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    Microsoft Hit with Class Action Over XBox Points

    Suit latest in a long line of points-related complaints

    Microsoft has been named in a class action claiming that the company's "fraudulent" XBox Live points system "collect[s] revenues for digital goods and services which were not provided."

    Lead plaintiff Samuel Lassoff, of Horsham, Pa., says an invoice he got earlier this month included charges for games that couldn't be successfully downloaded because of hardware problems. The charges weren't an accident, Lassoff says, but rather part of a Microsoft "scheme to unjustly enrich itself through [its] fraudulent handling of his account."

    Even before Lassoff's suit, XBox points have been the subject of increasingly withering criticism, to the point that Microsoft is considering abandoning the system altogether. Gamers routinely kvetch that the system leaves users with leftover points that aren't enough to put toward the purchase of a new game.

    Under the system, points are purchased with real currency, usually via a debit or credit card, and can be put toward the purchase of an xBox game or other downloadable media. The problem, according to disgruntled gamers, is that the number of points purchased rarely lines up with the number needed to buy a given item, so users are left with spare points that can't be put toward a subsequent purchase.

    For those who aren't gamers or gearheads, an analogy may be in order. The quandary faced by XBox users is one seen all too often by users of mass transit. In 2007, for example, recalculated New York City subway fares added a bonus of $1.05 to every $7.00 fare card purchased. Rides cost $2.00 each. Thus, a straphanger who paid $7.00 ended up with an $8.05 card -- good for four rides and a leftover nickel. He then has to save up 20 cards worth $0.05 a piece until he has enough to trade in for a full ride.

    In addition to this algebraic nightmare, users claim to have had their accounts hacked and points stolen, raising questions about the security of the "XBox Live Marketplace." These complaints and others have reportedly led Microsoft to consider letting the sun set on the points system, and have gamers pay for games and media directly with cash.

    Lassoff says that, at the very least, "hundreds" of other XBox users have paid for games that never ended up on their consoles. He maintains that Microsoft was contractually obligated to provide "the complete, whole, and or actual digital goods and services purchased," and that it failed to warn him of "point fraud due to incomplete and or partial downloads." His suit includes counts for negligence, unjust enrichment, and unfair business practices.

    Microsoft Hit with Class Action Over XBox Points...
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    West Virginia Sues Capital One

    State finds loophole in banks' federal preemption defense

    West Virginia, a small state with tough consumer protection laws, is taking a very big bank, Capital One, to court.

    West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw has sued Capital One Bank, N.A. and four other companies, charging "unfair and deceptive acts and practices, unlawful debt collection practices, and unconscionable conduct in connection with their credit card lending and collection practices."

    Capital One Bank, a national bank headquartered in Glen Allen, Virginia has about 500,000 credit card accounts with West Virginia consumers. Capital One Services, LLC, Capital One Services II, LLC, Capital One Services III, LLC, and COSI Receivables Management, LLC are Delaware corporations that service and collect on the credit cards issued by Capital One Bank.

    McGraw says the complaint is based on numerous violations of West Virginia's consumer protection laws. The complaint alleges that Capital One solicited consumers to enter into debt repayment plans by sending them solicitations that were disguised as offers of new credit. The offer was sent to consumers who had charged-off accounts with Capital One or other creditors.

    Under the terms of the offer, Capital One agreed to provide the consumer $1.00 of new credit in exchange for the consumer's agreeing to transfer the entire account balance of a charged-off account to the new credit card account. The consumer was required to make payments on the old debt in order to receive any further increases in the credit limit on their new credit card.

    By transferring the old debt onto a new credit card, Capital One was able to charge interest, late fees, and over-the-limit fees on debt that otherwise would not have been subject to those fees, McGraw says. It also allowed Capital One to re-age the debts so that the applicable statute of limitations period started new.

    The complaint also alleges that Capital One issued multiple low-limit credit cards, each charging exorbitant fees, rather than raising credit limits on consumers' existing accounts; unconscionably imposed over-the-limit fees on consumers' accounts; sold services to consumers who could not benefit from the services; and, billed and attempted to collect for credit card accounts that were never activated.

    "Tantamount to loan sharking"

    "Capital One's practice of offering nominal extension of credit, if and only if, the consumer agreed to pay off a debt too old to be sued on is tantamount to loan sharking," McGraw said.

    In the past, states have been unsuccessful in attempts to sue, or rein in national banks doing business in their jurisdictions. In fact, McGraw under a federal court injunction that prohibited him from suing the bank for its credit card practices.

    However, that changed on January 4, 2010 when United States District Court Judge Robert Goodwin granted McGraw's motion to modify the injunction. Under the new order, the Attorney General is not prohibited from suing the bank to enforce non-preempted substantive state laws.

    West Virginia Attorney General sued Capital One Bank, N.A. and four other companies, charging unfair and deceptive acts and practices, unlawful debt collec...
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      Credit Card Direct Mail Back on the Rise

      Card issuers increase direct marketing as economy levels out

      The junk mail is back.

      Mintel Comperemedia, a provider of direct marketing information, reports that in the fourth quarter -- for the first time in three years -- the volume of credit card direct mail increased from the previous quarter.

      With a 47 percent increase in direct mail compared from the third quarter, credit card issuers showed increased confidence in the economy and a willingness to extend more consumer credit.

      However, last year's direct mail volume still pales in comparison with recent years. Mintel reports the total number of credit card offers sent in 2009 falls 66 percent behind the number sent in 2008. Pre-recession (2004-2007), card mailings topped seven billion annually; last year, they didn't even reach two billion.

      "Credit card direct mail volume leveled out mid-last year and finally, in the last quarter of 2009, we saw the long-awaited increase in card offers for consumers," said Mintel Comperemedia Senior Vice president Andrew Davidson. "More direct marketing is an excellent sign for the economy, because it shows issuers gaining confidence and taking a more positive outlook towards gaining new cardholders and reducing delinquencies."

      February is significant for credit card companies, as another wave of CARD Act regulations take hold on the 22nd. In anticipation of tighter restrictions on credit practices, many companies are trying to rebalance their portfolios.

      "In this post-recessionary environment, card issuers need to offset potential lost revenue from CARD Act regulations. We see more cards being promoted with annual fees and high purchase APRs," Davidson said.

      According to Mintel, more than a third of credit card offers sent in 2009 (36 percent) featured an annual fee, compared with just one in five (20 percent) in 2008. Purchase rates are also on the rise, despite the steadily low prime rate.

      On variable rate card offers sent during the final three months of 2009, the mean go-to APR for purchases was 13.95 percent, versus the average of 11.80 percent observed a year earlier.

      Many top credit card issuers increased direct mail volume during the fourth quarter of last year, but the biggest bumps compared with the same period of 2008 came from Chase (up 87 percent) and U.S. Bank (up 64 percent).

      Heavy volume or not, some consumers don't like it.

      Greg of Agoura, CA, was succinct when he wrote to about Chase Bank: "Direct solicitation to a 12-year old for a credit card."

      From Papillion, NE, Ben tells of what he calls a "humiliating experience" with American Express. He says he noticed on the bottom of the mail solicitation with the fake credit card that he can stop receiving offers by calling a toll free number to opt out. "So I call the number and the pre-recorded person asks: your name, your address, your birth date, and then your social security number if you want to be free from solicitations for the next three years. I'm so fed up with getting this solicitation every month so I gave them the information. But after I hung up I felt like that's unbelievable that I have to give out that kind of information just to be left alone from these vultures."

      If you'd like to see fewer of these offers showing up in your mailbox, here are some tips on getting your name removed from mailing lists.

      47 percent increase in direct mail compared from the third quarter, credit card issuers showed increased confidence in the economy and a willingness to ext...
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      BlueHippo Charged with Violating Texas Law

      Bankrupt firm continues to draw angry complaints

      Texas has become the latest state to file charges against BlueHippo Funding, LLC, accusing the bankrupt computer seller of violating the state's Deceptive Practices Act by failing to deliver computers and related equipment to purchasers, who were primarily customers with poor credit ratings.

      BlueHippo advertised computers that could be purchased on a "law-away plan," with consumers making monthly, and sometimes weekly payments, for a period of time. But the computers were priced much higher than comparable machines from retailers and were often old technology. And that's when consumers actually received the computers they overpaid for.

      Over the years repeatedly heard from consumers who said they paid hundreds of dollars, and sometimes as much as $2000, but never got anything for their money.

      As recently as this week, received consumer complaints about BlueHippo.

      "I sent BlueHippo money for a laptop, Cody, of Faulkton, S.D., told "I made all payments, sent back all paperwork, no computer. I stopped allowing them to take money from my account upon not being able to get in touch with anyone in customer service."

      According to the Texas enforcement action, BlueHippo Funding, LLC and its sole shareholder Joseph K. Rensin of Maryland never registered to conduct business in Texas. However, the defendants' advertising targeted Texans with poor credit who wanted computers, but whose limited financial resources led them to use the defendants' law-away plan, the complaint says. Other defendants named are BlueHippo Capital, LLC of Virginia and Nevada.

      Working with bankruptcy court

      In addition to today's state enforcement action, which was filed in Travis County District Court, the Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said he is working closely with the Chapter 7 liquidating trustee that was recently appointed in the defendants' Delaware bankruptcy case. By pursuing recoveries in state and federal courts, Texas is working to improve the likelihood that consumers' restitution claims will be fulfilled.

      Texas' action and the continued complaints from consumers suggests a lengthy unwinding period from Blue Hippo's long history of marketing over-priced computers to consumers with limited options.

      Abbott says Blue Hippo advertised a toll-free number and Web site where customers seeking to purchase a computer would be guaranteed financing, regardless of credit. Potential customers were told that they would be required to make a certain number of layaway payments. Those payments would purportedly secure the buyer's right to purchase their computers, and BlueHippo would finance the remaining balance.

      However, the defendants failed to disclose several consequences until after customers signed layaway plans -- plans that could financially damage them. According to customer complaints received by the Texas Office of the Attorney General, the company failed to ship computers as they were contractually obligated to do, even though customers made the required number of consecutive layaway payments. Complaints also indicate the defendants failed to ship, as promised, certain "free" products, such as printers, software and televisions.

      Missing Items

      "I set up an account through BlueHippo to get a dell desktop computer," Kristina, of Newport News, Va., told "After complaining several times about not receiving the computer we finally got it. We were also suppose to receive a printer and digital camera. Also we were supposed to get back a $350 rebate. I have all of my bank account statements as well as all the paperwork I received from them. I want to know what i can do to receive my printer and digital camera or the money that equals it as well as my rebate."

      Some customers repeatedly contacted the defendants by phone about BlueHippo's failure to deliver the partially purchased products. As a result, customers became frustrated, canceled their orders and requested that the defendants fully refund them. Instead of refunding customers' installment payments, however, BlueHippo referred customers to a clause in the layaway plan stating that cancellations would merely receive a "store credit."

      After tiring of the defendants' duplicity, Abbott says customers grew so frustrated that they notified their banks to stop BlueHippo's automatic debit withdrawals from their checking accounts. However, BlueHippo claimed that customers who stopped automatic withdrawals were subject to "default" provisions in the "retail installment contract," which the defendants claimed allowed BlueHippo to increase interest rates to 24 percent, or the highest interest rate allowable by law.

      Worse, Abbott says the company maintained that the contract permitted it to continue withdrawing payments from customers' accounts. As a result, the defendants essentially used the customers' stop payment instructions as an excuse to increase interest rates and therefore simply ignored customers' clear instructions to the contrary.

      The attorney general seeks civil penalties against these defendants of up to $20,000 per violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, as well as restitution to financially harmed consumers.

      BlueHippo Charged with Violating Texas Law...
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      Kansas Attorney General Warns of Debt Collection Scam

      Fraudsters pose as cops to extort money

      Kansas Attorney General Steve Six is warning consumers about a debt collection scam in which apparent fake debt collectors are impersonating law enforcement officers in an effort to extort money. He's urging consumers not to make payments to these scamsters.

      The scammers most often claim they are attempting to collect a debt related to an Internet payday loan obtained by the consumer, but which the consumer never repaid. Consumers say they have never obtained such a loan or paid off the loan years ago.

      The scam artists have most recently identified themselves as ACS, National Affidavit Processing Department and United Financial Crime Division, but may use additional phony names. It appears the phone numbers used by the scammers are "spoofed" numbers, so that the number appearing on a consumer's caller ID is not the actual number of where the call originated. It appears the calls in question may be originating from outside the United States.

      When questioned, the individual calling refuses to disclose the full name or address of the collection agency he claims to represent. These scammers have been able to provide consumers with identifying information, such as the consumer's social security number, home address, e-mail address, names of family members and the consumer's computer IP address.

      Since the callers are able to provide valid personal information, consumers may become confused and believe they are being contacted in regard to a legitimate debt.

      If the initial debt collection scam is unsuccessful, the scamsters keep at it, often calling back months later posing as law enforcement officers or officers of the court. Typically, they threaten the consumer with arrest for fraud or some other fictitious crime unless the consumer agrees to immediately wire money via Western Union.

      The phony cops try to frighten and confuse consumers into compliance by using legal sounding terms such as "We're filing an affidavit against you" or by stating a lawsuit has been or is in the process of being filed against the consumer.

      A hallmark of each scam has been calling consumers repeatedly at their place of employment. This scam hit home when an employee of the Kansas Attorney General's Office was repeatedly called both on her cell phone and at work.

      Despite the employee's repeated verbal disputes, the caller refused to provide any identifying information to allow her to send a written dispute. The scammer also continued to call her numerous times a day regarding a payday loan she denied obtaining. Two months later, she was again contacted by telephone by an individual identifying himself as an "officer".

      "I denied owing the debt and refused to pay without being provided validation of the debt," said the employee. "I was then told, 'If that's the case, I will have local law enforcement come to your place of business and drag you out kicking and screaming.'"

      "It is important for consumers to know their rights under the law," Six said. "If a consumer is receiving calls from a debt collection company and believe it is a scam, I encourage them to contact our office immediately."

      Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), collectors are required to send consumers a written notice within five days of the initial contact. The notification should contain information such as the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed and a statement informing the consumer they have thirty days to contact the debtor in writing to dispute the debt or request validation of the debt.

      In addition, legitimate debt collectors are prohibited by the (FDCPA) from making false or misleading representations, such as the consumer has committed a crime, implying nonpayment will result in the consumer's arrest, or using the threat of violence.

      Kansas Attorney General Warns of Debt Collection Scam...
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      New York Probes Online Stores for Unauthorized Charges and among those investigated

      As you complete an online transaction, you sometimes see a pop-up window that asks "Want to save $10 on this order?" Well, who wouldn't? So you click "Yes."

      Somewhere there's some fine print that says, in exchange for that "discount," you have agreed to pay a whole lot more than $10, and the charge begins showing up on your next credit card bill. Nothing makes consumers angrier, and now the State of New York is investigating 22 popular sites that it says deceptively links unsuspecting consumers to fee-based membership programs that charge unauthorized fees.

      At the same time, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said his office has also reached an agreement with online movie ticket retailer Fandango to end similar practices.

      Cuomo's investigation has found that when consumers click on the discount or incentive banner, they are unknowingly directed to a membership program seller's Web page that is separate from the online retailer's site. The consumer is then instructed through large, colorful print and voice prompts to accept the discount or incentive.

      Information about joining the membership program and its ramifications, including the fact that the consumer is agreeing to transfer his or her credit or debit card account information, is buried in fine print and cluttered text. Small and recurring charges then begin to appear on consumers' credit or debit card bills from unfamiliar companies. Because of the low dollar amount, the charges may go unnoticed for some time.

      "This online scheme has impacted the finances and tried the patience of tens of millions of consumers nationwide," Cuomo said. "Well-known companies are tricking customers into accepting offers from third party vendors, which then siphon money from consumers' accounts. I commend Fandango for doing the right thing by ending the practice of sharing consumers' financial information with these discount club sellers. I expect the other businesses to follow Fandango's lead and adopt these reforms to protect consumers who shop online.

      22 subpoenas

      Cuomo has sent subpoenas to 22 well-known merchants that have deals with the three major companies that offer these discount programs, including Webloyalty, Affinion/Trilegiant and Vertrue.

      The subpoenas seek information about retailers' practices of sharing consumers' account information with membership program companies; their knowledge of any deceptive solicitations; and compensation from the membership companies.

      The merchants being investigated include Barnes & Noble,,,,,,,,, Budget,,, GMAC Mortgage,, Travelocity, Vistaprint, Intelius,, Expedia/, Columbia House, Pizza Hut and Gamestop/EB Games.

      Membership program companies enter into highly lucrative deals with the retailers and banks, which bring in millions of dollars in revenue when their customers click on deceptive incentives or become unknowingly enrolled. The three program sellers being investigated bring in revenues of more than $1 billion per year, much of which is amassed through fraud, Cuomo said. The scheme also takes place via postal mail: membership program sellers mail checks to consumers accompanied by solicitations branded with the name of the business or bank with which the consumer has transacted.

      The consumers frequently do not realize that by cashing these checks, they are enrolling in a membership program with a monthly fee because the solicitations often create the false impression that consumers are being provided with the check as a rebate or reward for their past business. The fact that consumers are enrolling in a fee-based program for which they will incur monthly charges is only inconspicuously disclosed above the endorsement line on the check.

      Confused consumers

      Consumers contacting about these schemes often express anger, but also bewilderment.

      "I don't really know," Estaban, of Milpitas, Calif., told "I think I wanted to get my credit score on one of the free sites and all of a sudden I am receiving statement and am paying for it also. I have tried numerous times to close the account but have not been able to. I spoke to customer service and they said that my account was closed but I am still being billed."

      Recently, Cuomo's Office intervened in a class-action lawsuit against Webloyalty to ensure that a settlement included full refunds to eligible customers who were scammed. Prior to the Attorney General's intervention, the settlement limited refunds to only two months.

      As part of an agreement with Cuomo's Office, online movie ticket retailer Fandango has agreed to permanently end the practice of sharing customers' credit and debit card information to discount program sellers. It will also implement reforms to protect online shoppers from being deceived by discount and cash-back advertisements that appear on the company's Web site. Fandango will suspend contracts with any discount program sellers while it implements these changes, and the company will pay $400,000 into a consumer redress fund.

      New York Probes Online Stores for Unauthorized Charges...
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      ATV Injuries and Deaths Among Children Decrease

      Numbers trending downward but still high

      Data released by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) show child deaths and serious injuries caused by all-terrain vehicles appear to have decreased in 2008.

      However, at least 74 children lost their lives and more than 37,000 were injured seriously enough to require treatment in a hospital emergency department.

      "The latest data from the CPSC appears to indicate that the numbers of deaths and injuries caused by ATVs declined in 2008 as compared to 2007," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for Consumer Federation of America (CFA). "ATVs are still causing hundreds of death and well over a hundred thousand injuries a year, which make them one of the most dangerous products that CPSC oversees."

      Weintraub says the reason for the decline is not completely known. "Is it because incidents with recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs) were taken out of the report; is it because fewer children are riding ATVs that are too large for them; is it because of higher gas prices; or is it because educational efforts are becoming effective?" she asks. "We need to replicate what is going right and do more to reduce these numbers significantly."

      Al of Lufkin, TX, tells of problems with a brand new ATV. He says the first time his girlfriend rode her new Polaris Outlaw 90c it had no front brakes within the first hour of riding. He took it in for repair and "they had it for a week or so. When we picked it up and tried to ride again, it again had no front brakes after a minimal amount of usage. We were on a three-day camping event with friends at an ATV park. With only rear brakes working, she had to resort to running into a small tree on one occasion when the rear brakes failed due to overheating when going downhill."

      "ATVs continue to represent a significant risk of injury and death for children," said H. Garry Gardner, MD FAAP, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention. "Children under the age of 16 should not operate or ride ATVs."

      In its 2008 Annual Report of ATV-Related Deaths and Injuries , released earlier this month, CPSC found:

      • Estimates of serious injuries requiring emergency room treatment among people of all ages decreased by a statistically significant 10.5 percent, from 150,900 in 2007 to 135,100 in 2008. The 2008 estimate is roughly the same as those for the years 2004 and 2005.

      • The estimated number of ATV-related fatalities for all ages decreased from 699 in 2007 to 410 in 2008. The agency notes, however, that the 2008 data is not considered complete.

      • In 2008, ATVs killed at least 74 children younger than 16, accounting for 18 percent of fatalities.

      • Children under 16 suffered an estimated 37,700 serious injuries in 2008 -- or 28 percent of all injuries. The 2008 emergency department-treated injury estimate for children younger than 16 years of age represents a 6 percent decrease, which is not a statistically significant decrease, over the 2007 estimate.

      It should be noted that there is always a lag with death reports making their way to CPSC and therefore the 2008 statistics should not be considered complete. For example, when child death statistics for the year 2006 were first reported in 2007, the number stood at 111; since that time, additional data collection has increased that number to 143.

      In 2006, consumer groups filed a petition with the CPSC calling for CPSC to ban the sale of adult-size ATVs for use for children. While the agency under the leadership of Chairman Hal Stratton denied the petition, the CPSC began a rulemaking process to create new ATV safety standards.

      New CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum has directed staff to follow the mandate of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act and pass new federal safety rules. Both Consumer Federation of America and AAP continue to call upon the agency to reject the manufacture of a transitional, "youth model" ATV for 14- to 16-year-olds capable of traveling at speeds up to 38 miles per hour.

      The CPSC, industry and many consumer advocates recommend that children ages 12 through 15 not ride ATVs with engines larger than 90 cc's. The AAP and other doctors recommend that no child under age 16 ride an ATV of any size.

      ATV Injuries and Deaths Among Children Decrease...
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      Indoor Tanning Association Settles Skin Cancer Case

      FTC charges group lied about skin cancer risks from tanning

      The Indoor Tanning Association has agreed to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding health and safety claims about indoor tanning.

      Contrary to claims in the association's advertising, indoor tanning increases the risk of squamous cell and melanoma skin cancers, according to the FTC complaint.

      "The messages promoted by the indoor tanning industry fly in the face of scientific evidence," said David C. Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The industry needs to do a better job of communicating the risks of tanning to consumers."

      The Indoor Tanning Association represents tanning facilities and suppliers of tanning equipment. A complaint by the FTC complaint claims that in March 2008, the association launched an advertising campaign designed to portray indoor tanning as safe and beneficial.

      The campaign included two national newspaper ads, TV and video ads, two Web sites, a communications guide, and point-of-sale materials that were provided to association members for distribution in local markets.

      In addition to denying the skin cancer risks of tanning, the campaign is accused of making these false claims:

      • Indoor tanning is approved by the government;

      • Indoor tanning is safer than tanning outdoors because the amount of ultraviolet light received when tanning indoors is monitored and controlled;

      • Research shows that vitamin D supplements may harm the body's ability to fight disease; and

      • A National Academy of Sciences study determined that "the risks of not getting enough ultraviolet light far outweigh the hypothetical risk of skin cancer."

      The complaint also contends that the association failed to disclose material facts in its advertising.

      Under its settlement with the Commission, the association is prohibited from making the misrepresentations challenged in the complaint, from misrepresenting any tests or studies, and from providing deceptive advertisements to members. It also requires that future association ads that make safety or health benefits claims for indoor tanning may not be misleading and must be substantiated.

      Further, the order requires that certain future advertisements from the association contain disclosures. Ads that make claims about the safety or health benefits of indoor tanning are required to clearly and prominently make this disclosure:

      "NOTICE: Exposure to ultraviolet radiation may increase the likelihood of developing skin cancer and can cause serious eye injury."

      Ads that claim exposure to ultraviolet radiation produces vitamin D in the body, or make other claims about the effectiveness or usefulness of indoor tanning products or services for the body's generation of vitamin D, must clearly and prominently make this disclosure:

      "NOTICE: You do not need to become tan for your skin to make vitamin D. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation may increase the likelihood of developing skin cancer and can cause serious eye injury."

      In fact, research done at the University of Washington suggests tanning may be responsible for a variety of problems.

      Indoor Tanning Association Settles Skin Cancer Case...
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      Toyota Adds 1.1 Million Vehicles to Accelerator Pedal Recalls

      Feds say they pressure Toyota to suspend sales of affected models

      It just keeps getting worse for Toyota. The Japanese automaker said it will recall another 1.1 million U.S. models to fix floor mats that may jam accelerator pedals and cause unintended acceleration.

      It's an extension of last fall's recall, when Toyota recalled 4.3 million vehicles. Earlier this week, Toyota took the unprecedented step of suspending sales of eight models -- some 2.3 million vehicles -- involved in a separate recall for sticking accelerator pedals announced earlier this month.

      The latest announcement involves:

      • 2008-10 Highlanders

      • 2009-2010 Corollas, Venzas, and Matrixes.

      It also covers 2009-2010 Pontiac Vibes made in a joint venture with General Motors Co.

      There are two separate problems involving the accelerator pedals -- both potentially causing unintended acceleration and possible loss of control. In the 2.3 million vehicles recalled last week, accelerator pedals may become sluggish and stick in the open position. The other recall involves the possibility that floor mats may jam the accelerator pedals.

      Toyota's remedy for the floor mat problem involves modifying or replacing the accelerator pedals and, in some cases, modifying the floor surface to reduce the likelihood of the floor mat jamming the pedal.

      The other problem -- sluggish or sticking pedals -- may be a little harder to fix. Toyota has not yet made a definitive statement about how it will address that situation.

      Competitors swarm

      Toyota's dramatic fall from grace creates an opportunity that its competitors are not shy about exploiting. General Motors announced that it offer a rebate of up to $1,000 or free financing to Toyota owners who buy a GM car or truck.

      Industry analysts expect Honda and Hyundai to make big sales gains, both in the U.S. and in global markets, while Toyota lies wounded.

      Car rental companies are also affected. Avis Budget Group and Enterprise said they are pulling all of the recalled models from their fleets.

      Pressure from feds

      Toyota's stunning decision to suspend sales of some of its most popular models was initially seen as an act of corporate responsibility but U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the automaker's decision came amid pressure from federal regulators.

      "We have a responsibility for the safety of these automobiles," he told WGN radio in Chicago. "And when we discovered the accidents that have taken place with the sticking accelerators in the floor mats, we immediately told Toyota they should recall those cars."

      Helping ensure the safety of our customers and restoring confidence in Toyota are very important to our company, said Group Vice President and Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter. This action is necessary until a remedy is finalized. Were making every effort to address this situation for our customers as quickly as possible.

      Earlier recalls

      This week's earlier recall and sales suspension involve these models:

      • 2007-10 Camrys,
      • 2009-10 Corollas,
      • 2009-10 RAV4s,
      • 2009-10 Matrixes,
      • 2005-10 Avalons,
      • 2010 Highlanders,
      • 2007-10 Tundras and
      • 2008-10 Sequoias.

      No Lexus Division or Scion vehicles are affected by these actions. Also not affected are Toyota Prius, Tacoma, Sienna, Venza, Solara, Yaris, 4Runner, FJ Cruiser, Land Cruiser and select Camry models, including all Camry hybrids, which will remain for sale.

      The action is separate from the ongoing recall of 4.2 million Toyota and Lexus models for a similar but unrelated problem involving unintended acceleration, although the company said about 1.7 million vehicles are included in both recall actions.

      No one knows how many accidents may have been caused by unintended acceleration in the affected models but an August 2009 tragedy on a San Diego freeway put the problem at the top of the auto safety agenda. In that accident, a California highway patrolman and his family were killed in their runaway Lexus ES 350. Someone calling from the car before it crashed at over 100 miles per hour said they couldn't stop it. Seconds later, it struck an SUV.

      The Wall Street Journal uoted a Massachusetts firm, Safety Research and Strategies, as saying it had identified 2,274 incidents of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, causing 275 crashes and at least 18 fatalities since 1999.

      The company said it could not confirm the figures.

      Toyota's 2009 recall, which is still underway, was the largest in the company's history. Toyota and Lexus vehicles affected by the earlier recall are:

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

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

      The sales hiatus will idle five U.S. plans that build Toyota products for at least the week of February 1.

      What to do

      In the event that a driver experiences an accelerator pedal that sticks in a partial open throttle position or returns slowly to idle position, the vehicle can be controlled with firm and steady application of the brakes, the company said. The brakes should not be pumped repeatedly because it could deplete vacuum assist, requiring stronger brake pedal pressure.

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

      Critics complain

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

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

      No one knows how many accidents may have been caused but an August 2009 tragedy on a San Diego freeway put the problem at the top of the auto safety agenda. In that accident, a California highway patrolman and his family were killed in their runaway Lexus ES 350. Someone calling from the car before it crashed at over 100 miles per hour said they couldn't stop it. Seconds later, it struck an SUV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Toyota Adds 1.1 Million Vehicles to Accelerator Pedal Recalls...
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      'Extended Warranty' Sellers Settle With Oregon

      Dealer Warranty Services and owners required to pony up $20,000

      A Missouri company and its owners accused of falsely advertising the sale of motor vehicle service contracts have reached a settlement with the state of Oregon requiring them to pay restitution.

      "Consumers across the country have complained about companies using shady telemarketing techniques to sell so-called extended vehicle warranties that failed to live up to their promises," said Attorney General John Kroger. "This settlement will force one of these companies to obey the law or quit doing business in Oregon."

      The Better Business Bureau gave Dealer Warranty Services an "F" rating based on more than 150 consumer complaints. Consumers said the company used misleading sales or advertising practices; falsely claimed that it was associated with a manufacturer or dealer; refused to honor cancellation requests or provide refunds; consistently failed to cover needed repairs; provided poor customer service; and employed harassing sales calls and solicitations.

      The Oregon Department of Justice received nearly two dozen inquiries and complaints about Dealer Warranty Services. Consumers complained about getting postcards and phone calls telling them that the manufacturers warranty for their vehicles had expired and that the company could extend it. Instead, Dealer Warranty Services sold motor vehicle service contracts provided by an independent third-party.

      Some consumers reported that the motor vehicle service contracts did not live up to advertised expectations.

      The settlement requires the company and its owners, Theodore B. Conrad and Jeffry E. Zykan, to pay $10,000 to the Oregon Department of Justice and restitution to Oregon consumers who have filed complaints.

      It also includes injunctive terms that prohibit the company and owners from using illegal tactics that consumers complained about. Failure to abide by the terms of the settlement will result in an additional $10,000 payment.

      Consumers should be very cautious about purchasing extended service contracts. Never sign up for an extended service contract without seeing the complete written policy.

      A Missouri company and its owners accused of falsely advertising the sale of motor vehicle service contracts have reached a settlement with the state of Or...
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      Can Antioxidants Be Harmful?

      Researchers say antioxidants can impair muscle function

      Many people, especially seniors, try to increase their intake of antioxidants to ward off disease and aging. But could loading up on antioxidants be doing as much harm as good?

      Researchers in Kansas State University's Cardiorespiratory Exercise Laboratory have been studying how to improve oxygen delivery to the skeletal muscle during physical activity by using antioxidants, which are nutrients in foods that can prevent or slow the oxidative damage to the body. Their findings show that sometimes antioxidants can impair muscle function.

      "Antioxidant is one of those buzz words right now," said Steven Copp, a doctoral student in anatomy and physiology from Manhattan and a researcher in the lab. "Walking around grocery stores you see things advertised that are loaded with antioxidants. I think what a lot of people don't realize is that the antioxidant and pro-oxidant balance is really delicate. One of the things we've seen in our research is that you can't just give a larger dose of antioxidants and presume that there will be some sort of beneficial effect. In fact, you can actually make a problem worse."

      Researchers in the lab study the physiology of physical activity in health and disease through animal models. Copp and colleagues have conducted various studies associated with how muscles control blood flow and the effects of different doses and types of antioxidants.

      Abnormalities in the circulatory system, such as those that result from aging or a disease like chronic heart failure, can impair oxygen delivery to the skeletal muscle and increase fatigability during physical activity, Copp said.

      The researchers are studying the effects antioxidants could have in the process.

      "If you have a person trying to recover from a heart attack and you put them in cardiac rehab, when they walk on a treadmill they might say it's difficult," said Kansas State professor David C. Poole. "Their muscles get sore and stiff. We try to understand why the blood cells aren't flowing properly and why they can't get oxygen to the muscles, as happens in healthy individuals."

      Body produces antioxidants naturally

      Copp said there is a potential for antioxidants to reverse or partially reverse some of those changes that result from aging or disease. However, Kansas State's studies have shown that some of the oxidants in our body, such as hydrogen peroxide, are helpful to increase blood flow.

      "We're now learning that if antioxidant therapy takes away hydrogen peroxide -- or other naturally occurring vasodilators, which are compounds that help open blood vessels -- you impair the body's ability to deliver oxygen to the muscle so that it doesn't work properly," Poole said.

      Poole said antioxidants are largely thought to produce better health, but their studies have shown that antioxidants can actually suppress key signaling mechanisms that are necessary for muscle to function effectively.

      "It's really a cautionary note that before we start recommending people get more antioxidants, we need to understand more about how they function in physiological systems and circumstances like exercise," Poole said.

      Daniel Hirai, an anatomy and physiology doctoral student from Manhattan working in the lab, said the researchers will continue to explore antioxidants and the effects of exercise training. Their studies are looking at how these can help individuals combat the decreased mobility and muscle function that comes with advancing age and diseases like heart failure.

      "The research we do here is very mechanistic in nature, and down the road our aim is to take our findings and make recommendations for diseased and aging populations," Copp said.

      The researchers have published their recent findings in several journals, including the Journal of Applied Physiology,Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology,Microvascular Research,The American Journal of Physiology and Experimental Physiology.

      Many people, especially seniors, try to increase their intake of antioxidants to ward off disease and aging. But could loading up on antioxidants be doing ...
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      Fireproofing Chemicals May Cause Fertility Issues

      New study claims that exposure causes pregnancy delays

      Chemicals designed to protect furniture, carpeting, and other consumer products from catching fire are now under fire for their possible link to fertility issues in women.

      A study released today claims women with high levels of commonly used flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in their blood took longer to get pregnant than women with low levels of the chemicals.

      Researchers at the School of Public Health, U.C. Berkeley, discovered women with the highest levels of PBDEs were twice as likely to take more than a year to conceive.

      "This study provides the first evidence that PBDEs may impact fertility," writes the study's lead author, Dr. Kim Harley at U.C. Berkeley. "Women with higher PBDE levels were 30-50 percent less likely to conceive each month than those with lower levels."

      Previous animal studies have found a possible link between prenatal PBDE exposure and hormonal and reproductive issues.

      "In laboratory animals, PBDEs have been shown to mimic sex hormones and affect the balance of thyroid hormones, both of which could have implications for fertility," Harley told today.

      But today's study is the first to examine whether PBDEs are associated with changes in women's fertility, Harley said. "There is very little research on the health effects of PBDEs in humans."

      "Exposure is nearly universal"

      PBDEs are widely-used chemicals designed to reduce the flammability of foam furniture, electronics, carpet padding, and other consumer products. Researchers say these chemicals are not bound and can leach out of the products.

      "They are commonly found in dust in our homes and cars," the study said.

      Harley describes Americans' exposure to these chemicals in an even more personal way -- one she hopes will illustrate why the average consumer should care about these new findings.

      "Scientists have shown that 97 percent of the US population has detectable levels of these chemicals in their blood," she said. "This (study) is relevant to the average person because exposure to these compounds is so common."

      But the study will likely strike more of a chord with the estimated 2.1 million couples in the country dealing with infertility issues, Harley said.

      "I think women trying to get pregnant will be the ones who mainly focus on our findings," she said. "The findings (if confirmed) would have strong implications to women trying to conceive given that exposure to PBDEs is nearly universal in the United Sates and many other countries."

      During their research, Harley and her colleagues measured the PBDE levels in the 223 pregnant women participating in the study. They also interviewed the women about how many months it took them to become pregnant.

      The women enrolled in the study were young, had low incomes, and predominantly came from Mexican descent, Harley said. Most of the women lived near an agriculture field in Northern California and almost half worked in the farming industry before they became pregnant.

      "We've been working and following the women in this group for 10 years," Harley said. "At first we were interested in the effects of pesticides on the women's reproductive health and the development of their children. We were really pesticide researchers."

      "Then we started looking at PBDEs," she added. "We measured PBDE levels in house dust in this area and in the mothers and children. We found fairly high levels of PBDEs, which has lead us to be concerned about two types of exposures in this population -- both pesticides and now PBDEs."

      The women in the study had "fairly high" exposures to pesticides, Harley acknowledged. "But our findings were found independent of the women's work in agriculture or their exposure to pesticides."

      Asked if the study's findings were conclusive, Harley said, "Human studies are observational. They have their limitations and this study needs to be replicated in a different population to find out if the association we found holds up in another population."

      "You can't prove anything from one study," she added. "But they definitely can give you clues. And we found a strong and significant association (between PBDEs exposure and fertility issues.)"

      Given those findings, is Harley ready to call for an all-out ban on these chemicals?

      "Two (PBDEs) are already banned and one is now listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a chemical of concern," she said. "So the movement is already in the works. The use of these flame retardants is going down and there are new chemicals to replace them as fire retardants."

      The EPA is ready to phase-out the last PBDE chemical (deca-BDE) by 2013, Harley said. And the agency has stopped the use of the other two PBDE chemicals, penta and octa-BDE.

      But consumers' exposure to deca-BDE is still widespread, and will continue to be even after the 2013 phase-out deadline. "It's still in many products in our homes and exposure can continue from our sofas, TVs, chairs, and the backings on our curtains," Harley said.

      "A critical role in fire safety" contacted the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade organization representing the leading companies in the chemical industry, for a comment about Dr. Harley's study. A spokeswoman did not respond to our inquiries.

      The ACC, however, has previously defended the safety and use of PBDEs. In 2008, for example, the organization backed the use of these flame retardant chemicals in baby furniture.

      The ACC at the time issued a statement that said, "The Consumer Product Safety Commission and U.S. National Academy of Sciences have concluded that deca-BDE, specifically known as decabromodiphenyl oxide, does not present a health risk to humans, under anticipated use scenarios, including babies and toddlers coming into contact with treated carpets and repeatedly sucking on treated upholstery textile."

      The ACC also said the flame retardant chemicals protect consumers from harm.

      "Fire-retardant materials and components play a critical role in fire safety," the ACC wrote. "Fabric and upholstery treated with flame retardants can help prevent fires from starting and can slow down the progress of fires already in progress. Fire retardants allow those critical moments--time for occupants to flee safely."

      Back in California, Harley said she and her fellow researchers will continue to study the health effects of PBDE exposure in humans.

      "We're going to follow the children of the pregnant women in our study," she said, adding those kids are now 8 and 9-years-old. "We're concerned about PBDE exposure and possible neurodevelopmental issues in these kids."

      What you can do

      In the meantime, consumers shouldn't feel helpless about their widespread exposure to these chemicals, Harley said. She recommended the following steps to reduce exposure to PBDEs:

      • Use a wet mop or vacuum with a hepa filter to cut down on dust in homes. Hepa filters reportedly filter out particles that are invisible to the naked eye.

      • Wash you hands frequently. PBDEs often stay on hands.

      • Eat low-fat meats, fish, and dairy products. PBDEs settle in fat, Harley said.

      • Buy feather or polyester filled pillows. Harley said a recent study found pillows filled with foam had higher levels of PBDEs than feather of polyester-filled ones.

      Harley's study, "PBDE Concentrations in Women's Serum and Fecundability," is now published in the online journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

      Fireproofing Chemicals May Cause Fertility Issues...
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      Grieving Father Seeks Better California Ski Resort Safety

      Accident leads to proposal to strengthen safety rules

      Dr. Dan Gregorie of San Francisco is campaigning for increased safety rules at California ski resorts, doing so for the most personal of reasons. In 2006 his 24-year old daughter Jessica was killed in a snowboarding accident.

      "The ski resort was well aware of the hazards that led to my daughter's death," said Gregorie. "Had there been basic safety measures in place, such as signs warning of the known dangers, Jessica's life might have been saved."

      Recognizing the lack of information on snow sport deaths and injuries, as well as the absence of consistent safety standards and practices at resorts, Gregorie founded the California Ski and Snowboard Safety Organization in November 2007.

      Assembly member Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) subsequently held hearings on snow sport safety as chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. As a result of the information gathered from the hearings, Jones this week introduced AB 1652, a comprehensive measure that contains information reporting requirements and safety measures that he hopes will result in a safer snow sport environment for all.

      "I understand individuals should have basic responsibilities for their own safety," Gregorie said. "However, the resorts also should be responsible for identifying and mitigating known hazards and providing timely information that allows consumers to make informed decisions about their safety at each resort."

      Specifically, AB 1652 will require California ski resorts to:

      • Require each employee to wear a ski helmet.

      • Adopt and enforce mandatory helmet use for all patrons age 18 years and younger.

      • Prepare and post annual safety plans for public access.

      • Provide accessible information regarding deaths and injuries, including the what, where, when, why and how of each incident.

      • Establish standardized signage for ski-area boundaries and hazard warnings.

      • Provide standardized safety padding for use at lift towers and other fixed obstacles.

      Currently, California ski resorts are not required to publicly release injury and fatality information or provide uniform signage to alert patrons to known hazards. As a result, Gregorie says there is no resort accountability and no accurate or reliable data to objectively guide the public on snow sport risks and safety.

      AB 1652 calls for practical safety precautions and provides for information to be available to consumers to make good decisions relative to their personal safety.

      "I am hopeful AB 1652 will be passed and signed into law to improve safety for California skiers and snowboarders," Gregorie said. "This legislation will help to significantly reduce the number of deaths and injuries."

      Grieving Father Seeks Better California Ski Resort Safety...
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      Scammers Target Families of Haitian Earthquake Survivors

      Claims that special documents can bypass immigration process

      A new scam targeting Haitian Americans trying to bring their relatives from the earthquake-riddled country to the United States has surfaced, authorities warned today.

      Haitian Americans contacted in the scheme are offered documents they supposedly need to bypass the official government process to bring family members from the devastated island to America, according to the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

      Victims in the scheme, who are reportedly handed fliers or reached by phone, are told to wire $500 in exchange for the documents and a confirmation number that will allegedly allow them to fly to Haiti and bring five relatives home.

      But the promised documents and flight are phony, according to the Haitian Embassy in Washington and the Greater Washington Haiti Relief Committee. They said this scam is simply a new twist to the old advance fee scheme.

      Haitian Americans who want to bring their relatives from the earthquake-ravaged country to the United States should contact the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at (800) 375-5283. They can also contact the agency online at

      On January 12, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the poor, island country of Haiti. The cataclysmic quake has since claimed the lives of an estimated 150,000 people, but authorities say that number is likely to climb. At least 4,800 Americans are still unaccounted for.

      The powerful seismic tremor, centered about 14 miles west of the crowded capital of Port-Au-Prince, also injured more than 190,000 people. Search teams, however, have rescued 134 people from beneath the rubble in Port-Au-Prince.

      Reports of catastrophic damage are widespread in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Thousands of homes, schools, and other buildings collapsed under the earthquake's horrific force.

      The country now estimates at least one million people are homeless and some 300,000 children younger than two need nutritional support.

      Relief, however, continues to pour in from around the world. More than $1 billion in international aid has been pledge to the relief efforts since the earthquake ripped apart the country two weeks ago.

      The United States has promised $317 million in financial assistance and sent 17,000 military personnel to the region.

      Scammers Target Families of Haitian Earthquake Survivors...
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      Did WHO Hype Swine Flu to Boost Drug Sales?

      Agency denies charges it fanned fears to help Big Pharma

      Last summer, as it began to become apparent that the swine flu might not be the pandemic threat some health officials first feared, the World Health Organization continued to sound the alarm.

      The WHO continued to warn that H1N1 would kill millions, even as health officials in the U.S. reported that, while wide-spread, H1N1 appeared to be no more severe, and perhaps less so, than seasonal flu.

      Since the beginning of this year some bloggers have speculated that WHO hyped the numbers for one simple reason: money. GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Baxter, and Sanofi-Aventis are among the big pharmaceutical companies that sold millions of dollars worth of swine flu vaccine.

      In fact, Novartis today reported an eight percent jump in 2009 profits, specifically crediting strong sales of swine flu vaccine.

      Add to that the fact that the dire forecasts of a killer flu pandemic failed to materialize, and you have the makings of a great conspiracy theory.

      The WHO, however, says the theory is nonsense.

      "The WHO influenza pandemic policies and response have not been improperly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry," the organization said in a statement.

      The WHO said its job necessarily includes cooperating with a wide range of partners, including drug companies. This cooperation, it says, is essential pursuing its public health objectives.

      "Numerous safeguards are in place to manage conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest among members of WHO advisory groups and expert committees," the statement said.

      The WHO does, however, concede that its response to the H1N1 outbreak might have been better. The organization has begun an internal review while the Council of Europe, a human rights group, has also begun an inquiry.

      The Swiss Government, meanwhile, reported that it purchased 13 million doses of H1N1 vaccine for the country's 7.7 million residents. Only one in five residents, the government reports, took advantage of the free vaccine.

      Did WHO Hype Swine Flu To Boost Drug Sales?...
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      Class Action Takes On Capital Ones 'Payment Protection' Plan

      Program so riddled with exceptions as to be 'worthless,' California suit claims

      A class action suit filed on Friday claims that Capital One's payment protection plan imposes so many restrictions and uses so much red tape as to be essentially worthless.

      The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, says that thousands of citizens across the country have been targeted by Capital Ones subprime credit card marketing programs. The payment protection plan is designed to protect a consumers credit rating by automatically making minimum payments on one or more credit cards.

      The suit contends that Capital One forces the product on consumers without providing them a full run-down of its terms, places severe limitations on the applicability of its benefits, and saddles the consumer with an unbearable amount of administrative red tape.

      According to the suit, payment protection is either pushed through direct marketing and acceptance by the consumer or, in some cases, imposed on cards automatically. In the latter situation, the consumer must affirmatively cancel payment protection.

      Predictably, the alleged scam has disproportionately affected consumers who can least afford it. According to the complaint, payment protection is typically offered to consumers who fall into a subprime credit category and therefore have low credit limits on their credit cards.

      The suit also alleges that Capital One enrolls consumers without first ensuring that they are employed, a prerequisite to receiving benefits under the plan. As a result, a number of unemployed and therefore ineligible consumers have been charged for the program and seen nothing in return. Additionally, many elderly consumers are enrolled in payment protection, despite the fact that any illness or incapacitation affecting their ability to make payments renders them ineligible for the program.

      Also ineligible are consumers who are self-employed, who are not employed full-time (a term left undefined by Capital One literature), or who are retired or working at a seasonal job. Anyone collecting disability must provide a monthly certification from his physician.

      Benefits denied

      Lead plaintiff Linda McCoy, a California resident, signed up for a Capital One credit card with payment protection in 2007, and paid for the programs benefits for nearly a year and a half. In March 2009 she began collecting disability, and later that year lost her job entirely.

      When McCoy tried to take advantage of payment protection, she was denied benefits. As a result, she ran up a balance of $1,260 on an account with a $1,000 limit, and also incurred over $100 in fees.

      The program is allegedly aimed at generating additional fee income for Capital One, and also conveniently lower[s] available credit to its subprime cardholders.

      The suit is being brought on behalf of all California residents who were solicited by mail and/or phone regarding payment protection, and who paid for the program. The suit claims that thousands of California Capital One cardholders have paid for Payment Protection and receive no benefit. The suit alleges counts in unjust enrichment and violations of the Truth in Lending Act and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act.

      Capital One is one of the countrys largest credit card issuers in the country, boasting over $13 billion in revenue in 2008 alone.

      Class Action Takes On Capital Ones 'Payment Protection' Plan...
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      Study: Calorie Postings On Fast Food Menus Help Kids

      Parents choose fewer calories for their children but not themselves

      Will posting calorie information on fast food menu boards really make people eat healthier? Some fast food chains have resisted the idea, saying there's no evidence it would be effective.

      A Seattle researcher says there is now.

      In a new study, the amount of calories selected by parents for their child's hypothetical meal at McDonald's restaurants were reduced by an average of 102 calories when the menus clearly showed the calories for each item. This is the first study to suggest that labeled menus may lead to significantly reduced calorie intake in fast food restaurant meals purchased for children.

      Supporters of calorie posting say the findings, compiled by researcher Pooja S. Tandon, MD, from Seattle Children's Research Institute, support nutritional menu labeling and show that when parents have access to this information they may make smarter meal choices for their children.

      The study is published online in the January 25 inPediatrics.

      At a pediatric practice in Seattle, 99 parents of 3- to 6-year-olds who sometimes eat in fast food restaurants with their children were surveyed about their fast food dining habits. They were presented with sample McDonald's restaurant menus which included current prices and pictures of items, and asked what they would select for themselves and also for their children as a typical meal.

      Half of the parents were given menus that also clearly showed calorie information for each item. Choices included most of the items sold at McDonald's, including a variety of burgers, sandwiches, salads, dressings, side items, beverages, desserts and children's "Happy Meals."

      Parents who were given the calorie information chose 102 fewer calories on average for their children, compared with the group who did not have access to calorie information on their menus. This reflects a calorie reduction of approximately 20 percent. Notably, there was no difference in calories between the two groups for items the parents would have chosen for themselves.

      "Even modest calorie adjustments on a regular basis can avert weight gain and lead to better health over time," said Tandon, research fellow at Seattle Children's Research Institute and the University of Washington School of Medicine. "Just an extra 100 calories per day may equate to about ten pounds of weight gain per year."

      Tandon says the national childhood obesity epidemic has grown right alongside America's fast food consumption. Anything that can help families make more positive choices could make a difference, he says.

      Parents act on information

      "Interestingly, by simply providing parents the caloric information they chose lower calorie items. This is encouraging, and suggests that parents do want to make wise food decisions for their children, but they need help," Tandon said.

      There was no correlation between the families' typical frequency of fast food dining and calories selected, for either parents or children.

      A growing number of jurisdictions across the country have begun mandating that nutritional information be readily available at point-of-ordering in chain restaurants. Currently more than 30 localities or states are considering policies that would require calories and other nutrition information to be clearly visible-four have already implemented policies.

      Federal menu labeling standards have also been discussed as part of health care reform legislation.

      Study: Calorie Postings On Fast Food Menus Help Kids...
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      Midas Franchise Pays California $1.8 Million to Settle Bait-and-Switch Charges

      State investigators go undercover to expose car repair scam

      Ever been suspicious when you took your car in for a simple repair and the mechanic told you it required a lot of expensive work? Then consider this -- after a four year, undercover investigation, the State of California charged the owner of 22 Midas auto shops with a bait-and-switch scheme.

      In a settlement, the franchise will pay $1.8 million and sell its shops back to Midas.

      Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. says the settlement prevents Maurice Irving Glad from owning or operating an auto repair shop in the state because his shops "deceptively lured" customers with cheap brake specials and then charged hundreds of dollars for unnecessary repairs.

      "For years, Glad ran a bait-and-switch scam, in which he deceptively lured customers into his Midas shops with cheap brake specials, then charged them hundreds of dollars more for unnecessary repairs," Brown said. "Our settlement makes sure that Glad will never own or operate an auto repair shop in California again."

      Brown filed suit against Glad in June 2009. The investigation revealed that Glad regularly advertised $79 to $99 brake specials at his Midas shops to draw in customers and then often charged another $110 to $130 for unnecessary brake-rotor resurfacing. In some cases, customers were charged hundreds of dollars more for repairs that were not needed or never performed.

      The settlement requires Glad to pay $1.8 million in damages, investigative costs and attorney fees, plus permanently prevents the franchisee from applying for or holding any license or registration issued by the California Bureau of Automotive Repair or any successor agency. He is also prohibited from engaging in any business that requires any type of license or registration issued by the California Bureau of Automotive Repair or any successor agency.

      Midas to honor guarantees

      In addition to acquiring Glad's 22 shops, Midas International Corporation has agreed to honor any and all guarantees or warranties previously made or given to customers.

      This isn't the first time the auto shops owner has been in hot water with the state. In 1989, the state attorney general sued Glad for similar violations, which resulted in an injunction prohibiting his shops from performing unnecessary repairs, charging for services not performed, or using scare tactics to convince customers to purchase unnecessary parts and services. The California Bureau of Automotive Repair initiated its recent investigation into Glad's Midas shops to monitor compliance with the injunction.

      Undercover agents, posing as customers, conducted approximately 30 sting operations at Glad's shops. In total, there were more than 35 incidents, involving 105 violations, in which shop managers, mechanics and employees made false or misleading statements to pressure customers into purchasing unnecessary parts and services. On average, the shops charged undercover agents almost $300 in unnecessary brake-rotor resurfacings, brake-drum repairs, brake adjustments, brake-cleaning services and other services.

      "Overselling of services has become an increasing problem," said California Bureau of Automotive Repair Chief Sherry Mehl. "It amounts to fraud and seriously harms the consumer. That's why we aggressively work to find and shut down these shops."

      Midas Franchise Pays California $1.8 Million to Settle Bait-and-Switch Charges...
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      Don't Let Your Heart or Wallet Get Hijacked This Valentine's Day

      Scammers taking advantage of holiday once again

      With Valentine's Day just around the corner, marketing pitches and eCards related to the holiday are sure to be coming to your email account, as scammers try to trick the unwary into passing along personal and financial information.

      Connecticut Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell, Jr. has advice for those who are going to doing some shopping for a special someone to keep them from getting their hearts -- or their wallets -- broken.

      "One scheme involves an email indicating that the flowers you ordered for your sweetie won't be delivered unless you log in and re-enter your credit card number, so think before you act," Farrell said. "Even if you think a message like this is real, go directly to the florist's website or call them on the phone."

      Along the same lines, be careful opening eCards. If you have very good antivirus software and are current with all security updates your computer is reasonably safe. Even then, don't open an eCard unless you know who sent it.

      In addition, beware of any message telling you that you need to update your Flash player to view the eCard. Don't click on the link provided by the sender, since it may install spyware or other software that allows access to your computer and your data. Instead, go to and download the update from there.

      You should immediately delete suspicious or anonymous emails or e-cards, and never give out personal information in response to any email or e-card. Contact your local police and Federal Trade Commission if you believe you are a victim of a scam.

      A romantic dinner is always a nice choice, as long as you pick a place that you're comfortable with in terms of food and expense.

      "A busy holiday may not be the best time to try out an unfamiliar restaurant," Farrell said. "Keeping it relaxed may make for a more enjoyable evening out."

      Of course, flowers are a traditional Valentine's gift, but they too have been used to trap the unsuspecting consumer. Don't choose just any florist that advertises at this busy time of year. Ask trusted neighbors, family and friends for names of quality local florists.

      Avoid doing business with florists that don't list a street address with their phone number. When ordering, ask the florist to itemize the charges for you. There have been fly-by-night operations that set up shop at this time of year, collect lots of orders (and payments) and never deliver.

      Two years ago, Chris of Lodi, NJ, wrote, that he "ordered flowers (from 1800flowers) on 2/11 for delivery to my wife at her job on 2/14. I did not hear from her, so I called her. She said that 1 of her co-workers was supposed to get flowers, and they never showed. I didn't want to ruin the surprise, but I told her she was also supposed to get flowers. Turns out they both were ordered from 1-800-criminal. I tried to call--just get a recording that says: 'thank you, goodbye.'"

      Because jewelry is one of the more expensive Valentine's Day purchases, shop around and compare quality, price and service. If you're not familiar with any jewelers, ask trusted friends or family members for recommendations.

      "Don't fall for promises of huge discounts offered by some retailers," Farrell said. "Visit several stores to get a realistic range of prices, and before you buy, make sure you understand the seller's refund and return policy."

      Have the jeweler write on the sales slip any special information about your purchase, such as the gemstone's weight, size, or grade. has received several complaints about Georgia-based Friedman's, the third largest jewelry retailer in the country:

      • Joanne of Charlotte, NC says she purchased several pieces of jewelry along with the life-time warranty's on replacement and repairs. "I was in need of repairs and a diamond replacement and went to the store where I purchased the pieces from, only to find them closed. The phone has been disconnected as well. I am unable to find another store to do the repairs and honor the contracts."

      • Clint of Birmingham, AL, tells that he bought his fiance an engagement ring at a reasonable price. He says that since the company went bankrupt, "they won't stop hounding me about a monthly fee that is supposed to be for credit protection. I have since transferred my balance from them to a credit union and the account I had with them has a zero balance but they still keep charging me fees. I have told them to cancel the account and even sent a certified letter to them which they signed and sent back but they still won't close the account. I refuse to pay this balance since I don't have anything with them. Through this they have ruined my credit."

      • Shirley of Brandon, FL writes that she purchased a one-carat ring and can't get service for the ring, "no insurance coverage information, and I can't make a payment online, or store, and I have to pay additional fees to use their service for payment via telephone. I have purchase jewelry from this company since 1988 and I am angry that I cannot get the service I paid for now plus late fees."

      Online jewelers may offer lower prices, but you won't be able to inspect the items first-hand in order to gauge its quality and appeal. When online, be sure to read the fine print, because mounting and sizing could cost extra. Deal with only well-known, reputable online sellers, confirm all return policies, and keep printouts with details about the item, the transaction, and the refund and return policies.

      If possible, pay for jewelry and other expensive items with a major credit card. It may give you recourse if problems arise later.

      Many singles turn to online dating websites to find true love, but this has its risks. Scam artists often create fake profiles designed to match a certain kind of person whom they think will fall for their ploy. If you happen to be chosen by a scammer, at first it will seem that this new person you've met online is perfect for you in every way. So far, so good!

      But as your relationship continues, the criminal slowly builds enough trust that you won't suspect them when they start to bilk you out of your money. Often, the first grab at your finances will come when it's time to finally meet. Your true love won't have enough money for the trip and you'll be asked to wire funds for a plane ticket. Or he or she becomes sick or has a relative or child that needs emergency medical attention.

      "The money will be needed quickly and you won't have time to think about it," Farrell said. "You'll be told that time is of the essence' you may even be warned that if you don't help, someone might die."

      Be careful of this tried and true scam. If you fall for it you may face financial loss along with heartache.

      Don't Let Your Heart or Wallet Get Hijacked This Valentine's Day...
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      CPSC Outlines Revamped Crib Recall Policy

      Credits or refunds for recalled items a possibility

      Call it "refunds for recalls." That could be part of the new beefed-up crib safety rules unveiled before Congress by the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

      CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum told a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel that her "Safe Sleep Initiative" is considering a requirement that crib makers offer a refund or store credit when crib is recalled. This, she testified, would "incentivize consumers to discard and replace defective cribs."

      At the same time, she cautioned that the requirement couldn't send manufacturers into bankruptcy or financial distress, as that could "foreclose the possibility of any corrective action."

      Committee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI), emphasized the importance of the issue noting that "a baby crib is the only product designed expressly so that parents can leave their children unattended for long periods of time and be confident their children will be safe. What is most shocking," he added, "is that all of these recalled cribs were certified as meeting the industry's voluntary safety standards."

      As part of her 6-step initiative, Tenenbaum said she plans to ratchet up public outreach in cases of crib and durable infant and toddler product recalls. This would include increasing consumer awareness via multimedia tools, including print, radio, television, and social media, as well as community-based events and partnerships with crib advocacy groups including Safe Kids USA, Keeping Babies Safe, and the National Safety Council.

      The hearing by the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations came less than two weeks the recall of more than 2 million Stork Craft drop-side cribs and just days after Dorel Asia recalled more than 6000,000 cribs.

      Federal crib safety standards haven't been updated since 1982.

      CPSC Outlines Revamped Crib Recall Policy...
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      Stroke Therapy Successful in Animal Tests

      Could have implications for human stroke patients

      A naturally occurring protein could restore limb function in humans long after a stroke, two new studies find.

      Biologists at the University of California, Irvine, say that when the protein was administered directly to the brain of rats that had suffered a stroke, it restored 99 percent of lost movement. When given through the nose, 70 percent of lost movement was regained. Untreated rats improve by only 30 percent.

      "No drugs exist that will help a stroke after a few days. If you have a stroke, you don't have many treatment options," explains James Fallon, psychiatry and human behavior professor and senior coauthor of the studies. "Now we have evidence there may be therapies that can repair damage to a significant degree long after the stroke. It's a completely unexpected and remarkable finding, and it's worth trying in humans."

      The studies chronicle the success of a small protein called transforming growth factor (TGF) alpha, which plays critical tissue-forming and developmental roles in humans from just after conception through birth and into old age.

      "TGF alpha has been studied for two decades in other organ systems but never before has been shown to reverse the symptoms of a stroke," said UC Irvine postdoctoral researcher Magda Guerra-Crespo, who carried out the studies.

      Dr. Mark Albers, an assistant professor of neurology at the Mass General Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells that the research "looks very promising." Albers says he's particularly impressed that the study has "demonstrated that inter-nasal delivery of a biologic has efficacy in the nervous system."

      In the first study, published in the journal Neuroscience, scientists sought to learn whether TGF alpha administered directly to the brain could help rats with stroke-induced loss of limb function, typically on one side -- as seen in humans.

      When put inside a cylinder, healthy rats will jump up with both front legs, but stroke-impaired rats will use just one leg, favoring the injured side. When given a choice of directions to walk, impaired rats will move toward their good side.

      One month after the study rats suffered an induced stroke (equal to about a year for humans), some were injected with TGF alpha. Within a month, they had regained nearly all their motor function, hopping up with both legs in the cylinder exercise and not favoring a side in the directional test. Rats that did not receive treatment improved just 30 percent.

      Scientists examined the rats' brains and found that TGF alpha was stimulating neuron growth.

      First, it prompted adult stem cells in the brain to divide, creating more cells. Those cells then turned into brain cells and moved to the injured part of the brain, replacing neurons lost to the stroke. These new neurons, the scientists believe, helped restore motor function.

      "It's becoming more and more clear that the brain is like any other organ: It has a lot of potential to regenerate," says Darius Gleason, a developmental and cell biology graduate student who worked on the study. "We are just emulating nature by giving a little nudge to what the brain is trying to do itself."

      In the second study, appearing in the Journal of Stroke & Cerebrovascular Diseases, scientists placed TGF alpha in the rats' noses, simulating a nasal spray.

      They used a slightly different chemical version of the protein to render it more stable on its journey to the brain. After a month, the injured rats had regained 70 percent of their function, indicating that the intranasal method also works well.

      "We saw the same phenomena," Fallon says. "It wasn't as profound, but we still ended up with very significant behavioral improvements and the same regenerative anatomical process."

      Mass General's Albers points out that these findings will need to be replicated in other animal tests before the treatment would be ready for a trial in human patients.

      Rehabilitation of stroke suffers is just one area of research. Prevention of a second stroke is also high on the agenda, with recent studies showing that reducing cholesterol significantly cuts the chance of a recurrence.

      Stroke Therapy Successful in Animal Tests: A naturally occurring protein could restore limb function in humans long after a stroke, two new studies find....
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      Samsung TVs Draw Unusual Number Of Complaints

      Consumers complain sets fail after two or three years ofuse

      By Mark Huffman

      January 22, 2010
      When you check the complaints on, you normally find a fair share of consumer accounts of problems with their flat screen TVs. Most popular brands are included, such as Vizio, Sony, Samsung, Philips, Mitsubishi, and others.

      But all of a sudden, owners of Samsung TV's appear to be having the most trouble, posting 110 complaints in the last 30 days. The bulk of them have come in the last week or two.

      "We bought a 52 inch Samsung LCD in 9/2007. It needs a new front panel, probably $1200-1500," Mary of Arlington, Tex. told

      "We bought a 40 inch Samsung TV about two years ago and now it takes anywhere from 20-50 clicks before the TV will come on," reports Brenda, of South Euclid, Ohio.

      "For at least the past year, our Samsung 62 inch TV shuts off sporadically," said Kim, of Durand, Il. At first it did it once, and some days not at all. About a year ago, I started contacting Samsung. They will not help me."

      Fears confirmed

      Many consumers have been visiting Web sites such as to find out what others have experienced. Often the news just confirms their worst fears.

      "Purchased Samsung LCD TV LN46A650A1F on July 8, 2008," Tim, of Enid, Okla., told "On January 18, 2010 we experienced the same power on/off cycling that so many have reported."

      Tim says he thinks a TV -- one that costs several hundred dollars, no less -- should last longer than 18 months. He notes his old fashioned Toshiba is still going strong after 19 years.

      "I purchased a Samsung 40 inch LCD TV in February of 2007," Bruce, of Waialua. Hi., told "The TV was working fine up until Saturday, when it suddenly developed vertical lines across the entire screen. I have tried all of the inputs and it does not appear to be an input or cord problem. The TV also takes quite awhile to turn on and always has. I have read that Samsung used faulty capacitors in the TV's power supplies during the time frame that I bought mine. My TV is long out of warranty but I paid nearly $2000 for it and it seems criminal that a television could break like this after only three years."

      A poster going by "L," from League City, Tex., also mentioned the capacitor issue.

      "Repairman came today and replaced two insufficient 10V capacitors with two 25V ones and now (the TV) works again," the post reads. "He could not believe Samsung used 10V capacitors in a 9V Power Supply Circuit Board."

      Vizio too

      Last August received a rash of complaints about Vizio flat screens from consumers reporting the so-called "black screen of death," when their year or two old set would suddenly go black. At the time, we interviewed Pikeville, Ky., TV repairman Ray Hall, who told us no one brand of flat screen TV was any worse than another. They are all cheaply made, he says, and not real easy to work on.

      Hall said in many cases the problem in flat screen TVs stems from a power supply failure.

      "Most of these sets have three power supplies," he said. "The main power supply usually holds up but what happens, one of the screen power supplies fails. When that happens the screen goes dark and repairs can be costly, assuming a service provider can get the parts.

      "It used to be you could buy a TV set and it would last 20 years," said Hall. "It's not like that with these flat screens."

      Samsung TVs Draw Unusual Number Of Complaints...
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      Public Citizen to FDA: Pull Fibromyalgia Drug from the Market

      Medication has limited efficacy, risky effects, group says

      Public Citizen is calling on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to pull the fibromyalgia drug Savella from the market immediately.

      In its petition to the FDA, Public Citizen notes that the European Medicines Agency (EMEA), which regulates drugs on the Continent, rejected Savella's approval for fibromyalgia in July 2009, stating that its benefits were "marginal" and "did not outweigh its risks." This was shortly after the FDA approved the drug in January 2009.

      Since the drug went on the market in the U.S., approximately 250,000 prescriptions have been filled, with doctors writing more prescriptions every month.

      In two randomized clinical trials, Savella, also known by its generic name milnacipran, was found to increase blood pressure, heart rate and suicidal thoughts, Public Citizen's petition said. Among patients who had normal blood pressure at the beginning of the study, 19.5 percent of those who took Savella developed hypertension, compared with 7.2 percent of those on a placebo.

      "Because Savella is a drug that produces only a marginal effect on pain, the main problem for which patients seek treatment, and has the potential to be quite dangerous, it is clear that it should not be sold," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. "The FDA never should have approved Savella for fibromyalgia and should now immediately order the drug company to remove it from the market before large numbers of people suffer serious harm," Wolfe said.

      Based on the extent of increased blood pressure caused by Savella, the FDA medical officer who reviewed the drug estimated that persistent blood pressure hikes could increase the risk of a cardiovascular event (including death, myocardial infarction and stroke) by up to 50 percent.

      Savella also puts patients at risk for other disorders, including seizures, addiction, excessive bleeding, mood disorders, fractures, glaucoma and gastrointestinal effects such as nausea and vomiting. In pregnant women, the drug also can lead to hazards for fetuses, newborns and nursing infants. Additional risks for men include testicular pain and problems with ejaculation. In fact, FDA warned last year of problems with Savella.

      The director of the FDA's Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Rheumatology Products stated that although the dominant symptom of fibromyalgia is pain, the drug did not relieve patients' pain in the clinical trials.

      Fibromyalgia is a chronic disease, but neither of the drug's trials showed any statistical effectiveness beyond three months. And even within the trials' three-month duration, more than 90 percent of users in the trial received no benefit from the drug at all.

      Although not marketed as an antidepressant in the U.S., Savella is sold in Europe and Japan as such. The drug is required in the U.S. to have the "black box" warning for antidepressants, which points out an increased risk of suicide in children, adolescents and young adults.

      Savella is manufactured by Cypress Bioscience Inc. and Forest Laboratories Inc., and has been sold in the U.S. since May 2009.

      Savella is not the only treatment for fibromyalgia. The FDA approved another drug, Lyrica, in 2007.

      Public Citizen To FDA: Pull Fibromyalgia Drug From The Market...
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      Driving Wrecks Conversation

      Talking while driving not as simple as it sounds

      We've all heard the adage about being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But how about talking and driving?

      With all the attention being focused on distracted driving, there's a new report out showing that driving impairs our ability to comprehend and produce language or -- put simply -- carry on a conversation.

      The University of Illinois study, which used a driving simulator at Illinois's Beckman Institute, involved a stationary Saturn automobile and three display screens featuring simulated roadways and intersections. The experiment's parameters made both driving and language production priorities for the test subjects -- 96 drivers and an equal number of conversation partners.

      The results showed, as the authors put it, that when it comes to "whether driving an automobile interferes with the ability to process and remember language" the answer is "unequivocally affirmative."

      Findings were of the study are published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

      The experiment required the "drivers" to listen to a story through earphones and then accurately retell it to their partners in 30 seconds or less. That task ensured meaningful language production for the test subjects while the driving task challenged them to negotiate an urban roadway environment, obey speed limits, and safely cross busy intersections.

      "Driving negatively impacts story retelling as well as the process of comprehending and encoding stories into long-term memory," the researchers wrote. "In summary, consistency in driving performance while dealing with speech (less driving variability) came at the expense of accuracy in story retelling. When doing the speech task only, drivers and nondrivers were equally good at retelling. When the car was moving, however, drivers displayed a large decline in speech-task performance."

      The stories used in the study were generally three to four sentences long with specific information the "drivers" were expected to remember and accurately convey to their partners. Both "drivers" and "non-drivers" listened to a story through headphones and then retold them to their partner; then the roles were reversed with the partner performing the same task.

      There were three critical task blocks consisting of two single-task blocks (driving-only and speech-only) and one dual-task block (driving while conversing).

      By asking participants to convey the stories accurately, the experiment ensured the subjects used novel sentences and maintained a certain level of engagement. Researchers measured the accuracy of the speech production as well as the memories of the subjects.

      "Driving affects both of those for the worse," said study coauthor Gary Dell. "It makes you tell the story less accurately and you leave more stuff out. It also makes you worse at remembering the stories that are told to you by your conversation partner."

      Unlike previous studies, Dell said, this experiment featured the difficult task of re-telling a story accurately while driving in a challenging environment.

      "We made the language task more interesting and realistic," he added. "The effects of driving on talking in this study were stronger. They were larger than what anybody would have expected because intuitively we think driving as being affected by speech, not the other way around."

      By focusing on how language is affected by driving, the research gives new insight into how difficult it can be to do two things at the same time -- even tasks that are as familiar to most people as driving and talking.

      "If the conversation is really important, they are probably going to focus on the conversation and then their driving will suffer," Dell said. "If the driving is really important, if you are really careful about your driving, the conversation is going to suffer.

      "These things -- even though we practice them a lot and are very skilled at doing them -- are hard things to do and when you put them together in a dual task, they suffer," the researchers concluded.

      The problem of distracted driving has grown to the point where both the Obama administration and Congress have become involved.

      Driving Wrecks Conversation...
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      Group Adds Up 'Cost Of Bad Lending'

      Site makes the case for Consumer Financial Protection Agency

      The Center for Responsible Lending has taken a calculator to tally up the costs to the U.S. economy of what it calls "bad lending;" everything from subprime mortgages, to abusive bank policies, to payday loans.

      The group has added a section to its Web site where consumers can see these costs broken down sector by sector and state by state.

      For example, in California CRL counts 731,779 total foreclosure starts from the first quarter of 2008 through the third quarter of 2009. Foreclosure starts increased 692 percent from 2006 to 2009.

      Statewide, the projected loss in wealth from home value declines from 2009 through 2012 totals $627 billion, according to the group.

      Overdraft fees

      Bank overdraft fees are also a big driver of "bad loan" costs, according to CRL. Debit cards, it says, were once viewed more positively. They offered the safety and convenience of a credit card without the danger of going into debt.

      But in recent years, millions of Americans have lost money when they were surprised by an overdraft fee - or several - averaging $34 for debit card purchases which they thought they had the funds to cover.

      As recently as 2004, 80 percent of banks and credit unions routinely denied debit card transactions that would have overdrawn their customers' accounts, according to the group.

      In a complete reversal, today the large majority of customers are enrolled in overdraft programs where debit card and ATM overdrafts are routinely approved, even when their customers don't have the funds. That's changing, with new Federal Reserve rules that go into effect later this year. But the toll for consumers has been a steep one.

      According to CRL, American consumers spend more on bank overdraft fees each year than they do on fresh vegetables. According to the group, bank overdraft fees have increased from $10.3 billion in 2004 to a projected $26.6 billion in 2009.

      Payday loan trap

      As credit card lending tightens up, even more consumers are turning to payday loans, which CRL categorizes as among the most predatory lending.

      A payday loan is usually a small amount of cash with a hefty, percentage-wise, fee. The customer provides a post-dated check and the lender cashes it two weeks later, after the customer has received their latest pay check.

      But the problem for the consumer just gets worse. They've used the borrowed money to take care of whatever emergency they had and have repaid the debt in full out of their next paycheck.

      But by repaying the loan with one paycheck, they have used up a large chunk of the money to live on for the next two weeks. That means they often return to the payday lender for another loan, falling into a debt trap.

      CRL has pushed for a 36 percent APR cap, which would effectively eliminate payday loans, since their APR is closer to 400 percent. Five states have already passed such laws but CRL has pushed for a nationwide cap.

      It's no accident that CRL has produced this online resource at a time when Congressional support for a stand-alone Consumer Financial Protection Agency appears to have stalled. While the House passed an overhaul of financial regulatory reform last year that included the CFPA, consumer advocates in Washington fear the provision will be dropped from the Senate version, in response to vigorous financial industry lobbying efforts.

      Such an agency, CRL argues, would rein in bank fees, end annual car dealer interest rate kickbacks on auto loans, regulate income tax refund anticipation loans, monitor the activities of payday lenders, do a better job than the Federal Reserve in regulating mortgage lending, and reduce the overall cost to the U.S. economy of "bad lending."

      Group Adds Up 'Cost Of Bad Lending'...
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      Indiana Puppy Mill Operator Sentenced To Clean Cages

      Consumer fraud case began with failure to pay state sales taxes

      The owner of a commercial dog-breeding operation in Indiana pleaded guilty to felony tax-evasion charges and will have to spend part of her sentence cleaning animal cages. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said he will also seek to collect a tax judgment of $193,700 that she owes the state.

      In Marion County, Ind., Superior Criminal Court 15, Tammy Gilchrist pleaded guilty to two Class D felonies: failure to remit or collect sales tax and failure to permit examination of sales-tax records. The state closed her operation last year.

      Under the plea agreement with the state of Indiana, Gilchrist was sentenced to two years, suspended. As part of her probation, Gilchrist must perform 40 hours of community service at the Animal Welfare League of Montgomery County, where she will not directly handle pets but must clean animal cages.

      "Hoosiers can be doubly harmed by scam artists who not only defraud consumers but the state through tax evasion," said Deputy Attorney General Andrew Swain, chief counsel of the Attorney General's Revenue Division. "The Attorney General's Office is combating these unscrupulous acts on two fronts, through consumer protection mechanisms and through tax laws to ensure businesses are meeting both state and consumer obligations."

      Gilchrist and co-owner Walter Workman operated a commercial dog-breeding business known by various names -- including Kritter Heaven -- in Cloverdale, Ind., that was the subject of numerous consumer complaints. In March 2006, then-Attorney General Steve Carter filed a consumer-fraud lawsuit against Gilchrist and her company, alleging Gilchrist failed to deliver puppies customers had paid for or delivered diseased puppies that were misrepresented as being healthy. The lawsuit seeking consumer restitution is ongoing; a hearing on the state's default judgment is set for next month.

      74 dogs seized

      Alleging that Gilchrist failed to collect or remit approximately $193,000 in sales tax owed from her puppy transactions, the Attorney General's Office on December 23, 2008, served a warrant at Gilchrist's puppy mill and seized 74 dogs and puppies that were caged in squalid conditions, as well as four horses. Gilchrist's retail merchant license later was revoked and the Attorney General's office obtained an injunction prohibiting her from selling dogs.

      Under the attorney general's legal authority to bring criminal charges of sales-tax evasion on behalf of the Department of Revenue, Zoeller's office later charged Gilchrist with five Class D felony counts and two misdemeanors. Charges were filed in Marion County because Indianapolis is the seat of state government.

      Also charged with similar counts were Workman and Gilchrist's employee Julie Herrick. In October 2009, Herrick pleaded guilty to failing to remit or collect sales tax, was sentenced to probation and agreed to testify against Gilchrist if Gilchrist's case went to trial.

      The guilty plea by Gilchrist to two felony charges, with the remaining counts dismissed, resolves her criminal case. The Attorney General's Office previously obtained a tax judgment in Owen County against Gilchrist for the unpaid sales tax, plus interest, which as of Dec. 23, 2009, totaled $193,700. In collecting the tax amount owed, the State can garnishee wages or seize property.

      Workman also pleaded guilty to one count of failure to remit or collect sales tax and was sentenced to one year of probation. Gilchrist, Workman and Herrick are forbidden from selling or breeding dogs while on probation.

      New law

      The guilty pleas by Gilchrist and Workman come as a new state law regulating puppy mills went into full effect Jan. 1.

      The new law passed last April by the Indiana General Assembly, House Enrolled Act 1468, gives county prosecutors greater ability to file criminal charges for animal neglect and animal cruelty. The law sets basic requirements for dog breeders to provide food, water and exercise to their dogs.

      It created a new registry of commercial dog breeders and dog brokers through the State Board of Animal Health (SBoA), and requires breeders and brokers to register annually and pay registration fees, based on the number of unaltered dogs they own.

      Indiana Puppy Mill Operator Sentenced To Clean Cages...
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      Toyota Recalls 2.3 Million More Vehicles to Fix Runaway Acceleration

      4.2 million Toyotas and Lexuses were recalled late last year for a similar problem

      Toyota is adding 2.3 million vehicles to the 4.2 million Toyota and Lexus models already recalled to fix a problem that can cause the accelerator pedal to stick.

      The latest recall involves

      • 2007-10 Camrys,
      • 2009-10 Corollas,
      • 2009-10 RAV4s,
      • 2009-10 Matrixes,
      • 2005-10 Avalons,
      • 2010 Highlanders,
      • 2007-10 Tundras and
      • 2008-10 Sequoias.

      Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. said in a statement that accelerator pedals could stick "in a partially depressed position or return slowly to the idle position" in the affected models. A spokesman said the problem was most likely to occur when the pedal mechanism becomes worn.

      Today's action is separate from the ongoing recall of 4.2 million Toyota and Lexus models. The company said about 1.7 million vehicles are included in both recall actions.

      "In recent months, Toyota has investigated isolated reports of sticking accelerator pedal mechanisms in certain vehicles without the presence of floor mats, said Group Vice President Irv Miller. Our investigation indicates that there is a possibility that certain accelerator pedal mechanisms may, in rare instances, mechanically stick in a partially depressed position or return slowly to the idle position."

      He said Toyota is "working quickly" to resolve the problem.

      In the event that a driver experiences an accelerator pedal that sticks in a partial open throttle position or returns slowly to idle position, the vehicle can be controlled with firm and steady application of the brakes, the company said. The brakes should not be pumped repeatedly because it could deplete vacuum assist, requiring stronger brake pedal pressure.

      Earlier recall

      Toyota's 2009 recall, which is still underway, was the largest in the company's history. Toyota and Lexus vehicles affected by the earlier recall are:

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

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

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

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

      No one knows how many accidents may have been caused but an August 2009 tragedy on a San Diego freeway put the problem at the top of the auto safety agenda. In that accident, a California highway patrolman and his family were killed in their runaway Lexus ES 350. Someone calling from the car before it crashed at over 100 miles per hour said they couldn't stop it. Seconds later, it struck an SUV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Toyota Recalls 2.3 Million More Vehicles to Fix Runaway Acceleration...
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      California Recovers Stolen College Scholarship Funds

      Trustee looted money from living trust

      The state of California has reached a settlement with the trustee of a scholarship fund intended to benefit female graduates of Ukiah High School pursuing careers in medicine.

      James L. Harrison, 62, of Ukiah, "looted college scholarship funds intended to help women graduating from high school achieve their dreams," said Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. The agreement, Brown said, "makes sure that he is never in a position to steal from a non-profit again."

      Working together, Brown's office, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the California Department of Financial Institutions recovered both the principal and the interest -- totaling over $650,000 -- owed to the Trust. As part of the settlement, Harrison agreed to a lifetime ban from serving as a charitable trustee or officer of a public benefit corporation.

      In 1993, Ukiah residents Viola and Oscar Allen established a Living Trust. Upon their deaths, funds from the Trust were to be administered as scholarships for female graduates of Ukiah High School interested in pursuing further education in the medical field.

      Harrison, who was then Vice President of Savings Bank in Mendocino County, became Trustee in 1993. Instead of funding scholarships for students, he began spending the money for his own benefit. He invested in real-estate ventures and loaned money to friends and family.

      In 2005, the FDIC was notified of suspicious activity involving the Trust. Brown's office began its own investigation and found that Harrison had diverted hundreds of thousands of the approximately $474,000 in the original Trust.

      In February 2007, Brown filed a civil lawsuit against Harrison seeking to remove him from the Trustee position. The AG's office also filed criminal charges against Harrison in 2008.

      In February 2009, Harrison entered no contest pleas to the following felony counts:

      • Misappropriation of trust assets (Penal Code sections 487/506)

      • Filing willfully false tax returns (Revenue and Taxation Code section 19705(a)(1))

      • Admittedly taking in excess of $200,000 (Penal Code section 12022.6(a)(2))

      Harrison was sentenced to one year in county jail and three years probation.

      A new trustee has been appointed to administer the Viola and Oscar Allen Trust and scholarships have been distributed for the last two years to female graduates of Ukiah High School.

      California Recovers Stolen College Scholarship Funds...
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      Graco Recalls Strollers Due to Fingertip Amputation and Laceration Hazards

      Graco is recalling about 1.5 million Passage, Alano and Spree strollers and travel systems.

      The hinges on the strollers canopy pose a fingertip amputation and laceration hazard to the child when the consumer is opening or closing the canopy.

      Graco has received seven reports of children placing their fingers in the strollers canopy hinge mechanism while the canopy was being opened or closed, resulting in five fingertip amputations and two fingertip lacerations.

      This recall involves Graco Passage, Alano and Spree Strollers and Travel Systems with the following model numbers and specific hinge mechanisms:

      Model Numbers
      6303MYC, 6303MYC37240DNB, 7240DNB2
      7240MKL2, 7240MKL3
      6320IVY, 6320LAU7241DDH2, 7241DHO37F04TAY3
      6330CAP, 6330THR,
      7255CLP, 7255CLP2,
      7255CRA2, 7255CRA3,
      7255CSA3, 7255GPK3,
      7255GRN, 7255GRN2,
      7255JJB3, 7255ORC2,
      7255WLO2, 7255WLO3
      6F00QIN3, 6F00RRY37256CLO2, 7256SPM2,
      7F08DSW3, 7F08LAN3
      6F03GLN37260BAN, 7260BAN2,
      7260BAN3, 7260MRA2,
      7260MRA3, 7260PKR,
      7G00DLS3, 7G00DLS4
      6G10CSE37270BIA, 7270BIA27G01CRL3
      7235GGA, 7235GGA27E01JON2, 7E01JON37G04KRA3
      7236CDR27F00LPE3, 7F00RSH37G05GPR3, 7G06WSR3
      7237HOL2, 7237HOL37F01FOR37G07ABB3, 7G07BAT3

      Graco manufactured two different styles of hinge mechanisms for these stroller models. Only strollers or travel systems with a plastic, jointed hinge mechanism that has indented canopy positioning notches (see photo below) are included in this recall. The recalled strollers were manufactured between October 2004 and February 2008. The model number and manufacture date are located on the lower inside portion of the rear frame, just above the rear wheels.

      The strollers were sold at AAFES, Burlington Coat Factory, Babies R Us, Toys R Us, Kmart, Fred Meyer, Meijers, Navy Exchange, Sears, Target, Walmart and other retailers nationwide from October 2004 and December 2009 for between $80 and $90 for the strollers and between $150 and $200 for the travel systems. They were made in China.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled strollers and contact Graco to receive a free protective cover repair kit.

      For additional information, contact Graco at (800) 345-4109 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or visit the firms Web site at

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

      Graco Recalls Strollers Due to Fingertip Amputation and Laceration Hazards...
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      Salon Owner Gets Jail Time for Using Fake Botox

      Women injected with unknown substance

      An Issaquah, Washington, salon owner is going to prison for 13 months for a felony count of misbranding of a drug while held for sale and two misdemeanor counts of receipt & proffered delivery of an adulterated device.

      Xin He, aka Faith He, must also undergo one year of supervised release. U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman noted that He persisted in "risky and dangerous behavior," offering unlicensed treatments despite warnings from employers, regulators, agents and others.

      According to testimony at trial and records filed in the case, Faith He used counterfeit Botox and Restylane on customers at her Bellevue beauty salon. She is not a medical doctor licensed to use injectable treatments for wrinkle removal such as Botox and Restylane.

      The indictment charges that as early as 2004, He injected a substance that she later represented was Restylane into the face of a Snohomish, Washington, woman. Court records indicate the woman's face became inflamed and she sought treatment from a dermatologist. The material injected into the woman's face was confirmed later not to be genuine Restylane.

      The Washington State Department of Health investigated the case and issued a cease and desist order to He in July 2006 after she offered to inject an undercover agent with what she claimed was Botox. Despite that order, in April 2008, He was once again injecting patients in a Bellevue salon. A Bothell woman had to be treated by a plastic surgeon after the body parts in which she locations became hard and swollen.

      Assistant United States Attorney Kathryn Warma urged the court to reject the defense request for a probationary sentence saying, "This defendant cannot be trusted. She is a liar and manipulator. (By injecting unknown substances), she was exposing every person she treated to risk of death." Warma noted that until the court ordered He into custody, "No one, nothing, had stopped her before."

      Each year in the United States, consumers are injured by individuals who are neither licensed nor trained to perform medical procedures. Oftentimes, the people performing these cosmetic treatments use drugs and devices not approved by the FDA for use in the United States. The injuries range from severe burns, infection and permanent scaring. In some cases consumers have died after receiving such treatments from individuals not licensed to perform such procedures.

      Even the real Botox has been blamed for problems.

      • Terri of Elmsford, NY tells that she received Botox injections in her face in May of 2007, something she had been doing for ten years. This time was different though. "About an hour and a half after the procedure, I developed very disturbing symptoms. I felt as if I was paralyzed. My speech became slurred. I could not walk. The only thing I could do was get in bed. I stayed there for days." She says a representative of the company that makes Botox told her he had never heard of such a reaction.

      • Kelly of Fishers, IN says immediately after she received a Botox treatment she experienced shortness of breath and a bad consistent cough. "I went back to my plastic surgeon," she writes, "who told me that there is no way that it could be from the Botox. After approximately three months of consistent trouble breathing I got it again, and it got worse. I was told again that it could not be the Botox." Kelly says even the doctors at the Mayo Clinic told her that the Botox injection does not cause that symptoms. "They did other tests on me and found nothing wrong."

      Salon Owner Gets Jail Time for Using Fake Botox...
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      Do Consumers Have Too Many Choices?

      More really is better, study suggests

      Whether shopping in stores or online, consumers have probably never had as many choices. But are there too many choices?

      A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research says the jury is still out on so-called "choice overload."

      Authors Benjamin Scheibehenne of the University of Basel, Switzerland, Rainer Greifeneder of the University of Mannheim, Germany, and Peter M. Todd of Indiana University, Bloomington conducted a meta-analysis of 50 published and unpublished experiments that investigated choice overload. They found that generally, having a lot of choices is a good thing.

      "A number of studies in the past found strong instances of choice overload based on experiments in laboratories and in the field. While these results attracted a lot of attention in academia as well as in the media, a number of experiments found no empirical evidence for choice overload and sometimes even found that more choices instead facilitate choice and increase satisfaction," the authors write.

      Across the 50 experiments, which depict the choices of 5,036 individual participants, the authors found that the overall effect of choice overload was virtually zero.

      "This suggests that adverse consequences do not necessarily follow from increases in the number of options," the authors write. "In fact, contrary to the notion of choice overload, these results suggest that having many options to choose from will, on average, not lead to a decrease in satisfaction or motivation to make a choice."

      When it comes to food consumption, for example, the authors believe their meta-analysis shows that a "more-is-better" effect occurs, especially when individuals have clear prior preferences.

      A number of experiments in the past did find that choice overload exists, but the authors found that it was difficult to replicate those conditions.

      "Based on our meta-analysis data, we could not identify sufficient conditions or specific circumstances that explain when and why an increase in assortment size can be expected to reliably decrease satisfaction, preference strength, or the motivation to choose," the authors write.

      Across the 50 experiments, which depict the choices of 5,036 individual participants, the authors found that the overall effect of choice overload was virt...
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      Canine Rescue Teams Find Survivors in Haiti Disaster

      California fire squads work around the clock to help quake victims

      SDF Photo

      There are new reports of survivors from last week's deadly earthquake in Haiti -- thanks in part to efforts by the United States top canine search and rescue teams working in the devastated country.

      The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) said late Monday that its teams helped rescue five people from the earthquake's ruins over the weekend.

      On Sunday, five days after the 7.0 magnitude quake wreaked havoc in the tiny island nation, three SDF teams rescued a woman buried alive under a crumpled hotel in the capitol city of Port-au-Prince.

      "The appreciation shown by locals for the Search Teams and their Task Force was overwhelming," said the SDF, which is receiving text messages and phone calls from its canine teams deployed to Haiti. "As soon as the woman was pulled from the wreckage, Haitians gathered in the street and began chanting, 'U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A...'"

      SDF teams on Sunday also helped rescue three more women buried beneath the rubble of another collapsed building in Port-au-Prince, a city of 2 million that was leveled during last Tuesday's massive seismic tremor.

      Search teams found two of the women -- sisters who are 19 and 20-years old -- when they called out for help. "But the third woman, a 31-year old, was deeper in the rubble," the SDF said.

      Rescue teams used electronic listening devices, which signaled someone might be trapped under the rubble.

      SDF dogs Cadillac, Maverick, and Hunter -- specially-trained to find people buried alive, like all the organization's canines -- were then called to the scene, and all expressed interest in the same area.

      "During the rescue, Task Force members crawled into tight spaces to reach the area where the search dogs had shown interest and found the third woman still lying in bed," the SDF said. "She was pinned to her mattress by the ceiling of her bedroom, just inches from crushing her."

      "When handler Jasmine Segura was able to get close enough, she could see the woman waving to her and heard her say, "Thank you," in English," the SDF added. Rescuers cut out the mattress and slid her to safety.

      Three other SDF teams on Sunday also helped save a 50-year-old woman trapped under the wreckage of yet another crumpled building in Port-au-Prince. The teams helped extricate the woman, who was dehydrated and had slight injuries, the SDF said.

      Those teams included Los Angeles County firefighters Ron Horetski and his Lab, Pearl, Gary Durian and his Golden Retriever, Baxter, and California civilian Ron Weckbacher and his border collie, Dawson.

      "Desperate situation"

      The 72 members of the task force, who have 70,000 pounds of heavy machinery and other rescue equipment, are searching around the clock to find survivors of the cataclysmic earthquake that many fear will claim tens of thousands of lives.

      "The teams are working long hours, stopping only long enough to let the dogs rest before starting to search again. Once they begin a search operation, they work until the effort is complete -- no matter how long it takes," the spokesperson added.

      The organization said its teams have called and sent text messages describing the "desperate situation" in Haiti and the "awesome work" of their canine partners.

      The SDF now has seven teams in Haiti and other teams on stand-by back in California. The teams, among the most highly-trained disaster search and rescue units in the country, are working with the California Task Force 1 and the Florida Task Force 1 in the rescue efforts.

      "The teams are working in 12-hour shifts so they have time to rest and recuperate," said Captain Jayd Swendseid of the California Task Force. "(Thursday) the team put in a long and exhausting day. Roads are closed and there is a lot of debris that is making transportation difficult, but the team is managing to get to buildings and make rescues. Morale is good and supplies are sufficient so far."

      The seven "live-scent" dogs on the teams are arguably the most valuable tools rescue workers have in a disaster of this magnitude. These elite canines can climb and run across the piles of concrete and other debris in the streets of Port-Au-Prince and determine within three minutes if there are survivors buried below, the SDF said.

      "This moment is what SDF Search Teams train for, week in and week out, throughout their careers together," said SDF founder Wilma Melville. "When one SDF team succeeds, all of our teams succeed."

      "Our thoughts are with our teams in Haiti, who continue to comb the rubble into the night," she added. "Their perseverance, skill, and strength in the face of challenges make us all proud, and give us hope."

      Glimmers of hope

      Some glimmers of hope appeared amidst the chaos and devastation over the weekend. A Red Cross convoy with a 50-bed hospital arrived in Port-au-Prince, and three health care teams that can provide much needed medical attention to 30,000 people also arrived in the ravaged city.

      Truckloads of Red Cross supplies reached Port-Au-Prince, and thousands of emergency workers hit the streets to hand out water and provide first aid to earthquake victims. Many relief workers also helped search for survivors or transported people with serious injuries to nearby health facilities.

      Rescue workers from around the world have now found more than 60 survivors, including five people pulled on Sunday from the wreckage of a Port-Au-Prince grocery store. It took 24 hours to free those people.

      Another sign of hope came on Saturday when an Australian news team found a 16-month-old girl buried alive. But rescuers know the odds of finding any more survivors are slim. Those chances dwindle after 72 hours, according to disaster experts, and that deadline has long since passed.

      The earthquake that struck Haiti at 4:53 pm on January 12 was centered about 14 miles west of Port-Au-Prince, but shockwaves were felt as far away as the Dominican Republic. Reports of catastrophic damage are widespread, with thousands of homes, schools, and other buildings destroyed from the seismic force.

      Thousands of people have already died, with many already buried in mass graves, to prevent the spread of disease. Some Haitians have also burned the bodies of their loved ones, while others have stacked up bodies along the crowded streets. The smell of decaying bodies is said to be overwhelming.

      According to CNN, people in Port-Au-Prince are now putting pieces of orange peel inside their noses to cover the smell of corpses piled along the streets. There are also reports of looting and violence in Port-Au-Prince, as survivors search for food, water, and shelter.

      U.S. officials said relief efforts will now turn toward long-term recovery and reconstruction. Meanwhile, the SDF said it would continue its efforts, doing its best to find survivors under the ruins. The SDF will provide updates on its Web site.

      "Our hearts go out to our neighbors in Haiti, and we're honored to be able to help find survivors of this terrible tragedy," SDF's Executive Director Debra Tosch said. "This is the day that our teams have trained for. When the unthinkable happens, SDF Teams stand ready to respond, bringing hope and comfort to victims and their loved ones."

      About the SDF

      The SDF is the only organization in the country that works exclusively with rescued dogs and trains them to rescue people buried alive. Most of SDFs 69 canine search teams are certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That is the highest achievement for search and rescue teams and means they can respond to any disaster.

      SDF teams spend about one year training for the FEMA test. To pass the rigorous exam, the dogs must search two piles of rubble and find four to six victims. The dogs have 20 minutes to complete their mission, and the testers do all they can to distract the canines. They may, for example, put food, live chickens, or even cats in the piles. The dogs fail if they become distracted during the test.

      The SDF, headquartered in Ojai, California, does not accept any government funding to cover the estimated $10,000 needed to train each team and provide lifetime care for the dogs. Those costs are covered by individual and corporate donations.

      Emergency workers

      Meanwhile, other relief and humanitarian organizations have emergency workers in Haiti trying to get desperately needed water, food, and other supplies to survivors. Those groups include UNICEF, Mercy Corps, and The American Red Cross .

      "America's support -- donations made in the United States to the American Red Cross -- is reaching the hands of survivors in Haiti," said Steve McAndrew, disaster relief specialist with the American Red Cross in Port-au-Prince.

      The American Red Cross now has teams from more than 30 countries that are providing food, water, and help with field hospitals, emotional support, and sanitation services.

      Americans can support these relief efforts by texting "HAITI" to "90999" and $10 will be automatically donated to the Red Cross. The fee will be charged to consumers' cell phone bills.

      The U.S. State Department said Americans looking for loved ones in Haiti should contact its Operation Center at 1-888-407-4747.

      Canine Rescue Teams Continue to Assist in Haiti Disaster...
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      Dorel Asia Recalls Cribs After Infant Death, 10 Injuries

      More photos below

      Dorel Asia is recalling about 635,000 cribs after at least one fatality and ten reported injuries. The cfribs pose suffocation and strangulation hazards to infants and toddlers. Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cribs until replacement kits are obtained and installed.

      The drop side hardware can fail causing the drop side to detach from the crib. When the drop side detaches it creates a space in which an infant or toddler can become entrapped and suffocate or strangle. In addition, the recalled cribs can pose a serious entrapment and strangulation hazard when a slat is damaged. This can occur while the crib is in use, in storage, being put together, taken apart or reassembled; or during shipping and handling.

      Dorel Asia said it received a report of the death of 6-month old child from Cedar Rapids, Iowa who became entrapped and strangled in a crib after the drop side hardware broke. The crib continued to be used after the parents tried to repair the drop side themselves.

      Federal safety regulators and Dorel Asia said they also received reports of 31 drop side incidents. In six of those incidents, children were entrapped between the drop side and crib mattress. Three children suffered from bruises as a result of the entrapment. In addition, CPSC and Dorel Asia received reports of 36 incidents of slat breakage, including seven reports of bruises and scratches to children and two reports of entrapment that resulted in no injury.

      The following Dorel Asia cribs are involved in the recall:

      Model NumberFront RailDescription
      WM1633Drop side3-1 Sleigh Crib Cherry
      WM1633-0Drop side3-1 Sleigh Crib - Cherry (no castors)
      WM1676BCFixed4-1 Bethany James Crib Walnut
      WM1676BCR-DCFixed2-1 Crib Walnut
      WM2163Fixed4-1 Crib Manhattan Walnut
      WM2163DCFixed4-1 Crib Manhattan Walnut
      WM1633-0-DCFixed3-1 Sleigh Crib (no castors)
      GP004B3EGRDrop side3-1 Convertible Espresso
      GP004B3WGRDrop side3-1 Convertible White
      GP006BCEGRDrop sideSingle Espresso
      GP006BCWGRDrop sideSingle White
      DA1615B3Drop side3-1 Convertible Crib Natural
      DAKM5132Drop side3-1 Convertible Crib White
      DASE5005Drop sideCottage Hill Single Crib White
      DASE5009Drop sideVintage Estate 3-1 Sleigh Crib Cherry
      DA0504KMC-1NDrop side3-1 Heritage Crib Natural
      DA0504KMC-1WDrop side3-1 Heritage Crib White
      DA1614B3Drop side3-1 Lexington Crib Cherry
      DAKM5152Drop sideSingle Jenny Lind Crib - Walnut
      DASE5015Drop side3-1 Convertible - Toffee

      The cribs were sold at Kmart, Sears and Wal-Mart stores nationwide from January 2005 through December 2009 for between $120 and $700. They were made in China and Vietnam.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cribs, find an alternative safe sleeping environment for your child, and contact Dorel Asia to receive a free replacement kit. Consumers should log on to to order the free replacement kit to prevent child entrapment in these cribs. The repair kits will be provided to owners within the next several weeks.

      Call Dorel Asia toll-free at (866) 762-2304 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or visit the firms Web site at

      Important Message from CPSC: CPSC reminds parents not to use any crib with missing, broken, or loose parts. Make sure to tighten hardware from time to time to keep the crib sturdy. When using a drop-side crib, parents should check to make sure the drop side or any other moving part operates smoothly. Always check all sides and corners of the crib for disengagement. Disengagements can create a gap and entrap a child. In addition, do not try to repair any side of the crib, especially with duct tape, wire or rope.

      Visit CPSC's Crib Information Center for more information on Crib Safety and Recalls.

      4-1 Crib - Walnut, Model # WM1676BC

      3 -1 Sleigh Crib - Cherry Model # WM1633 & WM1633-0

      3 -1 Lexington Crib - Cherry Model # DA1614B3

      3 -1 Heritage Crib - Natural Model # DA0504KMC-1N

      3 -1 Heritage Crib - White Model # DA0504KMC-1W

      3 -1 Convertible Crib - White Model # DAKM5132

      Cottage Hill Single Crib - White Model # DASE5005

      Vintage Estate 3-1 Crib - Cherry Model # DASE5009

      3-1 Convertible Crib - Natural Model # DAKM1615B3

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

      Dorel Asia Recalls Cribs After Infant Death, 10 Injuries...
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      Pros and Cons of Gastric Bypass Surgery Charted

      Surgery could be life-saving or fatal

      Most morbidly obese individuals would likely live longer if they had gastric bypass surgery, according to a report in the January issue of Archives of Surgery.

      However, the best decision for individual patients varies based on factors such as age, increasing body mass index and the effectiveness of surgery.

      An estimated 5.1 percent of the U.S. population is morbidly obese, often defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher. Available evidence suggests that dietary, behavioral and drug treatments frequently do not result in meaningful weight loss for people in this group.

      Bariatric surgery appears to be the only effective therapy for promoting clinically significant weight loss and improving obesity-related health conditions for the morbidly obese. However, the procedure is not without risk, including in-hospital death.

      Researchers from the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center used two nationally representative surveys and a recent large observational trial to construct a model estimating the benefits and risks of gastric bypass surgery for individuals with morbid obesity.

      The model included data from almost 400,000 people around the U.S. to estimate the risk of death from obesity and its complications; data from 23,281 patients undergoing bariatric surgery to calculate in-hospital death rates following the procedures; and outcomes from participants in a seven-year study to determine the effects of surgery on survival and to calibrate and validate the model.

      According to the resulting model, an average 42-year-old woman with a BMI of 45 would be expected to live an estimated additional three years as a result of undergoing bariatric surgery; a 44-year-old man with the same BMI would gain an estimated 2.6 additional years.

      Additional analyses revealed that younger women with higher BMIs are projected to gain the most life expectancy from surgery. Younger men with higher BMIs might also gain more life expectancy after surgery, but the gain would be less for men than for women in each subgroup.

      "Younger patients have lower surgical risk and more time over which to realize the benefits of surgery," the authors write. "For older patients, the gain is smaller, and for some, gastric bypass surgery will decrease life expectancy."

      The authors call the decision analysis a step forward in understanding optimal patient selection but add that it also highlights some of the areas for which better data are needed. For instance, the risk-benefit balance changes based on how effective bariatric surgery is likely to be. More information is needed about how individual patient characteristics -- for example, having diabetes -- affect the efficacy of the procedure.

      "In conclusion, while not all patients are guaranteed a good outcome, our model indicates that gastric bypass increases life expectancy for most patient subgroups; however, for those at high surgical risk or in whom efficacy of surgery is likely to be low, benefit will be minimal," the authors write.

      The researchers say the results of their analysis could be used to provide more information to both patients and physicians about gastric bypass surgery.

      Pros and Cons of Gastric Bypass Surgery Charted...
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      Pennsylvania Sues Computer Training School

      School suddenly closed after collecting tuition payments

      Computer training school collected nearly $2 million from students in Pennsylvania before abruptly closing down last month. Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett has filed a lawsuit in a bid to get the students' money back.

      The school offered computer training and certification programs through four Pennsylvania companies operating at locations at Bensalem, King of Prussia, Lancaster and Pittsburgh. The school also operated in 14 other states.

      "Pennsylvania students paid anywhere from $13,000 to $25,000 for various computer training programs, only to be left out in the cold when ComputerTraining suddenly locked its doors in December," Corbett said. "These students were trying to improve their skills and build careers - only to be abandoned to face substantial loans or debts, incomplete training and a long list of unanswered questions about their educational futures."

      According to the lawsuit, the schools knew, or should have known, about mounting financial difficulties, the threat of closure and the strong likelihood that they would be unable to provide training services for students.

      Corbett said that students were required to pay all, or nearly all, of their educational costs and fees up-front, before beginning their courses.

      "Despite growing financial problems, ComputerTraining continued to enroll new students and collect advance payments from consumers without disclosing any potential problems," Corbett said. "Additionally, the school continued to advertise classes and services on its website even after halting operations in December."

      "Not only deceptive, but insulting"

      According to the lawsuit, ComputerTraining also provided deceptive or misleading information about possible refunds.

      "In a December email message announcing the closing, students were instructed to contact the Pennsylvania Department of Education in order to request refunds, even though the surety bonds that had been posted with the department would cover only a very small percentage of the outstanding tuition," Corbett said. "Knowing that the surety bonds amounted to only pennies, compared to the thousands of dollars that students had paid, the instructions to contact the Department of Education about refunds were not only deceptive but also insulting to all the victims."

      Corbett said the lawsuit filed by the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection seeks full restitution for all victims who suffered losses, along with fines and civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation of the Consumer Protection Law, up to $3,000 for each victim over the age of 60. The lawsuit also asks the court to prohibit the school from operating in Pennsylvania.

      Corbett said the Attorney General's Office has also filed a request for a special preliminary injunction against ComputerTraining -- asking the court to freeze all bank accounts and financial assets; prohibit the sale, transfer or distribution of any other assets; safeguard all student records and personal information; and preserve all financial and business records.

      Pennsylvania Sues Computer Training School...
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      U.S. Fidelis Facing Another Class Action

      Warranty company issues bare-bones, loophole-ridden policies, suit charges

      U.S. Fidelis is facing yet another class action lawsuit, the latest in a long line of allegations of fraud and manipulation by the company.

      U.S. Fidelis sells extended warranties to consumers whose factory-provided service protection has expired. Lead plaintiff Benita Bruno's suit, filed in federal court in Michigan, says that U.S. Fidelis uses high pressure sales tactics combined with fraudulent representations and omissions to convince consumers to buy such warranties.

      According to Bruno, U.S. Fidelis's ruthless sales techniques include telling consumers that failing to sign up for a plan right away will cause them to lose out on any opportunity to receive coverage for their vehicles. Consumers who continue to resist receive additional phone calls, with better incentives offered each time.

      Bruno also accuses U.S. Fidelis of severely misrepresenting the amount of coverage offered under its policies. According to the complaint, U.S. Fidelis uses heavy-handed techniques to convince consumers that they are buying full coverage warranties, a far cry from what they end up receiving.

      Bruno's story is typical of U.S. Fidelis customers. After seeing an advertisement for full coverage warranties, she called the company in August 2009 to inquire further. A U.S. Fidelis representative told Bruno that if she failed to purchase the warranty at that instance it would not be available to [her] at a later date. Bruno ended up sleeping on it and, despite its previous ultimatum, U.S. Fidelis sold her a warranty on September 2, 2009.

      Shortly after making her purchase, Bruno discovered that, contrary to U.S. Fidelis's representations, her warranty did not completely cover [B]runo's vehicle for repairs. Specifically, U.S. Fidelis's sales representative failed to inform [B]runo of all of the terms of the [warranty], including conditions, exclusions, restrictions, and limits of liability.

      Bruno is hardly the first to point out the difference between U.S. Fidelis's rhetoric and its results. The company is infamous for providing policies ridden with so many exceptions and loopholes as to be essentially worthless. Last April, a similar class action was filed against the company in Missouri. That suit also described a pattern of high-pressure sales tactics and bare-bones warranties that left consumers out in the cold when their cars broke down.

      In March 2008, a press release by then-Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon alleged that the company sent letters to consumers warning that their factory warranties were about to expire when, in fact, most recipients had plenty of time left on their factory protection plans.

      U.S. Fidelis has also cycled through several names in the past few years, never an encouraging sign. The company started as Dealer Services before morphing into National Auto Warranty Services and finally settling on its current name.

      The present suit is brought on behalf of all Michigan consumers who purchased an extended warranty from U.S. Fidelis on or after April 1, 2004. Bruno's attorneys estimate that potential class members number in the thousands.

      The suit says that U.S. Fidelis has continuously and systematically established a pattern of racketeering activity through the use of [its] business plan of obtaining funds through mail, wire, radio, and television fraud, thereby violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Bruno also accuses the company of violating several Michigan consumer protection laws. has received many complaints about U.S. Fidelis, and over a half dozen this year alone. William of Chicago offers a representative account:

      Back in July 2009, I saw an advertisement for this company, and at the time, I thought that it would be a good investment to purchase one of the company's extended warranties for my Chevy Impala. Boy! Was I wrong, I put my car in the shop twice only to have most of the repairs for my car not covered for some bull reason. I have since came to the conclusion that I am better off without the US Fidelity warranty and better off buying a warranty from GMAC. I had to incur a 690.00 dollar repair bill, plus I already have paid out a total of 700.00 in payments to US Fidelis, I want all my money back.

      U.S. Fidelis Facing Another Class Action...
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      West Virginia Reins In Three Debt Settlement Firms

      Investigation stemmed from single consumer's complaint

      Alyson Rye of West Union, WVa., was alarmed when a telemarketer from Clear Financial Solutions repeatedly badgered her to accept his offer to reduce the interest rates on her credit card debt. He even led her to believe that he had Chase Bank on the line and tried to negotiate an interest rate reduction.

      Chase later confirmed that no such call was made.

      Although Rye never accepted its offer, Clear Financial Solutions charged $999.00 to her credit card bank, which prompted her to complain to West Virginia's Attorney General McGraw. Her complaint and others prompted an investigation of Clear Financial Solutions of Orlando, Florida.

      Because of that probe, McGraw's office has entered into settlement agreements with three companies offering a variety of debt relief services, including Clear Financial Solutions, and its owner, Chris Rubini, Financial Freedom of America, Inc. of Dallas, Texas, and Financial Solutions Legal Center, of West Palm Beach, Florida.

      Collectively, the settlements will result in cash refunds of more than $214,000 to 226 West Virginia consumers. All three companies also agreed to discontinue providing debt relief services in West Virginia in the future.

      McGraw said Clear Financial Solutions offered a service known as "debt negotiation," in which consumers are promised a reduction in interest on their credit card debt for a one-time fee that ranges from one to two thousand dollars. Debt negotiation companies claim they try to generate savings by arranging balance transfers on new credit cards. Many consumers report that no services are provided.

      In contrast, Financial Freedom of America and Financial Solutions Legal Center offered a service known as "debt settlement." In this approach, consumers stop making payments to the credit card banks and try to accumulate savings in an account that the debt settlement company will use to negotiate lump sum settlements of less than the amount owed on each account.

      Most debt settlement companies charge substantial upfront fees, monthly service fees, and additional contingency fees based upon a percentage of the amount allegedly saved by a settlement. Consumers frequently complain that debt settlement companies settle few, if any, accounts, that they continue to receive calls from debt collectors, and are often sued by their creditors while they were enrolled in this program.

      "Consumers who seek help with financial problems on the Internet or from high pressure telemarketers are more likely to find trouble rather than a solution to their problems," McGraw said.

      West Virginia Reins In Three Debt Settlement Firms...
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      Tyson Foods Settles Suit Challenging 'No Antibiotics' Claim

      Class action accused food giant of making false claims

      Tyson Foods has agreed to a settlement in a class action accusing the food giant of falsely claiming that its chickens were raised without antibiotics.

      Under the proposed settlement, Tyson will pay consumers up to $5 million, with each class member eligible to receive up to $50. If there is money left over, Tyson will donate the difference to food banks. The agreement also provides for $3 million in attorneys' fees.

      The suit stemmed from Tyson's claim, beginning in 2007, that its chickens were raised without antibiotics. In June 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which must approve such claims, rescinded its approval for Tyson's campaign and ordered the label removed from the company's products. In a statement, the USDA said that it found that [Tyson] routinely used the antibiotic Gentamicin to prevent illness and death in chicks and ordered Tyson to stop using the qualified raised without antibiotics labels by June 18.

      The order came after two major competitors Sanderson and Perdue sued Tyson in federal court, arguing that the company's claims had cost them $4 million and $11 million in lost sales, respectively.

      The companies claimed that consumers were scared off of their products, believing that they contained antibiotics that could decrease drug resistance in humans. While experts believe that some antibiotics have caused the emergence of superbugs immune to drug treatment, the antibiotic commonly given to chickens ionophores poses no such danger.

      Tyson did, however, inject eggs with a vaccine that shares an ingredient with human treatments. Tyson insisted that its raised without antibiotics claim was still technically true, since birds aren't raised until after they're hatched.

      The settlement is still awaiting approval from a federal court in Baltimore. Consumers who bought Tyson poultry and saved their receipts can collect up to $50; those without receipts stand to gain at most $10.

      James Pizzirusso, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, told ABC that the settlement puts a lot of value in the hands of consumers and that class members stand to get a large chunk of the settlement pie. If you bought this product and bought at least $10 worth, all you have to do is fill out a form to get $10, Pizzirusso said.

      Tyson also professes to be satisfied with the deal. We're pleased a settlement has been reached and will now wait for the court to review and, we hope, approve the agreement, reads a statement from Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson. While we believe our company acted appropriately, we also believe it makes sense for us to resolve this legal matter and move on.

      The entire affair has to have been a headache for the world's largest meat producer. The company spent around $70 million on the ad campaign and that was before the litigation started.

      Tyson Foods Settles Suit Challenging 'No Antibiotics' Claim...
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      FDA Warns Pet Owners of Salmonella in Beef Treats

      Merrick Beef Filet Squares flagged for recall

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today warned pet owners not give their dogs Merrick Beef Filet Squares that have a best by day date of "111911" because the treats may be contaminated with salmonella.

      The products included in this warning are packaged in 10-ounce green, red and tan re-sealable plastic bags. The Texas-based Merrick Pet Care, Inc., distributed the treats nationwide in retail stores and Internet sales.

      The "best by" date is printed on the top portion of the bag, which is torn off when the package is opened. The FDA said consumers who cannot find the "best by" date should discontinue use the products.

      Today's action comes after routine testing by the FDA in December 2009 detected salmonella in Merrick Beef Filet Squares. Salmonella is a bacterium that can cause food poisoning and other health problems.A follow-up inspection found deficiencies in the packaging and manufacturing processes, the FDA said.

      Although there are no reports of illnesses linked to these treats, the FDA said consumers who have the products should not to handle or feed them to their pets.

      Salmonella can affect both humans and animals, the FDA said. People who handle dry pet treats can become infected with salmonella, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after touching the treats or any surfaces exposed to the products.

      Salmonella can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping and fever, the FDA said. In rare cases, the bacterium 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.Consumers who develop any of these problems after handling these dog treats should immediately call their doctor, the FDA said.

      Pets with salmonella infections may become lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting, the FDA said. Some pets may only have a decreased appetite, fever, and abdominal pain.

      Infected but seemingly healthy pets can spread the salmonella bacterium to other animals or humans, the FDA warned.

      Agency officials said pet owners with dogs ate the affected treats, or owners with pets experiencing any symptoms, should immediately contact their veterinarian.

      Consumers can file complaints about these or other FDA-regulated pet food and treats with the the consumer complaint coordinator in their area. The FDA has more information about filing a pet food complaint on its Web site.

      FDA Warns Pet Owners of Salmonella in Beef Treats...
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      Verizon Wireless Expands Data Charge To All 3G Phones

      Part of new price structure on unlimited calling, data

      Up until now, just owners of LG enV TOUCH and the Samsung Rogue phones on the Verizon Wireless network were required to purchase the 25 megabyte data package for $9.99 a month. Starting Monday those customers who activate new LG Chocolate Touch, LG enV3, LG VX8360, Motorola Entice W766, Nokia 7705 Twist and Samsung Alias 2 phones will also be required to purchase it.

      The $19.99 data package option for 3G Multimedia phones has been discontinued.

      Customers using Simple Feature phones (Mobile Web-enabled) will continue to pay $1.99 per megabyte or choose either the $9.99 or $29.99 data packages. The consumer data package for 3G Smartphones such as BlackBerry, Windows Mobile or Android devices will remain at $29.99 per month.

      The changes are part of new monthly service plans for the carrier that all go into effect January 18, 2010. At that time, customers may sign up for a new Nationwide Unlimited Talk plan that allows customers to call anyone in the United States for $69.99 monthly access or a Nationwide Unlimited Talk & Text plan to call and send text, picture and video messages to anyone in the country for $89.99 monthly access.

      In addition, Verizon said Nationwide Family SharePlans will also have new unlimited options. Nationwide Unlimited Talk Family SharePlans will be $119.99 monthly access while the Nationwide Unlimited Talk & Text Family SharePlans will be $149.99 for monthly access.

      All Family SharePlan pricing includes the first two lines of service. Standard text message rates will apply for customers on the Nationwide Unlimited Talk plans who do not sign up for a text messaging bundle.

      Verizon Wireless will also offer customers new prepaid plans beginning Jan. 18. For those who prefer pay-as-you-go options, but want unlimited calling and texting, new Monthly Unlimited Prepaid plans will $5 more per month than contract plans. Prepaid Monthly Unlimited Talk is now available for $74.99 per month while contract subscribers pay $69.99 for the same unlimited calling option.

      Prepaid Monthly Unlimited Talk & Text will be available for $94.99 per month. The 450- and 900-minute Monthly Prepaid plans will also be available for $5 more per month than comparable postpaid plans.

      Today's announcement will not have an impact on existing customer contracts, although Verizon said customers may choose to move to any of the new plans. The company allows customers to change their service plans at any time without penalty or contract extension.

      Verizon Wireless Expands Data Charge To All 3G Phones...
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      Bill Me Later Charges Illegal Interest Rates

      eBay subsidiary uses bank affiliation to skirt California usury laws

      It sounds like a great idea, especially during a prolonged recession: a company that offers instant credit to cash-strapped consumers. That's the idea behind Bill Me Later, a website that lets consumers complete online transactions using only their birth date and the last four digits of their social security number.

      But, as with most gimmicks, Bill Me Later comes with a catch and a pretty big one at that. According to a class action filed on Monday, Bill Me Later charges sky-high interest rates and late fees, a practice that violates California consumer protection laws.

      California usury laws those that govern interest rates prevent non-bank entities from charging rates above 10 percent. Bill Me Later tried to get around these regulations by enlisting CIT Bank to provide banking services for its transactions. But according to the suit, Bill Me Later is the one pulling all the strings; it alone interacts with customers, provides and accepts loan applications, decides whether or not to approve loans, and services customer accounts. Simply put, Bill Me Later in effect 'rents' CIT Bank's name and its bank charter as a scam, for the sole purpose of evading California law and collecting exorbitant interest rates.

      And exorbitant may be putting it mildly. According to Jeff Friedman, the case's lead attorney, nearly all of the company's loans carry an interest rate over 10 percent, and many exceed 100 percent. One consumer quoted in the complaint incurred an eye-popping 116.67 percent.

      Lead plaintiff Kyle Sawyer, of Torrance, California, used Bill Me Later to finance a $1,068.08 computer purchase from Cyberpower in October 2008. Sawyer started out with a 19.99 percent interest rate, but was subsequently charged several late fees of $39.99 each. According to the complaint, if one were to compute the assessed late penalty fee as an annual percentage rate, [Sawyer] has been charged at more than a 70% annual interest rate during his monthly billing cycles.

      Consumers stand to lose more than money. Friedman, of Hans Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, pointed out that simply clicking on the Bill Me Later button when completing a transaction can adversely affect a consumer's credit rating. He said the extent of credit-related damage will become clearer during discovery.

      Further, Bill Me Later, which eBay bought for $945 million in 2008, has been working behind the scenes to integrate its service into other well-known websites. PayPal, for example, now offers consumers the option to you guessed it Bill Me Later, which subjects them to the same interest rates and late fees as consumers who sign up directly on the company's website. Sandra of Evergreen, Co., who wrote to Consumer Affairs in June, and who is quoted in the plaintiffs' complaint, was lured into Bill Me Later via Blue Mountain e-Cards:

      "Using Blue Mountain e-cards online I seem to have invoked billing by BillMeLater. I thought their US Mail communications were junk mail. I called today and paid the base amount that would have been due, 15.99, for Blue Mountain Cards. However, between March 18 and June 17 they tacked on another 25 in fees, more than I initial owed Blue Mountain Cards. There is a place on this statement in front of me that says their ANNUAL PERCENTAGE RATE for this billing cycle is 104.39% No one, for anything, should charge an APR 104.39%. Further, adding on late fees in excess of the original debt is absurd."

      CitiBank veterans

      The plaintiffs point out that Bill Me Later's executive team comes with deep roots in the credit card lending industry. CEO Gary Marino worked at Citibank for 15 years, and subsequently managed the credit and marketing operations for First USA. According to the complaint, Marino secured $100 million in venture capital to develop Bill Me Later's complex and proprietary lending model when he founded the company in 2000.

      According to Friedman, Bill Me Later is just the latest version of the centuries-old practice of usury, defined as charging illegal or unconscionable interest rates. Just as payday loans those that provide consumers with a high-interest cash advance until their next paycheck took off in recent years, models like Bill Me will likely pop up with more regularity in coming years.

      The complaint alleges breach of contract and violation of California consumer protection laws against both Bill Me Later and eBay, and accuses eBay of aiding and abetting. The plaintiffs are seeking damages and an injunction prohibiting Bill Me Later from continuing its illegal practices. California law allows consumers victimized by bad faith practices to collect treble damages, which Friedman confirmed that the class is seeking.

      According to a class action filed on Monday, Bill Me Later charges sky-high interest rates and late fees, a practice that violates California consumer prot...
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      Class Action Says DirecTV Forces Consumers to Pay for Fraudulent Accounts

      More legal trouble for perennial corporate defendant

      DIRECTV is facing its second major class action in as many months, this time alleging that the cable provider charges consumers with fraud alerts on their credit accounts for satellite TV that they never used or requested.

      Lead plaintiff Brianna Greene says that DIRECTV opened an account using her credit, even though several credit bureaus had told the company that Greene had a fraud alert on her credit account. The company then used an autodialer and prerecorded voice message to call plaintiff's cell phone three days after it opened the account to ask whether or not the fraud alert was correct, according to the suit.

      When Greene received the phone call, she pressed 0 several times in an attempt to reach an operator as instructed by DIRECTV's automated prompts but was unsuccessful.

      Once Greene finally reached a human being, she was told that she would have to fill out a form in order to close her new account. After an account is activated, DIRECTV customers have a 15-day grace period, during which they can cancel at no cost.

      The suit contends that it is an unfair practice for DIRECTV to open accounts upon demand, particularly those where its credit check reveal [sic] a fraud alert, and then place the burden of closing the account on victims of fraud.

      The action is brought on behalf of all consumers who, within the past four years, received an autodial call from DIRECTV, despite having never given the company their phone numbers, and whose cell phones have either an Illinois, Wisconsin, or Indiana area code. Greene says that DIRECTV obtained her phone number from a skip trace company or some other sort of directory.

      Washington case

      Greene's complaint comes less than a month after the Washington state attorney general sued DIRECTV for unconscionable sales practices.

      In that suit, Rob McKenna says that DIRECTV draws in new consumers with ads for cheap service, only to surprise them with various hidden fees and other gotchas in the sales contract. Such gotchas include undisclosed financing requirements, cancellation fees, restrictive rebate terms, and attempts by DIRECTV to extend two-year contracts.

      Even if consumers used a magnifying glass, they still wouldn't discover that the 'good deal' they were promised came with potential expensive pitfalls, McKenna said. He added that his office has received more complaints about DIRECTV 375 in 2009 alone than about any other company.

      In fact, legal trouble seems to follow DIRECTV. The company has been named in at least 300 lawsuits over the past five years, a number of which were class actions. And the company isn't especially popular with its customers, either; has over 1,400 complaints about the company in its database.

      Greene's suit, which is being handled by Burke Law Offices LLC, of Chicago, alleges violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which restricts the use of robocalls; of the Truth in Lending Act; and of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act. The class seeks compensatory and punitive damages, along with attorneys' fees and costs.

      Read DirecTV complaints.

      Class Action Says DirecTV Forces Consumers to Pay for Fraudulent Accounts...
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      Exercise Caution With Health Clubs

      Clubs have history of high-pressure sales, broken promises

      It's no secret that health clubs sign up many new members this time of year, when people make New Year resolutions to lose weight and get into shape. But as complaints to repeatedly reveal, consumers need to exercise extreme care when considering a place to exercise.

      Complaints to over the years have told a story of consumers being misled by fast-talking sales agents, of forged contracts, and unauthorized bank account withdrawals.

      Before even going to visit a gym, it's a good idea to do your homework. In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper has researched the subject closely after grappling with a problem health club chain last year.

      "My office hears from hundreds of consumers every year who are unhappy with their health club or see it shut down unexpectedly," Cooper said. "Hundreds of consumers contacted my office after several Peak Fitness clubs closed their doors. State law requires that most health clubs maintain a bond, so my office is helping many of those consumers get some money back."

      Peak Fitness is a North Carolina chain that encountered economic turbulence in 2009 and had to close facilities. But that didn't stop the cash-starved company from selling memberships.

      Facing a lawsuit by Cooper, Peak Fitness agreed in June to stop selling prepaid gym memberships in North Carolina until the company could secure bonds for each health club. Cooper filed suit, obtaining a consent judgment.

      Health clubs are high-overhead businesses and therefore, the pressure to sell memberships is intense. Walking into a health club these days is very much like walking onto a car dealer's lot; you should prepare yourself for a high-pressure pitch. If you can withstand the pressure, here are a few tips for a more successful search:

      Compare facilities and prices at several health clubs.

      Shop around for the best value, which may or may not be the least expensive club. For example, some clubs with low monthly fees require long membership periods. Know what you can afford to pay and stick to your budget no matter what incentives the sales agent offers. Don't be afraid to bargain. Verbal promises from the staff are meaningless. If it's not written into a contract, it will not be honored.

      Take a tour and check out the staff

      Tour at the time of day you're most likely to exercise to make certain the equipment you want to use will be available when you need it. Make sure the club is clean and well maintained, and look for friendly and knowledgeable staff with the appropriate educational background and certifications. Some facilities have a staff member trained in Pulmonary Resuscitation on-site at all times, and some offer child care facilities. Make sure that the club you choose has the right combination of location, facilities and resources to meet your needs. If anything about any of the staff turns you off, better cross that place off your list.

      Take a test drive

      Ask if the health club allows free trial visits so that you can see if the facility is a good fit for you. Working out at the club will also give you the chance to ask current members about the facility. However, as with any "free trials," danger abounds. has received many complaints from consumers who thought they were getting a free trial, only to find they were signed up for a one-year membership. If the club asks for a credit card for a free trial, this is a very bad sign. Ask them why they need it. If they say it is for a deposit, ask them how much is the deposit and offer to write a check. If you give them your credit card, they can place charges against it and you will be left trying to dispute them. Also, beware of signing up with a club that hasn't opened its doors, no matter how good the offer sounds.

      Pay attention to your contract

      Don't take any hasty action. Take the contract home and read it carefully before you sign. Make sure you understand the cancellation policy, the services included, and the total cost. Stay away from clubs that pressure you to sign on the spot. Be certain that everything you've been promised is included in the final written version of your contract. If you sign up, do not leave the club without a copy of your signed contract. Consider a short-term contract rather than a two or three year contract so you don't get stuck with a membership you don't use. Under some state laws, a health club contract cannot be longer than three years.

      Remember your right to cancel

      In many states, you can cancel your contract within three days of signing it. Find out what the law is in your state. Most clubs require you to cancel in writing, so pay particular attention to the part of the contract that spells out how you must tell the club if you decide to cancel.

      Watch out for automatic renewals

      Before you sign, ask if your contract really expires after a certain period of time or if it allows the club to renew it unless you specifically ask them not to. Some consumers have complained about contracts that are automatically renewed, or that require the consumer to take time-consuming steps to keep it from being renewed.

      If your health club expires before your membership does

      If your health club closes, contact your state attorney general. Over the past few years, Cooper says his office has been able to recover more than one million dollars for hundreds of North Carolinians who were members of health clubs, gyms or dating clubs that shut their doors.

      Finally, use's extensive database of complaints to learn what other consumers have experienced in dealing with health clubs.

      It's no secret that health clubs sign up many new members this time of year, when people make New Year resolutions to lose weight and get into shape....
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      Watch Out For Scammers Exploiting Haiti Earthquake

      Consumer advocates offer tips on vetting charities for donation

      Americans are opening their hearts and wallets to help the millions of people in Haiti devastated by the "horrific" earthquake that rocked the impoverished island country on Tuesday.

      But consumer advocates warn that some people asking for donations in the wake of this powerful quake could be scam artists trying to exploit the crisis, and generous donors, for their financial gain.

      "Whenever there is a major natural disaster, be it home or abroad, there are two things you can count on," Art Taylor, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance. "The first is the generosity of Americans to donate time and money to help victims, and the second is the appearance of poorly run and in some cases fraudulent charities."

      "Not only do Americans need to be concerned about avoiding fraud," Taylor added, "they also need to make sure their money goes to competent relief organizations that are equipped and experienced to handle the unique challenges of providing assistance."

      Before sending money to any organization that claims it's helping with relief efforts in Haiti, the BBB recommends the following:

      Be cautious when giving online, especially in response to spam messages and emails that provide links to relief organizations. After the Tsunami disaster in 2004, many fraudulent Web sites asking for money to help victims suddenly appeared.

      Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the disaster area. Unless the charity has staff in the region, it's difficult for emergency workers to quickly get in and provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical assistance. Groups like UNICEF,Mercy Corps, and The American Red Cross already have emergency workers in the devastated areas of Haiti. Consumers who want to donate immediately can text "HAITI" to "90999" and $10 will be automatically given to the Red Cross relief efforts. The fee will be charged to consumers' cell phone bills.

      Find out if the charity provides direct aid or if it's raising money for other groups. Some charities may raise money to pass along to relief organizations. In those cases, consumers can avoid a "middleman" by giving directly to charities that have a presence in the disaster region.

      Don't rely on the advice of bloggers, Web sites, or other third-party groups about which relief organizations to support. They may not have done their homework. The BBB's Web site has tools that consumers can use to research charities and relief organizations to verify they're legitimate and meet the consumer group's 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.

      Be leery of groups that claim 100 percent of donations will assist relief victims. All charities have fundraising and administrative costs.

      Hold off on donating to in-kind drives for food and clothing. These drives are well intentioned, but they may not be the quickest way to assist those in need unless the organization has the tools to distribute the donations. Ask charities about their transportation and distribution plans. And be wary of groups that are not experienced with disaster relief assistance.

      "Horrific" devastation

      The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked the tiny country of Haiti struck at 4:53 pm on Tuesday. The quake was centered about 14 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the countrys capitol that has a population of 2 million. But shock waves were felt as far away as the Dominican Republic.

      Reports of "horrific" devastation are widespread in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Thousands of homes, schools, and other buildings have collapsed. Bodies are piled up in the crowded streets as Haitians frantically search the rubble for loved ones. Officials say an untold number of people remain trapped in the crumbled ruins.

      Haiti's Prime Minister Prime Jean-Max Bellerive estimates the death toll could be 100,000. But another official said that figure could climb to 500,000.

      President Barack Obama today deployed the first teams of rescuers, search dogs, and heavy equipment to the disaster scene.

      "The people of Haiti will have the full support of the United States in the urgent effort to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble and to deliver the humanitarian relief -- the food, water and medicine -- that Haitians will need in the coming days," the president said.

      Relief organizations like the American Red Cross are already on the scene. The group has pledged $200,000 to help with relief efforts in Haiti, and said it's prepared to provide more assistance as needed.

      "Initial reports indicate widespread damage in Port au Prince, with continuing aftershocks," Tracy Reines, director of international disaster response for the American Red Cross, said. "As with most earthquakes, we expect to see immediate needs for food, water, temporary shelter, medical services and emotional support."

      The Red Cross also said it's ready to send all the relief supplies from its warehouse in Panama, which would provide basic needs for approximately 5,000 families in Haiti.

      Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said Americans worried about family members in Haiti should call its Operation Center at 1-888-407-4747.

      Watch Out For Scammers Exploiting Haiti Earthquake...
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      FTC Wins Case Against Marketers of Unproven Weight-Loss Products

      $2 million fine ordered in case of diet tea and Bio-Slim patch

      The marketers of an herbal tea and a diet patch have been ordered to pay nearly $2 million to the Federal Trade Commission for making deceptive claims that both products would let users to lose weight quickly without diet or exercise.

      For nearly two years before According to the FTC complaint, Bronson Partners, LLC and its officer, Martin Howard, marketed Chinese Diet Tea, telling consumers they could lose as much as six pounds a week by drinking one cup of the green tea after each meal to "neutralize the absorption of fattening foods." Advertising in national magazines such as USA Weekend and Clipper Magazine, the marketers charged $24.95 plus shipping and handling for a month's supply.

      Michele of Decatur, GA tells that she tried Chinese Diet Tea largely because it was endorsed by Oprah "and it didn't work. I truly believe these products are just being used because of the high profile celebrities like Oprah push their products."

      Also during this time, the marketers sold the Bio-Slim Patch, a diet patch that contained extracts from the fucus, garcinia, and guarana plants. The marketers instructed consumers to wear the patches 24 hours a day for at least three months, claiming that "repulsive, excess ugly fatty tissue will disappear at a spectacular rate due to the combination and synergy of these three natural ingredients."

      The marketers advertised the patch in national magazines and in a company catalog, and consumers paid $24.95 plus shipping and handling for a month's supply. has received a variety of complaints regarding the patch. Among them:

      • Linda of Dublin, OH: "This company doesn't provide any 'free' colon cleanse or a sample that is just to be $5.95 S&H. so don't fall for their false advertising. I did not get anything free but was charged $83.95 plus foreign transaction fees by my credit card for the sample. They refuse to offer a refund and I am being charged-end of story. I am going to complain to my credit card company to dispute.

      • Sharyn of Sugar Hill, GA: "Found Internet offer of a free trial, all I was supposed to pay was shipping and handling and now I'm billed $83.95 extra, I didn't receive any other product, I refuse to pay it. I am notifying my credit card to remove this debt. I feel that this charge is fraudulent.

      • Louisa of Weaverville, NC: "The products did not work and my money has not been refunded, even though I returned everything as instructed within the proper time frame.

      However, the company did respond to the complaint lodged by Louisa: "She claims that she returned the product in the proper manner, and her money was not refunded to her account. This is not accurate. Louisa had paid two of the three payments on her Kit when she returned it, and that money, $59.90 (two payments of $29.95) was month BEFORE Louisa made her comment on your site."

      In addition to ordering the nearly $2 million payment, citing "obvious and widespread" violations of the FTC Act, Judge Stefan R. Underhill of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut granted the FTC's request to prohibit the defendants from deceptively selling or advertising any weight-loss products.

      "Future violations of a similar nature would surely result in financial harm to consumers, and possible physical harm if consumers engage in risky weight-loss techniques in reliance on (the) defendants' misleading representations," the judge wrote in his ruling and order. He also ordered the defendants to help the FTC identify consumer victims who lost money on the products, so that restitution can be made.

      The FTC filed its complaint against Bronson Partners, LLC and Martin Howard as part of the"Big Fat Lie" law enforcement sweep in November 2004. The sweep targeted marketers of bogus weight-loss products, such as pills, powders, gels, green teas, and diet patches.

      In July 2008, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut granted the FTC's request for summary judgment against Howard and Bronson Partners, LLC, also doing business as New England Diet Center and Bronson Day Spa.

      FTC Wins Case Against Marketers of Unproven Weight-Loss Products...
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      Scam Alert: Scammers Target Mobile Banking Customers

      Phishing, lottery and census scams plaguing consumers

      You can do almost anything on your smartphone these days, including your banking. But be careful; two credit unions have warned member about a potentially dangerous mobile banking application distributed on mobile phone platforms.

      Bayport Credit Union, Newport News, Va., and First Technology Credit Union of Portland, Ore., have posted notices on their Websites urging members to avoid a mobile banking application that had appeared on the Android Marketplace, part of the Android mobile phone platform.

      Both credit unions noted that Google, which owns Android, has removed the applications, which they described as a means of phishing or fraudulently acquiring members financial information from the platform. Both banks and credit unions appeared to have been targeted in the fraud attempt, according to Credit Union Times, an industry Trade publication.

      Same old scam

      Scammers never grow tired of a scheme that works, and it appears they've started 2010 by pulling out an oldie - the fake lottery scam. Media reports Tuesday report seniors in Pennsylvania have been getting phone calls informing them they've won a lottery or contest. They are instructed to wire money to cover a "processing fee."

      The same scam has been reported this week in North Carolina. Police in Wilmington says the caller will sometimes mention Publishers Clearing House or some other recognizable entity to gain credibility.

      Of course, there is no lottery or contest and it should be pointed out that you cannot win a contest that you did not enter.

      Census scam

      The U.S. Census bureau will count Americans in 2010 and scammers are already posing as census takers to scam them. The Better Business Bureau says its has received reports of an email circulating on the Internet claiming to be from the BBB and advising recipients to provide sensitive date for the Census. The BBB says those bogus emails should be deleted.

      Real Census takers will have an ID badge, a letter from the Director of the Census Bureau and probably a hand-held device that they use to plug in information. They'll be knocking on doors starting in April, but if you mail in your census information, you won't have someone knocking on your door.

      Keep up with other scams in's Scam Alerts section.

      Scam Alert: Scammers Target Mobile Banking Customers...
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      BPA Linked to Increased Risk of Heart Disease

      Industry group says British study doesn't establish cause-and-effect relationship

      By Lisa Wade McCormick

      January 13, 2010
      Another study is raising concerns about human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) this time finding a significant link between the chemical and cardiovascular disease.

      The study released late Tuesday night by the Peninsula Medical School and University of Exeter found that higher exposure to BPA -- a chemical used in plastic water bottles, baby bottles, and food can linings -- was consistently linked to heart disease in American adults.

      This new study, Association of Urinary Bisphenol A Concentration with Heart Disease, also confirms earlier findings by the United Kingdom researchers that showed a link between BPA exposure and heart disease. Those findings appeared in the 2008 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). British researchers said this new study rules out the possibility that their previous findings were a statistical blip.

      From two completely separate samples of the US adult population, we conclude that higher BPA exposure, reflected in higher urinary concentrations of BPA, is consistently associated with reported heart disease in the general adult population of the US, according to the studys authors. Their analysis is now published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

      Despite these latest findings, researchers are quick to point out their study isnt conclusive.

      We can't say conclusively from our data that having high BPA concentrations causes heart disease, Professor Tamara S. Galloway, one of the study's authors, told It could be the other way around -- that something about having heart disease changes the way that a person metabolizes the chemical. Or alternatively, there could be another factor, say a lifestyle factor, that is common to both groups.

      She added: This is what's called a cross-sectional study. That means that it looks at what is happening at one particular time. In the samples we studied, there was a statistical association between having a higher concentration of bisphenol A metabolites in your urine and prevalence of heart disease.


      An industry group that represents top chemistry companies downplayed the study, saying it didnt establish a cause-and-effect relationship between BPA exposure and heart disease. The American Chemistry Council also said BPA is safe in food and beverage packaging.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees that products containing BPA are safe. But the agency is conducting a risk assessment of the chemical.

      These latest findings add to the growing number of studies that have linked BPA exposure to serious health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, liver-enzyme abnormalities, prostate and breast cancer, early onset of puberty, and obesity.

      A 2009 study uncovered a link between BPA exposure in early pregnancy and aggression and hyperactivity in the women's two-year-old daughters.

      Previous animal studies have also found that prenatal BPA exposure is linked to impaired learning, aggression, and alterations in addictive behavior in rodents.

      Manufacturers have used BPA for years to make plastics and resins. More than six millions tons of the chemical are produced each year and used in everything from plastic baby bottles to compact disks. Scientists say most people are exposed to BPA through their diets, specifically from food and beverage containers made with the chemical.

      Found in urine

      Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health recently found that BPA leaches from polycarbonate bottles -- those hard, plastic drinking and baby bottles -- and winds up in the urine of people who drink from them. Polycarbonate is a shatter-proof plastic made with BPA.

      Young children can also be exposed to the chemical if they chew on products may with BPA.

      A recent analysis by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) illustrated the widespread exposure of BPA in humans. The study found BPA in the urine of more than 90 percent of the people tested. In this latest study, British researchers analyzed data collected in 2005-2006 from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

      The 720 men and 773 women in the study -- ages 18-74 -- provided urine samples that were tested for BPA. In the 2008 study, researchers examined NHANES data from 2003-2004. Scientists who analyzed that information -- the worlds first large-scale data on urinary BPA concentrations -- found a link between BPA and coronary heart disease, diabetes, and raised liver enzymes.

      Researchers wanted to see if those associations were present in the new NHANES data.

      With the kind of cross-sectional study that we performed, one of the important things is to be able to replicate the findings, for example, to show that the association between BPA exposure and health effects is present in another, separate population, Professor Galloway told us. This makes it much less likely that the findings are the result of chance. That's what this study set out to do.

      Galloway and her colleagues confirmed the link between BPA exposure and heart disease in the new data studied, but found a weaker association with Type 2 diabetes.

      But BPA is still associated with this condition when we combine all the available data, researchers said, adding associations with some liver enzymes were also found.

      Researchers noted one difference with the new data analyzed the urinary BPA concentrations were one-third lower than those in the 2008 study. We dont have data on the reasons for this change. Professor Galloway said she and her colleagues arent calling for legislative leaders to change laws governing the use of BPA because of their latest findings.

      I'm sure that policy makers will view this study alongside all of the existing knowledge on the safety of bisphenol A before making any decisions about its safety, she said.

      What about current strategies used to prevent heart disease and diabetes, like losing weight and quitting smoking? What impact will the study have on those recommendations?

      There is nothing in our study to change the normal health advice to people on reducing their risks of heart disease or diabetes, Professor Galloway said. But the study, she said, does indicate that more research is needed to determine the health effects on humans from BPA exposure.

      More study needed

      As researchers we now need to investigate what causes these health risk associations in more detail and to clarify whether they are caused by BPA itself or by some other factor linked to BPA exposure, Professor Galloway said. The risks associated with exposure to BPA may be small, but they are relevant to very large numbers of people. This information is important because it provides a great opportunity for intervention to reduce the risks.

      The American Chemistry Council rebuffed these latest findings, saying researchers made an unscientific leap.

      Studies of this type are very limited in what they tell us about potential impacts on human health, said Steven G. Hentges, Ph.D., of the American Chemistry Councils Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group. While they can provide helpful information on where to focus future research, by themselves they cannot and should not be used to demonstrate that a particular chemical can cause a particular effect.

      The public should be confident that BPA is one of the most studied chemicals, he added. Regulatory bodies from around the world have recently completed scientific evaluations and found BPA safe in food-contact products, including canned foods and beverages.

      The FDA -- for now also says BPA is safe. But the agency is reviewing previous studies on human exposure to the chemical.

      Missed deadline

      FDA officials, however, missed their promised 2009 deadline to let the public know if the thousands of products made with BPA posed any health risks to humans.

      At this time, FDA is not recommending that anyone discontinue using products that contain BPA while we continue our risk assessment process, the agency states on its Web site. However, concerned consumers should know that several alternatives to polycarbonate baby bottles exist, including glass baby bottles.

      The FDA adds: Based on our ongoing review, we believe there is a large body of evidence that indicates that FDA-regulated products containing BPA currently on the market are safe and that exposure levels to BPA from food contact materials, including for infants and children, are below those that may cause health effects.

      But several companies that make plastic baby bottles have already stopped using BPA in their products because of scientific studies that found possible links between the chemical and adverse heath effects.

      In 2009, six companies announced they will no longer use polycarbonate plastic bottles for baby products in the U.S.: Avent America, Inc; Disney First Years; Dr. Brown; Evenflo Co.; Gerber; and Playtex Products, Inc. The retail giant Wal-Mart also stopped stop selling baby bottles that contain BPA.

      Several states have enacted legislation to ban or limit the use of BPA in consumer products, too. Canada also banned the import and use of BPA in baby feeding bottles, sippy cups, and pacifiers.

      But there are currently no federal regulations regarding the use of BPA in U.S. products, researchers say.

      What to do?

      What steps can consumers take to reduce their exposure to BPA?

      The National Institute of Environmental Health Studies recommends the following:

      • Use BPA-free baby bottles;

      • Dont microwave food containers made with polycarbonate plastic. Polycarbonate may break down from over-use at high temperatures;

      • Reduce the use of canned foods;

      • Use food containers made of glass, porcelain, or stainless steel whenever possible, especially for hot foods and liquids;

      • Avoid buying plastic products made with BPA. Those products may have the recycling number 7 on the bottom.

      BPA Linked to Increased Risk of Heart Disease...
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      California Sues E-cigarette Marketer

      Claims product targets kids

      If you're thinking about trying one of those electronic cigarettes in an effort to kick the tobacco habit, California Attorney General Jerry Brown has some advice: don't.

      Brown has sued the Florida-based electronic-cigarette retailer Smoking Everywhere for making what he says are "misleading and irresponsible" claims that electronic cigarettes are a safe alternative to smoking. He also says the company has targeted minors with its marketing.

      "Smoking Everywhere launched a misleading and irresponsible advertising campaign targeting minors and claiming that electronic cigarettes do not contain harmful chemicals," Brown said. "We are asking the court to take these cigarettes off the market until the company has proven the products are safe."

      Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-operated devices with nicotine cartridges designed to look and feel like conventional cigarettes. Instead of actual smoke, e-cigarettes produce a vapor from the nicotine cartridge that is inhaled by the user. Smoking Everywhere, one of the largest e-cigarette retailers in the United States, claims in its advertisements that the e-cigarettes have no carcinogens, no tar, no second-hand smoke, and are therefore safe and healthy.

      However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that electronic cigarettes contain a variety of dangerous chemicals, including nicotine, carcinogens such as nitrosamines and, in at least one case, diethylene glycol, commonly known as antifreeze.

      Today's lawsuit seeks to prevent the company from selling its products until there is evidence to substantiate its claims that they are safe. The lawsuit will also require the products to display the state-mandated Proposition 65 warnings of ingredients known to cause cancer or reproductive harm and seeks to prevent the company from making false and misleading claims and promoting the products to minors.

      Howard Stern as pitchman

      In one advertisement targeted to minors, Smoking Everywhere featured a video with radio show host Howard Stern claiming, "kids love 'em." The products feature flavors that appeal to youth, including strawberry, chocolate, mint, banana and cookies-and-cream.

      Other ads claim that electronic cigarettes can help people quit smoking. To be advertised as a smoking-cessation device, a product must be approved by the FDA for that purpose. In fact, none of Smoking Everywhere's products have been approved by the FDA, Brown says.

      The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and other groups have expressed serious concerns about the safety of electronic cigarettes and urged that they be removed from the market until proof of their safety has been established.

      Read what the experts say about e-cigarettes.

      California Sues E-cigarette Marketer...
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      Louisiana Files Chinese Drywall Suit

      State claims tax revenues have fallen because of toxic drywall

      The state of Louisiana is the latest to wade into the Chinese drywall battle, as Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell filed suit today in Orleans Parish against multiple entities associated with Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin (KOT), the Chinese company that manufactured most of the drywall at issue.

      Caldwell's suit also names other international and domestic manufacturers, distributors, importers of toxic Chinese drywall as well as several builders, alleging the State of Louisiana has and will continue to suffer economic loss because of the defective and toxic Chinese drywall.

      Caldwell said gases released by the drywall are causing various health problems, including difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, respiratory problems, coughing, recurring headaches, heart disease, neuron-behavioral problems, sore throats, throat infection, eye irritation, irritated and itchy skin, bloody noses, runny noses, allergic reactions and sinus infections.

      Additionally, Caldwell said, the corrosive effects of the drywall on wiring and household appliances is creating potential fire hazards.

      He alleged that the drywall creates fire hazards in two different ways. First, the corrosion of electrical wiring, in electrical equipment and gas lines can result in electrical or gas fires. Second, the corrosive effects of the drywall is damaging the wiring in smoke detectors, fire alarms, and sprinkler systems, possibly causing them to malfunction.

      Over 1.1 million sheets of Defendants drywall imported through the Port of New Orleans was used in the construction, repair, or rebuilding of Louisiana homes and buildings after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita since 2005 as well as in new home construction.

      The suit alleges the state has suffered the loss of expected state income tax, sales tax, property tax and other revenues as well as costs related to remediation and disposal of contaminated drywall.

      Caldwell noted that his suit was not filed to pursue private claims of homeowners. He said individual homeowners should contact a private attorney of their choice should they believe they have Chinese drywall in their home.

      Lots of litigation

      Caldwell's lawsuit is the latest in a virtual blizzard of litigation. A gargantuan class action complaint was filed in a Louisiana federal court in December. It is being brought on behalf of approximately 2,100 individual residents of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, represented by a number of firms.

      The action's lead plaintiff is none other than Sean Payton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints. 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.

      Louisiana Files Chinese Drywall Suit...
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      California Lawmakers Consider Legalizing Marijuana Sales

      Supporters say tax revenue could raise nearly $1 billion

      California, struggling with budget deficits and growing debt, is seriously eyeing the legalization of marijuana as the answer to its money woes. A key legislative committee this week approved a bill that would tax and regulate the sale of marijuana.

      According to the bill, which was introduced almost a year ago, marijuana would be treated much the same way the state treats the sale of alcohol; you would have to be over 21 years of age to possess it, to smoke it, or to grow it.

      And then there's the tax. Assembly Bill 390 would impose a fee of $50 per ounce on legal sales of marijuana.

      Supporters say the money would be used for eradication of illegal drugs and other drug-related issues, but there is no doubt lawmakers are eyeing the tax as at least one answer to California's budget crisis. Supporters say the marijuana tax could raise nearly $1 billion a year.

      While the measure is controversial, it has some unexpected backers. A group of former police officers, judges and prosecutors, calling itself Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), has advocated pot legalization for some time. It is throwing its support behind Assembly Bill 390.

      Revenue source

      "In our current economic climate, we simply cannot afford to keep arresting more than three people every minute in the failed 'war on drugs,'" said Jack Cole, a retired undercover narcotics detective who now heads LEAP. "Plus, if we legalized and taxed drug sales, we could actually create new revenue in addition to the money we'd save from ending the cruel policy of arresting users."

      Another LEAP official, retired Orange County California Supreme Court Judge Jim Gray, says the state's economic crisis gives the group hope the measure can pass. A year ago, he says, it would never have gotten out of committee.

      Now that it's passed the Public Safety Committee, the legalization measure will come up for a vote before the full Assembly. It will be the first time any state has considered repealing the prohibition on marijuana, which was imposed at the federal level in 1913.

      And for California, and any other state considering a tax on legal pot sales, that's where their hopes could go up in smoke. Federal agencies will not change their policies and enforcement procedures based on actions of a state legislation. For proof, Californian need look no further than to the previous administration in Washington, which instructed the Drug Enforcement Agency to continue making marijuana use arrests, even though the state allowed some uses for medical reasons.

      To prevent federal laws and regulations from pre-empting the state's legalization measure, California would need to persuade Congress to change federal drug laws. LEAP is working at the federal level too, arguing that the "war on drugs" has failed and that some drugs like marijuana should be controlled and taxed, not prohibited.

      California Lawmakers Consider Legalizing Pot...
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      AT&T;, Motorola, Qwest, V-Tech Telephone Batteries Recalled

      Lenmar Enterprises is recalling about 1,400 rechargeable batteries used in wireless phones. The batteries can overheat, posing a fire and burn hazard to consumers.

      The firm has received six reports of batteries overheating, resulting in deformation of phones. No injuries have been reported.

      The recall involves the rechargeable batteries with the model number CB0217 2.4 volt 1500 mAh NiMH. Only batteries with date code 0809 are affected by this recall. The date code can be found on the back of the battery. The batteries were sold as replacement batteries for the following phones:


      The batteries were sold to electrical product distributors and retailers nationwide and at from July 2009 through August 2009 for about $18. They were made in China.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled batteries and contact Lenmar to receive a free replacement.

      Consumer Contact: Consumers can contact Lenmar at (800) 424-2703 between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or visit the companys Web site at

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

      AT&T, Motorola, Qwest, V-Tech Telephone Batteries Recalled...
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      Oregon Blocks California Loan Modification Firm

      Law firm was charging advance fee for services

      States have taken action in recent weeks against companies that exploit homeowner desperation with advance fee loan modification scams. Oregon is the latest state to take action.

      The Oregon Department of Justice recently investigated allegations that the California-based USMAC Law Group violated state law by collecting advance fees for loan modifications aimed at preventing foreclosure sales. The investigation also focused on allegedly deceptive infomercial advertising for the firm's loan modification program that was broadcast nationally on satellite television as well as allegedly non-compliant contract language.

      As a result, the USMAC Law Group is prohibited from doing loan modifications in Oregon and must pay $28,857 under a settlement with the Oregon Department of Justice.

      "I will not hesitate to take action against companies that attempt to take advantage of Oregon homeowners in distress," said Oregon Attorney General John Kroger.

      The 2008 Oregon Mortgage Rescue Fraud Protection Act prohibits loan modification companies from collecting advance fees and using confusing contract language.

      The settlement will provide a total of $6,857 in refunds to two Oregon consumers. Nine additional Oregon consumers who contracted with The USMAC Law Group may also be eligible for refunds.

      The company also must pay $22,000 to the Oregon Department of Justice and cease doing loan modification work in Oregon. The settlement, in which The USMAC Law Group admits no wrongdoing, was filed in Marion County Circuit Court.

      Cracking down on unscrupulous loan modification work is part of a comprehensive strategy by the Department of Justice, the Department of Consumer and Business Services, the Oregon Legislature and consumer groups to fight the foreclosure crisis. Other states around the nation have taken similar action as foreclosures continue to mount.

      "Homeowners should be wary of companies that offer to help modify mortgages for a fee," said Cory Streisinger, director of the Department of Consumer and Business Services. "If you're struggling with your mortgage, nonprofit foreclosure counselors can provide better help - and they won't charge you."

      Oregon Blocks Loan Modification Firm...
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      Class Action Says Chicago Mass Transit Discriminates Against Minorities

      Points to disparities between city transportation and commuter rail

      A class action lawsuit alleges that funding for Chicago-area transit is administered in a manner that blatantly discriminates against minorities. The suit, filed on January 6, claims that Chicago overfunds commuter railroads at the expense of the city's storied L subway system.

      The lawsuit concedes that most of the $1 billion annual transportation budget is spent on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which oversees the L and city buses, but says the Authority's sheer number of passengers means that it remains shortchanged.

      The complaint says that the CTA has received around 87 cents per passenger trip since 2000; in the same amount of time, commuter railroad Metra received $4.42 per trip. According to the suit, the budget gap is the result of longstanding racism; around 70 percent of Metra riders are white, while 60 percent of CTA riders are African American or Hispanic.

      The suit is being handled by civil-rights firm Howard Ashley Watkins & Weltman and a clinic at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

      Its about peoples livelihoods, lead plaintiff Manuel Munguia told the Chicago Sun-Times. Its really about getting the access we deserve, to education, to good jobs, and ultimately, to opportunity and prosperity.

      The plaintiffs contend that the funding disparity is a result of the decades-old Council Wars, which pitted black mayor Harold Washington against a group of white politicians in the Chicago City Council and, later, the Illinois General Assembly. The Council Wars, which lasted from 1983 to 1986, saw 29 aldermen vote down all mayoral proposals and appointments.

      Judy Pardonnet, a Metra spokeswoman, scoffed at the allegations, and said that the rail system categorically denies any type of racial discrimination. Pardonnet added that a lot of information stated in the lawsuit [is] not true.

      The suit drew quick support from several area politicians. Jesse Jackson Jr., a U.S. Congressman widely believed to be interested in City Hall, scolded the state legislature for ignoring our communities for too long.

      Mayor Richard Daley took a more cautious tone, agreeing that a funding disparity exists between the two systems but refusing to explicitly call the gap racist. Daley said there has been a lack of funding for the CTA over many, many years, and that he hoped the suit would draw wider attention to the problem.

      The plaintiffs will likely have an uphill climb in proving their case. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that merely proving the disparate racial effects of a policy isn't enough; a plaintiff must show that the policy actually makes racially-based distinctions.

      The CTA is the second-largest transit system in the country, second only to New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which also oversees that city's commuter railroads, bridges, and tunnels. Barring a breakthrough in union negotiations, the CTA will cut rail and bus service by nine and 18 percent, respectively, on February 7.

      Class Action Says Chicago Mass Transit Discriminates Against Minorities...
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      Ohio Consumer Complaints Hit Record in 2009

      Automotive complaints, debt collection top the list

      2009 will go down in history as a year when Ohio consumers had enough. Attorney General Richard Cordray today released his office's consumer complaint numbers, which reached a historic high with 30,259 complaints, up 20 percent from 2008.

      "Last year was extremely challenging financially for many Ohioans," said Cordray. "We're counting our pennies and weighing each purchase. There is no tolerance for companies that fail to deliver on their promises. Ohio consumers have had enough, and we're seeing them speak out in numbers we haven't seen in the past."

      Through the office's complaint resolution process and legal action, approximately $7 million in consumer restitution, civil penalties, costs and other relief was generated in 2009.

      "It is our priority to ensure that Ohio consumers are treated fairly and have recourse from deceptive practices," said Cordray. "In 2009, largely in answer to consumer complaints, we filed 37 cases against companies that were taking advantage of Ohioans."

      The Attorney General's office posted the full report online at

      The year's top 10 complaints concerned:

      • Motorized vehicles (buying a car, auto repair services, receiving titles from dealers)

      • Collections, credit reporting and financial services (wrong information on credit reports, credit repair services, collection calls for debts not owed)

      • Household goods and property improvement (roofing, driveway repair, general contractors)

      • Internet and phone

      • Shopping, food and beverages

      • Mortgage (lenders, servicers, foreclosure rescue companies)

      • Computers and electronics

      • Professional services

      • Health and beauty

      • Utilities

      Attorney General Richard Cordray today released his office's consumer complaint numbers, which reached a historic high with 30,259 complaints....
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      Medicine 2.0: Taking Your Health Into Your Own Hands

      ePochondria pandemic drives millions to self-inflicted medical malpractice

      Once upon a time, people said that television had killed the art of conversation. Such a notion seems almost quaint now that we have the internet. Who hasn't been told in answer to a question:

      "Why are you asking me? Just Google it."

      And we do. Search engines have become our sources of gossip and news, our advisors on what we should buy, our pick-up scene, our all-encompassing (and sometimes woefully inaccurate) encyclopedia and, increasingly, Google and Co. are becoming our doctors, too. Think of any given health problem and I'll bet you $100 without even looking that there are numerous Web pages dedicated to it, a patient's forum and probably a Facebook group as well.

      So what's the problem? We're living in the Information Age, after all surely it's a good thing if patients can research their own conditions and treatments. That way they can work alongside their doctors on the road to healing!

      I just had to take a five-minute break. The last sentence made me laugh too much. The reason can be summed up in a gem of 90's slang, TMI Too Much Information and I doubt there's a general practitioner in the country who isn't nodding their head as they read this. It's one thing to inform yourself, another to understand what you have read and put it in context.

      A couple of years back I went to stay with an American guy and his Italian girlfriend in Sicily that I met through a hospitality exchange site. While they seemed a pleasant couple, I couldn't help but notice she handled all the money, including his bank cards. When she and I went out shopping one morning, she told me why:

      He's an alcoholic, she explained. I had to let him move in with me because it had gone too far. When we were just dating he called me up one night to say goodbye forever because he was dying of a heart attack. Of course I rushed round at once with an ambulance but it turned out his chest pains were actually caused by acid reflux. He'd been drinking too much cheap red wine.

      Hit by sudden pains in the chest, her boyfriend had immediately consulted Google and pulled up a plethora of pages about heart attacks. Had he read a little more carefully, he might have worked out there were more probable explanations but, in a state of drunken anxiety, he jumped to the worst-case scenario, not bothering with the small print.

      Of course, assisted hypochondria is nothing new. Before the internet there was the well-known phenomenon of Medical School-itis where students of medicine passed the long winter evenings by poring over lists of symptoms, slowly talking themselves into suffering from rare and incurable diseases. And these were intelligent young students, trained to read between the lines and come to sober conclusions. But humans will be humans and when it comes to worrying about our health, it would seem that the old New York Graffiti still holds true: Hypochondria is the only disease I haven't got.

      Full Disclosure

      At this stage I should admit that I'm something of a hypochondriac myself. Within two minutes of making the acquaintance of a doctor, I'm usually pulling up my shirt to ask them to look at my moles and tell me if I have cancer or not. I guess I always wanted to die young like my rock star heroes and now that I'm past 30, it's getting a bit late in the day. I'm not even famous yet. Consumer Journalist Dies Young just wouldn't make the papers.

      So when I had some bad stomach cramps last summer, I was on the net like a shot. I tried out but it couldn't offer me anything more exciting than constipation as an explanation for my condition. The site did, however, offer me another potential five diagnoses if I was prepared to shell out $17.

      Trusting that everything can be found for free on the Internet if you look hard enough, I surfed on and came to, a name that inspired confidence. I entered my symptoms and clicked on abdominal pain, short-term, and found a flow chart which looked easy enough to follow.

      I discovered with relief that I wasn't having a miscarriage or an attack of appendicitis but then agreed that my pains did get worse when I ate greasy food. I learned to my horror that I was possibly suffering from gall stones and was advised to see my doctor at once. Following the chart I admitted to suffering from muscle aches and nausea recently and almost fainted as I was directed to a box that suggested I might have a kidney infection or even... a TUMOR.

      Yes, further down the page, constipation was also offered as a diagnosis but that quiet voice of reason was drowned by the competing neurotic voices in my head, the loudest of which was debating what, exactly, I would like my epitaph to be. I might have chosen "I told you I was ill" but numerous comedians, both known and obscure, have beaten me to it.

      To be fair, the site did include the disclaimer: "This tool has been reviewed by doctors and is for general educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for medical advice. The information in this tool should not be relied upon to make decisions about your health." But that was the equivalent of your dad telling you to drive carefully as he threw you the keys to the family car.

      Feeling it was now only responsible to fully assess my condition, I went to and was reassured to see a nice clickable image of a human body and was invited to use a pointer to locate my condition. I'd been at the computer for several hours at this point and my head was hurting. A list of symptoms came up and I hit anxiety at once. Did it get worse from emotional stress? It sure did! Especially when in the pop-out menu of associated conditions I saw epilepsy...

      Relucantly, I had to skip the b's and c's but any of my ex-girlfriends could have agreed with my difficulty to wake from sleep and I finished my session of cyberchondria learning that in addition to gall stones, a tumour and epilepsy, it could well be that I was a diabetic...

      Doctors recognize the lack of standards of health information on the net and some well-meaning professionals in Switzerland have founded Medhunt to usher surfers to respectable, credible sites for their research. But the design is dismal, the advice too sober and it's a drop of sense in a sea of hysteria.

      The Brave New World of Medicine 2.0

      The problem is that these days, health care lacks the context it once did. Granted, doctors of the past didn't have the benefit of the latest innovations in medicine but they often knew their patients well. Consultations took time, there was some personal rapport there was even a time when doctors visited their patients at home when they were ill.

      But just to show that history goes in cycles, it turns out that doctors are once again to be found in your bedroom. Sort of. As long as you're happy to bare all to a stranger in a white coat on your computer screen. A new generation of doctors are to be found on sites like or who will arrange appointments via webcam and order you the drugs you need. Best of all, you don't have to pick up any contagious diseases from other patients in the waiting room.

      And if the rates set by American doctors are too rich for your blood, you can always try your luck at somewhere like MedIndia, where you can get a doctor's opinion for just $15. The site claims its doctors have been trained in the U.S. or Britain and, to their credit, they do not prescribe or sell drugs.

      Of course, for some people, getting medicine with a prescription seems almost as 20th century as paying for music and video. Search Google for the drugs you want to buy online and any number of "reputable" websites will offer to post you packages of Viagra, Propecia or abortion pills once you enter your credit card number. They might first go through the motions of making you fill in a questionaire to seem more credible but essentially they're modern drug dealers. Here's one sales pitch I found:

      "You can buy prescription drugs online at incredibly cheap prices from online pharmacies and overseas drugstores directly from your computer and enjoy discreet deliveries to your home or office. Eliminate hassles and maximize savings on the prescription medication that you need with our service."

      Hassles like federal law. But it seems many Americans either don't know or care much about the harsh penalties for possessing pills of dubious origins without a prescription. According to the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, the illegal drug trade is expected to soar to $75 billion in 2010, up 90% from 2005,

      When I lived in India, many travelers paid for their trips by exporting incense, clothes or jewelry. It was common knowledge, however, that many also opted to take back more profitable commodities in their backpacks. So when a friend about to fly out of Delhi confided he was engaged in a spot of smuggling, I expected to see kilos of hashish in his hotel room. Instead he grinned foolishly as he dropped Viagra pills into empty vitamin pots.

      I sell them at the local pub! Pays for the flights! he chuckled.

      But it's not just a question of legality. The World Health Organization estimates that more than half the pills purchased online have been tampered with. The pills you order are often cheap for a reason: They're either out and out fakes or may contain toxic elements like paint in an attempt to resemble the originals.

      Worse yet, they may have been made in makeshift laboratories in India or Mexico and contain too much or too little of the active ingredient, posing a threat to your health.

      A Sense of Community

      If there's one thing the internet has done for health, however, it's to have created virtual communities of patients who previously suffered alone. Whether you're a hypochondriac like me or genuinely suffer from a medical condition, it's not much fun to worry about your symptoms by yourself but at places like people can discuss their illnesses, share tips and experiences with drugs and treatments and generally keep each other's morale up.

      I was living last year in Sardinia, an island off the Italian mainland and was camped on some land belonging to a local woman in her 50's. She had fibromyalgia and consequently felt exhausted a good part of the time, requiring that she took frequent naps and paid someone to take care of her vegetable patch. No one else in the nearby area had ever heard of the condition and behind her back said she was just lazy.

      As much as anything else, having no one to talk to about her disease infuriated her. I finally persuaded her to get an internet connection and a cheap laptop and, after some coaching on how to use a mouse and navigate the internet, she was hooked. She soon found forums where people all across the world suffered from fibromyalgia and, thereafter, each time I passed by to ask for some eggs from her chickens or to take a lettuce from the garden, I found her glued to her laptop, typing away with a painstaking single finger.

      Like life, the internet is what you make it.

      There's no way information can be regulated health advice on the net will only ever be as good as your common sense. If you're prepared to take pills made under dubious conditions in the developing world then there are any number of sites that will oblige you. If you want to prove to yourself you're dying, then just name your disease and you'll find symptoms to match.

      And if you can handle the thought of unburdening your health worries to strangers in a forum or consulting a doctor via a webcam... then the future has already arrived.

      On the other hand, it's good to remember that health is literally a life-and-death matter. A do-it-yourself mentality is fine if you're painting the bedroom but an occasional visit to a real, live diagnostician with M.D. after his or her name is still the only sane way to keep tabs on your health.


      Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveler -- sponsors of the Road Junky Travel Film Festival May 28.

      Medicine 2.0: Taking Your Health Into Your Own Hands...
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      Many Older Adults Still Use Illegal Drugs

      Aging boomers' drug use could strain future treatment resources

      When you think of people who use illegal drugs, you think first of young adults, like the hippies and flower children of the 60s. But those hippies have gray hair now, and increasingly it's Grandpa who's getting high.

      A new study done for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows a dramatic increase in illicit drug use among people over 50. Researchers say baby boomers who discovered marijuana, cocaine and other drugs as young people apparently haven't given it up.

      This isn't just a matter of concern for law enforcement, researchers say. With a portioin of the aging population have used their drugs over a lifetime, it could double the need for substance abuse treatment services by 2020.

      "This new data has profound implications for the health and well-being of older adults who continue to abuse substances," said SAMHSA Administrator, Pamela S. Hyde, J.D. "These findings highlight the need for prevention programs for all ages as well as to establish improved screening and appropriate referral to treatment as part of routine health care services."

      Substance abuse at any age is associated with numerous health and social problems, but age-related physiological and social changes make older adults more vulnerable to the harmful effect of illicit drugs use.

      "This study highlights the fact that older Americans face a wide spectrum of healthcare concerns that must be addressed in a comprehensive way," said Assistant Secretary for Aging, Kathy Greenlee. "The Administration on Aging is committed to working with SAMHSA and all other public health partners in meeting these challenges."

      The latest SAMHSA short report, Illicit Drug Use Among Older Adults, shows that an estimated 4.3 million adults aged 50 or older (4.7 percent) used an illicit drug in the past year. In fact, 8.5 percent of men aged 50 to 54 had used marijuana in the past year, as opposed to only 3.9 percent of women in this age group.

      The SAMHSA report also shows that marijuana use was more common than nonmedical use of prescription drugs among males 50 and older, but among females the rates of marijuana use and nonmedical use of prescription drugs were similar.

      Although marijuana use was more common than nonmedical use of prescription drugs for adults age 50 to 59, among those aged 65 and older, nonmedical use of prescription drugs was more common than marijuana.

      The report, which examines the prevalence of any illicit drug use, marijuana use, and nonmedical use of prescription drugs, is based on data collected during 2006 to 2008 from a nationally representative sample of 19, 921 adults aged 50 or older who participated in SAMHSA's National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

      If you think a friend or loved one is abusing cocaine, better read this.

      A new study done for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows a dramatic increase in illicit drug use among people over 50....
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      Google's Nexus One: Could It Be A Kindle Killer?

      Big screen, fast processor make for a pleasant reading experience

      The immediate take on Google's Nexus One phone was that, while slick, it was no iPhone killer. Could be, but after spending a few days with our new Nexus we find it replacing both the Kindle and our Blackberry as a must-have companion.

      When we got our first Kindle last March, we found it a perfectly satisfactory replacement not only for books but also for our daily dose of The Wall Street Journal (no walking down the driveway or trying to fold the paper while eating cereal).

      But over time, we have found the low-contrast Kindle screen a bit hard on the eyes and we've grown tired of listening to press baron Rupert Murdoch complain about how everyone is "stealing" his content. (Note to Rupert: I pay you for home delivery of the WSJ, for Web access and for the Kindle edition. Last time I checked, that's not theft).

      As for the Blackberry, it's a passable if bulky email device, a rather terrible telephone and not much else. If you wear it on your belt, it gets caught on everything and looks geeky. If you put it in your pocket, various keys get pressed as you move around, sending weird emails and placing calls to who knows who.

      We were initially perturbed to find that the Nexus One, though unlocked, was -- as they say, at the end of the day -- really only usable on the T-Mobile network, though it worked excellently on our in-house Wi-Fi. A quick visit to the nearest T-Mobile kiosk got us up and running with a month-to-month, no-contract plan.

      We have so far found T-Mobile's 3G network to rival our in-house Wi-Fi network for such everyday tasks as opening Web pages and scanning email. The big, beautiful high-resolution screen makes the Kindle display look like your third grade teacher's daily blackboard exercises. It makes the Blackberry look like a Model A Ford.

      It makes calls!

      We have also -- surprise -- found it be an excellent telephone. We've found it almost impossible to have a conversation on the Blackberry because of its constant drop-outs, fuzziness and other-worldly squawks and groans. But when we placed our first call on the Nexus One, we thought for a moment that we had accidentally picked up a wired phone by mistake.

      The audio quality was excellent, signal strength was consistent and -- most important -- the Nexus displayed outstanding duplex capability, meaning that two people could talk simultaneously without causing drop-outs and static.

      Speculation is that Google's strategic goal in selling its own phone is to give a boost to its Android operating system. If so, this is certainly the way to do it. The guys at the T-Mobile booth oohed and aahed over our Nexus One, the first one they had seen, the same reaction it's received from everyone except, of course, for iPhone fundamentalists who will brook no other orthodoxy than Apple.

      This and other Android-powered phones will most likely have their strongest appeal for those who use other Google products, including Gmail and Google Search. It will immediately synch up to your Gmail and Google Voice accounts, something that can be problematic on other phones.

      Physically, the Nexus looks pretty much like an iPhone, although it is a little bit thinner and lighter. Inside, it has a faster processor, a bit more memory and higher-resolution graphics. The battery is huge, which should make for long charge times.

      Navigation, music, games and all the other must-haves all seem to work just fine, though we haven't had a lot of time to try them out.

      Kindle Killer?

      So what's all this have to do with the Kindle?

      Maybe nothing, but for months I have carried my Kindle around the way an addict carries a pack of cigarettes. When waiting at Starbucks, sitting glumly in a cab or subway or getting in some couch time, my first impulse has been to switch on the Kindle and read whatever I haven't yet gotten to in the Journal.

      But the last few days, the Kindle has been left at home to keep the Blackberry company. When idle time presents itself, I flick on the Nexus One to scan Google News (eat your heart out, Rupert) and get up to date on whatever foolishness or horror has most recently afflicted what's left of the civilized world.

      When in the horizontal mode, the Nexus screen looks huge and it's a snap to enlarge or shrink a particular page. With Google rapidly scanning books of all descriptions, it's only a matter of time, one suspects, before ordering up a free (if ad-infested) book on the Nexus will be as easy as ordering a Kindle copy from Amazon.

      No doubt next-generation Kindles will have bigger, or at least better screens, but whether they'll have everything else the Android system can offer is debatable.

      From what we've seen so far, the Nexus One is about as close to having the power of a desktop in your pocket as you're likely to get. One word of caution: Be sure you understand that the current model is compatible only with T-Mobile and, perhaps, certain regional carriers. You can't use it on your Verizon, AT&T or Sprint account. See our earlier review for the details.

      Google's Nexus One: Could It Be A Kindle Killer?...
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      Ford Improves In-Car Internet Radio

      New SYNC technology upgrade said to enhance experience

      It's only a matter of time before car entertainment systems are replaced by Internet-connected devices. At the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Ford has brought that day closer, not with a car-mounted computer, but an in-dash interface that connects with existing devices.

      Ford's reasoning is simple. Tech-savvy consumers already have a smartphone or other device that connects to the Internet and can access information and entertainment media. What they need is a better, safer way in which to access it while in the car.

      Ford unveiled its voice-recognition SYNC technology at the 2007 CES. Based on the Microsoft Auto platform, it allowed drivers and passengers to connect portable media players to their vehicle and interact with devices and vehicle systems through spoken commands. At the time, MP3 players were the devices of choice.

      Since then, smartphones and netbooks have come along, and PC tablets are on the horizon, allowing consumers to access, not just music, but all types of information available on the Internet. At this year's CES, Ford rolled out a new in-car device control interface called MyFord Touch. It is designed to make it easier to interact these increasingly complex devices while minimizing driver distraction. For example, one app will read aloud a recipients text messages while the device is connected. Some apps will work only when the car is in park.

      In-dash screens

      The new system features a pair of 4.2-inch LCD screens, with five-way button controls built into the steering wheel. In addition, there's an eight inch touch screen and, of course, SYNC's voice command technology.

      Rather than include a computer that will become obsolete long before the vehicle, Ford's technology will be an elaborate interface used to control the consumer's existing device, such as a smartphone. MyFordTouch will make it easier, for example, to call up and play Internet radio stations. Easy access to other entertainment channels could soon be in the works.

      Ford is working with Electrobit, a provider of embedded software solutions to the automotive and wireless industries, to create an interface to allow phone application developers access to SYNC. Thus an application programming interface (API), which acts as programming interface for a particular phone platform, will enable phone software developers to create new applications for the vehicle, taking advantage of the input mechanisms and vehicle data the Ford SYNC platform provides.

      "For example, it took only a few weeks to develop a phone demo application providing the vehicle occupants with Ford SYNC control of Pandora Internet radio stations," said Artur Seidel, vice president and general manager, automotive software, Elektrobit Inc. "This is an application that I use on my phone and would like to see integrated with my vehicles infotainment system. The convergence between automotive and consumer devices that Ford SYNC provides keeps accelerating."

      High-tech Taurus

      The interface has already impressed the auto industry, with naming the 2010 Ford Taurus, which has the new system, with its Technology Breakthrough Award.

      "We chose the 2010 Ford Taurus to receive the first annual Breakthrough Technology Award because the vehicle offers an extensive and impressive array of electronic amenities that also represent an excellent value for consumers," said Doug Newcomb, senior technology editor,

      Ford executives think consumers have been pleased with the company's initial technology systems and have high hopes for the upgrade.

      "According to our research, 32 percent of customers surveyed indicate that SYNC was critical or important to their decision to purchase," Ford CEO Alan Mulally said in a CES keynote speech. "And with each SYNC upgrade, we see growth in heavy users."

      Ford expects 80 percent of its fleet to carry the new technology within five years. However, safety advocates concerned about driver distractions like texting and talking on cell phones might have reservations about the plethora of new data available in the front seat.

      Ford, for its part, says its system will reduce distractions, not create them.

      "That's the whole point of SYNC technology -- to minimize the distraction of in-car use of mobile devices you love by connecting and controlling them by voice," said Ford VP of global product development Derrick Kuzak.

      Ford Improves In-Car Internet Radio...
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      Study: Cell Phone Exposure May Protect Against And Reverse Alzheimer's Disease

      Research indicates long-term exposure to cell phone signals may boost normal memory

      For several years now, we've been warned of the possible dangers of cell phone use. In fact, a lawmaker in Maine wants to make her state the first to require cell phones to carry warnings that they can cause brain cancer. And San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom wants his city to be the nation's first to require warnings.

      But -- if you will -- hold the phone for a moment. A new study in mice led by University of South Florida researchers at the Florida Alzheimer's Disease Research Center (ADRC) provides evidence that long-term exposure to electromagnetic waves associated with cell phone use may actually protect against, and even reverse, Alzheimer's disease.

      "It surprised us to find that cell phone exposure, begun in early adulthood, protects the memory of mice otherwise destined to develop Alzheimer's symptoms," said lead author Gary Arendash, PhD, USF Research Professor at the Florida ADRC. "It was even more astonishing that the electromagnetic waves generated by cell phones actually reversed memory impairment in old Alzheimer's mice."

      Regarding the risk of brain cancer that some researchers believe is posed by prolonged cell phone use, Arendash told that the Interphone Study, which was initiated several years ago by the World Health Organization (WHO), goes a long way toward allaying such concerns.

      Arendash says many of the countries that took party in that study have said independently they have found "absolutely no effects on brain cancer."

      He says the claim that longer-term cell phone use doubles the risk of brain cancer needs to be put into perspective. According to Arendash, the risk of brain cancer normally is "1 in 200, so a doubling the risk is 1 in 100. That is still at or below one percent. That is still a minimal risk, even if they are correct, which I don't believe they are."

      According to the study, results of which are published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, exposing old Alzheimer's mice to electromagnetic waves generated by cell phones erased brain deposits of the harmful protein beta-amyloid, in addition to preventing the protein's build-up in younger Alzheimer's mice.

      Sticky plaques

      The sticky brain plaques formed by the abnormal accumulation of beta amyloid are a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. Most treatments against Alzheimer's try to target beta-amyloid.

      The highly-controlled study allowed researchers to isolate the effects of cell phone exposure on memory from other lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise. It involved 96 mice, most of which were genetically altered to develop beta-amyloid plaques and memory problems mimicking Alzheimer's disease as they aged. Some were non-demented, without any genetic predisposition for Alzheimer's, so researchers could test the effects of electromagnetic waves on normal memory as well.

      Both the Alzheimer's and normal mice were exposed to the electromagnetic field generated by standard cell phone use for two 1-hour periods each day for seven to nine months.

      The mice didn't wear tiny headsets or have scientists holding cell phones up to their ears; instead, their cages were arranged around a centrally-located antenna generating the cell phone signal. Each animal was housed the same distance from the antenna and exposed to electromagnetic waves typically emitted by a cell phone pressed up against a human head.

      If cell phone exposure was started when the genetically-programmed mice were young adults -- before signs of memory impairment were apparent -- their cognitive ability was protected. In fact, the Alzheimer's mice performed as well on tests measuring memory and thinking skills as aged mice without dementia.

      If older Alzheimer's mice already exhibiting memory problems were exposed to the electromagnetic waves, their memory impairment disappeared. Months of cell phone exposure even boosted the memories of normal mice to above-normal levels. The memory benefits of cell phone exposure took months to show up, suggesting that a similar effect in humans would take years if cell phone-level electromagnetic exposure were provided.

      Based on their promising and unexpected findings in mice, the researchers concluded that electromagnetic field exposure could be an effective, non-invasive and drug-free way to prevent and treat Alzheimer's disease in humans. They are currently evaluating whether different sets of electromagnetic frequencies and strengths will produce more rapid and even greater cognitive benefits than those found in their current study.

      Study: Cell Phone Exposure May Protect Against And Reverse Alzheimer's Disease...
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      States Win $22.5 Million Settlement Over Blocking of Generic Drugs

      Attorneys General charge that drugmakers prevented alternatives from hitting market

      23 state attorneys general today announced a $22.5 million settlement with pharmaceutical companies Abbot and Fournier over charges the drugmakers illegally blocked generic alternatives to the cholesterol-lowering drug Tricor from hitting the market.

      The settlement comes from a 2008 lawsuit alleging that Abbott and Fournier's actions violated antitrust law, through practices such as "product hopping," where the drugmakers would make small changes to the product, stop promoting older versions of the drug, and manipulate the drug codes used to sell cheaper generic versions, in order to maintain a stranglehold on the market.

      The states also alleged that Abbott and Fournier filed multiple lawsuits over patent rights in order to delay sales of generic versions of Tricor.

      "Abbott and Fournier devised a complex scheme that illegally blocked cheaper generic drugs from entering the market," said California Attorney General Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown. "They used minor reformulations of the drug to delay competition and filed frivolous patent lawsuits. This scheme cost California and other states millions of dollars."

      According to the state attorneys general, because Abbot and Fournier were preventing generics for coming to market, state and local governments had to pay higher prices for Tricor. Abbot alone recorded over $1 billion in profits from sales of Tricor in 2009.

      "Idaho spends millions each year on prescription drugs for Medicaid and Idaho taxpayers bear the cost," Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said. "When those costs are inflated by unlawful anti-competitive practices, as we have seen in several cases involving major drug companies, we owe it to the taxpayers to recover their money and stop the unlawful activity."

      Under the terms of the settlement, the states will be reimbursed for overcharges from purchases of Tricor, as well as reimbursing the attorneys general for fees and costs from the litigation. Abbott and Fournier are also forbidden from manipulating or blocking the drug codes for Tricor, if a generic manufacturer wants approval from the Food and Drug Administration to create an alternative, until after a specific time period.

      Abbott and Fournier have already paid more than $67 million to privately settle consumer and third-party claims.


      States Win $22.5 Million Settlement Over Blocking of Generic Drugs...
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      Dismissed Federal Class Action Can't be Reheard in State Court, Judge Rules

      Baycol decision could have far-reaching implications

      A federal appellate court ruled this week that class action plaintiffs who find their federal cases thrown out can't turn around and re-file in a state court.

      The decision, rendered by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, involved a class action against Bayer regarding its prescription medication Baycol. The drug was intended to lower cholesterol and fight cardiovascular disease, but was taken off the market in 2001 after being linked to 31 deaths.

      The plaintiffs, led by West Virginia resident George McCollins, filed a class action lawsuit in a West Virginia county court in 2001. The suit was later removed to federal court, and heard by a multidistrict litigation (MDL) panel in Minnesota.

      The MDL panel denied class certification in 2008, holding that, to state a proper claim for economic injury under the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act (WVCCPA), McCollins would need to "demonstrate Baycol was something other than what he bargained for," which was impossible since he hadn't been injured by the drug, and had in fact benefited from it. The court subsequently granted an injunction preventing the plaintiffs from bringing an action in state court. The appeals court's decision affirmed that injunction.

      The Eighth Circuit agreed with the MDL panel's ruling, ruling that "economic loss alone is insufficient" to state a claim under the WVCCPA. Judge Diana Murphy went on to hold that "[r]e-litigation in state court of whether to certify the same class rejected by a federal court presented an impermissible 'heads-I-win, tails-you-lose situation.'" The court cited a Seventh Circuit decision, In re Bridgestone/Firestone, which similarly held that unsuccessful federal class actions couldn't be reheard in state court.

      The plaintiffs contended that their individual economic damages were so small that bringing individual actions would be a waste of time and money, and that a class action was thus their only practical option. Judge Murphy recognized this concern, but said that the plaintiffs "have no absolute right to litigate their claims as a class ... only a right, preserved by the district court's narrowly tailored injunction, to litigate their own claims."

      The decision could have far-reaching implications in other circuits. Dorsey & Whitney LLP, one of the firms representing the defendants, highlighted the decision on its website as one that "could limit class action exposure for product liability defendants." Whether the plaintiffs plan to appeal is unclear.

      The Eighth Circuit appeals court is dominated by Republican-leaning judges, who are regarded as relatively hostile to civil plaintiffs and class action suits. Nine of its 11 judges were appointed by Republican presidents. Judge Murphy was appointed by President Bill Clinton, while the other two judges deciding the case -- Duane Benton and Lavenski Smith -- were both appointed by President George W. Bush.

      Dismissed Federal Class Action Can't be Reheard in State Court, Judge Rules...
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      Master Forge Recalls Gas Grills Sold at Lowe's

      Sagittarius Sporting Goods of China is recalling about 10,000 Master Forge five-burner gas grills sold at Lowe's Stores.

      The flexible rubber hose on the LP gas tank can come into contact with burner box, causing the hose to melt and rupture when the grill is lit. This poses a fire and burn hazard to consumers.

      The firm is aware of two complaints of the hose melting and rupturing. No injuries or property damage have been reported.

      This recall involves Master Forge five-burner, stainless steel gas grills. The name Master Forge is on the grill hood. The model number L3218 is located on a label inside the left front door of the grill.

      The grills were sold at Lowes stores nationwide from September 2009 through November 2009 for about $500.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled grills and contact Sagittarius to obtain a free repair kit.

      For additional information, contact Sagittarius at (800) 444-6742 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Friday.

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

      Master Forge Recalls Gas Grills Sold at Lowe's...
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      Google's Nexus One: It's Unlocked But ...

      T-Mobile still has a lock on Google's 'unlocked' phone

      There's been much excitement about Google's new Nexus One, touted by many as the iPhone-killer. Enthusiasts say the sleek device combines much of the iPhone's coolness factor without tying the consumer to a single carrier (the iPhone works only on AT&T Wireless in the U.S.).

      Eager to see this latest marvel, we went to yesterday to explore the options, which boiled down to three:

      1.) Pay $529. Buy the "unlocked" Nexus One phone and insert the SIM card from your existing phone.

      2.) Pay $179+. Buy the T-Mobile version of the Nexus One on a new two-year contract with all of the usual ifs, ands and buts. Of course, existing T-Mobile customers "may qualify for upgrade pricing," the site informs us.

      3.) Wait. Want to use the Nexus One with Verizon Wireless. Just wait, a Verizon version is "coming soon," we're told.

      Now, here at, we have cell phones strewn about the way newspaper offices used to have paper piled up everywhere. We have the new Google-powered Android from Sprint, numerous Blackberries from Verizon and AT&T and several plain vanilla AT&T phones from various manufacturers.

      Some of us routinely carry two phones, not because we're particularly geeky but because we've learned the hard way that Verizon works in West Los Angeles while AT&T often doesn't. On the other hand, AT&T works better in much of the Washington, D.C., area. Sprint is good in cities, but generally spotty in the boondocks.

      With all these phones, the heat is always on from the powers that be to hold down cell phone spending. We occasionally hear raised voices sputtering something like, "If I get one more $69.99 cell phone bill, I'm going to ..."

      This is a long way of saying that we were thrilled at the thought of getting the unlocked Nexus One and using it on one of our existing accounts. We placed the order, all $529 worth, Tuesday night and the jolly FedEx man dropped it off before lunch Wednesday. Someone even engraved our name on the back.

      So far, so good.

      Whistling a merry tune, we plopped a Verizon Blackberry down on the desk, pried the back off, yanked out the battery and went looking for the SIM card. Hmmm ... doesn't seem to be one.

      A bit later, at the Verizon Wireless store, a technician looked at us quizically. "There's no SIM card in our phones," he said.

      We returned to the office, cursing, as co-workers with AT&T phones grabbed their handsets and scurried away.

      Looking more closely at the Google store we discovered the paragraph which states:

      "The currently available Nexus One device is unlocked and will recognize SIM cards from any mobile service provider using the GSM standard, but is incompatible with the frequency band used by the AT&T and Rogers networks for 3G data ... Additionally, the Nexus One is incompatible with CDMA networks such as Verizon and Sprint.

      Let's see. An "unlocked" phone that won't work with Verizon, AT&T or Sprint -- the #1, 2 and 3 wireless carriers. That leaves us with -- you're right! -- T-Mobile.

      We wobbled over to the T-Mobile page, where it appears that a plan with unlimited usage and no annual contract will cost us about, oh, $79.99.

      Our current plan of action is to find a way to bury that $79.99 in some section of the budget that won't be unearthed for another year or two, giving us time to age sufficiently so that we can retire without being dismembered by the front office pennypinchers.

      This, of course, requires a trip to the T-Mobile store and, having spent most of the afternoon fooling with this, traffic has worked its way up to gridlock, meaning it will be at least tomorrow before we're able to give you a realistic review of this possibly nifty little gadget.

      Update: After two days, Truman thinks the Nexus One may be a Kindle killer.

      T-Mobile still has a lock on Google's 'unlocked' phone...
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      Pending Home Sales Plunge In November

      Sales drop just ahead of expected end to tax credit

      The latest indicator on the health of the housing market is not encouraging, but is also not unexpected. Pending Home Sales plunged in November after rising sharply in October, according to the National Association of Realtors.

      Pending home sales, reflecting the sales contracts signed but not yet closed, fell 16 percent from October, but was still 15.5 percent higher than November 2008.

      The drop off was expected because, up until mid November, the first-time home buyers tax credit was set to expire at the end of the month. Buyers hoping to take advantage of the windfall hurried to complete their deals in October and early November.

      As it turns out, Congress extended the tax credit another six months, and even expanded it. But it may take some time for its effects to show up in sales numbers.

      "It will be at least early spring before we see notable gains in sales activity as home buyers respond to the recently extended and expanded tax credit," said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist. "The fact that pending home sales are comfortably above year-ago levels shows the market has gained sufficient momentum on its own. We expect another surge in the spring as more home buyers take advantage of affordable housing conditions before the tax credit expires."

      Buyers who have a contract in place to purchase a primary residence by April 30, 2010, have until June 30, 2010, to finalize the transaction to qualify for the tax credit of up to $8,000 for first-time buyers and $6,500 for repeat buyers.

      Sales Pace Still Better Than 2008

      The Pending Home Sales Index in the Northeast dropped 25.7 percent to 74.4 in November but is 14.7 percent above a year ago. In the Midwest the index fell 25.7 percent to 82.0 but is 9.2 percent higher than November 2008. Pending home sales in the South fell 15.0 percent to an index of 97.8, but are 14.7 percent higher than a year ago. In the West the index declined 2.7 percent to 124.6 but is 21.4 percent above November 2008.

      Yun projects an additional 900,000 first-time buyers will qualify for the extended tax credit in addition to about 2 million who have already purchased; 1.5 million repeat buyers also are expected to benefit from the credit.

      "Many trade-up buyers, who have historically timed their purchase based on school-year considerations, will have to accelerate their buying plans if they need the tax credit to make a trade," Yun said. Repeat buyers do not have to sell their existing home to qualify for the credit, but they must occupy the home they buy as their primary residence.

      Yun added that mortgage interest rates cannot remain at rock-bottom levels for a sustained period and will likely inch higher in 2010. But the tax credit impact in the first half of the year and expected job growth impact in the second half will support home buying activity and absorb enough inventory to bring a rough balance between buyers and sellers. Home prices are expected to stabilize or even modestly rise as a result in 2010.

      Pending Home Sales Plunge In November: The latest indicator on the health of the housing market is not encouraging, but is also not unexpected....
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      Consumer Watchdogs Challenge Comcast On 'TV Everywhere'

      Cable giant accused of promoting monopoly, blocking competition

      A coalition of consumer groups asked the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, and Congress to investigate Comcast's "TV Everywhere" online video initiative today, claiming it could block competition in the burgeoning Internet TV market.

      The new platform, called "Fancast Xfinity," allows Comcast subscribers to watch various TV shows and content online, but only if they have already subscribed to traditional cable television service. In their petition, the coalition said such a service "rests on an illegal agreement among competitors specifically designed to undermine emerging Internet-based competition and consumer choice in video programming delivery."

      "TV Everywhere is...designed to ensure consumers cannot cancel their [cable] subscriptions and turn to competing TV services that use the Internet, Internet-connected televisions and set-top devices, which perhaps include over-the-air digital streams," the letter said. "By tying online television to incumbent...subscriptions, TV Everywhere is designed to undermine new forms of competition and consumer choice currently emerging over the Internet."

      Media reform group Free Press, part of the coalition, recently released a report documenting the cable industry's battles against, and now wary embrace of, the growth of Internet television and online video distribution.

      According to report author Marvin Ammori, all the major incumbent cable and telecom providers engaged in off-the-record discussions about building subscription-based video platforms.

      "Because of fears of violating antitrust law through colluding, the cable TV executives did not seek an antitrust exemption; instead, they attempted to hide their actions by eliminating a paper trail," Ammori said, citing reports from The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on the matter. "They deliberately engaged in only unwritten, verbal conversations."

      Ammori said that any platform that involved agreement or support from all the incumbent cable and telecom companies could present a major hindrance against competition by third-party online video distributors.

      "[A]n independent online programmer must recoup its costs through charging users or advertisers for content. It must compete with 'free,'" he said.

      Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), dismissed the accusations of collusion as "strange." "Contrary to Free Press' suggestions, the antitrust laws do not prohibit, but encourage collaboration, even among competitors, that lead to innovation and new products and services for consumers," he said.

      A model that would give consumers the option to get more value -- by access to online content -- as part of the TV subscription they already pay for is something that consumers should have the right to embrace or reject," he said.

      McSlarrow also claimed that the deal was designed to ensure content providers are fairly compensated for their work. "Programmers invest tens of billions of dollars a year to produce high quality content; they have the right to experiment with different business models and determine how to recoup that investment," he said.

      In his report, Ammori documented many battles between content providers and cable networks over both transmission fees, and the attempts to distribute content online, including Time Warner Cable's threat to drop all of Viacom's channels if it put its content online in 2008.

      Ironically, Time Warner Cable found itself advising its customers on where to view shows online in late 2009 when News Corporation demanded hefty increases in the fees paid to license its content for airing on cable. The two sides worked out a deal to continue showing programming in the last few hours of 2009.

      The concerns regarding "TV Everywhere" come as federal regulators prepare to tackle the merger of Comcast with NBC-Universal, creating a potential media juggernaut that would own both the nation's largest cable company and a content provider of multiple cable channels and dozens of broadcast and cable television shows.

      Consumer groups such as Free Press have claimed that the merger, if approved, would accelerate the push to place free online Internet TV sites such as Hulu behind "paywalls," incorporated into subscription-only services under the "TV Everywhere" model.

      Comcast is already in the crosshairs of the Federal Communications Commission over its blocking of access to the BitTorrent file-sharing engine. The FCC ruled that Comcast should be penalized for its actions, a ruling the cable giant is currently appealing.

      Consumer Watchdogs Challenge Comcast On 'TV Everywhere'...
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      Consumer Reports: Many Infomercial Products Not Worth Buying

      Snuggie, Slap Chop, and ShamWow among them

      We've all seen those products advertised on late-night TV infomercial that promise to solve problems like scrubbing baked-on crud from cookware, mopping up gallons of spilled milk, and falling off ladders when cleaning gutters.

      But -- surprise, surprise -- Consumer Reports' tests of 15 such products reveal that many of them are not worth buying.

      CR's experts suggest that some of the products not worth paying for include The Slap Chop dicer, the Snuggie, the ShamWow, The Ab Circle Pro, Debbie Meyer Green Bags and the iRobot Looj gutter cleaner.

      According to the report, infomercials are a mighty money machine. They can chop marketing costs to as little as one-tenth the size of a traditional advertising campaign and slice posted prices when they increase the total bill with shipping and handling fees and other extras.

      The secret, according to an advertising expert, lies in neuroscience -- infomercials are carefully scripted to pump up dopamine levels in your brain. The fun starts with dramatizations of a problem you didn't know you had followed by an incredible solution, then a series of ever more amazing product benefits, bonuses, and giveaways, all leading to the final thrilling plunge of an unbelievably low price. After the ride, dopamine levels drop in 5 or 6 minutes, which is why they ask you to buy in the next 3 minutes.

      "Consumers should pause 10 minutes before buying anything from an infomercial and see if they can get the same job done for free or with a product that they already have in their house," said Jeff Blyskal, senior editor, Consumer Reports. "Think if you can find another solution for this 'problem.' Instead of buying an exercise machine, for example, doing sit ups or just following a diet may accomplish the same thing."

      In recent years, the magazine has turned up a mix of "miracle" gadgets and goops that deceived, delivered, or landed somewhere in between. Additionally, a check of the database found consumer complaints about the way these products were marketed. Here's a look at some of them:

      Slap Chop The manufacturer claims that by slapping this gadget, which costs about $20, with your palm, you can "dice, chop, and mince in seconds" and remove skins from onions and garlic. CR slapped mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, chocolate, almonds, and other foods and found that it chopped unevenly. Harder foods needed about 20 slaps and tended to get trapped in the blades. While garlic peels came off in five slaps, onion skins were only partially separated after ten.

      Lisa writes from Fairfield, PA that the company's Web site says you can get a second Slap Chop for just $7.95 when you order the first one, but points out that it sent a second one without getting her consent. She says she contacted the company, saying she wanted only one of the gadgets. Lisa says she was assured that things would be okay, but adds, "I opened the package today, and lo and behold, I have TWO Slap Chops." She concludes that while $8 might not be a lot, "it is the principal of the thing. Don't force someone to take products that they didn't want."

      Snuggie "The Snuggie blanket keeps you totally warm," the company claims, and is made of "ultrasoft, luxurious fleece." You get two for $19.95. Consumer Reportstesters put Snuggies through ten wash-and-dry cycles and asked 11 staffers to check them out. The staffers found the Snuggie was so far from snug that several staffers had trouble walking. Each time CR laundered two Snuggies, they removed a sandwich bag worth of lint from the dryer.

      The problem for Ronald of San Gabriel, CA was that the Snuggies just kept on coming. "I placed two orders for Snuggies buy 1 get 1 free blankets in March 2009 which were advertised on 'AS Seen on TV.' I received both orders without incident. In Late May I received a third order(which I never placed). I contacted customer service and they told me to return it and my account would be credited, which it was with no problem. A week later a fourth order was delivered (again, I did not order it)." Ronald tells that it cost him $10.68 each time he shipped an item back. "This company is running some kind of a scam by repeatedly sending items out and charging peoples accounts and due to the cost of returning the items people are getting taken advantage of," Ronald concludes.

      Shamwow The ShamWow claim tells you, "Like a chamois, a towel, a sponge, works wet or dry, holds 12 times its weight in liquid." You get eight towels -- four 19 x 23 inch towels and four 15 x15-inch towels - for $19.95. Testers at the magazine dunked ShamWows in water, soda, and milk until each could hold no more liquid and the small ones to see if they could slurp up as much water, milk and used motor oil as sponges. As it turned out, ShamWow soaked up only ten times its weight in water or soda and usually 12 times its weight in milk. If testers used a damp ShamWow, they needed another cloth to wipe remaining droplets.

      The marketing ticked off Linda of San Francisco. She tells "I ordered this product because the commercial on TV said it was not available in stores. I am now seeing this product in stores and the ad is still running stating it is not available in stores. Had I known I could have purchased this product in a store I would not have ordered it through the mail incurring shipping and handling charges."

      Consumer Reports: Many Infomercial Products Not Worth Buying...
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      Bankruptcy Filings Increase 32 Percent In 2009

      States with high foreclosure rates lead in filings

      Though the economy appeared to improve slightly last year, 2009 was a terrible year for 1.3 million individuals and businesses who filed for bankruptcy protection, a 32 percent increase over filings for the first eleven months of 2008.

      The statistics, gathered by the National Bankruptcy Research Center, measure consumer and business filings from December through November. December 2009 filings are not included in the total.

      Bankruptcy filings in November 2009 topped 110,000, marking the ninth straight month they surpassed 100,000, and up 12 percent from November 2008's total.

      "Indeed, 2009 filings have now passed the year-to-date total for any previous year since the 2005 bankruptcy reform bill," the Center's analysis said.

      What's readily apparent is the increase includes a significant upturn in the last year in Chapter 7 (liquidation) filings, which have increased by more than 42 percent compared to this time last year, where Chapter 13 (rehabilitation) filings have increased by only 12 percent. The steadily declining share of Chapter 13 filings, less than 30% of 2009 filings to date, contrasts with the strong push by Congress in its 2005 bankruptcy legislation to encourage bankrupts to choose Chapter 13 rather than Chapter 7.

      Nationwide, the filings to date amount to almost 11,500 filings per million households. The states with the highest household-adjusted filing rates are Nevada (two-and-half times the national average), followed by Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Indiana, with household-adjusted filing rates more than one and a half times the national average.

      More than one out of every six bankruptcy filings this year has occurred in one of those states, even though those states include only one in twelve American households. The lowest filing rates were in Alaska, followed by the District of Columbia, North Dakota, South Carolina, and South Dakota, all less than half the national average.

      "The proportion of bankruptcies filed jointly has also increased from 30 percent to 36 percent over the past year, as more families seek relief through bankruptcy at the national, regional, and local level", said Chris Lundquist, President of LCI.

      Arizona Records Biggest Increase

      The states with the biggest increase in filings since 2008 were Arizona, with an 80 percent jump, followed by Nevada, California, Wyoming, and Utah, all with increases of about 60 percent. Although 2009 filings are higher than 2008 filings in all states, several states have experienced comparatively modest increases. The lowest increases, all about 12-15 percent, are in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Tennessee, and South Carolina.

      At the county level, the counties with the highest filing rates were concentrated in Georgia. Seven of the ten counties with the highest filing rates were in Georgia, with the highest rate in the county occurring in Shelby County, Tennessee, with a filing rate almost three times the national average. The second and third highest filing rates were in two counties east of Atlanta, both with filing rates more than two and a half-times the national average.

      On a national basis, 28 percent of all filings to date were under Chapter 13, the procedure most directly related to home-mortgage distress. There was a substantial variation among the states on the prevalence of bankrupts seeking Chapter 13 relief.

      The States with the highest share of Chapter 13 filings (50% or more in each case) were concentrated in the South: Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee. At the other end of the spectrum were States with relatively low Chapter 13 shares (all less than 10%). The three lowest were New Mexico, Iowa, and West Virginia, all with less than 10% of their filings under Chapter 13.

      Professor Ronald Mann of the Columbia Law School, who analyzed the statistics for NBRC, told the Wall Street Journal that the numbers suggest Congress's recent revision of the bankruptcy law was not very effective.

      "I don't think anybody who's knowledgeable about the bankruptcy system thought the statute was well crafted," he told the Journal.

      Bankruptcy Filings Increase 32 Percent In 2009...
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      Consumers Continue To Fall In The Rebate Trap

      Rebates consistently produce consumer complaints

      After credit cards and unauthorized charges, nothing seems to get consumers more worked-up than a rebate runaround. But as has been previously reported here,frustration has been designed into the rebate transaction.

      Michael, of Caldwell, Idaho, was attracted to Staples' paper rebate. Just buy two reams of paper and one ream is just $1.00, after the rebate, he was told.

      "However, you had to pay the full price of $10.60 and then go online and find out how to apply for their silly rebate," he told "The online experience took over 30 minutes and was very user unfriendly."

      Chris, of Denver, went to Discount Tire because of a $40 rebate. But when he got home, he checked his invoice and realized that, not only did he pay full price, but was actually charged an additional $40!

      "When I called to point out the mistake the manager said 'oh yes - it's a glitch in the computer and the cashier has to over-ride to give you a credit.' They offered a refund but I had to go back to the shop in person, Chris told "When I went back it took some convincing for them to understand they owed me $80. The $40 they charged me PLUS the forty rebate."

      Chris wonders how many other consumers didn't notice the charge instead of the rebate. His advice? Check your receipts.

      New Weapon

      Businesses have always tried to make it hard to redeem rebates because they significantly cut into profit margins if everyone uses them. A new weapon in their campaign to reduce rebate expense is the debit card.

      On one hard, getting a debit card containing the amount of the rebate instead of a check seems more convenient. You can spend the money where-ever you want. However, there can be problems for the consumer that work to the advantage of the business.

      For example, if your pre-paid rebate debit card has $50 on it and you make a purchase for $42.87, how are you going to get the remain $7.13 off the card? Most stores do not allow you to use a debit card for a purchase that exceeds the amount on the card. However, if you tell the cashier ahead of time you only want to put a portion of your purchase on the card, in some cases you can.

      However, consumers should carefully plan how they use these rebate debit cards, asked questions, and hope you don't the experience of Glenn, of Tijeras, N.M, who got a $50 debit card rebate from T-Mobile when he agreed to extend his contract.

      "I tried to use the $50 debit card but the card locked up at $43.56," Tim told "When I called T-Mobile customer service to complain, Lisa the rep said I actually over charged the card by $6.44 and that I owed T-Mobile that amount. I asked how could a $50 debit card be over charged when that was its limit? The rep had no answer, but said I'd soon be getting a bill for the amount owed."

      Rebate Scams

      Of course, some rebates are not rebates at all, but are out and out scams. Michelle, of Liverpool, N.Y., discovered that the hard way, she said, when she received a "rebate" check after purchasing PediPaws at her local Bed, Bath and Beyond.

      "I cashed it at my local bank, and then discovered a $149.99 unauthorized charge on my checking account statement," she told I investigated the name on the check, Buyers Advantage, as well as Trilegiant Corp., and discovered many, many on-line reports of fraud regarding this company and method. My bank also investigated, and returned the $149.99 to my account."

      Michelle's first tip-off that something wasn't quite right should have been the fact that she quickly received the "rebate" check. Generally, it takes a long time to receive a legitimate rebate.

      Despite the more than 800 rebate complaints received at in the last 12 months, why do we keep falling for the rebate trap? Probably because all consumers want a bargain. When a business can advertise a $299 smart phone for $199, after a $100 mail-in rebate, consumers quite logically think they're getting a deal. Some are, of course, but a lot more aren't.

      A good rule of thumb is to focus on the regular price when you're shopping for an item, and not count on ever receiving the promised rebate. Otherwise, you too could end up in the rebate trap.

      Consumers Continue To Fall In The Rebate Trap...
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      Race To Replace Gas With Green Batteries

      Battery could store almost as much energy as a tank of gas

      January 4, 2010
      Researchers are exploring the promise of lithium-air battery technology as an environmentally sound way to fuel the world's growing transportation needs.

      Li-air batteries, as they are known, use a catalytic air cathode that supplies oxygen, an electrolyte and a lithium anode. The technology has the potential to store almost as much energy as a tank of gasoline, and will have a capacity for energy storage that is five to 10 times greater than that of Li-ion batteries, a bridge technology.

      That potential, however, will not be realized until a number of critical scientific challenges are solved.

      "The obstacles to Li-air batteries becoming a viable technology are formidable and will require innovations in materials science, chemistry, and engineering," says Eric Isaacs, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

      "This is not a near-term technology," adds Jeff Chamberlain, senior account manager in Argonne's Office of Technology Transfer. "It is going to take time and collaborations across several scientific disciplines to address the four main challenges of this battery development effort: safety, cost, life, and performance."

      To accomplish this task, Argonne's research will continue to span basic, applied, and theoretical sciences and will utilize the lab's research facilities -- the Advanced Photon Source, the Center for Nanoscale Materials, and the Leadership Computing Facility -- and work with industry, which will eventually adopt the technology for commercial application.

      Argonne has worked with several industrial partners on the commercialization of Li-ion batteries and battery materials, including companies such as EnerDel, Envia, BASF, and Toda America.

      It currently is working with the Commonwealth of Kentucky to develop the Kentucky-Argonne National Battery Manufacturing Center, which will support the development of a viable U.S. battery manufacturing industry.

      More recently, DOE awarded the lab $8.8 million to build out and outfit three battery research facilities that will be used for battery prototyping, materials production scale-up, and post-test analysis.

      Race To Replace Gas With Green Batteries...
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      Ohio Appeals Court Rejects Class-Action Settlement With Carfax

      Approval of coupon settlement overturned

      An Ohio appeals court has thrown out a nationwide class-action settlement involving Carfax, ruling that a trial judge should not have approved the settlement without requiring notice to all of the affected consumers and without considering information about whether the coupons offered under the settlement had any value.

      The settlement would have resolved a class-action lawsuit alleging that Carfax, which sells history reports for used cars, deceives consumers by representing that its reports are based on complete national accident data. Public Citizen represented 17 individual class members and the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety in objecting to the proposed deal.

      The database has no shortage of complaints about Carfax. Among them:

      • Steven of Chaptico, MD tells us, "I purchased a used vehicle in 4/2009 and requested a Carfax. Carfax failed to report the car was in an accident. 11/2009 during my attempt to sell my car, Carfax reported a car accident that occurred 3/2008. I lost $4,000 in resale value."

      • Anastasia from Orange, CA writes that a potential buyer ran a Carfax report based on the VIN number on a car she is trying to sell. "The report stated that my vehicle was involved in an accident. My car has never been involved in any accident. I spoke to my insurance company and I got a report from the DMV based on the VIN number and it showed a clean history." She says upon calling Carfax she learned that "the company does not get the VIN report from the DMV, but rather from 'anonymous third parties.'" Anastasia concludes, "They are making me jump through hoops to clear my vehicle history. I believe that this is misrepresentation of innocent victims for money."

      • From James in James Palm Beach, FL comes this complaint: "I inquired about trading in my 2001 Honda Accord for a 2010 new Honda Accord and I was dumbfounded when Braman Honda produced a Carfax report indicating that my vehicle had been in a serious accident and it had been 'disabled' at one time while I owned it." James tells he has never been in an accident with this vehicle, adding that since he works for a police department, it was "very embarrassing when the salesman indicated that I was lying to him." He says he's filed a complaint with Carfax and will "use all the resources of my police department to prove that their report is a boldfaced lie." James says he was advised that since his Carfax report inaccurately indicated a major accident, his vehicle was worth very little as a trade in.

      Not much notice

      The settlement had defined the class of consumers bound by its terms to include anyone who purchased a Carfax vehicle history report prior to Oct. 2006, which would include consumers who bought the reports during more than a decade preceding that date.

      However, individual notice of the proposed settlement was sent only by e-mail and only to customers who bought Carfax reports during the one year preceding the settlement. As a result, the majority of class members got no notice of the settlement, according to Public Citizen's objections. The decision of the 11th District Court of Appeals in Ohio held that individual notice should have been sent to all class members.

      Moreover, as part of the settlement, consumers were offered a coupon for additional Carfax history reports. The time for claiming a coupon had expired before the trial court approved the settlement, yet the court had denied Public Citizen's motion seeking disclosure of how many class members filed claims.

      The court of appeals found that the trial court erred in not requiring Carfax to disclose how many consumers had taken advantage of the coupon offer. Those numbers would show whether the coupons had actual value to the class members and, therefore, whether the settlement had value to the class, said Deepak Gupta, one of the Public Citizen lawyers who handled the case.

      "Class actions are a tool for securing consumer justice, but settlements like this one give class actions a bad name," Gupta said. "The appeals court's decision sends a strong message that class-action settlements should be approved only after a legitimate attempt to inform the class members and only if the settlement offers real value to the class."

      Ohio Appeals Court Rejects Class-Action Settlement With Carfax...
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      Banks Eye New Fees, Revenue In 2010

      New rules protect consumers but reduce bank profits

      By Mark Huffman

      January 4, 2010
      The Credit Card Act of 2009 takes effect next month, but as consumers are all to aware, lenders spent the second half of last year getting ready for it, jacking up interest rates and closing thousands of accounts.

      With the new rules expected to take billions of dollars from banks' bottom lines, industry experts say consumers can expect to face all sorts of new fees in the coming year.

      "There are so many things that issuers can do that the Card Act doesn't touch," Bill Hardekopf, chief executive officer of, a Web site that tracks the industry, told the Wall Street Journal.

      Hardekopf and other analysts expect banks to get creative this year, coming up with new fees for a batch of products and services. The industry, they say, has become much more reliant in recent years on fees, rather than on interest charges. To earn interest, banks have to loan money.

      In the new credit environment, banks are more reluctant to make loans. In some cases, tighter lending standards have reduced the loans they can make.

      For consumers, the new credit card rules will limit some interest rate hikes. Under the new law, banks have to give customers ample notice of a rate hike. They will no longer be able to raise rates on existing balances.

      Damage Already Done

      But for many existing customers, that is of little consolation. Most credit card companies have used the time between the Card Act's passage in May and its implementation date to do many of the things that will be prevented under the law. This did not go unnoticed in Congress.

      "The abuses by some in the industry which led Congress to pass my original legislation seem to have only increased since the bill's signing," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) in November. "In fact, The Pew Charitable Trust reports that interest rates have spiked this year by an average of 20 percent on credit cards representing more than 91 percent of the $864 billion in outstanding credit card balances." has received thousands of complaints from credit card customers in the last six months. Christine, of Cheney, Wash., said Chase, in effect, forced her to cancel her credit card account.

      "Basically, they upped the interest on my platinum card from 12 percent APR to 24 percent to 28 percent APR for absolutely no reason," she told

      Christine said she was surprised at her treatment because she considered herself a good customer who always paid her bill on time. But with default rates rising in a bad economy and new rules set to reduce the amount of fees banks can collect, Chase and other banks took steps last year to reduce their loan portfolios and to make those smaller portfolios pay more. Many good customers ended up paying the price.

      Crackdown On Overdraft Fees

      Banks stand to take another hit on July 1 of this year when new Federal Reserve rules on bank overdraft fees take effect. Under the new rules, banks will be required to get customers' permission before giving them overdraft "protection" on their ATM withdrawals and debit card purchases.

      It will change the present system in which banks automatically cover a customer's purchase when there are insufficient funds, but charge a $35 fee. Many consumers report being overdrawn by less than a dollar, triggering the hefty fee.

      While the new rule is a major victory for consumers, it's a major setback for banks. According to Federal Reserve estimates, banks rake in $50 billion a year on overdraft and other service fees. So consumers shouldn't expect banks to suffer this financial setback without reacting.

      Some banks and credit card issuers have begun charging fees for services that were once free, such as paper statements. Others have started scaling back their loyalty rewards programs.

      Free Checking May Disappear

      Free checking accounts could also become a thing of the past. In a 2008 study, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation reported that 75 percent of consumers with checking accounts paid nothing for it.

      The other 25 percent, the study showed, paid minimum balance fees, overdraft fees and other service charges that subsidize free checking for the majority. You can expect banks to begin raising the threshold for free checking, so that 75 percent number gets smaller and the 25 percent number gets larger.

      Banks are likely to come up with new products and services to offer their customers, all with some sort of fee attached. Tim Smith, CEO of Probity Financial Services, says banking has changed over the years, and the way financial institutions look at fees, is one of the biggest changes.

      "In the past banks charged overdraft fees to punish and discourage their customers from overdrawing their accounts," Smith told last year. "At some point they realized this was a service they could provide and charge for."

      That means consumers should stay alert in their dealings with financial institutions, from their local bank to their credit card companies. When banks offer new services and products, make sure you understand them completely, including their costs, before signing on.

      Because in almost every case, there will be a cost.

      Banks Eye New Fees, Revenue In 2010...
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      Number of Pets Diagnosed with the H1N1 Influenza Virus Continues to Grow

      Most animals catch the virus from their owners, handlers

      The number of pets in the United States diagnosed with the H1N1 influenza virus continues to grow, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). And in each of the cases, it appears the pets contracted the virus from their owners.

      The latest confirmed case involves an 8-year-old cat in southern California. Health officials said the female domestic shorthair started sneezing and had nasal discharge in mid-December -- shortly after its owner became sick with a confirmed H1N1 infection. The cat spent a lot of time on its owners lap, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Veterinary Public Health Program said.

      The cats veterinarian took a swab sample, which tested positive for the H1N1 virus and Mycoplasma felis. That is a type of bacteria that can cause conjunctivitis, respiratory disease, and arthritis in more than one joint, health officials said. The California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory at Davis confirmed the H1N1 test results.

      The cat is now recovering.

      Los Angeles health officials said this is the first confirmed case of H1N1 in a local pet. Nationwide, however, several other pets and animals have tested positive for the virus.

      In December, a dog in New York contracted the virus. The 13-year-old Bedford Hills canine became sick after its owners had a confirmed case of H1N1.

      The dog was lethargic, not eating, and had a temperature of 103.6 when its owner took him to the emergency veterinarian on December 13, 2009. X-rays revealed the mixed breed had signs of pneumonia, health officials said.

      Veterinarians treated the dog with intravenous fluids, antibiotics, nebulization, and other supportive care. The dog was hospitalized for 48 hours and is now recovering. Tests revealed the dog did not have canine influenza (H3N8), but did have the 2009 H1N1 virus. The Iowa State Laboratory confirmed that finding.

      These cases are the latest in a string of illnesses and deaths in pets and animals linked to H1N1 a potentially deadly virus first reported in late March in central Mexico, California, and Texas

      The AMVA has tracked these cases since November, when Iowa health officials confirmed the first case of the disease in a 13-year-old indoor cat.

      More cases

      Here are some other confirmed cases of H1N1 in pets and animals in the United States and around the world:

      • In late December, health officials confirmed the H1N1 virus in some commercial pigs in North Carolina. The pigs showed mild symptoms of the disease after possible exposure to people with flu-like illnesses;

      • The Ministry of Agriculture and Food in Russia in December confirmed an outbreak of the H1N1 virus is some pigs in that country;

      • The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in December confirmed additional cases of H1N1 in some turkeys in Virginia. Other turkeys on that Virginia farm tested positive for the virus in November. USDA officials said a farm 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 December 4, Colorado health officials confirmed two cats -- from different households in that state -- tested positive for H1N1. Veterinarians suspected the cats, ages 10 and 11, became sick after someone in their households contracted the virus. The cats are now recovering;

      • In early December, Germany confirmed an outbreak of H1N1 in a commercial herd of 425 pigs. Two pigs died. The source of the outbreak is listed as unknown or inconclusive;

      • A 12-year-old cat in Pennsylvania died of H1N1 in early November. The domestic shorthair developed a respiratory illness on November 3, 2009, after four members in the household became sick with flu-like symptoms, the AMVA said. The cat then became lethargic, lost its appetite, and had difficulty breathing. X-rays revealed the cat had pneumonia;

      • An 8-year-old female cat in Oregon died from H1N1 on November 24, the states public health veterinarian said. The cats owner had previously tested positive for the virus. When the cat arrived at the veterinarians office, 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. A nasal sample taken from the cat tested positive for the H1N1 virus;

      • In November, France confirmed 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;

      • Preliminary tests for H1N1 in a California cheetah came back positive in November. Final tests later confirmed that finding. Investigators suspect an animal handler was the source of that infection. Four cheetahs in that private zoo developed respiratory problems, including coughing, nasal discharge, lethargy, and decreased appetite. But only one of the cheetahs tested positive for H1N1. There are no reported cases of Influenza A: H1N1 (2009-H1N1) transmission from animals to humans in a zoological setting, The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) said. Animal collections at zoological institutions, therefore, do not present a concern for public health;

      • On November 28, published reports in China stated two dogs in Beijing tested positive for the H1N1 virus;

      • A cat in Oregon died from an H1N1 infection on November 7, state health officials said. 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 cats owner had previously been sick with flu-like symptoms. The cat is now recovering.

      Pigs in the United States, Finland, Indonesia, and Taiwan have also tested positive for H1N1, the AVMA said.

      Veterinarians say all these recent cases show its possible for the H1N1 virus to spread from humans to animals, especially those who have close contact with their owners.

      What to do

      What steps can pet owners take to protect their animals and prevent the spread of this virus?

      In an interview with, Dr. Ann Garvey, a veterinarian with the Iowa Department of Public Health, 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.

      The AVMA said it will continue to track cases of H1N1 in animals and post its findings on the organizations Web site.

      Court Has Heard Enough in iPod Earbud Suit...
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      FDA Seeks Shutdown Of New Jersey Cheese Plant

      Plant has alleged history of contaminated products

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it will ask a federal court to order the closure of a New Jersey cheese manufacturer it says has a history of operating under unsanitary conditions.

      The FDA said it will seek action against Quesos Mi Pueblito and two of its officers, Felix Sanchez and Jesus Galvez. According to the agency, recent inspections by the FDA and the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services found Listeria-contaminated cheese and unsanitary conditions at the Passaic company.

      If entered by the court, the injunction would stop the company and its officers from manufacturing and distributing food until they can bring their operations into full compliance with FDA food safety regulations and produce cheese that does not test positive for the presence of Listeria. The complaint for permanent injunction was filed in the U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey.

      "FDA's work with federal and state partners to root out or remedy food manufacturers not compliant with food safety laws ensures safer foods get to our dinner tables," said Michael Chappell, the FDA's acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs.

      Quesos Mi Pueblito currently manufactures and distributes a variety of soft, semi-soft, and hard Mexican cheeses in grocery stores and supermarkets in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Among Quesos Mi Pueblito's products are queso oaxaca, queso fresco, queso requeson and queso cotija molido.

      FDA Seeks Shutdown Of New Jersey Cheese Plant...
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      Court Has Heard Enough in iPod Earbud Suit

      Appeals court affirms 2008 dismissal of class action

      By Jon Hood

      A federal appeals court has unanimously tossed a class action alleging that Apple failed to warn consumers that using iPod earbud-style headphones at full volume can lead to hearing loss. The 3-0 ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court's 2008 decision to dismiss the case.

      The suit, filed by lead plaintiffs Joseph Birdsong and Bruce Waggoner in 2006, alleged that iPods' maximum volume of 115 decibels, equivalent to a helicopter taking off, puts users in danger of permanent hearing loss. Further, the plaintiffs said that Apple's signature earbuds the white-and-silver headphones that fit snugly inside users' ears provide less protection against hearing loss than traditional headphones.

      In June 2008, Judge James Ware of the Northern District of California dismissed the suit, ruling that the plaintiffs failed to prove that they had suffered any actual harm as a result of the headphones' alleged defect. The Ninth Circuit upheld his ruling, with judge David Thompson writing that the suit suggest[s] only that users have the option of using an iPod in a risky manner, not that the headphones were inherently defective.

      Judge Thompson also hinted that the issue was not suitable for class treatment, writing that, At most, the plaintiffs plead a potential risk of hearing loss not to themselves, but to other unidentified iPod users.

      While Apple does alert consumers that continually playing music at a high volume can lead to hearing problems, the plaintiffs contended that this warning was too vague. They said that Apple had a responsibility to tell consumers the maximum safe decibel level, and to sell iPods with a device telling users how loud their music is at any given moment. Jeff Friedman, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said, It's not a matter of turning your volume up or down. It's a matter of understanding when you're in jeopardy.

      Software compatible with late-model iPods allows users to set a maximum volume limit to prevent decibels from going beyond a certain level. According to Apple's website, the feature works with any headphones attached to the headphone jack and allows users to assign a combination to prevent the setting from being changed which is ideal for parental control.

      The European Union recently enacted a uniform volume limit on all MP3 players, including iPods. The proposal, expected to take hold in the spring, sets a default maximum of 85 decibels, with an override option allowing users to increase the level to 100 decibels. Friedman has voiced support for similar legislation in the United States.

      Court Has Heard Enough in iPod Earbud Suit...
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      RockYou Hit With Data Breach Class Action

      Suit says hacking was result of company's negligence

      By Jon Hood

      RockYou, a developer of widgets and applications for Facebook and MySpace, was hit with a class action alleging that the company's poor security allowed a hacker to gain access to 32 million e-mail addresses and passwords.

      The complaint, filed this week in federal court in San Francisco, says that RockYou kept confidential user information in an unencrypted plain text file making it incredibly easy to hack.

      The suit alleges that RockYou recklessly and knowingly failed to take even the most basic steps to protect its users' PII (personally identifiable information) by leaving the data entirely unencrypted and available for any person with a basic set of hacking skills to take the PII of at least 32 million customers.

      RockYou is mainly known for providing so-called widgets for Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites. The widgets allow users to customize and enhance their personal pages. The company was founded in 2006 by two former employees of software developer Iconix.

      Alan Claridge, the lawsuit's lead plaintiff, says that RockYou compounded the security breach with a slow and ineffective response. He says he received an e-mail from the company on December 16, warning that his information may have been compromised because of RockYou's failure to create a secure user database. But Claridge alleges that RockYou was aware of the security breach up to 12 days earlier on December 4 but did nothing to warn users.

      RockYou's website now sports a red-and-white banner reading Important Security Notice from RockYou. A lengthy statement says that the company is investigating the data breach, reviewing our security protocols, and implementing new practices to prevent this from happening again. Specifically, the statement says that RockYou is encrypting user information, implementing a more secure platform, reviewing security procedures to ensur[e] that they meet industry standards and best practices, and cooperating with Federal authorities to investigate the illegal breach of our database.

      In the meantime, RockYou recommends that users change their e-mail passwords to prevent hackers from viewing any confidential information. There is also less obvious danger caused by the breach: since many consumers use the same password for multiple accounts, those accounts may also be susceptible to breach. Thus, consumers should update any account for which they use the same or even a similar password.

      The suit, which is being handled by KamberEdelson LLC, alleges breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, negligence, and violation of several California consumer protection laws. The suit seeks unspecified damages and a court order that RockYou improve its security measures.

      Complaint, filed this week in federal court in San Francisco, says RockYou kept confidential user information in an unencrypted plain text file making it i...
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