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    Pennsylvania Sues Computer Training School

    School suddenly closed after collecting tuition payments

    Computer training school ComputerTraining.com 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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    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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    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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      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.

      ConsumerAffairs.com 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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      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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      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 ConsumerAffairs.com'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 ConsumerAffairs.com. 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 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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      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 ConsumerAffairs.com repeatedly reveal, consumers need to exercise extreme care when considering a place to exercise.

      Complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com 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. ConsumerAffairs.com 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 ConsumerAffairs.com'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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      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; ConsumerAffairs.com 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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      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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      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 ConsumerAffairs.com 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.

      ConsumerAffairs.com 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 refunded...one 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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      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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      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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      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 http://www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov/2009ConsumerProtectionReport.

      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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