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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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    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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    Honda Recalls Cars To Fix Fire Hazard

    Problem in Honda Fit linked to power window switch

    Toyota isn't the only Japanese carmaker struggling with a recall issue. Honda has an issue of its own.

    The carmaker has initiated a voluntary recall of more than 141,000 Honda Fit subcompacts, along with another half-million Fits sold in other countries. The recall was prompted by a fire hazard.

    Recalled cars will either get a new master power window switch on the drivers' side or have the switch fitted with a waterproof skirt. The company says there have been seven reported cases of the switch melting when coming in contact with water, two causing a fire to break out.

    No injuries have been reported in the U.S., but a fire from a window switch in a Honda Jazz killed a child in South Africa last year, according to WhatCar?, a British car Web site. Honda has included 172,000 Honda Jazz models in the UK in the recall for the window switch problem.

    The recall comes at a bad time for Honda, as it and other competitors have tried to separate themselves from Toyota's sticking accelerator problem, which led to the suspension of U.S. sales of eight Toyota models. In a letter to Honda and Acura dealers this week, John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Company, said the company does not expect a problem similar to Toyota's.

    "While we use the same supplier as Toyota for some of our products, as do other manufacturers, we do not use the same components," he said.

    The Honda Fit was Consumer Reports highest-rated subcompact last year.

    Not the first time

    Meanwhile, this is not the first fire issue Honda has faced in the U.S. In 2007 an Illinois man filed a class action suit, charging a design defect in certain Honda CR-V and Element models makes them prone to fast-spreading engine fires.

    The oil filter is dangerously close to the exhaust manifold on 2003, 2004 and 2005 model CR-Vs, the suit charges, and is mounted vertically, creating a situation where leaking oil can spray directly on the hot exhaust manifold. The suit said the alleged defect also occurs in Element models equipped with the 2.4-liter DOHC i-VTEC engine.

    Honda owners writing to ConsumerAffairs.com have also reported fires in other Honda models. Brian, in Felton, Dela., reported in October 2009 that the radio in his Honda Odyssey shorted out and caught fire. Kelly, of Philadelphia, reported that her low mileage Civic caught fire in the engine at the fuse box site, igniting the battery.

    "Honda is very unwilling to accept responsibility that the car was defective," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I am also expected to keep making payments on a car that is literally melted to the street."

    Honda Recalls Cars To Fix Fire Hazard...
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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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      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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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, ConsumerAffairs.com received consumer complaints about BlueHippo.

      "I sent BlueHippo money for a laptop, Cody, of Faulkton, S.D., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "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 ConsumerAffairs.com. "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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      Study Claims Cellphone Bans Don't Reduce Crashes

      New insurance data indicates various laws are ineffective

      As states across the country enact laws that ban phoning and/or texting while driving, a new study by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) study claims there have been no reductions in crashes after handheld phone bans take effect.

      The researchers compared insurance claims for crash damage in four jurisdictions before and after such bans. They found steady claim rates compared with nearby jurisdictions without such bans.

      Researchers from HLDI calculated monthly collision claims per 100 insured vehicle years for vehicles up to three years old during the months immediately before and after hand-held phone use was banned while driving in New York (Nov. 2001), the District of Columbia (July 2004), Connecticut (Oct. 2005), and California (July 2008).

      Comparable data were collected for nearby jurisdictions without such bans. This method controlled for possible changes in collision claim rates unrelated to the bans -- changes in the number of miles driven due to the economy, seasonal changes in driving patterns, etc.

      Month-to-month fluctuations in rates of collision claims in jurisdictions with bans didn't change from before to after the laws were enacted. Nor did the patterns change in comparison with trends in jurisdictions that didn't have such laws.

      "The laws aren't reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use, and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk," says Adrian Lund, president of both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and HLDI, its affiliate.

      For example, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study that relies on driver phone records found a 4-fold increase in the risk of injury crashes. A study in Canada found a 4-fold increase in the risk of crashes involving property damage. Separate surveys of driver behavior before and after hand-held phone use bans show reductions in the use of such phones while driving.

      The HLDI database doesn't identify drivers using cellphones when their crashes occur. However, reductions in observed phone use following bans are so substantial and estimated effects of phone use on crash risk are so large that reductions in aggregate crashes would be expected.

      In New York the HLDI researchers did find a decrease in collision claim frequencies, relative to comparison states, but this decreasing trend began well before the state's ban on hand-held phoning while driving and actually paused briefly when the ban took effect. Trends in the District of Columbia, Connecticut, and California didn't change.

      "So the new findings don't match what we already know about the risk of phoning and texting while driving," Lund points out. "If crash risk increases with phone use and fewer drivers use phones where it's illegal to do so, we would expect to see a decrease in crashes. But we aren't seeing it. Nor do we see collision claim increases before the phone bans took effect. This is surprising, too, given what we know about the growing use of cellphones and the risk of phoning while driving. We're currently gathering data to figure out this mismatch."

      HLDI researchers compared the District of Columbia's collision claim frequency trend not only with statewide trends in Virginia and Maryland but also with the trend in the nearby city of Baltimore. Again, the finding is no difference in the pattern of collision claims. Nor were any differences apparent when the researchers applied a time-based regression model to claims data for each of the study and comparison jurisdictions.

      Lund says there are factors that might be eroding the effects of hand-held phone bans on crashes. One is that drivers in jurisdictions with such bans may be switching to hands-free phones because no US state currently bans all drivers from using such phones. In this case crashes wouldn't go down because the risk is about the same, regardless of whether the phones are hand-held or hands-free.

      Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia do prohibit beginning drivers from using any type of phone, including hands-free, but such laws are difficult to enforce. This was the finding in North Carolina, where teenage drivers didn't curtail phone use in response to a ban, in part because they didn't think the law was being enforced.

      "Whatever the reason, the key finding is that crashes aren't going down where hand-held phone use has been banned," Lund points out. "This finding doesn't auger well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving."

      It's clear that distracted driving is high on the radar of the federal government. Congress is taking steps to put an end to the practice and the Obama administration has enacted a ban unilaterally.

      Study Claims Cellphone Bans Don't Reduce Crashes...
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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 www.toyota.com or www.lexus.com or contact the Toyota Customer Experience Center at 1-800-331-4331 or Lexus Customer Assistance at 1-800-295-3987.

      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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      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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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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      New York Probes Online Stores for Unauthorized Charges

      1-800-Flowers.com and Classmates.com 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, Orbitz.com, Buy.com, Ticketmaster.com, MovieTickets.com, FTD.com, Shutterfly.com, 1-800Flowers.com, Avon.com, Budget, Staples.com, Priceline.com, GMAC Mortgage, Classmates.com, Travelocity, Vistaprint, Intelius, Hotwire.com, Expedia/Hotels.com, 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 ConsumerAffairs.com about these schemes often express anger, but also bewilderment.

      "I don't really know," Estaban, of Milpitas, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com "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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      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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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"

      ConsumerAffairs.com 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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      '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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      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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      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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      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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