for Several Hours

Sprint SMS system may also be affected

Blackberry users weren't the only ones experiencing technical trouble Thursday. Many Sprint mobile users reported problems with the SMS text system....

It was a case of withdrawal for Blackberry addicts Thursday morning when they turned on their phones and there was no familiar vibrating motion or flashing red light indicating new email.

The system was apparently restored, at least in parts of the country, around 10:00 am PST Thursday.

Users nationwide reported being unable to access email, though the devices still made and received voice calls and can be used to access the Internet through Verizon's mobile broadband service.

When a Verizon customer service representative in Virginia dialed into the system and punched in a customer's phone number, an automated response said the data server was down, but that crews were at work attempting to fix the problem.

The tech blog CrunchGear reports the outage affected all of the U.S. and Canada.

Blackberry users weren't the only ones experiencing technical trouble Thursday. Many Sprint mobile users reported problems with the SMS text system. Many customers reported getting a message saying "The message could not be delivered due to a network setup error. Please contact Customer Care. Error 2112."



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FTC Urged To Place Tighter Controls On 'Free' Credit Reports

Consumers are confused, New York officials say

FTC Urged To Place Tighter Controls On 'Free' Credit Reports...

By Mark Huffman
ConsumerAffairs.com

December 17, 2009
New York has joined the states urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to tighten rules governing ads for commercial services that offer "free" credit reports. Consumers continue to confuse these services, that end up charging for other products, with the free copies of their credit reports mandated by law.

The New York State Consumer Protection Board (CPB) says the FTC should revise its proposed amendments to the Free Annual Credit Report File Disclosures Rule, also known as the Free Credit Report Rule, to better protect consumers.

For example, Freecreditreport.com, which advertises heavily on TV, will provide a credit copy of your Experian credit report but enrolls you in its other credit protection services, and will charge your credit card unless you cancel. But many consumers don't cancel because they aren't aware they've been enrolled in anything.

"I had filed for a free credit report in July," Alfred, of San Diego, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I didn't notice the initial grace period, The result was they had the default right to charge me for a service and then they enrolled me into their monthly service. Upon realizing this I called to cancel my account. I looked at my billing statement and they had already charged my account on 1 October 2009. Calling in for a refund they said the expense were non-refundable."

Many consumers confuse this commercial service with the free credit reports every consumer is entitled to by going to www.AnnualCreditReport.com. At that government-approved site, consumers may download copies of their credit report from all three credit reporting agencies once a year.

The CPB said it believes that the most significant risk of deception comes from the manner in which some commercial businesses advertise their "free credit report" offers to the public. The CPB called on the FTC to supplement its proposed amendments with rules prohibiting the deceptive use of the word "free" in these advertisements and presentations.

"Some commercial marketing of credit reports has mislead consumers who thought they were accessing their free credit report only to have signed up for costly services, which they did not intend to purchase," said New York Governor David A. Paterson. "It is important that free credit report advertising rules be changed to aid consumers in making a more informed choice about purchasing extra services beyond receiving their free report."

The FTC's proposed amendments require in part, that online, print and television ads for free credit reports carry the following notice:

"This is not the free credit report provided for by Federal law."

In its letter to the FTC, the CPB called on the federal agency to require that this notice be prominently placed within all advertisements.

"In the case of print ads, the notice should be presented in a box and/or in a contrasting color to help ensure its prominence. The CPB also proposes that the notice requirement be applied in all non-traditional advertising contexts," said Mindy A. Bockstein, Chairperson and Executive Director of the CPB.

Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) , consumers are allowed one free credit report a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. Consumers can request their free report by visiting the actual free federal website www.AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling 1-877-322-8228.

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Maryland Officials Halt Foreclosure Rescue Scam

Scheme robbed homeowners of equity

Gansler says the state has won a court judgment of nearly $1 million against individuals and companies operating what state officials characterize as a for...

December 16, 2009
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler says the state has won a court judgment of nearly $1 million against individuals and companies operating what state officials characterize as a foreclosure rescue scam.

A circuit court in Baltimore entered the judgment against Rodney Spellen, Mid Atlantic Consulting, Inc., Jemel Lyles, Absoloot Ventures Inc., Brian Boyd, 1st Choice Property Management Firm, Inc., Sahar Ali, Alan Muniu, Phillip George, Certified Title & Escrow, Inc., and Reggie Simmons, based on violations of Maryland laws.

The court also issued an order that bars each of the defendants from offering and selling services of any kind to a homeowner who is in default on a mortgage or is in foreclosure, and requires them to pay a total of $987,030 in damages, restitution and penalties.

In June 2008, the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division filed a complaint in Baltimore City Circuit Court alleging that each defendant participated in an illegal foreclosure rescue scheme. The complaint alleged that the defendants, acting together, promised to save consumers' homes from foreclosure and restore their credit ratings.

In fact, Gansler says the defendants attempted to take title to the homes and strip them of the equity, in violation of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, the Maryland Protection of Homeowners in Foreclosure Act and the Maryland Credit Services Businesses Act. On November 9, 2009, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City entered summary judgment in favor of the Division and against each of the defendants except Reggie Simmons.

A trial was held in November to determine Simmons' liability and the appropriate measure of damages, restitution and penalties for each of the defendants. The court found that each of the defendants violated Maryland law by operating an illegal foreclosure rescue scam and entered a monetary judgment totaling $987,030.

"Maryland law prohibits foreclosure consultants from attempting to strip equity from the homes of vulnerable consumers," Gansler said. "The court's order should send a strong message to unscrupulous individuals who operate these illegal schemes and take advantage of consumers desperate to keep their homes."

The case involved 10 consumers' homes. Under the court's order, the defendants have been ordered to pay $757,030, which equals the amount of equity that the court found was stripped from these homes. The order further requires the defendants to pay penalties totaling $230,000.

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GM Introduces Wi-Fi In Cars

But how about an Internet radio system?

Automotive entertainment systems have come a long way since the 1930s when the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation introduced the first car radios....

Automotive entertainment systems have come a long way since the 1930s when the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation introduced the first car radios.

Manufacturers added FM to radios in the 1970s. Then came the 1990s, when minivans offered built-in video systems so small back-seat passengers could watch DVDs instead of harassing Mom and Dad.

What's next? General Motors says its in-car Wi-Fi. The carmaker is introducing Chevrolet Wi-Fi for its Equinox, Traverse, Silverado, Tahoe, Suburban, Avalanche and Express models.

GM says this dealer-installed system enables full Internet access inside the vehicle, and up to a 150 feet radius around the vehicle, with a laptop or mobile Wi-Fi device.

"Chevrolet Wi-Fi by Autonet Mobile enhances commuting, family vacations and work," said Chris Rauser, Chevrolet Accessories Manager. "It benefits active families on the go, as well as professionals who need immediate information at remote job sites. Its uses are almost endless."

While it might be yet another way to keep the kids quiet in the back seat, business users who already have a smart phone might find the service redundant. The equipment costs $199 (after $200 mail-in rebate) and $29 a month on a two-year contract. Those who already have a Verizon Blackberry, for example, can pay an extra $30 a month and connect their laptops anywhere within the network, not just in their cars.

While it was only a matter of time before the Internet came to the automobile, there might be more useful applications than the one GM has come up with. Instead of creating another way for passengers to connect to the Internet while riding, why not instead replace the car's audio system with a device that streams Internet radio?

For example, instead of being stuck listening to one of a dozen adult contemporary radio stations in your city, you could drive down the Interstate listening to your own station on Pandora, or any of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stations around the world that stream over the Internet.

With an Internet "receiver" as part of a car's entertainment system, the choices are almost endless. Best of all, the driver could get some benefit from it as well.

 



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Florida Resolves Toll Pass Dispute With Avis

Company allegedly changed policy without telling customers

McCollum began investigating after customers complained they were not clearly informed that they would be billed the fee for days on which the plate pass w...

December 15, 2009
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum says he has reached an agreement with the Avis and Budget car rental companies over allegations that customers were not clearly informed about the terms of usage for a toll plaza pass. Under the agreement, Floridians who rented cars from Avis or Budget between March 1, 2008 and September 30, 2008 will be entitled to refunds for fees charged for the "Plate Pass" service on days they did not use the service.

Avis, which owns Budget, provides a service known as "Plate Pass" which allows car rental customers to avoid waiting in lines at Florida toll plazas and instead receive a bill for the amount of the tolls, plus a fee for the use of the feature. According to an investigation by the Attorney General's Economic Crimes Division, when Avis originally initiated the plate pass service customers were billed the fee only for the days they actually used the plate pass.

In March 2008, Avis allegedly changed its policy so that if a customer used the feature just once during the rental term, the customer was billed a $2.50 fee per day for the remainder of their retail period.

McCollum began investigating after customers complained they were not clearly informed that they would be billed the fee for days on which the plate pass was not used. Avis has cooperated with the Attorney General and by September 2008 made voluntary changes to clearly disclose that once the plate pass is used, customers will thereafter be charged a daily fee for the use of the plate pass, including days the plate pass is not used.

The agreement contains injunctive relief requiring that Avis continue to clearly and conspicuously inform customers that they will be billed, even for days they do not use the service. Avis will also refund Florida Avis and Budget Customers who, between March 1, 2008 and September 30, 2008, were billed on days when they did not use the service. Avis has also agreed to make a contribution of $10,000 to the Florida Law Enforcement Officer of the Year fund as part of the agreement.

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National Home Protection Settles New York Suit

Defunct "warranty" company accused of defrauding customers

NHP, Inc., the shuttered home warranty company accused of defrauding thousands of consumers across the country, has agreed to a settlement with NY Attorney...

National Home Protection, Inc., the shuttered home warranty company accused of defrauding thousands of consumers across the country, has agreed to a settlement with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. NHP will pay $900,000 to settle claims that it misled consumers about its services and failed to honor legitimate warranty claims.

NHP sold a one-year "warranty plan" that promised repairs or replacements for any appliances damaged as a result of normal wear and tear. The plan typically cost around $370 per year, making it a relatively inexpensive option for homeowners worried about shelling out thousands of dollars for an unforeseen water heater or oven malfunction.

Despite its promises, however, NHP routinely denied legitimate claims and canceled homeowners' policies for no apparent reason, Cuomo said. Cuomo's office also accused NHP of engaging in "deceptive advertising," pointing to the company's statements that it would replace appliances "regardless of age, make or model," and that there was "no home inspection required to enroll" in the plan. And while the company promised consumers a $50 gift card "today" if they signed up for the warranty, that offer was in fact "a rebate offer subject to undisclosed and restrictive wait periods," according to Cuomo. Many consumers who complied with the rebate offer's terms and conditions still never received any money.

New York Supreme Court Justice O. Peter Sherwood issued a decision on December 8, finding NHP liable for, among other things, engaging in false and misleading advertising, failing to provide timely rebates under New York law, and failing to post rebate forms on its website. Justice Sherwood said that NHP's misrepresentations extended to its website, where it assured consumers that it would "replace your unit with the same or like model." In fact, Justice Sherwood said, many consumers were offered inferior products or a cash amount considerably lower than their broken appliance's value.

Under the settlement, NHP will pay compensatory and punitive damages totaling $900,000. Those eligible to receive restitution include NHP customers who were denied contracted-for or advertised services, those who did not receive a gift card offered as an incentive to buy NHP insurance, and those who were prohibited from canceling their warranty within a given time -- either within 20 days of mailing the warranty, or within 10 days of the sale if the warranty was delivered at that time.

Cuomo's office will send claim forms to all NHP customers over the next few weeks. Those seeking more information can contact his office at (800) 771-7755.

Cuomo filed the suit in April, and the Manhattan Supreme Court immediately granted his request to freeze the bank accounts and assets of the company and its principals. The temporary restraining order covered principals Leo Serrur, David Seruya, and Victor Hakim, and was aimed at preventing them from selling any more warranty plans while the case was pending.

The suit was filed in New York, where NHP is based, but the scam reaches far beyond the Empire State. At the time the suit was filed, Cuomo reported that his office had received over 340 complaints about the company from at least 32 states, New York included, and that another 950 had gone to the Better Business Bureau.

ConsumerAffairs.com has received its share of complaints as well, stretching back to August 2008. A number of complaints came from consumers who couldn't get in touch with NHP after the company shut its doors.

Such was the case with Mariana, of Lexington, Ky. "I signed a contract with NHP in OCtober 2008 for 3 years at a cost of 900," she wrote. "When my garage door broke, I tried to call them on their 800 number and got the operatior's 'this number is not in service' message repeatedly. What's going on with this company? I feel as if I've been scammed out of nearly 1000!"

Chaqueta, of Baltimore, Md., had a bad experience back in May. "I put a servie call in for my air conditioner that took about month for them to get someone to my house," she wrote. "Amazing heating and air came out to fix it on 5/20/2008 and received a authorization number NHWP to replace my thermostat. Now I am getting the portion of the bill with finance charges that NHWP will not pay. I paid to renew my policy they took two payments out and I had to send in a lot of proof that it was taken out of my account twice to get my money back."

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Connecticut Post Office Hiding Mail

You've got mail...or do you?

Connecticut Post Office Hiding Mail...

It's no doubt that December is the busiest month for the U.S. Postal Service, but for one branch in Connecticut, it's just too busy. Some employees have reportedly resorted to hiding the mail rather than sorting and delivering it.

In an interview with the Waterbury Republican-American, Ray Arcovio, president of the Waterbury postal union local, blames the mail-hiding on managers. He says they have been hiding mail in closets and unused rooms at USPS facilities in Waterbury and Wallingford because they can't keep pace with the high volume of mail.

"They're just pushing it aside for the next day," Arcovio told the newspaper. "We've had issues with them hiding the mail."

Arcovio told the paper that postal service employees have witnessed the mail-hiding but have been reluctant to speak out because of fears of repercussions.

The union leader's public outing of management apparently comes at a time of rising tensions at the Connecticut facility. Four years ago sorting operations were moved from Waterbury to Wallingford, displacing some employees.

Arcovio took his dispute with Postal Service management public earlier this month when he published an open letter in the Republican-American:

"Lately, postal management, locally, has been caught finding 'creative' ways of reducing mail volume which has caused more than one to be reprimanded," the letter states. "Ultimately, however, these 'creative' ways of reducing mail volume only have one affect (sic) -- degradation of service to our customers."

Consumers in all parts of the country have written to ConsumerAffairs.com this month, complaining about various issues at their local post offices.

"An Amazon order was delivered to my Post Office box and returned to sender due to 'wrong address,' but address was correct and AMAZON still has not received a return one month to the day later," Gail, of Newport, R.I., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Package is spinning around through different POs as I write this."

Brittany, of Pittsburgh, finds it difficult to send a simple first class letter across the country in a timely manner.

"I mailed a money order in the amount of $229.17 on December 2nd 2009 to a company in Las Vegas, Nevada to purchase a product," she told ConsumerAffairs, com last week. "As of today, December 11, they still have not received it. I called company that issued the money order and confirmed that it had not been cashed. I did not send it certified or registered or express mail because I assumed that it would arrive at its intended destination."



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Six Holiday Shopping 'Gotchas' To Avoid

Consumer Reports Money Adviserpoints out the pitfalls

Tighter budgets and hard-to-get credit tight have many consumers keeping a particularly watchful eye on the holiday shopping out lays this year....


Tighter budgets and hard-to-get credit tight have many consumers keeping a particularly watchful eye on the holiday shopping out lays this year. But even the savviest shoppers can be lured by the tricks grinchy companies use to get you to spend more.

The December issue of the Consumer Reports Money Adviser identified six holiday shopping "gotchas":

1). Debit overdraft fees. Twenty percent of the 1,000 people surveyed by CR National Research Center in October 2009 said they were using their debit cards for purchases more than they did a year ago. But even though they can be convenient, you could end up paying more than you expect. For example, banks used to reject a purchase that exceeded the balance in an account. But many will now process the transaction and then charge customers an overdraft charge ranging from $22 to $39 at 16 of the largest banks. Buying several gifts in one shopping trip could result in multiple fees.

How to avoid it: Use a credit card for large gift purchases, especially if you pay your balance in full each month. Credit cards offer greater consumer protections than other forms of payment if your account number falls into the wrong hands. Use a debit card for small purchases if you're relatively certain you won't need the extra protection of a credit card, and you're sure you won't exceed your account balance. Or use cash, keeping in mind that you won't have the leverage that a credit card provides in a dispute.

2) Deep-discount price bait. Many retailers promote deep discounts in "door-buster" sales that usually start in the wee hours of the morning and are on a first-come first-served basis. In a more deceptive version of these sales, an item is advertised at a super-low price on a Web site, but is just a come-on to get you to buy something else and spend much more.

How to avoid it: Be wary of unrealistically low prices when shopping online. Don't buy additional products or services just because you're getting what looks like a good deal on one. To be super-safe, stick with merchants you know. Don't be worried if you miss a great deal if you skip door-buster sales. Last year, CRMA's experts found plenty of so-called one-day sales that were extended.

3) Gift Card Fees. Gift cards can shorten your shopping time, but CRMA's experts generally advise consumers to avoid them. Some come with purchasing and processing fees, expiration dates, transaction fees, and inactivity fees that unfairly diminish their value over time. And the recipient could wind up with a worthless piece of plastic if a company goes out of business or files for bankruptcy protection after you buy its card.

How to avoid it: Consider giving cash instead of a gift cards. If you do buy one, try to stick with those issued by financially sound retailers. Store cards tend to have fewer expiration dates and fees than those issued by banks that bear the logos of credit-card companies like MasterCard or Visa.

4) Return Policy Limitations. Some companies may have different return requirements for items bought in their stores, through their Web site, or by mail order. Kohl's for example, doesn't accept returns by mail if the merchandise was purchased in a store. Many stores track returns, so if the software flags you as someone who has brought back too many items in a short period of time, your return may be denied.

How to avoid it: Ask for a store receipt and a gift receipt for the items you buy. Wrap gifts in their original packaging. Check the rules before you try to return a gift.

5) Restocking Fees. Many items, especially electronics like digital cameras, camcorders, desktops, and laptop computers are subject to a 15 percent to 25 percent restocking fee if they are not returned in a factory-sealed box.

How to avoid it: Don't open a package if you don't want what's inside. Items like computer software, music CDs, and movie DVDs aren't generally returnable after the seal has been broker. If you are slapped with a restocking fee, try to negotiate a partial refund. But you shouldn't have to pay any fee if an item is defective when you unwrap it.

6) Extended warranties. This holiday season shoppers are expected to spend $1.2 billion on extended warranties for electronics and appliances. But extended warranties are notoriously bad deals. Some repairs are already covered by the standard warranty that comes with the product. Consumer Reports' data show that products seldom break within the extended-warranty window -- after the manufacturer's warranty has expired and within the typical two to three years after purchase. And when items do break, the cost repairs, on average tend to cost about the same as an extended warranty.

How to avoid it. Check your credit card agreement before you even consider buying an extended warranty to see if charging an item on your card will provide similar coverage. If you can't rely on your card's additional coverage, and still want an extended warranty for peace of mind, don't pay more than 20 percent of an item's purchase price for one.



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Toyota to Roll Out Plug-In Electric Car in 2011

Plans all-electric version of the Prius

Toyota to Roll Out Plug-In Electric Car in 2011...

Toyota is serving notice that it doesn't intend to allow other car makers to pass it by in the race to be the "greenest" auto company. The maker of the gasoline hybrid Prius said it will introduce a plug-in electric car in 2011.

Toyota will have plenty of competition. General Motors recently announced plans to produce up to 60,000 Chevy Volt plug-in hybrids a year beginning next year. Nissan also plans to introduce a plug-in next year while Ford and Volkswagen are also working on plug-in models.

Toyota said it plans to take its popular Prius and create a plug-in version of the gasoline hybrid. Instead of an engine that is powered by both gasoline and batteries, the plug-in model is powered almost exclusively by electricity.

Batteries can be plugged into electrical outlets overnight to recharge. On longer trips, a small gasoline engine recharges the batteries, providing extended range.

Toyota hasn't said how much its plug-in hybrid will cost, but the New York Times quotes a Toyota executive as saying the new model will be "affordable." The Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid is expected to start at around $40,000.

Toyota says its all-electric Prius would be twice as efficient as the current gasoline hybrid model and would recharge in only one and a half hours.

Toyota has proven in the past that consumers will purchase fuel efficient cars that have a "green" image, even paying a premium for the privilege. Perhaps the Prius is the best example of that. Since rolling out in 1997, demand has been strong for these cars. In fact, when gasoline prices soared over $4 a gallon in 2008, there were often waiting lists for Prius' at Toyota dealers and consumers who were able to get one had to pay a "surcharge."

However, in terms of gasoline mileage versus the extra cost of the vehicle, Prius owners didn't always save money. There have also been nagging problems with the car's traction control, as well as other problems, according to ConsumerAffairs.com readers.

"The engine of my 2007 Toyota Prius frequently fails to shut down when I firmly push the power button, exactly as directed in the owner's manual, often requiring that I push the button a second time," William, of Memphis, Tenn., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Even if I hold the button in several seconds with the brake depressed. The car has never 'run away' with me, thus I have only experienced this problem when I have come to a stop and wish to get out of the car. The problem started after I had the car about 18 month and had driven approximately 15,000 miles."

 

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Washington Sues DIRECTV For 'Unconscionable' Sales Practices

Claims consumers burned by big fees buried in fine print

Washington Sues DIRECTV For 'Unconscionable' Sales Practices...

According to Washington's Attorney General Rob McKenna, DIRECTV has generated more complaints from consumers than any other business this year -- 375 in 2009, and over 700 in the last three years. He claims it's time to do something about it. Accordingly, his office is suing the California-based satellite TV company for deceptive and unfair sales practices.

McKenna claims that DIRECTV has been luring new customers with ads for low-priced service, while burying multiple hidden fees and "gotchas" in the fine print of its contracts. Following a year-long investigation, the Attorney General's office filed suit for what McKenna claims are violations of the state's Consumer Protection Act.

"The miniscule 5.5 point fine print at the bottom of a DIRECTV advertisement is enough to give someone a migraine," McKenna said. "Even if consumers used a magnifying glass, they still wouldn't discover that the 'good deal' they were promised came with potential expensive pitfalls."

Assistant attorney general Paula Selis said one key issue was the company's requirement that new customers commit to a two-year equipment lease and programming agreement.

"Consumers aren't aware of the two-year contact until after they've signed up for service," Selis said. "They don't know that the monthly service charge will increase significantly after a year. They don't know that DIRECTV will charge them up to a $480 penalty if they cancel before the first two years. Customers who weren't able to use the service because of reception problems or faulty equipment were also charged penalties in some cases."

The Attorney General's office published a host of practices that they say are unfair to customers, including:

• Rebate terms: In order to obtain a promotional rate, customers sometimes have to submit a rebate. Customers who submit the rebate form after installation may be charged full price for their service for up to two months. Those who fail to return the rebate within 60 days of an order are charged the full price indefinitely -- even if DIRECTV failed to adequately inform them of the need to mail the form.

• Use of the term "free:" The company advertises "free" installation and upgrades such as an HD receiver, DVR receiver or premium channels such as HBO and Starz. In fact, customers may be required to pay monthly fees for the equipment. The premium channels are offered as a free trial that automatically converts into a paid subscription.

• Contract extensions: DIRECTV not only requires customers to agree to an extended contract at the beginning of service, but attempts to extend those terms even further. The company extends the length of contracts when customers require equipment repairs, upgrade equipment or move.

• Financing: DIRECTV fails to disclose that the company's least expensive package of $29.99 per month is only available to customers who meet certain financing conditions and agree to have the costs automatically charged or debited.

• Cancellation fees: DIRECTV offers customers a $5.99 monthly "Protection Plan" to cover equipment repairs. Customers who weren't even aware they are paying for the plan have been unfairly charged a $10 fee to cancel their enrollment.

• Retention of funds: Prior to selling programming, DIRECTV asks for a customer's Social Security number in order to perform a credit check. Customers who refuse to provide the number or whose credit is deemed insufficient are required to pay a $200-$300 deposit to obtain service. Those who cancel service prior to the end of their contract lose part of the deposit and may also be charged cancellation fees.

The Attorney General's Office is asking the court to compel DIRECTV to change its business practices, impose civil penalties and provide restitution for consumers.

Washington isn't the only state to sue DIRECTV for what it claims are bad business practices. California DIRECTV customers filed a class action lawsuit against the company over its practice of automatically debiting contract cancellation fees from their account, often without their knowledge or permission.

 

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Missouri Sues California Auto Warranty Telemarketer

Company allegedly ignored state's Do Not Call List

Missouri Sues California Auto Warranty Telemarketer...

Telemarketers not only have to honor the national Do Not Call List, but avoid calling consumers on the individual state lists as well. In Missouri, Attorney General Chris Koster has sued a California telemarketing company he says ignored the state list.

Koster filed suit against Credexx Corporation, d/b/a Auto One Warranty Specialists, based in Irvine, California. Koster said telemarketing calls were made to consumers in an attempt to sell products described as automobile warranties. A number of consumers complained to Koster's office that they had registered with Missouri's Do Not Call List.

"Missourians who register with our No-Call list do so with the reasonable expectation that unsolicited, harassing calls will be substantially reduced," Koster said. "This office is committed to vigorously pursuing every telemarketer who violate our No-Call laws."

Koster said he is asking the court to stop Auto One Warranty Specialists from making calls to Missourians on the No-Call list who have no established business relationship with the companies. He said he is seeking the maximum civil penalties for each violation of the law, in addition to the costs of the investigation and prosecution and all court costs.

Koster said he is cracking down on businesses that market auto service contracts and auto additives as warranties. In November, he filed suit against six businesses for tactics he says they were using to try to trick people into purchasing bogus auto warranty products of limited value.

Earlier this year The Better Business Bureau (BBB) warned consumers to be extremely wary of telemarketing calls and mailers which claim their auto warranty has or is about to expire.

BBB advised that the deceptive solicitations could persuade car owners to purchase an extended auto service contract of questionable value.

BBB said it had seen a considerable spike in both complaints and inquiries from consumers who state that they received misleading mailers or high-pressure telemarketing calls claiming their auto warranty was about to expire.

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Food Channel Names Top 10 Food Trends For 2010

Trends reflect economic, cultural changes

Not surprisingly, the economy is exerting a heavy influence, according to the Food Channel, a cable TV channel focusing on food and food preparation....

December 13, 2009
What are the hottest trends in food for the coming year? Not surprisingly, the economy is exerting a heavy influence, according to the Food Channel, a cable TV channel focusing on food and food preparation.

According to the channel and its Web site, experimentation, "umami," or taste, and benefits are among the main food influences for the coming year.

Keeping it real

In a back-to-basics economy it is natural to return to basic ingredients, according to the Food Network editors. This isn't about retro, or comfort food, or even cost. It's about determining the essentials and stocking your pantry accordingly. It is about pure, simple, clean and sustainable. "It is, dare we say, a shift from convenience foods to scratch cooking," the editors said.

Experimentation Nation

Restaurant concepts are in flux as people redefine what going "out" to eat means. Gastropubs, fusion dining, shareables, and communal tables are all being tried. New concepts around "fresh" and DIY will do well. Experimentation is the trend, so we'll see concepts come and go.

More in store

Food Network predicts growth in grocery stores, particularly as private label assumes prominence. "Those old generics have morphed into their own brands, so that there is blurring and less of a caste system," the editors say. Grocery stores are also doing things such as upgrading delis and fresh take-out sections, all the way to returning butchers to a place of prominence.

American, the new ethnic

This is all about flavor delivery. "Immigration has come to the plate, and we are now defining a new Global Flavor Curve," the editors say. Part comfort, part creativity, the latest flavors are coming from the great American melting pot. So, it's about grandma's food, but the recipes may be written in Japanese.

Food vetting

You are what you eat! With all the recent concerns about food safety, consumers are displaying more sensitivity to the issue. That's what's leading this trend -- our constant need for assurance that we are eating the right things, that our food is safe, that we are not ingesting pesticides or anything that will someday prove harmful. Call it food vetting or sourcing -- the issue is that people are asking where their food comes from.

Mainstreaming Sustainability

People have mainstreamed sustainability, unlike a year ago, when consumers were somewhat afraid to use the word. "America is just now learning how to be sustainable, and Americans are holding themselves responsible," the editors say. In 2010 we'll see people and companies becoming sustainable for authentic reasons.

Food with benefits

Call it what you will -- nutritional, healthful, good-for-you -- but this trend toward beneficial foods is growing at a pretty big rate. Expect food to either have nutrients added, or have the word "free," such as gluten-free, allergy-free.

I want my umami

The "foodie" has settled into a more universal designation of someone who loves food, rather than a food snob. They are just as likely to want a PB&J as they are to try the latest soft shell crab sushi. And they may put French fries on it! The point is experimentation and a willingness to try new things.

Will trade for food

"In an era when you can rent a name-brand purse for a special event, we want to know how we can apply that same concept to consumables," the editors say. So what do we do in a bad economy when we have more time than money and skills that we still want to put to use? We barter. The editors predict that we'll all see more of the barter system come into play now that technology can assist with connections.

I, me, mine

It's the rise of the individual. While sharing has come into its own in restaurant concepts, there is a separate but equal trend toward individuality. It's part of the reason why we are making our own cheese, smoking our own meats, and making our own specialty desserts. "Expect more attention to the individual, but it's not just about portion size--it's also about food that reflects personality," the editors say.



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Chinese Drywall Class Action Filed

New Orleans Saints coach is lead plaintiff

Chinese Drywall Class Action Filed...

The gargantuan class action complaint regarding defective drywall imported from China has been filed in a Louisiana federal court, but the filing doesn't forestall the possibility of additional future litigation.

The suit, which has been in the works for months, is being brought on behalf of approximately 2,100 individual residents of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, represented by a number of firms.

Around 600 homeowners registered for the suit but missed last Friday's deadline. Lead attorney Russ Herman is already discussing plans to file an additional suit on their behalf.

The action's main target is Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin (KPT), the Chinese company that manufactured the bulk of the drywall at issue. The complaint, which clocks in at 591 pages, includes an "Exhibit B" which lists scores of other defendants.

In an interesting twist, the action's lead plaintiff is none other than Sean Payton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints. Under Payton's leadership, the Saints have had a very good year, currently sitting atop the NFC South at 12-0. The Saints are the only team in the NFL besides the Indianapolis Colts to remain undefeated this late in the season.

Payton's luck on the field, however, ran into a barrier of defective drywall problems off the field.

The 45-year-old coach had to move his family out of their house in Mandeville, a suburb of New Orleans, after computers and other electronics in his house began to fail and his family came down with mysterious illnesses. Payton was one of the first people in the state to report drywall-related problems, which factored into his being named lead plaintiff.

Daniel Becnel, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said that Payton had to deal with the issue while gearing up for training camp and the 2009 season, compounding already considerable stress.

Payton's house, like most affected by the problem, was built in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The storm led to a construction boom that left American-manufactured drywall in short supply, opening the door to cheap foreign wallboard. The defective drywall emits an egg-like sulfur smell, corrodes metal fixtures, and can cause health problems ranging from wheezing to asthma and even pneumonia. The bulk of affected homes are those built or remodeled between 2004 and 2008.

KPT's lawyer, Kerry Miller, maintains that no one outside of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi is affected, because the drywall was shipped exclusively to ports in Louisiana and Florida. But complaints have been lodged in no fewer than 32 states, and an investigation by advocacy group America's Watchdog indicates that the drywall has been imported to "potentially all regions" of the country.

America's Watchdog suggests that complaints have so far been concentrated in the Southeast because of that region's high humidity, which could accelerate the wallboard's tendency to deteriorate metal and human health. The group thinks the problem is so widespread that it needs to be dealt with under the federal Superfund statute, which sets aside money for cleanup of toxic sites and then seeks reimbursement from responsible parties.

The complaint includes 15 counts, including negligence, breach of contract, breach of express and implied warranties, nuisance, unjust enrichment, and violation of several Louisiana consumer protection laws.

 



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Credit Card Scam Preys on Union Workers

Advance-fee offers may be too good to be true

Credit Card Scam Preys on Union Workers...

December 11, 2009
Union workers who receive preapproved credit card offers that sound too good to be true should be wary. Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray warns of advance-fee credit card offers targeting union workers with promises that often fall short.

Cordray says his office has received numerous complaints regarding credit card scams that promise easy credit and trick consumers into paying upfront fees for credit cards or guaranteed loans that do not actually exist.

The latest scam targets union workers, offering low interest rates if applicants send in a membership fee upfront. The fee does not guarantee that a consumer will receive a card. If they do receive the card, it can only be used to purchase items from a specific catalog.

"In tough economic times, we're all looking for a little relief and, unfortunately, scammers know it and work to exploit it," said Cordray. "While it is a shame that we need to constantly be on guard, it is a necessity. I strongly urge Ohioans to think twice before responding to deals or offers that sound too good to be true. And always read the fine print."

Cordray offers the following advice to avoid advance fee scams:

• Never send money to anyone who claims they can guarantee you a credit card or loan.

• Be wary of ads that claim bad credit is no problem and guarantee a loan will be issued. No legitimate financial institution guarantees financing.

• Apply for loans through local banks and credit unions; not through a company that you've never heard of.

• Do not give personal or financial information over the Internet or by phone unless you know the business is legitimate and you understand why the information is necessary. Scam artists may promise you a loan just to get your financial or personal information.

• Be suspicious of anyone asking you to send an advance fee for a loan through overnight mail, by courier service or wire service, and especially to a post office box.

• Research the lender. Determine whether it's licensed by a state or federal agency. Start by checking with the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General's Office.



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House Passes Financial Industry Regulations

Establishes Consumer Financial Protection Agency

House Passes Financial Industry Regulations...

The U.S. House of Representatives has narrowly voted to approve a sweeping overhaul of the financial services industry, adding new layers of regulation to banking, brokerage and insurance services. The measure now goes to the Senate.

The bill, among other things, establishes a Consumer Financial Protection Agency that would add protection to consumers' dealings with banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions.

The lawmakers stopped short of giving bankruptcy judges the power to unilaterally reduce mortgage amounts, also known as "cramdown," despite supporters' claims that it would help more people stay in their homes.

The financial services industry lobbied against the measure, arguing that such a provision in the law would encourage more people to file bankruptcy and would ultimately lead to higher interest rates.

Democrats pushed for the "cramdown" provision in the wake of more evidence of failure in government and industry efforts to modify problem mortgages. Ultimately, the House voted 241-188 against the amendment.

Modification programs show few results

Earlier this year the Obama Administration launched a massive mortgage modification program, designed to help struggling homeowners renegotiate more favorable mortgage terms. The plan was the latest of several launched by the government to slow the housing meltdown and keep buyers in their homes.

However, very few of the applicants have successfully gotten their mortgages modified by their lenders. So few homeowners have successfully completed the program that the Obama administration recently called lenders on the carpet to get answers as to the program's lack of success.

In the last year ConsumerAffairs.com has received hundreds of complaints from consumers who said they followed loan modification instructions, faxing requested documents repeatedly, only to have their applications disappear into a black hole.

"I have gone through the modification process but have been denied, although no clear explanation was provided," Jason, of San Diego, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I have been seeking assistance and guidance from quite a few bank representatives and have only received rude, misguided information."

"We sent all information requested by certified mail," Regina, of Whitefish Bay, Wisc., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "As the others have described, we have had to make contact. They do not respond. The usual answer is 'Whoever told you that is wrong.' I actually have a tape of one of their agents stating 'I can't be responsible for what someone else told you.' Should not they be required to respond in writing? Is this not a government funded program?"

Regardless of the loan servicer, the story seems to be the same. Consumers start down a road they think will lead to a modified mortgage, only to meet a wall of incompetence and indifference at the mortgage company.

Do banks prefer foreclosures?

An October report by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) says it's no mystery why loan servicers seem to be dragging their feet in modifying troubled mortgages. The report suggests these companies actually stand to profit if the troubled property goes to foreclosure.

The report, "Why Servicers Foreclose, When They Should Modify, and Other Puzzles of Servicer Behavior," claimed that servicers, unlike investors or homeowners, generally don't 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, attorney with the NCLC and author of the report. "Foreclosures are a costly ordeal for the homeowner, the lender, and the community. Yet they continue to outstrip loan modifications because servicers have no incentive to help borrowers stay in their homes."



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Study Sees Little Hope For Rural Internet Users

Federal stimulus to expand broadband not enough, researchers say

Study Sees Little Hope For Rural Internet Users...

If you happen to live in a rural area of America, chances are your Internet options are limited. While federal stimulus money has been allocated to expand broadband services to rural areas, a new study suggests rural residents shouldn't get their hopes up.

Analysis of most recent FCC data reveals that about 45 million of the more than 117 million US households have no Internet service. When "no Internet" households are added to those households using dial-up to reach the Internet, the number of non-broadband households approaches 58 million, according to a new market research study from The Insight Research Corporation.

These 58 million non-broadband households represent 49 percent of the households in the US. According to Insight Research's market analysis study projecting the FCC 2008 data to year-end 2009 and taking into account further broadband penetrations, it is estimated that 40 million households will still lack broadband access at the close of 2014.

Major providers of broadband services, such as Verizon, have hesitated to invest in some rural markets because of small customer bases spread out over large areas, which can make infrastructure investment costly. As a result, most rural residents who want broadband have only the alternative of satellite broadband from either Hughesnet or Wild Blue, both of which can be problematic.

"Living in a rural area, I unfortunately signed on (to Hughesnet)," Earl, of Warrenton, Va., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Tech support that you can't understand. Service kept dropping off, their contract serviceman on site 4 different occasions, personally observed the problem, and could not correct it. Cancelling the non-functional service cost me $300."

Joel, of Ramah, N.M, says Wild Blue isn't the answer either.

"My download speeds have progressively become slower to the point I am giving up," he told ConsumerAfffairs.com. "It now takes several minutes to download ONE song and even then it stops several times, making a download for editing impossible. They promised to take care of the problem but after 5 months nothing has happened unless becoming even slower is the promised change."

If these consumers are hoping the federal stimulus will provide an answer to their broadband problems, the study says they are in for a disappointment. Current federal Stimulus spending of $6.4 billion would allow for an investment of $164 per household to provide broadband access to the non-broadband households, the study finds.

The availability of such a small investment amount per household casts serious doubt that any significant expansion of broadband access will result from this government action, the authors say. This position is further bolstered by the argument that, at the current estimate of $1,500 per household, at least $60 billion would be needed to deploy universal broadband access.

"Certainly the current administration recognizes the direct relationship between extending broadband access to all Americans and the future health of our economy, but the current allocation of funds is just not going to get the job done," said Robert Rosenberg, President, Insight Research. "Our analysis found that a substantial portion of the 49 percent without broadband had no computers in their homes. There is a chicken and egg problem here that needs to be considered by our policy makers."



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CRL: Credit Card Issuers Looking For Ways Around Anti-Abuse Rules

New ways of computing late fees bring in big bucks

CRL: Credit Card Issuers Looking For Ways Around Anti-Abuse Rules...

By James Limbach
ConsumerAffairs.com

December 11, 2009
Credit card companies don't intend to let little things like Federal Reserve Board rules and a new federal law get in the way of profits.

A new research report from the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) claims the industry is "crafting new tricks and traps" to get around the new regs in order to continue hitting the nation's 80 million families with one or more credit cards with what CRL calls "arbitrary, unfair interest rate hikes and fees."

The study, "Dodging Reform: As Some Credit Card Abuses Are Outlawed, New Ones Proliferate," examined the practices of issuers that hold over 400 million credit card accounts and found at least eight specific industry practices that flourish despite federal efforts to halt them.

CRL says these practices make it all but impossible for the average person to determine the real cost of credit card debt, and that "the ability and eagerness of credit card issuers to exploit loopholes in the new federal rules underscores why lawmakers need to pass legislation to create the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, as proposed by the White House and now under consideration by Congress."

The eight practices highlighted in the report include the manipulation of interest rates, the padding of miscellaneous fees and a deceptive policy on late-payment fees. Use of these abusive tactics is widespread and growing, the report finds.

Late fees

Regarding late-payment fees, Dan of Campbell Hall, NY, says he's had a WaMu credit card for five years and has always paid his card down. He tells ConsumerAffairs.com that when Chase acquired WaMu last year, his interest rate shot to 29.99 percent and his account was closed. He says Chase refused to re-activate the card, citing late payments.

When asked for documentation on the late payment, Dan says, "They responded by telling me the reason my interest was raised was that I was one day late on a payment. Apparently the due date was on a Sunday and they did not post the payment until Monday. My bank account (also Chase) shows the payment made on the Sunday. I am at wits end. The only reason they did this was to gouge consumers before the new laws go into effect in February."

CRL researcher, Josh Frank, the report's author, says the Credit CARD Act that Congress passed earlier this year was "a big improvement for American families. But our research shows that industry keeps finding clever ways to get around meaningful reform, and we need a regulator focused on making financial products fair."

The report spotlights a little-known tactic, which CRL calls "pick-a-rate." In this example, a card company tells cardholders their interest rate will be pegged to the prime rate, which until now has usually meant the prime rate on the last day of the last billing cycle. But CRL's analysis of the fine print finds that a growing number of issuers have added language that allows them to pick the highest prime rate in a 90-day period -- no longer a single day.

This change can significantly raise a cardholder's cost, often without his or her knowledge. This particular practice alone costs Americans $720 million a year and, CRL predicts, could grow to $2.5 billion annually in a few years as the practice spreads.

Larger late fees

In addition, all of the top eight credit card issuers have increasingly imposed large late fees across the board for borrowers, even for smaller balances. The marketing around late fees is deceptive. Credit card issuers claim to impose late fees on a sliding scale that charges a larger flat fee for larger total balances. In fact CRL says issuers have steadily lowered the amount it takes to be considered in the highest balance category and, consequently, subject to the largest fees.

This penalty structure has undergone a fundamental shift since 2003, when a balance of $1,000 triggered a $35 late fee. Since then credit card issuers have lowered the cutoff for the balance that triggers the highest late fee, so that today a balance of $250 is assessed the same penalty fee as a $1,000 balance. The result is nine of every ten cardholders will incur the largest fee if they pay late. In addition, the average late fee today is $39, while the typical past-due amount is approximately $50.

Other practices that have become increasingly common, according to the Center, include imposing minimum finance charges; inactivity fees; fees on international transactions; fees (in addition to interest charges) on balance transfers and on cash advance fees; and variable rates that have artificially high floors.

While the Credit CARD Act of May 2009 will stop some of the worst abuses in the industry, CRL says it believes a strong Consumer Financial Protection Agency would provide common-sense rules on credit cards and could respond to abuses quickly as they surface, before they become widespread.



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FTC Goes After Credit Card Robocall Scammers

Offers of interest-rate reduction claims targeted

FTC Goes After Credit Card Robocall Scammers...

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is widening its campaign against telemarketers who violated the Do Not Call Rule and other laws by making hundreds of thousands or even millions of recorded robocalls to consumers.

This latest effort targets three groups that allegedly made robocalls to sell worthless credit-card interest-rate reduction programs for hefty up-front fees of as much as $1,495. The court has issued an order temporarily halting the robocalls pending trial.

"The FTC has heard the public outcry against robocalls and has taken swift action to stop them. During these difficult economic times, the last thing anyone needs is to be bombarded by robocalls pitching worthless interest-rate reduction programs," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

The three complaints follow two filed in May that led to court orders stopping other telemarketers from using robocalls with deceptive claims aboutextended auto warranties. Since September 1, 2009, virtually all robocalls have been illegal, unless the recipients have provided written authorization to receive the pre-recorded calls.

According to the three FTC complaints, Economic Relief Technologies, LLC, Dynamic Financial Group (U.S.A.) Inc., and JPM Accelerated Services (JPM) and related defendants made illegal pre-recorded robocalls to consumers, using names like "card services," "credit card services" or "account services."

The robocalls allegedly claimed the companies' services could lower the interest rate on consumers' credit cards. In each case, consumers who pressed 1 after hearing the automated call were transferred to live telemarketers who allegedly misrepresented that consumers could dramatically lower the rates on their credit card.

The telemarketers also said consumers would save thousands of dollars in a short period of time by lowering their interest rates and would be able to pay off their debts faster -- for an up-front fee ranging from $495 to $1,495. They then falsely stated that if consumers did not save a "guaranteed" amount -- typically $2,500 or more -- they could get a full refund of the up-front fee.

However, after securing the fee, the defendants allegedly did not negotiate lower rates on behalf of consumers and provided few refunds to those who were dissatisfied with the service.

Economic Relief Technologies also allegedly operated a related scam: using names like "Auto Protection Center" and "Warranty Services," they tricked consumers into believing they were affiliated with their vehicle manufacturer or dealership, and falsely claimed that the consumers' vehicles' warranties were about to expire. The scheme is similar to several stopped by a court order at the FTC's request earlier this year.

The lawsuits claim the companies broke the law by making illegal robocalls to consumers and that their deceptive sales pitches violated the FTC Act and the FTC's Telemarketing Sales Rule.

Additional charges include:

• Calling consumers whose phone numbers are on the National Do Not Call Registry.

• Calling consumers who had previously asked not to be called.

• Failing to transmit their caller ID information, as required.

• "Spoofing" or masking their caller ID information.

• Failing to promptly identify themselves, the purpose of their call, and/or the nature of the goods or services they were selling.

• Improperly abandoning calls.

• Failing to make required disclosures in their robocalls.

To help consumers and businesses understand their rights and responsibilities when it comes to pre-recorded telemarketing calls, the FTC issued two new alerts, "New Rules for Robocalls" and "Reining in Robocalls."

Separately, the FTC has issued a new publication, the National Do Not Call Registry Data Book for Fiscal Year 2009, which contains information about the Registry, along with a breakdown of consumer complaints about companies violating the Do Not Call rules. According to the Data Book, there are more than 191 million numbers on the Do Not Call Registry.



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California Pet Food Company Recalls Treats Due To Salmonella

Pet Carousel pulls back pig ears and beef hoof products

California Pet Food Company Recalls Treats Due To Salmonella...

A California pet company today recalled all its pig ears and beef hoof treats because of possible salmonella contamination.

Pet Carousel of Sanger, California announced the action after tests by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed the products contained salmonella, a bacterium that can infect humans and animals and cause serious health problems.

The action also comes on the heels of a warning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued in November about the products.

At that time, the FDA said routine testing of the products detected salmonella. The agency also said the products were made "under conditions that facilitate cross-contamination within batches or lots."

Agency officials said they had not received any reports of illnesses linked to the pet treats, but warned consumers not to handle them or give them to their animals.

The company recalled all pig ear treats -- packaged under the brand names Doggie Delight, Pork Tasteez and Pet Carousel -- with the following item numbers:

• 18100-P Bulk

• 18016-P 10-pk red mesh bag

• 18120-P 20-pk red mesh bag

The company also recalled all varietiesof its beef hooves -- packaged under the brand names Choo Hooves, Dentley's, Doggie Delight, and Pet Carousel -- with the following item numbers:

• 1506-K 5 lb. bulk

• 1507-K 10 lb. bulk

• 1520-K 20 lb. bulk

• 12125-T 10-pk vinyl bag

• 12110-T 10-pk, vinyl bag

• 12111-T 10-pk, vinyl bag

• 12122-T 10 lb., bulk

• 1503-K 3-pk, vinyl bag

• 1510-K 10-pk ,vinyl bag

• 1405-S 5 lb., bulk

• 1408-S 10-pk, vinyl bag

• 1410-S 10 lb., bulk

• 1420-S 20 lb., bulk

• 90058-H Cheese/& Bacon Stuffed Hoof, bulk

• 90056-H Peanut Butter Stuffed Hoof, bulk

• 17005-R Rope toy with Hooves.

Pet Carousel said all sizes and lots of the pork ears purchased on or after August 16, 2009, and all beef hoof products in all varieties purchased on or after September 6, 2009, are included in the recall.

The company said it has notified its consignees and requested they return the recalled products and remove them from store shelves.

"Out of an abundance of caution and concern for public safety, Pet Carousel is issuing this press release to inform consumers of potential risks and to ensure that all affected product has either been returned or otherwise removed from use," the company said.

Salmonella can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever in humans, the FDA. In rare cases, it can cause more serious health problems, including arterial infections, inflammation of the lining of the heart, arthritis, muscle pain, eye irritation, and urinary tract symptoms.

In pets, salmonella can cause lethargy, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever and vomiting, the FDA said. Some pets may only experience a decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain.

The FDA also warned that pets can be carriers of salmonella and infect humans. Pet owners handling dry food or treats tainted with the bacterium can also become infected.

The FDA said consumers should thoroughly wash their hands after touching these potentially tainted treats, and also any surfaces exposed to the products.

Humans or pets who exhibit signs of illnesses after handling or eating these recalled products should seek medical attention, the FDA said.

Consumers with any of the recalled products should immediately stop feeding them to their animals and return them to the store for a refund, Pet Carousel said. For more information, consumers can contact the company at 800-231-3572.

 

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Palm, Sprint Nextel Hit With Class Action Over Data Loss

Suit charges backup system is flawed

Palm, Sprint Nextel Hit With Class Action Over Data Loss...

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

December 10, 2009
Palm and Sprint Nextel are the targets of a class action suit that accuses the companies of failing to mitigate flaws in Palm's webOS network that led to catastrophic data losses, while marketing the devices as being able to back up the very data that ended up being wiped out.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, says that a badly-designed data backup system caused consumers to lose crucial data, noting that many webOS device users suffered and continue to suffer significant and permanent data loss, including but not limited to the loss of instant messages, emails, calendar entries, contacts in their address books and applications paid for and downloaded from the Palm App Catalog.

Ironically, the losses were caused by webOS's automatic data backup system, which allows users to move data from one device to another most commonly if their phone is lost or stolen and can't be accessed directly, or if they exchange it for a new one. Lead plaintiff Jason Standiford was done in by the latter situation. Standiford had already experienced myriad problems with Palms when he exchanged his fourth malfunctioning device for a new one.

The fifth time wasn't the charm for Standiford, though. After completing a warranty exchange because of a power-button malfunction on his previous phone, Standiford tried to load his existing data onto his new Palm, but was only able to access four of the hundreds of contacts he had stored on his old phone. Worse, he only gained access to three memos he had written, despite having saved many more.

The next day, Standiford, as was now his habit, trudged back to the Sprint store to try to transfer his data from his old Palm to his new one. In the process, a well-meaning Sprint representative managed to erase all the data from Standiford's old phone. Sprint was able to recover some of Standiford's data, but a good chunk is now gone for good.

The suit says that Sprint and Palm specifically marketed the phones as able to automatically back up users' crucial data, but failed to anticipate or fix problems with the system. Indeed, Standiford went with a Palm in part because of the representations made by Sprint and Palm's [sic] that the Palm system would backup his data for him, and that if his phone became lost or was damaged, Sprint would restore all of that data to a new or existing device.

The problem lies with webOS's unique data synchronization techniques, according to the suit. Most mobile devices allow users to back up data directly to their personal computers; webOS, by contrast, syncs consumers' devices with Palm's servers every 24 hours. Every time the data is re-synced, though that is, every 24 hours the older data is overwritten and rendered irretrievable.

Sprint and Palm apparently failed to anticipate any problems with this arrangement; the suit says that neither Palm nor Sprint retains any backup data for more than 24 hours at a time. Compounding the problem, the companies don't provide any software that would allow consumers to backup their own data.

The suit shines additional light on the dangers of living in a paperless world, even if that notion is largely a myth, and comes just two months after T-Mobile Sidekick users lost contacts, photos, and other data due to a server crash.

The action anticipates a class of anyone in the U.S. who created Palm webOS profiles, stored data on their Palm, and suffered permanent data loss. The suit accuses Sprint and Palm of negligence, breach of contract, and violation of several California consumer protection laws.



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Job Placement Scams Proliferate In High Jobless Areas

Beware of guarantees and upfront fees

Job Placement Scams Proliferate In High Jobless Areas...

More people than ever are looking for jobs, creating a target rich environment for criminals who have dusted off the "job placement scam."

In Ohio, where unemployment remains stubbornly high, Attorney General Richard Cordray says his office has received a number of reports of the scam.

The scammers set up phony companies that promise "guaranteed" placement in high-paying jobs. All the job seeker has to do is pay a hefty, upfront fee.

"They place ads in newspapers or on the Internet, even on legitimate Web sites," Cordray said. "They promise exclusive information, good money and professional experience, but the jobs are either non-existent or very low-paying."

The scammers often charge high fees for job information, training sessions or promotional materials, all of which turn out to be useless, Cordray says. Instead of helping consumers make money, the scam artists actually take money from them. Some job seekers end up losing hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

People searching for jobs should follow these tips:

• Don't pay for help finding work. Some business opportunities involve upfront costs, but for most jobs, you should be making money, not spending it.

• Be suspicious of companies that make you pay for "exclusive information," mandatory training sessions, starter kits or other materials, especially

• if they ask you to wire transfer money to a foreign country.

• Check a company's reputation with the Better Business Bureau and search complaints filed with the Ohio Attorney General's Office.

• Don't trust unrealistic salaries or vague job descriptions. Demand a detailed description of the work involved before you commit to a job.

• Beware of lengthy contracts. Don't sign a contract without reading the fine print. Scam artists may try to slip in certain clauses, hoping you wont read them. Written contracts generally are binding, so take the contract to an attorney or trusted friend to review, and dont sign until you fully understand the agreement.

• Take your time. Dont give in to high-pressure tactics. If a company doesn't give you enough time to review a contract or make a decision, don't do business with it.

• Be wary of suspicious interviews. Interviews that take place at unusual locations (such as hotel lobbies, restaurants or other locations outside a normal place of business) are fishy. Be skeptical of group interviews and representatives that seem to be selling the company to you. If you feel pressured, walk away; you probably have good reason to be suspicious.

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GAO: FCC Needs to Improve Oversight of Wireless Industry

Lack of responsiveness, complaint investigation cited

GAO: FCC Needs to Improve Oversight of Wireless Industry...

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the primary government agency tasked with overseeing the massive American telecom industry -- and a report released today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) claims that the FCC is not doing as good a job as it should of protecting consumers.

According to the GAO's survey, "most wireless consumers with problems would not complain to FCC and many do not know where they could complain...without knowing to complain to FCC or what outcome to expect if they do, consumers with problems may be confused about where to get help and about what kind of help is available."

The GAO said the FCC lacked specifically defined goals and measurements for any complaint processing efforts it undertakes,and does not do enough to investigate or enforce issues arising from complaints. Consequently, the agency said, the FCC is ill-equipped to recognize potential trends or consumer problems.

Although the FCC receives between 20,000 and 35,000 complaints a year from consumers relating to wireless service, the agency said its chief role was to act as a facilitator between the consumer and the company, and that it lacked direct authority to enforce complaint issues with a carrier. The FCC said it had solicited public comment on how it can improve complaint-adjudication processes, such as including its contact information on billing statements and solicitations sent by carriers for consumers to use.

The GAO had previously reported on the FCC's failure to follow through on addressing its vast database of consumer complaints in March 2008.

Termination fees remain a sore spot

The GAO also found that of the 1,143 wireless customers surveyed, 42 percent would switch their contracts if they did not have to pay a hefty contract termination fee to do so. The agency noted that conflicting rulings at the state and federal level meant there was no clear guidance for how termination fees could be regulated, "thus the issue remains unresolved."

Chris Riley, policy counsel at media watchdog group Free Press, said the report confirmed that carriers were using termination fees to lock customers into long-term contracts, whether they like it or not.

"Consumers are being forced to pay huge fees that the phone companies just can't justify," Riley said. "The FCC must act and put a stop to this anti-consumer practice that threatens innovation and competition in the mobile marketplace."

Other findings

The GAO also found that:

• State regulatory authorities had difficulty addressing wireless customer complaints, because of a tangle of rulings and lack of guidance from the FCC on what authority they have to enforce issues against wireless carriers.

• 34 percent of the wireless customers surveyed received unexpected charges on their bills, and 31 percent said they had difficulty reading their bill accurately.

• 21 percent of those surveyed were dissatisfied with their wireless carrier's customer service response when they wanted to address a problem.

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Illinois Sues Spa For Unapproved Treatments

Allegedly caused patients 'extreme pain'

Illinois Sues Spa For Unapproved Treatments...

December 10, 2009
Consumers go to a spa to make themselves feel better. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan charges a Cook County, Illinois spa chain made some consumers feel a lot worse, performing unapproved and unsupervised cosmetic treatments.

In a suit filed against Nu U Med Spas, Madigan claims the company used deceptive marketing and that its unapproved practices caused some patients to experience extreme pain and lasting injuries.

"These procedures have yet to be thoroughly researched and sanctioned by the proper medical authorities," Madigan said. "Despite lacking concrete scientific evidence, Nu U purposefully misleads consumers into believing that their medical spa treatments are safe and effective. I'm very concerned that the health and safety of Illinois consumers who visit Nu U Med Spas are at risk."

The Chicago-based medical spa chain allegedly uses high-pressure sales tactics based on deceptive marketing claims to induce consumers into purchasing a series of medical and beauty treatments, including Lipodissolve, which is an injected therapy used to dissolve fat cells, according to Madigan's complaint.

Nu U allegedly claims its treatments will "liquefy fat quicker" and can "rid your system of that life long battle of the bulge," but fails to inform consumers that its treatments haven't been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective treatments. Both the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons do not recommend using Lipodissolve for fat reduction due to the lack of research that shows its effectiveness.

Further, because Lipodissolve is an injected treatment, it requires a physician's order, but Nu U allegedly administers the fat-reducing treatment without a doctor's order. In fact, despite its outward claims, Nu U allegedly fails altogether to monitor and evaluate patients by licensed physicians at all seven of its Chicago area locations.

High pressure

Madigan's complaint further alleges that the Nu U personnel rush consumers into signing contracts, medical consent forms and financing documentation for treatments but fail to review the documents with consumers. The defendants allegedly pressure consumers to sign up for health care financing but fail to inform consumers that by signing the financial documentation they are authorizing an automatic credit card charge. Nu U allegedly refuses to provide refunds when requested, even in the event that a consumer has not received all of the contracted treatments.

Madigan's lawsuit charges Nu U with violating the Illinois Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the Illinois Medical Practice Act and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. It asks the court to permanently enjoin the defendants from owning or operating medical or beauty clinics in Illinois and to order the company to pay civil penalties of $50,000, an additional $50,000 penalty for each violation committed with the intent to defraud, an additional $10,000 penalty for each violation committed against a senior citizen 65 years of age or older, and the costs associated with the investigation and prosecution of the lawsuit.

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Swine Flu Claims Another Pet

Pennsylvania cat latest to die from virus

Swine Flu Claims Another Pet...

The 2009 H1N1 influenza virus has claimed the life of another pet, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) said today.

The virus is now blamed for the deaths or illnesses of at least 11 pets nationwide, including four ferrets and seven cats, the AVMA said. In every case, the pets' owners had flu-like symptoms before the animals became sick.

The latest confirmed pet death linked to the virus is a 12-year-old cat in Pennsylvania, which died in early November. The domestic shorthair developed a respiratory illness on November 3 after four members in the household became sick with flu-like symptoms, the AVMA said. The cat then became lethargic, lost its appetite, and had difficulty breathing.

X-rays taken by the veterinarian revealed the cat had pneumonia. Nasal samples from the cat tested negative for H1N1, but samples taken during a necropsy tested positive for the virus, the AVMA said.

Iowa health officials in November confirmed the first case of H1N1 in a pet -- a 13-year-old indoor cat in Iowa. Since then, the AVMA has tracked cases of the virus in animals.

Tracking the virus

Among the findings of the AVMA's investigation:

• An 8-year-old female cat in Oregon died from H1N1 on November 24, according to Oregon's public health veterinarian. The cat's owner had previously tested positive for the virus. When the cat arrived at the veterinarian's office, the AVMA said, she was hypothermic, dehydrated, weak, and had nasal discharge and blue-tinged mucous membranes. X-rays revealed the cat had severe pneumonia and fluid in her chest, the AVMA said. A nasal sample taken from the cat tested positive for the H1N1 virus.

• The week of December 7, France confirmed that a cat in that country tested positive for the virus. Health officials said the cat developed a respiratory illness shortly after two children in the household became ill. The cat recovered in six days.

• On December 4, Colorado health officials confirmed two cats from different households in that state tested positive for H1N1. Veterinarians suspect the cats, ages 10 and 11, became sick after someone in their households contracted the virus. The cats are now recovering. "These cases serve as a reminder to pet owners to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible if their pet seems ill," said veterinarian Kristy Pabilonia, an expert on H1N1 testing in animals at Colorado State University.

• In November, preliminary tests for H1N1 on a California cheetah came back positive. Final tests are pending. "There are no reported cases of Influenza A: H1N1 (2009-H1N1) transmission from animals to humans in a zoological setting," the http://www.aza.org/PressRoom/detail.aspx?id=10458 The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) said. "Animal collections at zoological institutions, therefore, do not present a concern for public health."

• The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in November confirmed the H1N1 virus in Virginia turkeys. A worker had previously been sent home with flu-like symptoms. USDA officials said the turkeys were still safe to eat. That case marked the first time heath officials had confirmed the virus in U.S. turkeys. Officials had previously confirmed H1N1 in domestic turkeys in Canada and Chile.

• On November 28, published reports in China stated two dogs in Beijing tested positive for the H1N1 virus. The AMVA said there are no confirmed reports at this time of H1N1 in dogs in the United Sates. But there is another bug, the H3N8 influenza (canine influenza) virus, that targets U.S. dogs, the AVMA said. At present, the H3N8 virus has only spread among canines, the AVMA said. Dogs infected with the canine influenza virus have such symptoms as fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, and coughing.

• Oregon's public health veterinarian said a cat in that state died on November 7 from an H1N1 infection. The cat became sick shortly after a child in the household had flu-like symptoms. Three other cats in the household became sick, but have since recovered. Tests revealed those three cats were not infected with the virus.

• Utah health officials in November confirmed a cat in Park City had contracted the H1N1 virus. The cat's owner had previously been sick with flu-like symptoms, but is now recovering.

• Pigs in the United States, Finland, Indonesia, and Taiwan have also tested positive for H1N1, the AVMA said. The organization said it would continue to track cases of H1N1 in animals and post its findings on its Web site.

What you can do

• What measures can pet owners take to protect their animals and prevent the spread of this virus? ConsumerAffairs.com recently posed that question to Dr. Ann Garvey, a veterinarian with the Iowa Department of Public Health. Garvey recommended the following:

• Wash your hands frequently.

• Cover your mouth when you cough and your nose when you sneeze.

• Minimize your contact with your dogs, cats, or other household pets if you have any flu-like symptoms.

• Pet owners who notice any signs of respiratory illness or other influenza-like symptoms in their animals should contact their veterinarians, Dr. Garvey said.



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Attorneys General Warn of 'Free' Credit Report Confusion

Call for clear disclaimer in advertising

Attorneys General Warn of 'Free' Credit Report Confusion...

Many consumers choose the beginning of a new year to check their credit reports under the law that allows a free annual review from all three credit reporting agencies. But despite what you see on TV and the Web, there's only one official site where you can do that.

That Web site is www.AnnualCreditReport.com.

In Washington State, Attorney General Rob McKenna says he regularly reminds consumers that the official site is not the one with the catchy jingles in television ads. McKenna says more needs to be done to protect consumers attempting to obtain the free credit reports allowed by law.

"Credit reports are crucial in helping consumers detect whether they've become victims of identity theft or credit fraud," McKenna said. "Credit reporting agencies are required to provide you a free copy of your report, but some see this as an opportunity to sell additional products. Under the law, 'free' means 'at no cost,' not 'free with a purchase'."

McKenna joined 42 other state attorneys general in sending a letter this week to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in conjunction with the FTC's proposal to help prevent deceptive marketing of "free" credit reports. The attorneys general said they support a number of the changes proposed by the FTC but would like even clearer disclosures.

"We believe that advertising restrictions and mandatory disclosures are necessary to ensure that consumers are not misled or confused by advertisements and offers for 'free' credit reports and are able to easily obtain their free annual credit reports," the letter states.

By law, consumers are permitted one free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. Consumers may request a report online or by calling 1-877-322-8228.

The states' letter identifies FreeCreditReport.com as an example of a Web site where consumers can be misled. Experian owns and heavily markets the site.

Clearing up confusion

"Consumers file complaints stating they did not understand that by accessing their free credit report, they had signed up for a service that automatically charged a specific amount per month for credit monitoring," the attorneys general wrote.

The FTC proposes that TV and radio commercials for "free" credit reports must disclose, "This is not the free credit report provided for by Federal law." The states want advertisers to include the statement, "This report is only free if you make a purchase."

Print and Internet ads would require similar disclosures and list the phone number and Web site for requesting the government-mandated free reports. Consumers who visited a Web site where "free" credit reports are sold would be automatically sent to a separate landing page where they could choose to continue to the commercial site or instead visit the official free government site, AnnualCreditReport.com.

The attorneys general and the FTC also want to ban Web links to commercial Web sites from the official site and prohibit marketing for paid services or products until after a consumer has received the free credit report.

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Arizona Supplement Firm Settles Deceptive Ad Suit

Suit claimed consumers got stuck with unauthorized charges

Arizona Supplement Firm Settles Deceptive Ad Suit...

The State of Arizona has settled deceptive advertising charges with the maker of nutritional supplements, with the company, Amir & Sanchez Nutraceuticals, agreeing to pay $175,000.

The lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Terry Goddard alleges that Larby Amirouche, 20, and Robert Thomas Norton, 22, the young owners of the company 22, violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act by using deceptive advertising techniques.

According to court documents, the defendants used the Internet to advertise "14-day risk-free" trial offers of various "nutritional supplements," purportedly for only a nominal cost for shipping and handling. The defendants failed to adequately disclose to consumers material terms and conditions that rendered the trial offers far from "risk-free" and resulted in significant, unauthorized charges to consumers.

Documents also state that the defendants failed to adequately disclose to consumers who ordered a "risk-free trial offer" that unless they canceled within the "14-day trial period" they would be charged full price for the product, plus additional shipping and handling, and would automatically receive subsequent monthly shipments of the product.

The lawsuit further alleges that the defendants falsely represented that consumers could cancel by simply calling a toll-free telephone number, when frequently consumers could not get through to a customer service representative or were put on hold for long periods of time and sometimes disconnected.

Court documents state that many consumers were told that their cancellation request could not be processed due to technical problems or were led to believe that their cancellation request was processed only to be charged for more unauthorized orders.

Additionally, documents state that the defendants deceptively enrolled consumers into "21-day free memberships" of diet consultation programs that required the consumer to take affirmative action to avoid subsequent monthly charges.

The settlement calls for the defendants to pay $140,000 in civil penalties, $15,000 in costs and fees and $20,000 in restitution.

This is the second nutrition supplement fraud case Arizona has settled in recent months. In June 2009, Goddard announced a record $1,375,000 settlement with Central Coast Nutraceuticals, Inc. and its Phoenix owner for allegedly defrauding customers purchasing nutritional supplements.

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Forecasters See High California Unemployment Through 2012

State can't produce jobs as fast as people enter workforce

Forecasters See High California Unemployment Through 2012...

If you live in California and are looking for a job, it could be a long search. The latest UCLA Anderson Forecast projects double-digit unemployment in the state through 2012.

The national unemployment rate for November declined slightly to 10 percent but the UCLA forecasters predict California's jobless rate will reach a high of 12.7 percent in the current quarter.

The problem, according to the report, is there is nothing in California's economy at the moment that can drive job creation. Manufacturing and construction, two of the major industries in the state, have drastically reduced payrolls and the report says that trend will likely continue into the next decade.

Even if the U.S. economy begins to recover next year, California may not participate as much because, the number of people looking for jobs is likely to grow at a faster pace than jobs are created.

"The stalled California economy is simply not producing the jobs required for the new entrants to the labor force over the next couple of years to prevent these elevated levels of unemployment to persist once the job lay-offs cease," the report said.

Part of California's economic problem stems from the major cause of the recession -- the collapse of the housing market. Perhaps nowhere was the market more lucrative than California, and nowhere did it crash with such force as the Golden State.

While the market appears to be stabilizing, the forecasters aren't calling for a recovery any time soon. In fact, they says the housing collapse, credit crunch and bank failures are all particularly pronounced in California and their combined effect is creating a severe drag on job creation.

And don't look for a lot of help from the public sector, either. California's budget problems are well-documented and state officials have few ways to easing them, other than shrinking payrolls and cutting back on large projects.

In one bright note, the forecasters said the weaker U.S. dollar could provide an increase in overseas demand for California agricultural and manufactured products, which could boost the state's substantial export economy. Also, additional stimulus money from the federal government could provide additional construction jobs, if the money was provided.



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Toyota, Lexus Lead The Pack For Sudden Acceleration Problems

Analysis of complaints database finds Ford close behind

Toyota, Lexus Lead The Pack For Sudden Acceleration Problems...

A Consumer Reports analysis of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety complaints database shows over 40 percent of sudden-acceleration complaints involve Toyota and Lexus models.

The review of 2008 model-year data also finds Ford standing out with a significant number of related complaints. Both car companies had a lopsided number of occurrences for their market share, though the statistical likelihood of experiencing such events is low.

CR's Auto Test Center and Statistics Department analyzed all 5,916 reports on 2008 models and identified 166 cases in which the complaint described verified the unintended acceleration that the driver found hard to control.

The incidents resulted in a safety advisory on floor-mat entrapment issued by both NHTSA and Toyota in September 2009.

The magazine says its analysis found the sudden-acceleration incidents were distributed over 22 brands with 47 complaints about Toyota models and five for Lexus vehicles. All told, the two accounted for more than a third of all the unintended-acceleration incidents among 2008-model vehicles. As Consumer Reports put it, "Toyota racked up more unintended-acceleration complaints than Chrysler, GM, Honda, and Nissan combined."

A check of the ConsumerAffairs.com database found numerous complaints about Toyota. Among them:

• Andrew of Leverett, MA, wrote of an incident involving his wife's Prius: "In traffic on a multi-lane highway in Canada, the car did not slow when I let up on the accelerator, and then I realized that it was actually accelerating. I used the service brake repeatedly to keep the speed down to the speed of the traffic (probably about 60mph) until I found a place to pull off."

• Miriam of Oakland, CA, says she was driving at slow speed due to traffic conditions, when suddenly her Prius "felt as if it uncontrollably sped up and lunged forward. I hit the brakes but it did not stop it from running into the back end of the car in front of me. It was very unnerving."

Ford complaints

Complaints about Ford also were high. CR says there were 36 complaints some indicating that the pedal arrangement in the popular F-150 pickup makes it too easy to hit the brake and accelerator at the same time. There also were other sudden-acceleration events that could not be explained.

Consumer Reports says it found the following complaints about the F-150 in the NHTSA database:

• "This Ford F-150 pickup truck has the widest gas (accelerator) pedal I have ever seen and as a result my right foot continues to press down on it, even after I have started applying the brake pedal with the same foot."

• "I entered the vehicle, started the engine, and put the vehicle in drive. The engine immediately increased in rpm to the point where the rear tires began spinning on the gravel. I put the transmission in Neutral and the engine rpm increased. I removed my foot from the brake and the engine continued at a very high rpm. I then depressed and released the accelerator and the engine returned to a normal idle."

• "...the truck spontaneously accelerated at full throttle with my foot firmly on the brake I was advancing without applying the accelerator. With the brakes fully applied, I continued to advance into the parking lot and I immediately shifted into Park in attempt to stop the vehicle. The vehicle came to a stop and the engine was racing at full throttle in Park."

CR points out that while the NHTSA complaint database does not reflect all sudden, unintended acceleration cases, the data show statistically more complaints for certain Toyota, Lexus, and Ford brand models.

CR says its analysis found the ratio of reports for experiencing such a problem on 2008 model-year vehicle from Toyota Motor Corporation is about one in nearly 50,000. Ford's reported risk is about one in nearly 65,000, while the reported risk for a General Motors vehicle is just one in 500,000.

 

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States Warn Against Dubious Charities

Attorneys General warn citizens about professional solicitors

States Warn Against Dubious Charities...

December 9, 2009
Consumers have to walk something of a tightrope this time of year. Holidays are always an expensive time, yet many want to support charities and worthwhile causes. But the last thing you want to do is have your contribution line the pockets of the solicitor.

In Oregon, Attorney General John Kroger unveiled a list of Oregon's 20 Worst Charities and offered tips to consumers on how to donate wisely.

"In the middle of a recession, it is more important than ever that generous Oregonians make charitable contributions to organizations that help veterans and others who are in need," Kroger said. "It is critical, however, that people donate wisely. Although many charities do great work, some are little more than scams with good-sounding names but that do little to actually help the people they claim to support."

State law requires charities to file periodic financial reports with the Oregon Department of Justice disclosing how much money the organization raised and how the funds were spent. The Department's Charitable Activities Section has identified 20 organizations (see attached) that spent more than 75 percent of the donations they collected on administrative costs and professional fundraising.

While guidelines issued by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) suggest that charitable organizations should spend at least 65 percent of their funds on charitable programs, every charity on the Department of Justice's list devoted less than 25 percent of their expenditures on charitable program activities.

One organization near the top of the list, Shiloh International Ministries, solicits donations to provide medical necessities and other support to needy children, veterans, and homeless persons. According to the most recent financial filings, the California-based nonprofit spent an average of $1,023,215 per year, 96.35 percent of which went to management and fundraising.

Kentucky concerns

Unscrupulous charity solicitations are not just confined to one area of the country. With double-digit unemployment rates in Kentucky, for example, more Kentucky families are in need of a helping hand this holiday season.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway says people who give to a charity should give wisely. Unfortunately, he says, there are unscrupulous or even fraudulent charities that prey on the generosity of Kentuckians.

"Every dollar donated to a reputable charity can make a difference in the life of someone who may be struggling to put food on the table or clothe a child," Conway said. "Irresponsible or fraudulent charities not only take advantage of the kindness of hard-working Kentuckians, they deprive those who need our help. Before you decide whether a charity deserves your donation, gather as much information as possible to make sure the charity is not a scam and that your donation reaches someone in need."

Both Kroger and Conway offer these tips for wise holiday giving:

• Donate to charities you know and trust.

• Be cautious of sound-alike charities and solicitors unable to answer questions.

• Always ask what percentage of your dollar goes to the cause.

• Don't be pressured into making a donation.

• Ask if the charity or solicitor is registered with the Office of the Attorney General.

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Beef Recall Produces Call For Plant Closing

Rep. DeLauro says firm is repeat offender

Beef Recall Produces Call For Plant Closing...

Last week's recall of approximately 22,723 pounds of ground beef because of possible salmonellosis contamination has drawn an angry response from a long-time Congressional food industry critic.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) says the processor, Beef Packers, Inc., of Fresno, Calif., should be shut down. DeLauro says the firm has been the subject of a recent investigation by USA Today regarding their participation in the National School Lunch Program, and has been suspended from the program three times for safety concerns.

"This is another glaring example of the problems we face in our nation's food safety system. Beef Packers, Inc. has repeatedly shown their inability to meet current safety measures, and continues to pose a health risk not only to the general population, but to our children through the school lunch program," DeLauro said. "Given the repeated violations of Beef Packers, Inc., the USDA should close this facility and undertake a comprehensive examination into the process at Cargill-BPI to identify and correct any major problems internally or with their suppliers."

The Cargill-owned company has a history of food safety issues, including a nearly 860,000 pound recall earlier this year of meat contaminated with the same strain of salmonellosis suspected in this recall.

According to the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service, the suspect ground beef products were produced on September 23, 2009 and bear the establishment number "EST. 31913" printed on the case code labels. The ground beef products were distributed to a retail distribution center in Arizona.

Because these products were repackaged into consumer-size packages and sold under different retail brand names, consumers should check with their local retailer to determine whether they may have purchased any of the products subject to recall, according to FSIS.

 



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Consumers Getting Shut Out Of Economy, Analyst Says

Lack of lending leaves few options

Consumers Getting Shut Out Of Economy, Analyst Says...

While Wall Street is a pretty upbeat place these days when it comes to the economy, there are still "bears" who have yet to catch sight of a recovery. Meredith Whitney, founder and CEO of Meredith Whitney Advisory Group, remains bearish, she says, because consumers are being shut out of the economy.

She says the economy has been pushed along by the government so far, but that there's just so much the government can do unless consumers begin to resume regular economic activity.

"I think they're out of bullets," Whitney said on business cable TV channel CNBC Tuesday.

The key to recovery, Whitney says, is the consumer, and consumers are still on the sidelines. And not completely by choice.

"Consumers are getting kicked out of the financial system," Whitney said.

The main reason for that, she said, is banks aren't lending to them. Despite being able to borrow at near-zero percent interest, banks are not taking that money and putting it back into the marketplace. The Federal Reserve said Monday that consumer lending dropped 1.7 percent on an annualized basis in October, the ninth straight monthly decline.

No credit

Consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs.com in the last year tend to back up the analyst's claims.

"I have constantly been refused credit by Chase, although I have done everything they have asked to receive a loan," Steven, of Long Beach, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I have good credit and I've been in the import/export business as a company doing business with Chase for over 6 years, and have done millions of dollars of business with them and they refuse a me a basic business credit line?"

Over the summer, Chase closed thousands of credit card accounts it acquired from the acquisition of Washington Mutual. David, of Gilbert, Arizona, said his Chase account was closed and he only found out when he tried to use the card.

"I tried to charge $25 to the card and it was denied. When I called Chase they said it was due to my credit report," he told ConsumerAffairs.com.

Multiply these examples by millions, and you begin to see Whitney's point. The fact that she was the first to predict the collapse of the banking sector last year gives added weight to her words by investors.

"Kicked out of the system"

With consumer spending making up about 70 percent of gross domestic product, the inability of even credit-worthy consumers being able to be able to borrow could put a severe crimp in future growth.

"You're going to get a situation where you revert from a consumer standpoint, where those that had bank accounts for the first time, credit cards for the first time, homes for the first time get kicked out of the system and then fall prey to real predatory lenders," Whitney said.

Whitney said tax cuts can't stimulate demand enough in the short term, a heretical view on Wall Street. Instead, the analyst suggested the government should take "proactive" steps to put more money directly in consumers' pockets.

"To have so many Americans be kicked out of the financial system and the consequences both political and economic of that, it's a real issue," she said. "This has never happened before in this country."



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CPSC: Zhu Zhu Pets Are Safe for Kids

Consumer group backs down on contamination claim

CPSC: Zhu Zhu Pets Are Safe for Kids...

The highly popular Mr. Squiggles Zhu Zhu toy hamsters do not violate any federal safety standards or put children in harm's way, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

The agency on Monday exonerated these hard-to-find interactive hamsters just days after the California consumer group GoodGuide said its tests revealed the toys contained higher-than-allowed levels of the heavy metal antimony.

"Through a serious of meetings the Consumer Product Safety Commission had yesterday and through a review of independent testing of the product by a company the manufacturer uses, it was determined that the Zhu Zhu pet does not violate the new mandatory toy standard, which deals with antimony and other heavy metals," spokesman Scott Wolfson told ConsumerAffairs.com.

"It's so important with the information that got out over the weekend that parents know their children (who play with Mr. Squiggles) are not at risk because of antimony...there is no violation of antimony or any other heavy metals," Wolfson added.

GoodGuide on Monday also clarified its testing methods and said it should not have compared its results to the new government safety standards.

"We have learned that the testing methodology used in the federal standards (a soluble method) is different than the methodology we used in our testing (a surface-based method)," the consumer group said. "Accordingly, while we accurately reported the chemical levels in the toys that we measured using our testing method, we should not have compared our results to federal standards. We regret this error."

The San-Francisco-based GoodGuide said its tests revealed the Mr. Squiggles robotic hamster contained 93-106 parts per million (ppm) of antimony, a heavy metal linked to cancer and lung, heart, and fertility problems. Those levels are higher than the stringent federal standard of 60 ppm, GoodGuide said.

The consumer group also said it found high levels of tin in the Mr. Squiggles toy hamster.

The family-owned Missouri company that makes Zhu Zhu Pets vehemently refuted GoodGuide's findings, saying all its toys pass rigorous safety tests. On Monday, the toy company's CEO said he appreciated GoodGuide's clarification about its "misleading testing information" and again assured parents that all Zhu Zhu Pets are safe.

"I am pleased that GoodGuide has issued a clarification and acknowledged that their testing is 'different from the testing methodology' used by the U.S. and the E.U., and has led to 'confusion' about their research," Cepia Ceo Russ Hornsby said in a statement. "As we have continually stressed, all Zhu Zhu Pets toys are safe and compliant with all U.S. and European standards for consumer health and safety in toys."

Hornsby criticized GoodGuide's use of XRF technology in its analysis, calling it an "inferior testing methodology." He also said the consumer group's report created unnecessary concerns for parents during the busy holiday seasons.

"The claims made by GoodGuide have, unfortunately, caused great confusion with parents," Hornsby added. "I want to assure everyone who has purchased any Zhu Zhu Pets, or those planning to purchase one, that the toy is 100 percent safe."

Cepia also posted recent test results on its Web site claiming that the Zhu Zhu pets passed various quality and safety standards.

Keeping an eye out

Back in Washington, the CPSC said it will test the Mr. Squiggles Zhu Zhu pets to "reaffirm" the laboratory results the agency has already reviewed.

"We never say a product is 100 percent safe," CPSC's Wolfson told us. "But this (Mr. Squiggles) product doesn't violate any safety standards and is not putting children in harm's way. We are still going to do our own testing and still keep an eye on this product."

The CPSC would also like GoodGuide to share its test results with the agency's safety experts.

"We're an agency with a lot of experience working with consumer groups," Wolfson said. "And in many cases they share information with us in advance. In some cases, the information brought to our attention has led to recalls. In other cases, we've shared information with groups about testing."

"We have a good set of relationships with a lot of consumer groups who come out with these (toy) lists," he added. "We want GoodGuide to share their data with us...they did not come to us in advance."



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Certain LG Refrigerator-Freezer Models To Lose ENERGY STAR Label

Department of Energy tests disqualify some models

Certain LG Refrigerator-Freezer Models To Lose ENERGY STAR Label...

 

Effective January 2, 2010, certain LG French-door refrigerator-freezers will be banned from using the ENERGY STAR label that helps consumers identify energy efficient products that will reduce their energy use and save them money.

The Department of Energy announced said it is taking this action after multiple independent labs have confirmed that when certain LG French-door refrigerator-freezers are tested using existing DOE test procedures, they do not qualify for the ENERGY STAR Program. DOE calls the action part of a "broader effort to expand enforcement efforts for the ENERGY STAR and appliance standards programs."

DOE General Counsel Scott Blake Harris said the ENERGY STAR label is a "critical tool for consumers looking to save energy and money with their appliances," adding that these LG refrigerator-freezer models "do not deliver the energy and cost savings promised under the ENERGY STAR program, so we are taking the necessary steps to protect the American public."

In November 2008, DOE and LG entered into an Agreement that was intended to let LG transition away from test procedures that significantly underestimated the amount of energy that certain LG French-door refrigerator-freezers would consume during normal use.

Because recent testing confirms that problems persist, DOE has exercised its right to give notice and terminate the Agreement. As a result, effective January 2, 2010, certain LG French-door refrigerators are no longer eligible to carry the ENERGY STAR label.

The models in question have been the subject of numerous complaints above and beyond their energy ratings.

• Don of Bloomington, Ind., writes ConsumerAffairs.com: "We purchased a LG French Door Freezer on the bottom refrigerator two years ago. We had trouble from the start and were told that all of our problems were our fault. Such as the vegetables freezing etc. They did service it and replace some parts but it still has the same problems. HHGreg also provided no support after the purchase. We should have returned it.

We have had strange noises, jammed icemaker, plastic parts breaking, and now that its past warranty the nice folks at LG say file a lawsuit. As U.S. makers and stores flee to cheap labor nations, we get lousy products and people without jobs. I will never by an LG anything again. The posts on this site are like a stroll down LG memory lane. Life is Good if you are an LG CEO, but us spoiled food and food poisoning.

• From Robin of Tujunga, Calif.,: "I purchased an LG French Door Refrigerator in May 2008. Within the first two months, the vegetable bins cracked. They were replaced by LG. Recently, the freezer motor has started making a strange noise. But nothing compares to: The seal on the water line on the refrigerator for the water and ice failed.

• Larry of La Center, Wash., tells ConsumerAffairs.Com: " I purchased a 2-door (French) bottom freezer refrigerator from Home Depot approximately two years ago and have had several service calls to repair freezer compartment due to ice build-up. After I told the service department that I would take them to court to recover damages for fixing the refrigerator they replace all the electrical door with the agreement that I never call them again ... I agreed.

The refrigerator must be replaced with no help from LG. If you are planning to purchase an LG refrigerator (or any other LG product) I suggest you buy a HAIR DRYER at the same time ... even that is temporary fix! LG will not own-up to their responsibilities as a manufacturer and until a class action suit is rendered "YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED"! I will be replacing this two-year-old refrigerator in the near future! This LG refrigerator I purchased cost over one thousand dollars and has never worked properly!

ENERGY STAR is a voluntary program sponsored through DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency that promotes the development and sale of energy efficient products. The labels associated with the program inform consumers of the most energy efficient products in a particular product category.

As a result of the action, LG has now sued the Department of Energy. "We intend to defend the Department's actions in federal court and to prove that the law of the United States does not give LG any right to continue using the ENERGY STAR label in a way that could impose unexpected costs upon American families and unjustly disadvantage manufacturers of more energy efficient products," Harris explained.



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Study: Herbal Cigarettes No Healthier Than Regular Smokes

Just as addictive and unhealthy as tobacco, researchers say

Study: Herbal Cigarettes No Healthier Than Regular Smokes...

It's a generally accepted fact that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health, leading to a number of cigarette alternatives. But those who light up Chinese "herbal" cigarettes thinking they are safer are wrong, researchers say.

"The public needs to be aware that herbal cigarettes do not deliver fewer carcinogens," said lead researcher Stanton A. Glantz, Ph.D., professor of medicine in the Department of Medicine and Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco. "We hope our findings will help to dispel the myth that they are a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes; they are not."

Results of the study are published in the December issue ofCancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, which has a special focus on tobacco. The researchers conclude that herbal cigarettes, which combine medicinal herbs with tobacco are just as addictive and no safer than regular cigarettes.

Chinese herbal cigarettes are becoming increasingly more popular in China and elsewhere in the world. Glantz, along with colleagues in China, examined nicotine and carcinogen levels between the two marketed products. They compared 135 people who smoked herbal cigarettes and 143 people who smoked "regular" tobacco cigarettes. The study was conducted in one city in China.

"Levels of carcinogens were correlated with measures of nicotine intake, meaning that the more nicotine smokers took in, the higher the levels of carcinogens they took in," Glantz said.

Forty-seven percent of participants who switched to use of herbal cigarettes did so because herbal cigarettes had a "better taste;" 24 percent switched because of their health concerns and the notion that herbal cigarettes were a healthier alternative. Most participants who switched to herbal cigarettes reported an increase in number of cigarettes smoked per day.

"Adding herbs to the cigarettes would not be expected to affect the nicotine, which is the addictive drug in tobacco, and cancer-causing chemicals in the smoke of cigarettes," said Glantz. "The Chinese tobacco industry should avoid misleading the public when promoting herbal cigarettes as 'safer' products."

 



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Price-Comparison Web Sites Accused of Fraud

Texas charges sites secretly accepted cash for high ratings

Legal action led to an agreed judgment under which Intercept promised to correct its unlawful practices and either pay a $300,000 civil penalty or cease do...

December 4, 2009
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has charged several price-comparison Web sites with unlawfully misleading online shoppers about the quality of certain Internet merchants, accusing them of what amounts to a cash-for-ratings scheme.

While the defendants promised independent, reliable Web site comparisons, state investigators uncovered a cash-for-ratings scheme in which certain online retailers paid for higher rankings.

According to court documents filed in two separate state enforcement actions, the defendants price-comparison listings misled potential shoppers about certain merchants reliability and trustworthiness. And while one defendants Web sites represented themselves as neutral and unbiased, online merchants paid that defendant to render higher ratings.

Abbott's office has filed an enforcement action against Intercept, L.L.C., which operates several price-comparison sites, including: Shopcartusa.com, Diduprice.com, Flyingprices.com, Digitalsaver.com and Pricingdepot.com. That legal action led to an agreed judgment under which Intercept promised to correct its unlawful practices and either pay a $300,000 civil penalty or cease doing business.

When their sites were checked today, Flyingprices.com, Shopcartusa.com, Flyingprices.com, Diduprice.com and Digitalsaver.com had suspended operations. Pricingdepot.com was displaying a "parked domain" page consisting of links that lead to advertisements for various products.

Everyprice.com

A separate enforcement action named Everyprice.com Inc., which operates the Web sites Everyprice.com and Lowpricedigital.com, for similar infractions. The defendants Web sites appeared to allow visitors to comparison shop and therefore find the best deals by using a single Web page to search for a product and obtain results from multiple merchants.

Those two sites were also inactive when last checked. they both displayed "under construction" banners.

"Online shoppers need to know that the Office of the Attorney General has charged multiple Web sites with unlawfully promising unbiased rankings while secretly accepting undisclosed payments for inflating sellers online ratings," Abbott said. So Texans should be wary and carefully consider their sources, because some Web sites may not be providing the unbiased ratings they promise.

Although Everyprice.com held itself out as an unbiased, honest broker, its Web sites secretly steered shoppers toward certain merchants and did not disclose that the merchants were paying for favorable treatment, Abbott charged. Thus, online shoppers who encountered vendors with trusted sellers, quality sellers or recommended merchants designations were not properly informed that the favorable labels were purchased rather than earned.

According to state investigators, Everyprice.com was not only paid for high ratings, but it allowed questionable merchants to create their own specialized endorsements for an additional fee. And although Intercept received numerous customer complaints about specific endorsed merchants, the defendant continued to rate them as top sellers that offered the lowest legitimate prices.

Customer complaints obtained by the Office of the Attorney General indicate that Everyprice.coms highly rated merchants used bait-and-switch tactics to persuade customers to purchase more expensive products than they desired. Other complaints highlighted Everyprice.coms deceptively impressive five-star rating, which merely required industry-standard privacy policies and product disclosures such as whether an item was new or refurbished. The defendants used Google, Yahoo and MSN to advertise its Web sites worldwide.

The states enforcement action against Everyprice.com seeks civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, plus appropriate attorneys fees. The state also seeks restitution where necessary to address financial injury to the Web sites users.

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Senator Presses Credit Card Companies on Unauthorized Charges

Rockefeller wants more information about 'data pass'

Senator Presses Credit Card Companies on Unauthorized Charges...

Responding to complaints about unauthorized credit card charges, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is asking credit card companies what they know about the practice.

In a letter to Visa, American Express and Mastercard, Rockefeller said aggressive online sales tactics often end up with consumer's credit cards charged for unwanted club memberships.

Rockefeller says millions of online consumers have been enrolled in these membership clubs and their credit card or debit cards have been charged even though they never provided the companies with their credit card or debit card numbers.

"There are more than 4 million American consumers whose credit cards are being charged by mysterious membership clubs after shopping online and most of these four million consumers don't even know it's happening," Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller sent the letters after a Commerce Committee staff report and hearing showed that a key component of the aggressive online sales tactics is the use of a so-called "data pass" process, which enables websites to transfer consumers' billing information, including consumers' credit or debit card numbers, to the companies selling the club membership.

Data pass

Rockefeller maintains "data pass" has allowed these companies to present misleading enrollment offers to consumers, has led to significant consumer confusion, and has caused millions of American consumers to become enrolled and charged for membership clubs they did not want and were unaware they had signed up for.

"Through the Committee's investigation, we learned these online club scams have made more than $1.4 billion dollars through these tactics and charged more than 30 million Americans," Rockefeller said. "This next step in our investigation will help us better understand how millions of American consumers' credit card accounts can be charged every month for services they don't want."

One membership marketer responded to Rockefeller's assertion by saying enrolling in its programs requires more than a simple mouse click. In a statement, Webloyalty.com said it requires consumers to enter the last four digits of their credit card, confirm their email address, and click on a button to confirm the sale.

Over the years, ConsumerAffairs.com has received hundreds of complaints from consumers who express bewilderment and anger at being signed up for membership programs, providing discounts on travel, entertainment and other expenses. The mysterious charges usually coincide with a credit card purchase made with another company.

The letters Rockefeller sent to Visa, American Express, and MasterCard request information related to cardholder inquiries about unauthorized charges stemming from "data pass" and any efforts made by the companies to reduce the number of "chargeback" requests from cardholders. Visa, American Express, and MasterCard have likely processed millions of charges for membership clubs that were not authorized by cardholders, Rockefeller said.



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Scandinavian Study Finds No Cell Phone-Brain Cancer Link Over 9-Year Period

But findings should not be taken as an 'all-clear,' researchers caution

Scandinavian Study Finds No Cell Phone-Brain Cancer Link Over 9-Year Period...

A large, long-term Scandinavian study has found no evidence that increased use of cell phones over a nine-year period led to more cases of brain cancer. The study tracked 16 million people in Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden from 1974 to 2003.

The four Scandinavian countries have had a mobile phone network since 1981, two years before the service launched in the U.S.

Of the 16 million, 60,000 developed brain tumors, a rate that is not considered above average, according to an article in the Dec. 16 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. If cell phones were a significant cause of brain tumors, the national registries in the four countries should have shown an increased incidence.

The lack of any such signal in the registry data "is consistent with mobile phone use having no observable effect on brain tumor incidence in this period," the researchers wrote.

"If there was a connection we would have expected a sudden marked increase in the rates, especially among younger males, which were the first to start using mobile phones. And we don't see that," said Prof. Isabelle Deltour of the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology at the Danish Cancer Society in Copenhagen.

However, the researchers cautioned that there are several possible explanations for their findings:

• The period needed for cell phones to cause brain tumours was longer than the period studied;
• The increased risk in this population is too small to be observed;
• The increased risk is restricted to just certain cell phone users;
• There is no increased risk at all.

Other scientists not involved in the study also counseled caution.

"I don't think five to 10 years does cover it," David Carpenter, a professor of environmental health sciences and biomedical sciences at the University at Albany, State University of New York, told Scientific American. "Brain cancers are slow growing, so the idea that you would be able to detect something after five years would be surprising," he says. "Time will tell, but likely the biggest increase will be after 20 years."

Carpenter was among researchers from 14 countries endorsing a report issued in August that advocated greater caution in the use of cellular technology.

That report -- "Cell Phones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern" -- cautions that studies not financed or influenced by the telecommunications industry "consistently show there is a 'significant' risk of brain tumors from cell phone use."

Better diagnosis?

Other studies, including a meta-analysis released in October, have suggested link but the authors of the Scandanavian study said that findings of increased brain cancer rates may simply reflect an increase in diagnoses from new imaging technologies.

Deltour and her colleagues cautioned that cell phone use could have risks for the heaviest users or for rarer tumor types. Additionally, if the induction period for tumors associated with cell phones is longer than 10 years, longer follow-up would be needed to detect it.

The researchers recommended continued study of population trends because of the enormous exposure to cell phones worldwide. The World Health Organization is expected to soon release results of a long-term study that reportedly shows a link between cell-phone use and brain cancer.

The study was funded by the Danish Strategic Research Council.

 



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California Takes Closer Look At Commercial Fundraisers

Some fundraisers take large cut

California Takes Closer Look At Commercial Fundraisers...

There are a lot of people raising money for charity, but not all are unpaid volunteers. A close look might show that a significant portion of those soliciting funds for good causes are being paid to do so.

In California, Attorney General Jerry Brown has released a report showing that, while 1,359 commercial fundraisers in California raised almost $400 million in 2008, charitable organizations received less than 42 percent of those funds.

"Some commercial fundraisers do an excellent job of ensuring that the vast majority of funds they raise go to the charities, not to overhead or themselves. Others raise little, or worse, leave the charities in the red," Brown said. "Donors should do their homework before giving and consider how they want their contributions spent."

Commercial fundraisers, who are hired by charities to raise money on their behalf, typically charge a flat fee for their services or a percentage of the contributions they collect.

By law, commercial fundraisers must register with Brown's office prior to fundraising in California and must file annual financial disclosure reports detailing income and expenses for each fundraising campaign.

According to reports filed with Brown's office, commercial fundraisers collected $399.9 million in donations in 2008.

In total, just $167.6 million-or 41.9 percent of the funds raised-actually made it to the charities. The remainder was retained by the commercial fundraisers as payment of fees and expenses.

These figures, however, are averages and do not provide the full picture. Some charities received the vast majority of funds raised on their behalf, Brown said.



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Wal-Mart Settles Massachusetts Workers' Suit

Latest action accusing mistreatment of employees

Wal-Mart Settles Massachusetts Workers' Suit...

Wal-Mart has agreed to pay $40 million to tens of thousands of current and former employees, bringing an end to a years-old Massachusetts class action that accused the retailing giant of cheating workers out of overtime and meal breaks.

The settlement, the largest in Massachusetts history, will be disbursed to over 85,000 current and former employees. Under the terms of the agreement, anyone who has worked for Walmart at any time since August 1995 will receive a portion of the settlement.

Payments will range from $400 to $2,500, depending on how long the employee was with the company. The average employee will receive around $750.

The suit, filed in Massachusetts in 2001, accused Walmart of denying workers rest and meal breaks, and of forcing employees to work beyond their scheduled shifts without paying them overtime. The complaint was filed on behalf of Elaine Polion and Crystal Salvas, who have long since left the company. The incidents at issue are hardly unique; Walmart has faced a number of similar suits over the past few years.

Last December, the retail giant agreed to pay up to $640 million to settle an eye-popping 63 class action lawsuits alleging labor law violations similar to those in Polion and Salvas's suit. That settlement closed out cases in various state courts and a federal court in Nevada. Last month, U.S. District Judge Philip Pro approved an $85 million final settlement for the Nevada action.

Carolyn Beasley Burton, the plaintiffs' attorney in that action, said that the settlement would yield between $150 and $1,000 for hundreds of thousands of employees. Wal-Mart general counsel Tom Mars said that the suits were several years old and that their allegations "are not representative of the company we are today."

Even so, the flood of settlements does little to mitigate Wal-Mart's image among its critics as a soulless corporate behemoth, although the company probably doesn't much care. Wal-Mart is the world's largest public corporation by revenue, and the United States's largest private employer and grocery retailer. Its massive size gives it the freedom to cut corners without exposing itself to much financial liability.

In the 2008 settlement, for example, even a $640 million payment -- the largest permissible would comprise less than 0.1 percent of the company's revenue for that year alone.

Wal-Mart, whose long-standing slogan "Always Low Prices" was finally shelved in 2007, has fared relatively well in spite of the recession, with stocks rising 20 percent in 2008 as shoppers tightened their belts. Chief Financial Officer Tom Schoewe said last December that Wal-Mart's "balance sheet is stronger today than it was a year ago."

But some say the lawsuit will send a stronger message. "For many employers, this settlement will serve as a reminder to take the payment of earned wages and benefits seriously," wrote Philip Gordon of the Gordon Law Firm. "For many other employers, it will provide comfort that all Massachusetts businesses must operate on a level playing field."



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Could You Have Celiac Disease?

The Healthy Geezer

Could You Have Celiac Disease?...

By Fred Cicetti

December 4, 2009
Q. I've been having a lot of gas recently. In addition, I've been getting sores in my mouth. Any ideas about what's causing this?

I receive many questions from readers looking for help in diagnosing their health problems. I'm extremely careful to avoid giving personal medical advice. I'm a journalist who provides general information about health. Only a doctor who has examined a patient is qualified to diagnose, and even the experts have trouble figuring out what's wrong with patients.

Here's an example of a problem that exemplifies the difficulty of diagnosis. The following are symptoms of a common disease you may never have heard of. Some of the symptoms contradict each other. Here goes:

Gas, abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea, constipation, pale stool, weight loss, weight gain, fatigue, unexplained anemia, bone or joint pain, osteoporosis, behavioral changes, tingling numbness in the legs, muscle cramps, seizures, missed menstrual periods, infertility, recurrent miscarriage, delayed growth, mouth sores, tooth discoloration and itchy skin rash.

These are symptoms of celiac disease, a digestive ailment that damages the small intestine and interferes with nutrition. People with celiac disease cannot tolerate a protein called gluten, which is in wheat, rye, and barley. There is a scientific debate about gluten and oats.

Celiac disease is commonly underdiagnosed because some of its symptoms are similar to those of other diseases. Celiac disease often is confused with irritable bowel syndrome, iron-deficiency anemia, Crohn's disease, diverticulitis, intestinal infections, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

There are other reasons for the underdiagnosis of celiac disease. Many doctors and healthcare professionals are not knowledgeable about the disease. And only a small number of U.S. laboratories are experienced and skilled in testing for celiac disease.

It's estimated that about 1 in 133 people in the United States has celiac disease. However, Americans are not routinely screened for celiac disease. More research is required to determine an accurate number of the people with celiac disease in the USA.

Celiac disease runs in families. Sometimes celiac begins after surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection, or severe emotional stress. Some people develop symptoms as children, others as adults. Although celiac disease can affect anyone, it tends to be more common in people of European descent.

A person with celiac disease may have no symptoms. People without symptoms are still at risk. The longer a person is not treated for the disease, the greater the chance of developing malnutrition and other complications such as loss of calcium and bone density, intolerance to dairy products, cancer and disorders of the nervous system.

The only treatment for celiac disease is to follow a gluten-free diet. For most people, following this diet will stop symptoms, heal existing intestinal damage, and prevent further damage.

The obvious foods with gluten are breads, pastas, and cereals. But, gluten is also in many processed foods such as frozen French-fried potatoes and soy sauce. Many products such as cosmetics, household cleansers, stamp and envelope adhesive, medicines and vitamins contain gluten.

There are gluten-free substitutes for many problematic foods. Many cities have specialty grocery stores that sell these gluten-free substitutes.

If you notice or experience any of the signs or symptoms common to celiac disease, see your doctor.

All Rights Reserved © 2009 by Fred Cicetti



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Interchange Fees Fleecing Consumers, Retailers Say

Credit card processing fees under growing attack

Interchange Fees Fleecing Consumers, Retailers Say...

December 4, 2009
The nation's retailers are stepping up their campaign against credit card interchange fees, claiming they don't punish merchants nearly as much as they punish consumers.

An interchange fee is the fee paid by the merchant's bank to the bank issuing the consumer's credit card. The fee is charged back to the merchant and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), a trade group, says the fee is ultimately paid by the consumer.

In the wake of credit card reform, interchange fees have come under closer scrutiny in Washington. Last month the Government Accountability Office issued a report suggesting that credit card companies and their issuing banks profit significantly from interchange fees while merchants and consumers face escalating costs.

Since then the RILA has pushed for Congress to take action, as it did with the new law passed in May to limit credit card abuses. The American Consumer Institute is also calling for reform of interchange fees, claiming that this holiday season the average household will pay $337 in so-called swipe fees.

RILA says the burden posed by interchange fees is a drag on business and is making a slow jobs recovery even worse, at least as far as the retail sector is concerned.

"Retail job creation is stifled in part by the rapidly escalating costs associated with credit card interchange 'swipe' fees," said John Emling, senior vice president of government affairs for the group. "Every additional dollar taken by banks through these excessive fees is a dollar unavailable to hire new employees and lower costs for customers."

Banks say interchange fees are necessary to pay for processing credit and debit card transactions. However, RILA says these fees have tripled in the U.S. since 2001, to $48 billion in 2008, despite advances in technology that have reduced other comparable transactional costs. Today, the group says retailers' cost of processing paper checks is less than the cost of accepting credit and debit cards.

The issue has, to date, failed to gain much traction in Congress. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the "Credit Card Fair Fee Act of 2008," which would have required lenders possessing "substantial market power" to negotiate with merchants and retailers on terms for fees paid when processing card transactions. However, the bill failed to make it to the floor for a vote.



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Meridia Research Shows increased Stroke and Heart Attack Risk

Public Citizen warns of 'significant' increase in heart attacks, strokes

Meridia Research Shows increased Stroke and Heart Attack Risk...

December 3, 2009
New research shows that Meridia, a popular weight-loss drug, has caused a significantly increased number of heart attacks, strokes, resuscitated cardiac arrests or deaths in obese patients getting the drug and should be pulled from the market immediately, Public Citizen said today in a petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

This is Public Citizens second petition to have Meridia banned; the FDA rejected the first four years ago, saying it was awaiting results of an ongoing trial. The results are in, and they show that the drugs dangers significantly outweigh its benefits.

If the FDA truly intends to operate as a public health agency, then it should acknowledge that the continued approval of this drug cannot be justified based on science, said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizens Health Research Group. The FDA should therefore tell Abbott to pull Meridia from the market immediately.

Public Citizen first petitioned the FDA to ban sibutramine, the active ingredient in Meridia, on March 19, 2002. The organization based its request on results of pre-approval clinical trials that demonstrated increases in blood pressure, pulse rate and palpitations in obese patients taking the drug.

Despite scientific evidence that these patients were three times more likely to experience clinically significant electrocardiogram changes than obese patients taking placebos - coupled with the minimal benefit of an average six-and-a-half pound weight-loss difference between the two groups - the FDA approved the drug in 1997.

By March 2003, there were reports to the FDAs adverse reaction system of 49 cardiovascular deaths among patients taking Meridia. Twenty-seven of the 49 (55 percent) were in people younger than 50 years old. The number is likely higher, as the FDA estimates that only one in 10 adverse reactions to drugs are reported to the agency.

New research

In responding to Public Citizens 2002 petition, the FDA said that until a large, randomized study could provide more conclusive results, Meridia would continue to be sold. Now the early results are in from a persuasive study called SCOUT, in which 10,000 people across Europe participated.

The recently released results of this study reveal a significant increase in heart attacks, strokes, resuscitated cardiac arrests or deaths in obese patients 55 or older with known or undetected cardiovascular disease who used sibutramine, compared with those given a placebo. Both groups were on the same weight management program.

Based on the new findings from the SCOUT study and Public Citizens updated figures based on an analysis of FDA data, Public Citizen calculates that there have been 84 post-approval cardiovascular deaths of patients taking Meridia. This includes 32 patients who were 50 or younger and 11 patients 30 or younger.

About 294,000 prescriptions for Meridia were filled in the past 12 months.



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Consumer Groups Oppose Comcast-NBC Merger

Activists claim deal could violate antitrust laws

The next big mega-merger between media companies seems poised to go forward, with Comcast officially taking a 51 percent stake in NBC-Universal from its lo...

The next big mega-merger between media companies seems poised to go forward, with Comcast officially taking a 51 percent stake in NBC-Universal from its longtime corporate parent General Electric, creating an entertainment giant with an estimated value of nearly $44 billion, control of nearly 82 percent of the American cable landscape, and a dizzying array of TV options, including a majority stake in popular online TV portal Hulu.

"Combining the assets of NBCU, ranging from our suite of cable properties and two broadcast networks to a legendary film studio and global theme park business, with the content assets and resources of Comcast, will enable us to continue to thrive in an ever-changing media landscape," said NBC-Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said that "Todays announced transaction will increase our capabilities in content and cable networks. At the same time, it will enhance consumer choice and accelerate the development of new digital products and services."

But several consumer groups are voicing their opposition to the merger, claiming it may violate antitrust laws and deprive consumers of competition for their entertainment dollar.

Free Press and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) jointly released a report today claiming that the Comcast-NBC merger posed a "major threat to video competition that antitrust authorities cannot ignore."

According to CFA's Mark Cooper, "This mergers potential to foreclose competition and stifle innovation is significant and real."

"Just say no"

According to the groups' analysis:

• A merged Comcast-NBC would be able to sidestep negotiating costs of purchasing shows from content providers to broadcast on networks, since it would have control of dozens of cable and broadcast networks, ranging from the SyFy channel and USA Networks to G4, CNBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo. It would simply "pay itself" to broadcast content from networks it owns, while charging competitors such as DirecTV and Verizon FIOS exorbitant rates to share the same content.

• Comcast, already the nation's leading broadband Internet service provider, might accelerate NBC's stated desire to move more online TV content behind "paywalls," where users would have to pay monthly subscription fees to access the content. Hulu, currently free in the United States, has been rumored to be placed behind a paywall sometime in 2010, and Comcast has already experimented with tying paid cable subscriptions to online content hidden behind paywalls via its "TV Everywhere" online portal.

• A merged Comcast-NBC would not only be the dominant cable and broadcast player in multiple regions across the country, but could trigger a wave of more mergers as competitors struggle to gather assets in order to stay in the game. The result, the groups say, could lead to more media consolidation and less competition and choice for consumers.

"[The Obama administration] can't ignore the severe threat this merger poses and must take the necessary measures to prevent harm to competition and consumers," said Free Press' policy counsel Corie Wright. "The correct response to this merger is to just say no."

Done deal?

Wall Street was pleased with the formal acquisition of NBC, giving Comcast shares a substantial boost after the merger was announced. Comcast, for its part, promised the merged entity would do nothing to violate antitrust laws or reduce competition, and would engage in voluntary initiatives to ease the concerns of federal regulators.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), one of the many federal agencies that has oversight of the merger, released a terse statement today, where it promised to "carefully examine the proposed merger and will be thorough, fair, and fact-based in its review."

The FCC and Comcast are currently engaged over the cable giant's blocking of content via "throttling" users' usage of the popular BitTorrent file-sharing engine. The FCC had ruled that it had jurisidiction over Comcast's actions and that it should be penalized for blocking users' Internet access. Comcast is currently appealing the ruling.

Some members of Congress aren't waiting for the FCC or other agencies to issue rulings on the merger. Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), chairman of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on antitrust issues, wasted no time calling for a full hearing on the potential effects of the merger.

""This acquisition will create waves throughout the media and entertainment marketplace and we don't know where the ripples will end," Kohl said. "Antitrust regulators must ensure that all content providers are treated fairly on the Comcast platform, and that Comcast does not get undue advantages in gaining access to programming."

Kohl's counterpart in the House, Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-MI), stated that his committee would hold hearings on the prospective antitrust issues surrounding the Comcast-NBC-Universal combination. House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) also promised vigorous investigation of whether or not the deal could restrict video content distribution across multiple platforms.

Between the many agencies jockeying for jurisdiction on the issue, the complex issues of distribution and programming at stake, and the promise of numerous hearings, the completion of the merger is expected to take up to a year or more.

 

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COBRA Expiration Leaves Unemployed Workers Uninsured

Advocacy group claims health care reform would provide solution

COBRA Expiration Leaves Unemployed Workers Uninsured...

Many of the millions of unemployed workers and dependents who received federal subsidies to help pay for health care coverage have lost those subsidies and are joining the ranks of the uninsured.

According to a report by the health care advocacy group Families USA, the subsidies --which were started last March by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) but were made available for only nine months --have enabled millions of workers and dependents to afford so-called "COBRA" premiums needed to continue health coverage from their previous employer.

As part of the stimulus, the federal subsidies pay 65 percent of the cost of COBRA premiums. Nationwide, the federal subsidies for COBRA family coverage average $722 per month.

Without subsidies, the report finds, nationwide COBRA premiums for family health coverage will cost workers, on average, $1,111 per month-83.4 percent of the average ($1,333) monthly Unemployment Insurance (UI) checks they receive.

For the first recipients, who began receiving subsidies in March, the subsidies expired on November 30. For those who started receiving subsidies after March, the expiration will be nine months after their start-up date.

"When workers lose their jobs, they often lose their health coverage as well," said Ron Pollack, Executive Director of Families USA. "For millions of laid-off workers and their families, the federal COBRA subsidies have been a health-coverage lifeline. It is essential, therefore, that new jobs legislation extends those subsidies."

Pollack claims the pending health reform legislation would provide a permanent source of help to workers who have lost their jobs. He says the health reform bills pending in Congress would enable such workers and their families to obtain health coverage through a newly created marketplace, called an "exchange," and that families with low incomes would receive tax-credit subsidies to help pay the premiums.

According to the Families USA report, average monthly family COBRA premiums vary quite significantly from one state to another -- ranging from $979 in Idaho and $989 in Iowa to $1,232 in Minnesota.

The report also indicates that average monthly UI checks vary substantially from one state to another. The two states with the lowest average UI benefits are Mississippi ($839) and Alabama ($903), and the two states with highest benefits are Washington ($1,826) and Hawaii ($1,808).

In nine states, the average family COBRA premium exceeds the average UI benefit. In Mississippi, for example, the average monthly unsubsidized family COBRA premium is 22.4 percent higher than the average monthly UI check: The average family COBRA premium in the state is $1,027, while the average monthly UI check is $839.

The eight other states in which the average family COBRA premium exceeds the average UI check are: Alabama ($1,005 vs. $903); Alaska ($1,209 vs. $1,032); Arizona ($1,111 vs. $941); Delaware ($1,209 vs. $1,125); Florida ($1,147 vs. $1,010); Louisiana ($1,013 vs. $968); South Carolina ($1,090 vs. $1,061); and Tennessee ($1,112 vs. $975).

"As this report clearly indicates, middle-income families are hurting and there is a pressing need to extend COBRA before the end of the year," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Any extension of the COBRA subsidy program will also likely make the subsidies available to newly-unemployed individuals, according to Families USA. Under the current program, people who lose their jobs after December 31, 2009, will not qualify for the subsidy.

The Congressional Budget Office and Joint Tax Committee estimated that approximately 7 million adults and dependent children would receive the COBRA subsidy in 2009. The Treasury Department is compiling data about how many workers received the subsidy, but a count of the people benefiting from the subsidy is not yet available.



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Fewer Toys Contain Lead but Toxins Still Common

Existing toxic-substance laws 'obsolete,' environmental group warns

The number of childrens toys tainted with high levels of lead continues to decrease, according to research released by The Ecology Center, a Michigan envir...


The number of childrens toys tainted with high levels of lead continues to decrease, according to research released today by The Ecology Center, a Michigan environmental organization.

Thats the good news in Toyland.

The bad news is one in three children's toys tested by the Ecology Center contained lead, arsenic, and other worrisome chemicals. That's one of the key findings in the organization's "2009 Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Toys."

But a spokesman for the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a non-profit organization affiliated with George Mason University in Virginia, said the threat of toxins in toys may not be as dire as the Ecology Center's reports indicate.

"Chemicals in toys may sound alarming, but there's little evidence that they are actually poisoning children. There would have to be some way that the chemicals entered the bloodstream -- something this report doesn't investigate," said Trevor Butterworth. "Simple play is where toys do their most damage: a boy under the age of four has a one in 359 chance of sustaining a non-fatal injury from a toy, while a girl has a 1 in 898 chance."

Over the past three years, the Ecology Center has tested more than 4,000 childrens products for hazardous chemicals and released its annual guide just in time for the busy holiday shopping season. This year, the non-profit organization analyzed nearly 700 toys and children's products, including shoes, belts, wallets, handbags, and backpacks.

Those test results -- now posted on the centers HealthyStuff.org Web site -- revealed:

• The number of childrens products with lead levels higher than the current federal standard of 300 parts per million (ppm) has decreased by 67 percent since 2007. That drop corresponds with a 78 percent reduction in lead-related toy recalls issued by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPCS), the center said;

• 32 percent of all the toys tested this year contained one or more dangerous chemicals, including lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury. Thats one in three toys tainted with harmful toxins. Tests revealed cadmium -- a carcinogen linked to lung and prostrate cancer -- in levels greater than 100 ppm in 3.3 % (22 of 669) of all the products tested. Arsenic was found at levels greater than 100 ppm in 1.3 percent -- or nine -- of the products tested;

• 42 percent of the childrens products tested contained polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which the center calls a worst in class plastic because it can contain dangerous additives. Those additives include lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals;

• 18 percent (116) of the products tested contained detectable levels of lead, a chemical linked to developmental and learning disabilities Three percent (17) had lead levels higher than 300 ppm. Seven percent (44) had lead levels of more than 40 ppm, which is the maximum amount the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended in 2007 for childrens products;

• More than half of the 100 plastic handbags tested had lead levels higher than 1000 ppm;

• Two-thirds of the products tested did not contain lead, cadmium, arsenic, or mercury. Many of those products were made in China. Fifty-eight percent of the childrens products tested were not made with PVC. Researchers say that proves its possible for companies to make safe, chemical-free toys.

The centers top researcher says this years findings show manufacturers are listening -- and starting to respond -- to consumers concerns about the safety of childrens toys.

Big impact

The most interesting finding this year is that consumer vigilance on the issue of lead in toys -- combined with increased regulatory consumer protection -- is having a big impact in terms of lead in toys, the centers Jeff Gearhart told ConsumerAffairs.com. People should feel more comfortable this year in terms of lead in consumer products. Theres a lot less of it out there.

We often focus on the negative, but its important that when we see change occurring to acknowledge it, he added. Its happening in this case because theres been a lot of focus on this issue and a push to make manufacturers do testing and clean up their products.

To illustrate his point, Gearhart cited the centers recent tests on the Leapster LeapFrog carrying case.

We tested that product last year and it contained lead, he said. We retested it this year and its (basically) lead-free (23 ppm). The Leapster folks were adamant last year that the product did not contain lead. But the whole time they were adamant, they were finding out that it did have lead. And then they went back and reformulated it.

Thats the overall trend were seeing, he added. The number of products with high levels of lead is down by two-thirds.

But too many childrens products on store shelves still contain dangerous chemicals, Gearhart said.

Whats most worrisome overall is that were still finding one in three toys out there that have detectable levels of one or more chemicals we test for, he told us. While the number with lead is declining, were still finding other chemicals -- cadmium, arsenic, mercury, and other metals -- in these products. And there are still a lot of products that contain PVC.

'Naughty' list

Here are some of the childrens products that made the centers naughty list because they contained high levels of lead, arsenic, bromine and other worrisome chemicals:

The Barbie Bike Flair Accessory Kit Tests revealed the kits outer fabric contained 1,865 ppm of lead,163,107 ppm of chlorine, and 3,363 ppm of bromine. The inner line contained high levels of those chemicals, too. Researchers say chlorine in a product indicates the use of PVC. Bromine is part of a family of fire-retardant chemicals called brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Studies have found that exposure to those chemicals can permanently affect brain development in a fetus;

Dora the Explorer Activity Tote Tests revealed the tote contained high levels of chlorine, including 550,000 ppm in the yellow bottom, 480,577 in Doras purple dress, and 5,680 ppm in the shiny orange vinyl part of the bag. That part of the bag also contained 5,680 ppm of lead;

High School Musical Argyle Belt Tests revealed this accessory contained 2,871 ppm of lead, 550,000 ppm of chlorine, and some parts contained 379 ppm of arsenic. Researchers say arsenic is an element that can be present in both organic and inorganic compounds. Inorganic arsenic is a known human carcinogen, linked to lung, skin, and bladder cancer;

Marvel Hot Rod Tests revealed the top of this Marvel Heroes toy car contained 1,940 ppm of lead and 380 ppm of bromine.

'Nice' list

Dozens of childrens toys and other products, however, made the centers nice list because they did not contain any detectable chemicals of concern. Some of those chemical-free products include:

Barbies Life vest;

Gator Golf by Playskool Games;

Gabriella doll - High School Musical 3 by Disney;

Poptunes Big Rocker Guitar by Little Tikes;

Mega Bloks - 80pc blocks -- by Mega;

PEZ Candy and Dispenser by Pez Candy, Inc.;

The Oball Football by Rhinotoys;

Silly Putty -- The original, by Silly Putty;

Sock Monkey - Lavender/Crew Belly by Maggie's Organics/Clean Clothes;

Talking Thomas, by Thomas and Friends;

Changes needed

While Gearhart sees some signs of improvements in this years test results, he says the country needs to systematically change the way it regulates chemicals in consumer goods.

If we approach this issue on a chemical-by-chemical basis, it will take forever to get the hazardous chemicals out of toys and other consumer products, he told us. Were pushing for a broader chemical reform.

Recent consumer protections for lead and phthalates in products were a good first step, he added. But we have a long way to go in terms of protecting our children from thousands of other unregulated chemicals in toys and products throughout our economy.

Gearhart said the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) -- an obsolete law passed in 1976 to regulate chemicals -- needs to be immediately overhauled. Under that law, the EPA only requires testing on about 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals now on the market.

All the stakeholders in this, including manufacturers, have acknowledged that the way we regulate these chemicals is not protecting children or the public, or helping businesses, Gearhart said. If you have to come into this on the tail end -- and force businesses to spend thousands of dollars to test their products and prove theyre safe -- at that point, you have a failure in the system.

Its more effective to show the products are safe going in, he added. And we, (as consumers) need assurances that what is getting into our products is safe.

The U.S. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee today was scheduled to hear testimony from three federal agencies about reforming the TSCA. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL) are also expected to introduce a new bill to reform the outdated law.

No. 1 Danger

STATS' Butterworth said there's a bigger danger than trace toxins in toys: the medicine cabinet.

"Young children instinctively put things in their mouth and pills turn out to be a very tempting threat. The Centers for Disease Control found that children were twice as likely to poison themselves with prescription or over the counter medications than other items in the home -- and 75 percent of an estimated 70,000 poisonings each year occurred in children under the age of five," Butterworth said.

Most documented toy injuries come not from poisoning but from simple accidents, he said: "Tripping over a toy and falling, falling on a toy, falling with a toy in mouth, dropping a toy on a foot; swallowing a toy or part of toy, sticking a toy up a nostril and it getting stuck, poking one's self in the eye with toy, sticking a toy in one's ear; being hit by toy thrown by another child, or hitting one's self with a toy. Fatal injuries are, fortunately, very rare."

Meanwhile, consumers looking for chemical-free childrens products this holiday season can search the www.healthystuff.org HealthyStuff.org's Web site by product name, manufacturer, or retailer. The Web site has all the products tested this year categorized according to the levels of toxins found. A Spanish version is also available.

Gearhart said his organization will continue to monitor the chemicals in childrens toys and other consumer products, including pet toys and plastic handbags.

For our next project, we plan to screen and evaluate mattresses from those used in cribs to ones by adults, he said. We will release those findings next year.



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Minnesota Sues Clinic For Credit Card Fraud

Second suit in three months

Okeson Optimal Chiropractic clinic accused of fraudulently enrolling patients for credit cards issued by GE Money Bank, the nation's largest issuer of heal...

December 2, 2009
The State of Minnesota is taking a chiropractic clinic to court, accusing it of fraudulently enrolling patients for credit cards issued by GE Money Bank, the nation's largest issuer of health care credit cards.

The state's Attorney General, Lori Swanson, and the Minnesota Board of Chiropractic Examiners filed the lawsuit against Okeson Optimal Chiropractic clinic, a Lakeville, Minn., chiropractic clinic, and its owner, Erik Okeson, D.C. The suit claims the clinic fraudulently enrolled patients in health care credit cards by usurping the identities of unrelated third parties and listing them as credit card co-applicants without their knowledge and by inflating patients' actual income.

By listing unsuspecting strangers as co-applicants on other patient's credit cards and inflating patients' real income, the clinic jeopardized patients' credit histories and obligated patients to repay credit card bills on lines of credit for which they otherwise may not qualify," Swanson said . "The clinic wanted patients to qualify for these credit cards so it could pre-bill the cards and make money."

According to the complaints, the defendants pre-billed patients' CareCredit credit cards amounts ranging from $1,200 to $4,300, prior to all services being delivered. If a patient did not pay back the amount charged on a CareCredit credit card on time, default interest rates of up to 29.99 percent apply.

The lawsuit alleges that defendants engaged in the following types of credit card fraud in order to create a source of funding to pre-bill their chiropractic services:

Pre-billing

First, the lawsuit alleges that, in order to ensure that primary applicants qualified for credit cards on which defendants could pre-bill thousands of dollars in up-front charges, the defendants in some cases falsely listed unsuspecting co-applicants on other patients' credit cards, thereby usurping their identities and harming their credit. A co-applicant on a credit card is financially liable for the charges incurred on the credit card by the primary applicant.

The unsuspecting co-applicants typically provided their name and Social Security number to the defendants as part of an initial health screening by the clinic. Some patients learned that the defendants added a co-applicant to their application when they received a CareCredit credit card in the mail along with a statement that included the name of the unknown co-applicant.

The "co-applicants" did not consent to be co-applicants, were not aware they were made co-applicants, and did not know the primary applicant. Some of Okesons patients who were listed as co-applicants on strangers credit cards without their permission have discovered the fraudulent accounts on their credit reports.

Second, the lawsuit alleges that, in order to ensure that primary applicants qualified for credit, defendants also in some cases submitted false and grossly inflated annual income to CareCredit for the patientincome far in excess of the actual income reported by the patient to the clinic.

For example, defendants allegedly told the credit card company that a retiree with annual income of $30,000 earned $120,000; that a gas station worker with annual income of $15,000 earned $180,000; and that a 22-year old nurse's aide earning $15,000 per year earned $120,000.

Inflating incomes

Defendants reportedly told CareCredit that 108 of 283 patients enrolled in CareCredit had income of exactly $120,000 per year. By inflating patients' income to GE Money Bank, defendants obligated patients to repay credit card bills on lines of credit for which they otherwise may not qualify, Swanson said.

Over a 26-month period from June, 2007 through July, 2009, defendants placed about $632,000 in charges on credit cards issued to their patients by CareCredit.

By falsely listing unsuspecting strangers as co-applicants on other patients' credit cards and by inflating patients' income, defendants jeopardized the credit histories of the co-applicants, defrauded the credit card company, and obligated the original patients to repay credit card bills on lines of credit for which they otherwise might not qualify, the complaint alleges.

In recent years, many of the country's largest financial institutions have begun to sell health care credit cards to patients, capitalizing on rising health care costs and gaps in insurance coverage. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, consumers currently charge about $45 billion in out-of-pocket medical expenses on credit cards, and that number has been estimated to triple to $150 billion by 2015.

This is the second lawsuit that Swanson and the Board have filed against a chiropractic clinic for health care credit card fraud. In August, Swanson and the Board filed a lawsuit against Express Health, P.A. and its owner, Cory Couillard, D.C., for enrolling patients in health care credit cards without their permission and inflating patients' income in order to qualify them for credit cards.

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CVS Sold Expired Food, Drugs, Connecticut Charges

Problem has worsened over the last year, state alleges

"CVS peddled potentially tainted food & ineffective medicine. Whether CVS was careless or heedless or overzealous for revenue, it betrayed its trust to con...

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is suing CVS Pharmacy, Inc. for allegedly selling food, beverages and over the counter medications past their expiration dates at 20 or more of its Connecticut stores.

"CVS peddled potentially tainted food and ineffective medicine. Whether CVS was careless or heedless or overzealous for revenue, it betrayed its trust to consumers," Blumenthal said. Any item past its expiration date should be off shelves, out of stores.

Expired items allegedly sold by CVS include cough and allergy medicines, baby formula and antacids, as well as energy drinks and dairy products, such as milk, eggs and yogurt. Investigators found the expired products in the summers of 2008 and 2009, Blumenthal said.

Earlier this month, CVS agreed to pay $875,000 to end a probe by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo into the sale of expired products in its New York stores, and agreed to implement new policies to prevent expired goods from being sold.

Rite Aid reached a similar agreement with New York last year and agreed to pay $1.3 million and adopt new internal policies.

Problem worsening

Blumenthal's investigation showed the problem worsening since last year. Nearly half of CVS stores surveyed this year were found selling expired products compared to about a quarter in 2008. It also showed numerous stores selling expired products both years.

The lawsuit potentially seeks significant monetary penalties for violations of the state consumer protection laws, as well as an order barring CVS from selling products with passed expiration dates.

"Shockingly, our 2009 investigation showed nearly one of every two CVS stores surveyed selling out-of-date food and over the counter medicine. The out-of-date rate -- double last year -- seems definitely worsening," Blumenthal said.

"Out-of-date products were basics like cough and allergy medicine, baby formula and dairy products. CVS' failure to properly police and supervise its shelves -- allowing out- of-date medicine and potentially rotten food to remain -- is unconscionable and unacceptable. Especially appalling is the sale of expired baby formula -- which loses nutrients over time -- robbing infants of vital nourishment."

Check the dates

"When shopping at CVS, consumers should check carefully and scrutinize closely because out-of-date products may still be on shelves," Blumenthal added..

After receiving complaints alleging CVS was selling expired products, Blumenthal's office in the summer of 2008 chose at random about 40 CVS stores statewide for site visits. Investigators found and purchased expired products at 10.

Blumenthal's office visited about 45 CVS stores again last summer, this time finding 20, double the number the year before, selling expired products. That included all 10 found to be selling expired products in 2008.

Blumenthal filed the lawsuit in cooperation with Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) Commissioner Jerry Farrell, Jr.

 



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How To Cut Your Winter Energy Bills

Some steps cost nothing to implement

How To Cut Your Winter Energy Bills...

Cold weather can mean more than snow shoveling and ice on your car windows. For most consumers, winter weather brings with it higher energy bills. Not only do you tend to use more energy in colder months, some utilities implement higher rates during the winter.

However, there are a number of simple steps you can take to keep your energy bills in check. Some of these steps cost nothing to implement.

For example, just cleaning or replacing the filter on your heating system on a regular basis can save money. Dirty filters block air flow through your heating and cooling systems, increasing your energy bill and shortening the equipments life.

Activate "sleep" features on computers and office equipment that power down when not in use for a while. Turn off equipment during longer periods of non-use to cut energy costs and improve longevity. For example, if you are going away for a weekend, turn off computers and other equipment before you go.

When cooking, keep the lids on pots. Covering a pot traps the heat inside and cooks the food faster, using less energy. To use even less energy when cooking, use a microwave oven whenever possible. When cooking, speed usually saves energy and money.

A fireplace may be romantic but they can be huge energy wasters, especially in cold weather. If you have glass doors over your fireplace opening, keep them closed. Also, close the fireplace damper when not in use.

About 15 percent of an average home energy bill goes to heating water. To save hot water, take five-minute showers instead of baths. Do only full loads when using the clothes washer or dishwasher. Lower the temperature on your water heater. It should be set at "warm," so that a thermometer held under running water reads no more than 130 degrees.

Small investment

By making a very small investment in energy saving improvements, you can increase savings even more. Consider installing low-flow shower heads and sink aerators to reduce hot water use.

Seal and weatherstrip your windows and doors to ensure that you're not wasting energy on heat or air conditioning that escapes through leaks to the outdoors. Materials for this job are inexpensive, but can yield big savings, while increasing comfort, by reducing drafts.

You can make your hot water tank more efficient by investing about $20 for an insulation that wraps around the tank. Add pre-cut pipe insulation to exposed pipes going into your water heater -- it is cheap and easy to install. If youre starting with an uninsulated tank, the energy savings should pay for the improvements in just a few months.

A lot of heat escapes through leaky windows. Storm windows can reduce heat lost by single-paned windows by 2550 percent during the winter. As an alternative, you can improve your windows temporarily with plastic sheeting installed on the inside.

Remember, a house is as energy efficient as its weakest link. When you begin making improvements, focus first on the biggest energy wasters and take care of the problems with no-cost solutions before you start spending money. You may be surprised at how much money just a little effort can save each month.



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Owens Corning Faces Shingle Class Action

Charges defective design, fraudulent marketing

Wright's complaint says that Owens Corning failed to adequately test its shingles for common conditions that it knew, or should have known, could damage th...

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Wells Fargo Reportedly Closing Some California Branches

Ongoing Wachovia consolidation continues

Wells Fargo Reportedly Closing Some California Branches...

Nearly a year after purchasing Wachovia, Wells Fargo may be prepared to consolidate the operations of the two banks.

The Los Angeles Times reports Wells Fargo will close 122 branches in California, as part of that consolidation. The paper quotes a bank official as saying that it will mostly be current Wachovia branches -- smaller and located near larger Wells Fargo branches -- that will be closed.

Even with the downsizing, Wells Fargo will remain one of the larger banks in California, with more than 1,000 branches in the state.

Wells Fargo brokered a deal to purchase Wachovia in the wake of last year's banking sector meltdown, when it suddenly became evident that a number of institutions were insolvent, because of their investment in mortgage backed securities.

In October 2008, The Charlotte Observer reported Wachovia experienced a "silent run" as large customers closed out their accounts, fearful of a collapse. As a result, there were real concerns the bank wouldn't be able to remain open.

The situation became urgent after Wachovia executives noticed an unusual number of withdrawals the day after the Washington Mutual failure. Many of the withdrawals were made by large corporate depositors, who had more than $100,000 in the bank. As a result, the bank's operating capital fell to dangerously low levels.



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Avoid Counterfeit Products When Holiday Shopping

Knock-offs can hurt consumers as well as manufacturers

Avoid Counterfeit Products When Holiday Shopping...

Interested in buying a Rolex watch for $26 or a Coach bag for $19.95? It might sound tempting but be careful. At a price like that it's either stolen or counterfeit.

But why should you care if it's a rip-off of a designer brand? It only hurts the company, not the consumer, right?

"The distribution and sale of look-alike or counterfeit merchandise is not only deceptive, but also potentially harmful to legitimate businesses and consumers," said Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett. "Depending on the circumstances, phony goods can also be potentially hazardous because they have not been subject to safety testing or other consumer protection guidelines."

How do you know -- besides the low price -- that an item is a knock off and not the real thing? Corbett says it takes an observant shopper.

Look for colors or styles that aren't used by the manufacturer. Check the quality of the materials used to make the product. Nothing screams "knock off" louder than cheap plastic fasteners and vinyl where there should be leather.

Corbett says there are other tip-offs as well. A counterfeit item will have unusual labeling or packaging and the merchandise may seem out of place in the type of store. For example, you wouldn't expect to pick up a pair of Prada in a discount shoe store.

Along with counterfeit products, Corbett urges consumers to be watchful for scams, especially those that might be linked to electronic classified ads or online auctions.

"Con artists know that consumers are using the Internet to search for bargains," Corbett said. "Offers that seem 'too good to be true,' especially those including requests to wire-transfer money or cash checks, should be approached extremely cautiously."

Corbett said that scam artists can easily generate authentic-looking online ads and auction listing for everything from toys and pets to used vehicles or rental homes - often copying photos and descriptions from legitimate ads.

"Using popular websites like Craigslist or other Internet listings, criminals lure victims with low prices and attractive offers for high-demand items," Corbett said. "Typically, they operate at long-distance in order to hide their true identity or location by communicating only via email and asking consumers to handle all payments by wire-transfer."

The best course of action is to take your time and never act quickly. Corbett said criminals are hoping that consumers will send money before they have time to carefully evaluate the situation or the seller. That's why most scams are structured to force victims to make a quick decision.

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Consumer Reports: Most Store-Bought Chicken Contains Harmful Bacteria

Tougher regulations sought for testing and recalls

Consumer Reports: Most Store-Bought Chicken Contains Harmful Bacteria...

Microbiological tests of store-bought chickens, published in the March issue of Consumer Reports magazine, found Campylobacter, a rod-shaped bacterium and the leading cause of food poisoning nationwide, in 63 percent of the chickens tested, while Salmonella was found in 16 percent of the chickens.

Those numbers include eight percent of the total number tested that had both Campylobacter and Salmonella. Only 29 percent were free from both. The testing is the most comprehensive of its kind ever published in the US, and uses a sample size of almost 1000 fresh chickens purchased at retail stores in 36 cities.

Public health officials estimate that the annual cost of illnesses caused by Campylobacter is up to $5.6 billion and salmonella is up to $3.5 billion. Campylobacter is responsible for 1.1 to 7 million food-borne infections and 110 to 1000 deaths each year. Salmonella sickens some 700,000 to 4 million people, and kills up to 2000 each year.

The two bacterial contaminants can be eliminated if the chicken is cooked to an interior temperature of 180 degrees (breasts to 170 degrees). But cooking a chicken to the proper temperature is only half the battle. Cooks have to be careful not to spread the bacteria via contaminated implements, pans, cutting boards, kitchen towels, and sponges.

Other key findings in the report:

Microbiological contamination

• As a group, premium chickens -- including free-range birds -- were most contaminated.

• One in 20 birds were nearly spoiled, and even a fresh bird is not necessarily free of disease-causing bacteria.

• No one brand was consistently cleaner than others.

• Some generic E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) is present on virtually every chicken on the market, but the levels were almost always low.

In addition to bacterial contamination, Consumer Reports also tested for taste. Key findings:

• Despite their reputation and price, the free-range chickens tasted no better overall than other types.

• Chickens from all the brands were acceptable in taste. But there were enough differences overall among brands that some could be identified as slightly better or worse than others. However, the taste variations noted were often as great within a single brand as among the brands. And if seasonings or sauces are used, differences among brands will likely be minimal.

Recommendations for action

The US. Department of Agriculture certifies a chicken as free from visible signs of disease, but not free of disease-causing microorganisms. The USDA has made several recent enhancements (the latest put into place on January 26, 1998) to inspection systems required at poultry processing plants, including testing for Salmonella, but not Campylobacter.

Among measures that would make for cleaner chickens, Consumer Reports recommends:

• Test for Campylobacter. Testing is not currently required at chicken plants.

• Lower the Salmonella limit. USDA regulations allow that up to 20 percent of a plant's chickens can test positively for salmonella.

• Congress should give USDA real enforcement power by authorizing recalls and civil penalties.

• Carry out research and education initiatives as proposed in the Administration's Fiscal Year '99 Food Safety budget request.

 



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