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Ford, Microsoft to Team On Electric Car
System would advise consumers best time to recharge03/31/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Ford, Microsoft to Team On Electric Car...
Ford Motor Company and software giant Microsoft are two companies that don't seem to have a lot in common, but the two firms announced plans today to collaborate to make a more efficient electric car.
Ford, of course, will actually build the cars but Microsoft says it will supply an "energy management" system that will debut in the Ford Focus electric model next year. The technology, called "Hohm," will help owners determine when and how to most efficiently and affordably recharge battery electric (BEV) and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) vehicles. It also should help utility companies manage the added demands of electric vehicles on the electric grid.
"For Ford, this is a needed step in the development of the infrastructure that will make electric vehicles viable," said Alan Mulally, Ford Motor Company president and CEO.
The partnership stems from a belief that, for electric vehicles to become viable consumer options, better energy management is required. Consumer interest is already there, the companies say. In a recent Accenture survey, 42 percent of consumers said they are likely to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle in the next two years. The next hurdle, however, is showing that investing in an electric car will actually pay off in the long run.
To pay off, electricity has to remain affordable. Increasing numbers of electric vehicles, however, will have a significant impact on energy demand. That is because the addition of an electric vehicle to a household could effectively double home energy consumption while the vehicle is charging.
"With Microsoft Hohm, Ford and Microsoft will deliver a solution that will make it easier for car owners to make smart decisions about the most affordable and efficient ways to recharge electric vehicles, while giving utilities better tools for managing the expected changes in energy demand," said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO.
Ford plans to put five new electrified vehicles on the road in North America and Europe by 2013. In North America, they include the Transit Connect Electric later this year, Focus Electric in 2011, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle and two next-generation hybrids in 2012.
While the Toyota Prius is perhaps the best-known hybrid, Ford currently has four hybrids on the road and another coming this year. They include the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid, Mercury Milan Hybrid and Mercury Mariner Hybrid. Also coming this fall is the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, which Ford thinks will be the most fuel-efficient luxury sedan in America.
Lower electric bills
Hohm is an Internet-based service designed to help customers avoid unnecessary expense by providing insight into their energy usage patterns and suggesting recommendations to increase conservation. With Ford electric vehicles, Hohm also will advise drivers of the best time to charge their vehicle. Smart recharging habits will help utility companies understand and better manage the increased demands placed upon the electric grid because of electrified vehicles.
Ford and Microsoft have partnered before, though not on this scale. The Ford SYNC communications and infotainment system, built on the Windows Embedded Automotive platform, has been installed on more than 2 million Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles since its launch in 2007. It allows drivers to connect and voice-control their mobile devices while driving.
Microsoft currently makes Hohm available for free to all U.S. residential energy consumers and has multiple partnerships with utilities and other stakeholders already in place, the company said. Ford is the first automaker to join in collaboration with Hohm.
"Rechargeable vehicles represent a new frontier. Their commercialization will take broad-based collaboration and systems solutions," said Mulally. "Working together, Ford and Microsoft will provide the systems solutions to help facilitate this exciting future."
Feds Propose Texting Ban for Truck and Bus Drivers
DOT announces partnership with Cornell University to involve public in rulemaking process03/31/2010ConsumerAffairs
Feds Propose Texting Ban for Truck and Bus Drivers...
By James Limbach
March 31, 2010
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is proposing a federal rule that would specifically prohibit texting by interstate commercial truck and bus drivers.
And, in an effort to increase public involvement and collaboration in the rulemaking process, DOT has announced an e-Rulemaking Initiative (CeRI) partnership with Cornell University. The idea, according to the agency is to "make the federal regulatory process more accessible to the public through Regulation Room," an online public participation environment where people can learn about and discuss proposed federal regulations and provide effective feedback to the Department.
Citizens can find more information on the Cornell online effort and provide comments on the proposed rule online over the next 30 days.
Research by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) shows that drivers who send and receive text messages take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds out of every 6 seconds while texting. At 55 miles per hour, this means that the driver is traveling the length of a football field, including the end zones, without looking at the road.
Drivers who text while driving are more than 20 times more likely to get in an accident than non-distracted drivers. Because of the safety risks associated with the use of electronic devices while driving, FMCSA is also working on additional regulatory measures that will be announced in the coming months.
"We are committed to using every resource available to eliminate the dangers of distracted driving," said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro. "This rulemaking to prohibit texting by interstate commercial truck and bus drivers, along with the Cornell E-Rulemaking Initiative, reinforces our unwavering commitment and provides the public with a unique opportunity to share their ideas and comments on how together we can make our roads safer."
During the September 2009 Distracted Driving Summit, the Secretary announced the Department's plan to pursue this regulatory action, as well as rulemakings to reduce the other risks posed by distracted driving.
President Obama also signed an Executive Order directing federal employees not to engage in text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles or with government-owned equipment. Federal employees were required to comply with the ban starting on December 30, 2009.
The proposed rule would make permanent an interim ban announced in January 2010 that applied existing safety rules to the specific issue of texting.
Car Loan Marketer Settles FTC Charges
Company took a page from the 'pre-approved' credit card pitch03/31/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Consumers are accustomed to getting letters from credit card companies telling them they are "pre-approved" for a new account. Of course, in many cases it ...
Consumers are accustomed to getting letters from credit card companies telling them they are "pre-approved" for a new account. Of course, in many cases it turns out they aren't.
Now, a company that markets car loans in the same manner has run afoul of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The agency accuses it of telling low-income and "credit-challenged" consumers that they were pre-approved for auto loans.
According to the FTC, Direct Marketing Associates Corp. and its president and owner, John M. Rainey, Jr. prepared sales solicitations for automobile dealers telling consumers that a specific finance company would lend them money to buy a car, but the finance companies featured in the ads lacked business licenses and didn't actually make any loans.
The marketing company obtained lists of consumers from a credit-reporting agency by falsely representing that the lists would be used to make prescreened firm offers of credit to consumers.
In a settlement with the government, the company and its principal are barred from telling consumers they are pre-approved for, or are likely to receive, an extension of credit or financing unless the defendants know that a lender can make good on the offer for all eligible customers.
The order also prohibits the defendants from obtaining credit reports from consumer reporting agencies without a purpose authorized by the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
The order imposes a $157,000 civil penalty that is suspended based on the defendants' inability to pay. The full judgment will be imposed if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.
Few Drive Well While Yakking on Cell Phones
However, study finds one in 40 are 'supertaskers' who can do both03/31/2010ConsumerAffairs
Few Drive Well While Yakking on Cell Phones...
March 31, 2010
Are you one of those annoying people who can't get behind the wheel without carrying on a conversation on your cell phone?
You might be interested to know that a new study conducted by University of Utah psychologists found there is just a small group of people who have the extraordinary ability to multitask: Unlike 97.5 percent of those studied, they can drive safely while chatting on the phone.
These individuals -- described by the researchers as "supertaskers" - make up just 2.5 percent of the population. They are so-named for their ability to do two things at once successfully. In this case, they can talk on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment.
The study, conducted by psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, is to appear later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review .
The researchers believe their finding is important not because it shows people can drive well while on the phone -- the study confirms that the vast majority cannot -- but because it challenges current theories of multitasking. Further research may lead eventually to new understanding of regions of the brain that are responsible for supertaskers' extraordinary performance.
"According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist," says Watson. "Yet, clearly they do, so we use the supertasker term as a convenient way to describe their exceptional multitasking ability. Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers. And while we'd probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it. In fact, the odds of being a supertasker are about as good as your chances of flipping a coin and getting five heads in a row."
The researchers assessed the performance of 200 participants over a single task (simulated freeway driving), and again with a second demanding activity added (a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems). Performance was then measured in four areas -- braking reaction time, following distance, memory, and math execution.
As expected, results showed that for the group, performance suffered across the board while driving and talking on a hands-free cell phone.
For those who were not supertaskers and who talked on a cell phone while driving the simulators, it took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes when needed and following distances increased 30 percent as the drivers failed to keep pace with simulated traffic while driving. Memory performance declined 11 percent, and the ability to do math problems fell three percent.
However, when supertaskers talked while driving, they displayed no change in their normal braking times, following distances or math ability, and their memory abilities actually improved three percent.
The results are in line with Strayer's prior studies showing that driving performance routinely declines under "dual-task conditions" -- namely talking on a cell phone while driving -- and is comparable to the impairment seen in drunken drivers.
Yet contrary to current understanding in this area, the small number of supertaskers showed no impairment on the measurements of either driving or cell conversation when in combination. Further, researchers found that these individuals' performance even on the single tasks was markedly better than the control group.
"There is clearly something special about the supertaskers," says Strayer. "Why can they do something that most of us cannot? Psychologists may need to rethink what they know about multitasking in light of this new evidence. We may learn from these very rare individuals that the multitasking regions of the brain are different and that there may be a genetic basis for this difference. That is very exciting. Stay tuned."
Watson and Strayer are now studying expert fighter pilots under the assumption that those who can pilot a jet aircraft are also likely to have extraordinary multitasking ability.
There's a growing sense of concern throughout the nation about "distracted driving" as it's become known. Numerous states have banned the use of cell phones while driving.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls talking on cell phone while driving "a recipe for disaster on our nation's highways." Last fall, he convened a two-day summit to deal with the problem.
Kellogg Sued Over Salmonella Outbreak
Plaintiffs say company misrepresented products as safe03/31/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Kellogg Sued Over Salmonella Outbreak...
More than a year after its outbreak, the infamous peanut butter-linked salmonella epidemic lives on, if only in the courtroom.
A class action filed on Monday accuses food giant Kellogg of failing to warn consumers that its snack foods were possibly contaminated with salmonella, thereby putting its customer base at risk of serious illness.
The suit alleges that, despite Kellogg's constant claims that its products were healthy, nutritious, made with only quality ingredients and safe, the snacks were manufactured using processes and quality-control measures that were grossly inadequate for purposes of ensuring that [they would] not be contaminated. The plaintiffs claim that Kellogg misrepresented its snacks as safe in order to reap significant financial rewards that it otherwise would not have obtained.
As is true for much of the January 2009 recall, the suit's allegations can be traced back to Peanut Corporation of America, the now-defunct company at the center of the outbreak. According to the suit, PCA provided Kellogg with peanut paste for a number of its products, including peanut butter-flavored cookies and cracker sandwiches. Kellogg recalled a handful of snacks in January, and twice expanded the recall to include a larger variety of products.
PCA was implicated in the outbreak after federal inspectors discovered that the corporation shipped peanut products that tested positive for salmonella. A subsequent inspection at PCA plants in Georgia and Texas uncovered a number of health code violations, including leaky roofs, mold, rodent droppings and live cockroaches.
The suit notes that, in issuing the recall, Kellogg urged consumers who bought the recalled products to destroy them and further stated that 'consumers with questions or concerns about their health should contact their doctor, and that the company maintains a page on its website entitled 'Peanut Butter Products Recall Information' on which it also urges consumers who bought the recalled products to destroy them and instructs consumers with questions or concerns about their health to contact their doctors.
But the plaintiffs contend that these measures don't go far enough, since they only offer relief to Class members who manage to learn of the recalls and meet the unreasonable conditions Kellogg has imposed.
Judging from the complaint, lead plaintiff Anthony Benavides doesn't appear to have actually gotten sick from the Austin brand peanut butter crackers at the center of the suit. According to the complaint, Benavides was misled into purchasing and spending money on the products, and received something other than what was represented, a product he did not seek. The suit says that Benavides was injured in fact since he lost money or property because of the company's alleged deception.
Whether that theory will pass legal muster is up for debate. In many situations, consumers can claim economic injury even when they haven't been visibly affected by a corporation's negligence -- owners of recalled Toyotas, for example, can point to the negative effect the flap has had on their cars' resale value. Whether that logic can be applied to crackers potentially subject to a recall -- but that didn't actually make anyone sick -- remains to be seen.
EPA May Require Testing of BPA's Environmental Impact
EPA and FDA both express concerns about chemical's effect on fetuses and young children03/31/2010ConsumerAffairs
EPA May Require Testing of BPA's Environmental Impact...
Federal concerns about the potential health and environmental effects of the widely-used chemical bisphenol A (BPA) continue to grow.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it may add BPA to the agencys list of chemicals of concerns and require testing of its impact on the environment.
Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it had some concerns about the health impacts BPA had on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.
BPA is used in many consumer products, including baby bottles, plastic water containers, metallic food and beverage cans, cash register receipts, medical equipment, and dental sealants.
Animal studies have shown the chemical can cause reproductive and developmental problems and may also affect the endocrine system, the EPA said. Other studies have linked BPA exposure in humans with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and reproductive issues.
Some scientists have also told ConsumerAffairs.com that children and developing fetuses are especially vulnerable to potential adverse health effects from BPA exposure.
In related news, more than 200 environmental and public health groups protested outside the GlobalChem Conference in Baltimore Tuesday and challenged chemical manufacturers to support federal changes that would protect the public from BPA and other potentially dangerous toxins.
The EPA said its decision to scrutinize BPA is a sign the agency is worried about the possible health and environmental risks posed by the chemical.
We share FDAs concern about the potential health impacts from BPA, said Steve Owens, assistant administrator of EPAs Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. Both EPA and FDA, and many other agencies are moving forward to fully assess the environmental and health impacts to ensure that the full range of BPAs possible impacts are examined.
The EPA, however, is not taking any regulatory action at this time to stop the use of BPA. Instead, the agency announced the following action plan regarding the chemical:
Adding BPA to the chemical concern list because of its potential effects on the environment. This would identify BPA as a substance that may present an unreasonable risk of injury to the environment because of its potential for long-term adverse effects on growth, reproduction and development in aquatic species;
Requiring information on concentrations of BPA in surface water, ground water, and drinking water to determine if the chemical may be present at levels of potential concern. The EPA said its especially concerned about levels that could harm environmental organisms, pregnant women, and children;
Requiring manufacturers to provide test data to help the agency evaluate the chemicals possible long-term effects on growth, reproduction, and development in aquatic organisms and wildlife;
Using EPAs Design for the Environment (DfE) program to encourage the reduction of BPA exposures. One of these activities, to be initiated in April 2010, will address thermal and carbonless paper coatings used in such applications as cash register receipts, a use where preferable alternatives to BPA may be readily available, the EPA said;
Continuing to evaluate the potential disproportionate impact on children and other sub-populations through exposure to BPA from non-food packaging uses.
A trade group for chemical makers downplayed the EPAs action plan and its concerns about BPA.
It is important to recognize that EPA is not proposing any regulatory action regarding human health, said Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC). We look forward to a productive exchange with EPA on this action plan, and working to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in a way that allows EPA to better prioritize chemicals for review.
Cooley said many studies have shown that BPA does not pose any environmental risks at its current levels.
BPA is one of the most thoroughly studied chemicals in commerce and comprehensive scientific assessments recently conducted in Europe and Japan have affirmed that BPA is not a risk to the environment at current low levels, he said. Numerous studies have found that BPA rapidly biodegrades, does not bioaccumulate and, if detected at all, is present in the environment only at trace levels that do not cause harmful effects.
Dooley also pointed out that other U.S. regulators, including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), have determined that BPA is safe and have not banned the chemicals use.
HHS and FDA recently reaffirmed that BPA has not been proven to cause harm to infants or adults, and other regulatory bodies around the world have determined that the science supports the safety of BPA, he said.
But HHS officials in January said recent studies raised concerns and doubts about the safety of BPA.
In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration conducted a review of toxicology research and information on BPA, and, at that time, assessed that food-related materials made with BPA on the market were safe, HHS said. But recent studies have reported subtle effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals.
While BPA is not proven to harm children or adults, HHS added, these newer studies have led federal health officials to express some concern about the safety of BPA.
Canadian authorities have already announced plans to ban BPA in baby bottles as a precautionary measure, the EPA said. The country is taking these steps even though science indicates exposure levels are below potential health levels, the EPA said.
Meanwhile, environmental and public health groups protesting in Baltimore today urged chemical makers to back legislative changes that would improve the countrys outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
The groups argue the chemical industry is more interested in improving its image than revamping the antiquated law that governs our countrys chemical policies.
The chemical industry knows it needs to respond to the increasing scientific evidence linking toxic chemicals to disease, and consumer demand for safer products, said Andy Igrejas, national campaign Director for the Safer Chemicals, Health Families (SCHF) coalition. The group represents more than 11 million health care professionals, environmental health advocates and concerned parents around the country. But reforming TSCA is not just about improving PR for the chemical industry its about genuinely protecting public health.
In the next few weeks, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL) are expected to introduce reforms to the TSCA.
Environmental and public health advocates have urged Congress to overhaul the law, saying it fails to protect consumers from potentially dangerous chemicals.
When Congress adopted the TSCA in 1976, for example, it "grandfathered" in the 62,000 chemicals on the market at the time. Since then, the EPA has regulated only five of those chemicals and required testing of slightly more than 200.
But three fundamental differences between how the chemical industry and public health groups want to revamp the TSCA have recently surfaced, according to the Safer Chemicals, Health Families coalition.
The coalition said public health advocates want the following reforms made to the TSCA:
Public disclosure of safety information for all chemicals in use. This requirement will both identify and keep harmful chemicals out of commerce and identify safer chemicals that can replace the dangerous ones, the SCHF said;
Prompt action to phase out or reduce the most dangerous chemicals;
Deciding safety based on real world exposure to all sources of toxic chemicals. Currently chemicals are too often assessed without taking into account that, in the real world, people are exposed to multiple chemicals from multiple sources, including air, water, food, and consumer products, the SCHF said. Public health advocates believe that, when assessing safety, EPA must take into account the sum of all exposures to a chemical and to other chemicals that cause the same or similar health impacts.
The coalition said the chemical industry only wants these changes made to the TSCA:
Limited testing of a handful of chemicals, which public health advocates say would leave consumers in the dark about safety hazards. Only these priority chemicals would be subjected to further information requirementsand then only on a case-by-case basis, the SCHF said. By not requiring at least basic information up front for all chemicals, the industry's proposal would fail to identify all problem chemicals on the market;
More lengthy and costly studies of chemicals already proven to be dangerous;
An assumption that the public is only exposed to one chemical at a time, and from one source at a time. This approach not only fails to consider the full extent of chemical exposures; it wont tell us how most chemicals are used or how we are exposed to them, the SFHC said.
The president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council said today that he welcomes talks with environmental and public health groups about improving the TSCA.
Our highest priority is public health and safety, said the organizations Cal Dooley. Americans deserve to have confidence that the products they buy are safe for the uses for which they were designed.
Paramount to the success of a comprehensive legislative proposal is the ability to discuss ideas and concepts in a transparent fashion and allow for meaningful discussion by all key stakeholder groups, he added. Todays conference is another step in the right direction.
Dooley also said his organization is not unilaterally opposed to legislative action to improve the TSCA and protect the publics safety.
While TSCA has been protective of public health and the environment, we recognize that more can be done to harness the advances made in science and technology over the past three decades, he said. We are committed to developing a new comprehensive chemical management law that puts the safety of the American consumer first, while ensuring the innovation that will lead to the development of essential new consumer products and high-paying American jobs.
A copy of the Safer Chemicals, Health Families coalitions statement on this issue is now posted on the groups Web site.
California's Brown Warns of Phony Tax-Relief Companies
Scam artists charge big bucks upfront but deliver nothing03/30/2010ConsumerAffairs
California's Brown Warns of Phony Tax-Relief Companies...
As tax day approaches, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. urged taxpayers to avoid "phony tax-relief companies" that charge taxpayers up to $3,000 in upfront fees to reduce or eliminate back taxes owed to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), but provide no actual relief.
"Every tax season, phony tax-relief companies emerge to exploit cash-strapped Californians who owe back taxes to the IRS," Brown said. "Taxpayers should be on high alert, avoid paying upfront fees to these companies and never ignore notices from the IRS."
Throughout the tax season, tax-relief companies advertise on the radio, television and internet promising help for taxpayers in distress. For an upfront fee ranging from $2,000 to $3,000, these companies claim to reduce or even eliminate tax debts to the IRS and stop back-tax collection.
However, soon after collecting upfront fees, these companies typically inform taxpayers that they do not qualify for a relief program or that the IRS has rejected their attempt to reduce or eliminate the back-tax debt. Often these companies never even contact the IRS directly. Rather than reduce or eliminate the amount owed in back taxes to the IRS, these companies increase taxpayers' debt burden.
Brown offered the following tips to taxpayers who owe back taxes and are having trouble paying:
Don't ignore notices from the IRS. Call and ask about collection alternatives, as you may be eligible for a monthly payment plan. In some cases, it is possible to pay less than the total amount you owe.
Don't trust promises from companies that imply that you are "qualified" or "eligible" for an IRS program to resolve your back-tax debt. Only the IRS can make that determination.
Don't pay upfront or advance fees for tax-debt relief services.
Taxpayers with problems paying back taxes can also contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent organization within the IRS dedicated to providing free assistance to individuals who are experiencing financial difficulties, need help resolving IRS problems, or believe the IRS is not working as it should.
Taxpayers can call the Taxpayer Advocate Service at 1-877-777-4778.or contact a local office directly in the following cities:
Taxpayers can also seek help from local Low Income Taxpayer Clinics, which represent low income taxpayers before the IRS; assist taxpayers in audits, appeals and collection disputes; and can help taxpayers respond to IRS notices and correct account problems. To learn more about these local services and the Taxpayer Advocate Service, visit: www.irs.gov/advocate.
Early refundsLast month, Brown issued an alert to taxpayers seeking tax-refund anticipation loans, commonly marketed as early tax refunds, warning them about deceptive advertisements, numerous fees and triple-digit interest rates. This alert followed two successful lawsuits against tax preparers who deceptively marketed refund anticipation loans:
In June 2009, Brown won a $1.3 million lawsuit against Liberty Tax Service that bars the company from using false or misleading advertising to sell tax refund loans.
In January 2009, Brown won a $4.85 million settlement with H&R; Block, which prohibits the company from marketing refund anticipation loans as early tax refunds.
Trader Joe's Greens Up Its Seafood Policy
Bows to pressure from Greenpeace to stock only sustainably-harvested seafood03/30/2010ConsumerAffairs
Trader Joe's Greens Up Its Seafood Policy...
March 30, 2010
Trader Joe's, the trendy low-cost grocery chain that nurtures a green image, has bowed to pressure from environmental groups and says it will stock only sustainably-harvested seafood by 2012.
Greenpeace and other environmental groups, has kept the heat on Trader Joe's lately, noting that its seafood policies don't match its eco-friendly image. It was recently ranked 17 out of 20 in a Greenpeace review, the lowest of any national grocery chain.
"Greenpeace applauds the supermarket chain for finally seeing the light and working towards sustainable seafood policies that will help save the oceans and put an end to destructive fishing practices," a Greenpeace spokesman said.
"Trader Joe's felt the heat from Greenpeaces mock website (www.traitorjoe.com), relentless phone calls from supporters, thoughtful karaoke songs from shoppers and in-store demonstrations and questions to store managers from activists across the country," he added.
In a statement, Trader Joe's said it intends for its new policy to "address customer concerns including the issues of over fishing, destructive catch or production methods, and the importance of marine reserves" and said it will "use our purchasing power to leverage change within the seafood supply community."
"Based on customer feedback and in support of our work to source sustainable seafoodwe stopped selling Chilean Sea Bass in 2005, Orange Roughy in July of 2009, and Red Snapper in March of 2010," the statement said.
Other chains have also gotten the message. Target recently announced that it will replace farmed salmon with more sustainable Alaskan wild salmon.
However, eight major chains have made no visible effort to increase the sustainability of their seafood operations, according to the latest report from Greenpeace. These include: Aldi, Costco, Giant Eagle, H.E.B., Meijer, Price Chopper, Publix and Winn Dixie.
Missouri Busts Two Foreclosure Rescue Companies
Court orders $116,000 in restitution -- bars charging up-front fees03/30/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Missouri Busts Two Foreclosure Rescue Companies...
The office of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has won judgments against two foreclosure rescue companies that allegedly took money from distraught homeowners and failed to provide promised services.
"This Attorney General's office has instituted a zero tolerance policy for any mortgage modification firm that preys on and cheats desperate homeowners," Koster said. "Our office will use all its powers to investigate and prosecute businesses involved in these schemes to defraud Missouri consumers."
Gateway Mortgage Modification, owned by Richard R. Reichert, Jr, was accused of having unlawfully charged up-front fees for foreclosure and mortgage modification services and of falsely promising consumers that attorneys would negotiate loan modifications on their homes.
The court ordered Gateway and Reichert to pay $65,000 restitution and permanently prohibited the company from charging up-front fees for services and from falsely representing to consumers that attorneys would negotiate modifications.
The court also permanently barred Gateway and Reichert from violating the state's merchandising practices and foreclosure consultant laws and ordered them to pay attorney fees and costs. If the company fails to pay restitution as ordered, an additional $10,000 penalty will be imposed.
First Universal Lending, LLC, based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, marketed its services to homeowners who were having difficulty paying their mortgages or facing foreclosure, promising them lower house payments or lower interest rates. Company representatives told some clients to stop making mortgage payments while the modification process was proceeding, which harms consumers by injuring their credit rating and increasing likelihood of foreclosure. The business also illegally required homeowners to pay up-front fees before they would provide any services.
Gregg of Bradenton, FL, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that he got hassled by First Universal while applying for a refinance of his mortgage. "During the process, the loan officer kept requesting info, saying 'we are closing any day now.' Upon getting the info, he would request more info from me. This went on many times. During this, I was asked to pre-pay an appraisal on the property for $325. Tired of what appeared to be incompetence and no knowledge with the loan process, I demanded a copy of the appraisal for which I paid before I sent more documents. I finally grew tired of this and informed the loan officer that I was concluding our business relationship."
Gregg says efforts to get his money refunded have been fruitless.
The court ordered First Universal to pay more than $51,000 restitution and $23,000 civil penalties in the foreclosure rescue case. It also prohibited the company from charging up-front fees; advising homeowners to stop making mortgage payments; and promising loan modifications on which they fail to follow through.
With many states already putting laws on their books to ban advance-fee foreclosure rescue operations, there's a move in the Federal Trade Commission to outlaw the practice through rulemaking rather than legislation.
Is Zero Percent Financing A Good Deal?
Paying no interest sounds inviting, but not every buyer qualifies03/30/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
"Car buyers should arrive at the dealership as well-armed as possible, with an auto in mind, a set price range, and some idea of your creditworthiness," sa...
If you've watched much television lately, you've likely seen back-to-back car commercials touting zero percent financing. As carmakers compete to sell vehicles, nearly all are resorting to "no cost" financing.
Zero percent financing offers often draw consumers to new car showrooms, but the results aren't always advantageous for buyers.
"On the surface, zero percent financing can sound like a no-brainer," said Ethan Ewing, president of Bills.com, a financial advice Web site. "However, consumers must understand that zero percent financing is intended to generate foot traffic for dealers as a bait and switch tactic, and that it is sometimes not as rewarding as alternative incentive offers."
In many cases, zero percent financing can present tremendous opportunities to potential car buyers. However, consumers should first do their homework to ensure that it is actually the bargain it is marketed as by dealers and car companies.
Some things to consider:
• Remember that all dealer incentives are designed to generate car sales. The ultimate goal is to bring consumers into the showroom.
• Zero percent financing is predicated on good credit. Normally, only the best credit customers will qualify for this promotion. If you are purchasing because of the promotion, check your credit score ahead of time so you can know whether to even step foot into the showroom.
• Most zero percent financing offers come with a relatively short payback term, which can make for higher overall payments. For families on a monthly budget, it might make more sense to avoid the promotion and opt for a longer-term payback so monthly payments are lower.
• Most zero percent financing offers are only available on a limited number and type of models. Car buyers should research which automobiles are being offered as part of the promotion before visiting the showroom.
• Be wary of automobile prices that are elevated to compensate for low interest rate offers. Negotiate the price of the car independently from the loan terms. By packaging your new car price, any trade-in and your loan terms as one deal, you stand to lose money.
• Finally, explore competing promotions such as cash back offers. Sometimes, the case for a cash back award might be more compelling in the long run.
For example, the monthly payment on a $28,000 vehicle at zero percent interest over 48 months is $583.33. This compares to a $572.52 monthly payment for the same vehicle with a $3,500 cash back offer and a six percent interest rate over 48 months (not including tax and title fees). Do your research carefully and compare all offers.
"Car buyers should arrive at the dealership as well-armed as possible, with an auto in mind, a set price range, and some idea of your creditworthiness," continued Ewing. "Without this information you are at a great disadvantage."
Video - 5 Things You Should Know About Credit Cards
Understanding how the CARD Act affects you most03/30/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Video - 5 Things You Should Know About Credit Cards...
There are new rules in place for credit card companies and, in the long run, consumers stand to benefit. But it just makes sense that credit card customers need to understand the most important rule changes contained in the CARD Act and what their impact will be. Here then, are the "5 Things You Need to Know About Credit Cards."
Graco Recalls 1.2 Million Harmony High Chairs03/29/2010ConsumerAffairs
Graco Recalls 1.2 Million Harmony High Chairs...
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is announcing the recall of all Simplicity full-size cribs with tubular metal mattress-support frames. This recall includes fixed-side and drop-side cribs. These cribs pose a risk of serious injury or death due to entrapment, strangulation, suffocation and fall hazards to infants and toddlers.
The crib's tubular metal mattress-support frame can bend or detach and cause part of the mattress to collapse, creating a space into which an infant or toddler can roll and become wedged, entrapped or fall out of the crib.
CPSC has received a report of a one-year-old child from North Attleboro, Mass. who suffocated when he became entrapped between the crib mattress and the crib frame in April 2008. CPSC is aware of 13 additional incidents involving the recalled cribs collapsing due to the metal mattress-support frame bending or detaching, including one child entrapment that did not result in injury, and one child who suffered minor cuts to his head when his mattress collapsed and he fell out of the crib.
CPSC staff urges parents and caregivers to stop using these cribs immediately and find an alternative, safe sleeping environment for their baby. Do not attempt to fix these cribs.
Due to the fact that Simplicity and its successor, SFCA Inc., are no longer in business, CPSC has limited information about the number of cribs sold.
All Simplicity drop-side cribs have previously been recalled for a hazard involving the drop side. Simplicity drop-side cribs could still be in use by parents or caregivers who are unaware of the recalls or by those who received a repair kit to immobilize the drop side from Simplicity when the firm was still in business. This recall involves all Simplicity cribs with tubular metal mattress-support frames, which include but are not limited to the following models:
|Crib Name||Model Number|
|Chelsea Deluxe 4-in-1 Convertible Sleep System||8324|
|Graco 4-in-1 Ultra Sleep System||4600|
|Graco Aspen 3-in-1||8740|
|Simplicity Crib and Changer Combo||8994|
|Simplicity Ellis Deluxe 4-in-1 Convertible Sleep System||8676|
|Simplicity Nursery-in-a-Box Convertible Crib||8910|
Some model numbers are followed by letters, indicating the color or finish of the crib. The name "Simplicity Inc." or "Simplicity for Children" appears on a label on the crib's mattress-support frame and/or the crib's end panels. The cribs were manufactured in China.
The recalled cribs were sold at Walmart, Target, Babies R Us and other stores nationwide for between $150 and $300. Consumers should contact the store where the crib was purchased to receive a refund, replacement crib or store credit.
CPSC would like to remind parents not to use any crib with missing, broken or loose parts. Make sure to tighten hardware from time to time to keep the crib sturdy. When using a drop-side crib, parents should check to make sure the drop side or any other moving part operates smoothly. Always check all sides and corners of the crib for disengagement. Any disengagement can create a gap, which could fatally entrap a child. In addition, do not try to repair any side of the crib with tape, wire, rope or by other means. Infants and toddlers have died in cribs with makeshift repairs.
For more information on Crib Safety, visit CPSC's Crib Information Center.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
New York AG Slams Nationwide Foreclosure Rescue Scammers
Companies charged homeowners for loan modification services that were not performed03/29/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
New York AG Slams Nationwide Foreclosure Rescue Scammers...
New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo is suing a pair of loan modification companies that he says ran nationwide foreclosure rescue scams.
The lawsuits were filed against National Modification Service ("National Modification") and its founder Joseph Romano, and Infinity Mitigation Corporation, Infinity Funding Group ("Infinity"), and their owner and principal Neil Singer.
According to Cuomo, the companies and their owners prey on homeowners facing foreclosure by claiming that they can save their homes, but often fail to provide the services promised.
"As New Yorkers and others across the country fight to stay afloat in these tough times, we continue to see dishonest companies preying on vulnerable homeowners," said Attorney General Cuomo. "These companies pretend to be reaching out a helping hand, but instead they push consumers further down into debt and, in some cases, into foreclosure."
Foreclosures have claimed the homes of thousands of New Yorkers. In January 2010 alone, there were 4,569 foreclosed properties in the state, and one in every 1,737 housing units had received notice of foreclosure. The AG's investigations have shown that thousands of New Yorkers and homeowners throughout the country have been affected by foreclosure rescue scams.
The lawsuits against National Modification and Infinity claim the companies charged homeowners up-front fees of several thousand dollars, a violation of New York law. In addition, the companies are accused of using misleading advertising and made false representations to customers, including unsubstantiated claims of over a 90 percent success rate and guarantees that they would be able to convert an adjustable-rate mortgage to a lower, fixed-rate mortgage.
The lawsuits also contend that the companies promised a 100% money-back guarantee but then failed to provide refunds to customers that they scammed, often even refusing to answer the customers' calls.
The lawsuits seek to shut down the companies and provide restitution and damages to customers and aim to prevent them from ever providing foreclosure rescue services. In addition, the lawsuit seeks penalties and costs from the companies and their principals. Collectively, they may be subject to penalties of $1 million and potentially much more.
Cuomo also announced settlement agreements with two companies, ABM Mitigation Corporation ("ABM"), a Ronkonkoma-based loan modification business, and Raymond, Louis & Fitch ("RLF"), a Florida-based loan modification company doing business in New York.
As part of the settlements, both companies will refund fees to all customers who have not obtained a loan modification. ABM will shut down their practices nationwide and RLF will stop doing business in New York State.
Both companies illegally charged customers thousands of dollars in up-front fees and failed to provide their customers with contracts as required by law. ABM, which is now prevented from obtaining any new clients, lured customers by misrepresenting their qualifications, falsely claiming that they were accredited, and falsely advertising a 100 percent success rate. RLF used fabricated testimonials, falsely represented that consumers had been selected for special government programs, and falsely claimed consumers' homes qualified for fabricated loan modification programs.
Under the law in New York, foreclosure rescue companies are required to provide clients with contracts, let financially vulnerable homeowners know that there are non-profit counselors that can help them for free, and refrain from charging up-front fees.
Consumers who are unable to make their mortgage payments should call their lender immediately to discuss the available alternatives to foreclosure. Many lenders offer foreclosure avoidance programs and have pledged publicly to assist distressed borrowers.
While mortgage loan modifications have helped some homeowners, there are many for whom the whole process has been a nightmare .
FTC Bans Credit Card Marketer From Telemarketing
Pitched advance-fee credit cards and other credit products03/29/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
FTC Bans Credit Card Marketer From Telemarketing: One call consumers won't be getting in the future is one pitching all manner of credit products from mark...
One call consumers won't be getting in the future is one pitching all manner of credit products from marketer James Nicholson. The telemarketing ban is part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has labeled Nicholson's operation a scam.
The FTC sued Nicholson and his companies last year, alleging he tricked consumers into paying hundreds of dollars for a credit card that could be used only to buy merchandise from his companies' Web sites. The charges also include those related to an advance-fee credit card scam and a bogus advance-fee interest-rate reduction/debt negotiation program, as well as allegations that they debited consumer bank accounts without permission, failed to tell consumers they would not be able to get a refund, and illegally called consumers whose names were on the National Do Not Call Registry.
Under the settlement order, Nicholson and his companies will pay more than $200,000.
The FTC filed a complaint in 2009 charging Nicholson and several of his businesses with using deceptive telemarketing pitches since 2006 to offer consumers with poor or no credit a general-use credit card in exchange for an up-front fee of as much as $250. Telemarketers working for Nicholson's chief company, Group One Network, also claimed that consumers would get access to a significant line of credit that could be used for cash advances, and that their payment histories would be reported to the three major credit bureaus.
Not what it appeared
In reality, consumers who paid the fee received an online shopping card they could use only to buy products from Group One's Web sites, they could not get cash advances, and their credit histories were never reported to the credit bureaus.
In April 2009, the FTC filed an amended complaint naming four more companies and adding new allegations relating to the deceptive telemarketing of a bogus advance-fee interest-rate reduction/debt negotiation program by a business operating as Credit First Financial Solutions. The FTC's amended complaint alleged that Nicholson's telemarketers, among other things, falsely represented that in exchange for an up-front fee, they could lower consumers' interest rates by negotiating with consumers' creditors; would provide consumers a minimum savings of $1,500 to $20,000 within the first 30 days of their enrollment; and would provide a full refund if they failed to achieve the promised savings.
The settlement bans Nicholson, a repeat offender who pleaded guilty to wire fraud in connection with fraudulent telemarketing in 1995, from telemarketing and from selling advance-fee loans or credit cards. It also bans him from assisting anyone in telemarketing or marketing such loans. Furthermore, the settlement prohibits Nicholson and his companies from misleading consumers about credit-related goods or services, or any other goods or services they market.
$17.2 million judgment
Finally, the order imposes a $17.2 million judgment against all the defendants, which has been suspended based on their inability to pay the full amount. However, Nicholson will turn over a 31-foot power boat, his Nissan Pathfinder, and jewelry and art valued at more than $10,000. The other defendants will turn over more than $200,000 in cash and other assets.
The settlement resolves the FTC's charges against: Group One Networks, Inc., doing business as (d/b/a) Credit Line Gold Card, The USA Workers, TheUSAWork.com, and TheUSAWorkers.com; US Gold Line, LLC, d/b/a USGoldLine.com, Gainsway Credit, and GainswayCredit.com; My Online Credit Store, LLC d/b/a MyOnlineCreditStore.com, MYOnlinecr.com, Diamond Executive, NewECredit, and NewECredit.com; James Nicholson, individually and as president of Group One Networks, Inc., and manager of US Gold Line, LLC and My Online Credit Store, LLC; Credit First Financial Solution, LLC; Group One Administrative, Inc.; Tall Pines Administrative Services, LLC; and Sun Coast Data Services, LLC.
Brett Fisher, the chief executive officer of Group One Networks, Inc., and manager of US Gold Line, LLC and My Online Credit Store, LLC, settled similar FTC charges in December 2009. He agreed to a court order banning him from selling advance-fee credit cards and from violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The order against Fisher also imposed a $17.2 million judgment, which was suspended based on his inability to pay. He has turned over $21,000 in cash to the FTC.
Boomers' goals may be higher but their methods are more flexible03/29/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jan Yager, Ph.D.
Boomer Love: How is the 'Free Love' Generation Doing Now?...
Does Credit Card Debt Settlement Really Work?
Consumers should seek solid advice before taking any action03/29/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Does Credit Card Debt Settlement Really Work?...
The ads for credit card debt settlement companies make it sound pretty easy. If you have $10,000 or more of credit card debt, these firms say they can negotiate with your lender so that you can walk away from all but a small percentage of the money you owe.
Are these promises on the level? The Better Business Bureau calls the debt settlement industry one fraught with "inherent problems." That's a diplomatic way of saying some of these companies are outright scams. In recent months several have been targets of legal action by state attorneys general.
The typical debt settlement business model requires an upfront payment from a distressed consumer. For that payment, the company agrees to negotiate on the consumer's behalf with the credit card company. Sometimes the company makes an effort to negotiate a reduction in debt, sometimes it simply disappears with the money. The consumer is left with less money and more debt, along with a severely damaged credit rating.
But a debt settlement firm that says credit card companies will negotiate a lower balance isn't necessarily lying. Lenders will, in some cases, do just that. However, the consequences for the consumer aren't particularly pleasant and need to be weighed against paying off the legal debt.
Expect more collection calls
To begin the process, the consumer stops paying his credit card bill for at least six months. Almost immediately the collection calls begin and the consumer's credit rating takes a hit.
At the end of six months the credit card company will likely write off the debt as a loss. However, you will still legally owe the debt and your credit score falls even further. It is at this point that credit card debt settlement companies say they go to work, negotiating with your credit card company to agree to lower the amount owed, in exchange for the agreed-upon amount to be paid.
However, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) notes that it can take years for these debt settlement firms to get around to negotiating with your lender. In the meantime, late fees and interest are accumulating. Oh yes, those calls from collectors will continue. In fact, the credit card company might sell your "uncollectible" debt to a more aggressive debt collector.
Should you decide to go the debt-settlement route, the FTC says you would be much better off negotiating with the credit card company directly. You would save the large up-front fee and the percentage of the reduced debt the company usually demands as a final payment.
Seek good advice
Before taking that step, however, the FTC suggests you consider the move carefully and get expert advice. Reputable credit counseling organizations advise people on managing money, bills and debts, help them develop a budget, and usually offer free information and workshops.
They should discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to get you out of the hole. Finding reputable credit counselors has recently become more convenient because the new credit card law requires credit card issuers to include a toll-free number on their statements that directs cardholders to information about finding nonprofit counseling agencies. The federal government maintains a list of government-approved organizations , by state, at the website of the U.S. Trustee Program.
Debt settlement companies that make the process sound simple and relatively painless should be avoided. According to the FTC, some "red flags" include ads that tout some alleged government program or "guarantees" it can reduce your debt or makes other promises. However, the biggest tip-off of all is the requirement that you write a large check to them before they start work.
'Buying Club' Marketer Convicted of Deception
Company has long history of negative option marketing schemes03/29/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
'Buying Club' Marketer Convicted of Deception...
An Iowa court has ruled that Vertrue, a company with a long history of marketing so-called 'buying club memberships,' deceived Iowa residents to the tune of $36 million over the last 20 years.
"Our jaws dropped, too, when we discovered the numbers," said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who filed the consumer fraud lawsuit that led to the court's decision. "We learned during the litigation that, as of mid-2009, 497,683 Iowans had been enrolled in 863,970 buying club memberships offered by Vertrue over two decades."
Typical Vertrue buying club "memberships" cost $9.95 to $19.95 per month, with charges usually made to consumers' credit card or bank accounts. The memberships purport to provide discounts or savings on books, music, clothing, home improvement items, entertainment activities, dining out, and fashion and fitness products.
"We filed the lawsuit because consumers consistently told us they didn't even know they were members," Miller said. "We alleged Vertrue's illegal sales practices resulted in a vast number of Iowans' credit cards being charged, sometimes repeatedly, for memberships most of the Iowans didn't even know they had and never used."
The state lawsuit, which alleged violations of the Iowa Consumer Fraud Act and Iowa's Buying Club Law, was tried Oct. 26-Nov. 5, 2009, in a bench trial before Judge Robert Hutchison, who issued a 62-page ruling late last week finding that Vertrue and its subsidiary companies, Adaptive Marketing LLC and Idaptive Marketing LLC, were liable for consumer fraud.
At it a long time
Hutchison ruled that over two decades Vertrue had used deceptive and unfair techniques to enroll consumers in memberships and charge their credit cards, often without the consumers' knowledge. Consumers often made monthly or annual payments for memberships they were not aware of -- and sometimes kept paying for years.
"Judge Hutchison's well-reasoned decision is a great benefit to Iowa consumers," Miller said. "We have been litigating this case for four years, and it is gratifying that the judge established such an important precedent," he said.
In this decision, Hutchison determined "liability" -- that the Vertrue companies violated Iowa consumer protection laws. Next he will determine the "remedy," such as restitution or penalties, in a separate proceeding to be scheduled soon.
At one point, one of Vertrue's "membership" programs, Simple Escapes, was among the biggest generator of complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com. Consumers were particularly infuriated because they could not find a way to cancel the membership. Many were enrolled by third party companies that shared billing information with Vertrue.
Hutchison noted that Vertrue's total Iowa membership revenues over a 20-year period exceeded $36 million, even after previous refunds to consumers were subtracted.
"We will be seeking restitution for consumers and penalties for Vertrue in the next phase of this case," Miller said.
Illinois Seeks Action From Drop-Side Crib Makers
Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association asked to remove seal03/29/2010ConsumerAffairs
Illinois Seeks Action From Drop-Side Crib Makers...
March 29, 2010
After a number of recalls and infant deaths associated with drop-side cribs, the State of Illinois is pushing crib manufacturers to make the beds safer.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says she has sent a letter to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) requesting that they "...take immediate action to address the hazards associated with drop-side cribs." She has specifically asked JPMA Executive Director Michael Dwyer to take three immediate actions:
Remove the JPMA seal from all drop-side cribs that remain on the market.
Initiate an education and outreach campaign to inform consumers of the risks associated with drop-side cribs; and
Provide consumers who have drop-side cribs with a purchase incentive in exchange for their unsafe crib.
"The JPMA Certification Seal is meant to guarantee consumers that the product was designed, built and tested to the very highest safety standards. Allowing the JPMA Certification Seal on drop-side cribs falsely assures consumers that these dangerous products are safe." Madigan said in her letter.
Almost seven million cribs have been recalled since 2007 because of drop-side detachments. Twenty-one children have died when the drop-side of their crib detached, creating a gap that they slid into, and then suffocated.
The Attorney General made the announcement today at a press conference hosted by Kids in Danger (KIDS) in Chicago where it released its annual study of recalled children's products.
RJR Tobacco Settles Connecticut Camel Ad Suit
2007 ad campaign targeted teen-aged girls, state alleged03/27/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
RJR Tobacco Settles Connecticut Camel Ad Suit...
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) will pay the state $150,000 to settle his lawsuit alleging a 2007 Camel advertising spread in Rolling Stone magazine used cartoons in violation of the master tobacco settlement.
The company also agreed to end its The Farm: Free Range Music campaign, which Blumenthal alleged in his December 2007 lawsuit violated the tobacco agreements ban on cartoons in cigarette advertising. The agreement prohibits cartoons and because they entice children and teenagers to smoke.
This settlement plows under R. J. Reynolds The Farm campaign, which we charged flagrantly violated the ban on marketing cigarettes with cartoons, Blumenthal said. This campaign improperly employed cartoons to sell cigarettes, enticing kids into addiction, illness and early death. These ads hark back to the insidious and disingenuous Joe Camel, the cute and cool cartoon character designed to appeal to kids. Like Joe Camel, this campaign used cartoons to make smoking appear cool and desirable. The truth: cigarettes are uncool and deadly.
Big Tobacco must absolutely adhere to the settlement, especially the vital ban on marketing to children. I will continue to vigorously and vigilantly enforce the tobacco settlement to safeguard the public -- especially children -- from the deadly ravages of smoking.
The ad spread, which included a four-page fold out poster, appeared in the 40th anniversary edition of Rolling Stone dated November 15, 2007.
RJR denied that the ad campaign violated the agreement and made the payment to cover the states legal costs.
A study released earlier this month found that Camel's 2007 ad campaign has led to an uptick in smoking among young women and girls.
Analysis of 80 Studies Finds BPA Exposure WidespreadStudy
Chemical industry downplays results but researchers say public health is at stake03/27/2010ConsumerAffairs
Analysis of 80 Studies Finds BPA Exposure Widespread...
A new analysis of more than 80 studies on Bisphenol A (BPA) has given scientists a global snapshot of humans exposure to this worrisome chemical used in baby bottles, metallic food cans, and other consumer products. And that picture isnt good, according to the authors study.
What we found is that even in developing countries a majority of people sampled have BPA in their bodies, said Laura Vandenberg, Ph.D., with Tufts Universitys Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. And were talking about the form associated with harmful effects (in humans).
In her report -- published this week in the online journal Environmental Health Perspectives -- Vandenberg recommended that "precautionary principle be followed until further data on exposure of fetuses and children to BPA become available: the health of the public is at stake."
An organization that represents the chemical industry downplayed Vandenbergs study, saying her opinions are contrary to those of scientific experts who have reviewed the same information.
Multiple studies, however, have linked BPA exposure in humans with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and reproductive issues. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even went on record earlier this year , saying it has some concerns about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.
Those concerns are scientifically documented, Vandenberg said.
Data from multiple sources indicates that the amount of BPA to which humans are exposed may cause adverse health effects, she wrote in her study. This has raised concerns among regulatory agencies all over the world.
During an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, Vandenberg discussed on her studys findings and the potential effects of BPA exposure in humans.
So often, the idea that is thrown around is that once BPA gets into the body, its innocuous, she told us. But were looking at whats in peoples bodies and that is not true.
BPA is used in a variety of consumer products, including plastic baby bottles, reusable water bottles, metallic food and beverage cans, medical equipment, and dental sealants. Some studies have also detected the chemical in water, sewage, indoor and outdoor air samples, and dust.
Children and developing fetuses are especially vulnerable to potential adverse health effects from BPA exposure, Vandenberg said.
If I could get our message to a sub-population it would be pregnant women, she said. Im not worried about the moms. Im worried about their fetuses. A lot of attention has been given to baby bottles and removing BPA from them. This might lead people to think that the problem is solved. But fetuses are not exposed to BPA from baby bottles. They are exposed to BPA from their moms.
During their review, Vandenberg and her colleagues analyzed more than 80 studies that measured BPA in humans. Researchers in those studies tested thousands of people around the world -- from various age groups and ethnic backgrounds for BPA in their urine, blood, and other body fluids and tissues.
We were like an oversight committee of all these studies, Vandenberg said. What we wanted to do was take that body of research as whole and ask if it was telling us something that an individual study cant tell us.
Their analysis revealed that many people tested had what Vandenberg called bad or active BPA. The scientific term is unconjugated BPA.
There is free, unconjugated, bad BPA in our bodies and in the bodies of our fetuses and neonates (newborns), she told us.
She elaborated on that point in her report, writing: Available data from biomonitoring studies clearly indicate that the general population is exposed to BPA and are at risk from internal exposures to unconjugated BPA." A biomonitoring study analyzes body fluids and tissues for exposure to various substances. These studies overwhelmingly detect BPA in individuals including adults, adolescents and children.
Vandenberg said her analysis also uncovered flaws with two toxiconkinetic studies used by such regulatory groups as the US Center for Evaluation of Risk to Human Reproduction (CERHR) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to assess the dangers of BPA in humans.
During a toxiconkinetic study, scientists administer BPA into the body and determine how long it takes to leave, Vandenberg explained. You look at how it gets out of the body -- in the urine or feces.
Scientists also examine what from the chemical is in when it leaves the body -- the less dangerous form that is metabolized or the bad unconjugated BPA.
The two studies used by the regulatory groups suggest that humans are not internally exposed to BPA, Vandenberg said. But Vandenberg said those findings are unreliable. Those two studies are flawed in so many ways, she said. They are not telling us anything at all.
The studies, for example, relied on estimated levels of exposures to BPA instead of actual measurements of the chemical.
Besides using flawed data, Vandenberg cited another troublesome move by these and other regulatory group. In their previous risk assessments of BPA, they ignored the more than 80 studies that she and her colleagues analyzed.
Were preparing another paper that says those regulatory agencies have only listened to two studies that are highly flawed and ignored these other 80 studies, Vandenberg said. Thats not scientific.
The FDA, she said, ignored the findings of all 82 studies. They do not give scientific reasons for ignoring these studies.
The European Food Safety Authority ignored the 80 studies and only paid attention to the two that are flawed, she said. Thats worse than the FDA. An organization that represents companies in chemical industry said it doesnt give any credence to Vandenbergs study.
There is no new data in this article, and the information has been publicly available for some time, said Steve Hentges, Ph. D., with the American Chemistry Council (ACC). (The) opinions of these authors are quite contrary to the conclusions of recognized experts at scientific regulatory bodies from around the world who have analyzed the same data. The ACC said other studies have shown that BPA exposure does not pose a risk to humans.
Ten regulatory bodies around the world have assessed the science on BPA and have determined that BPA is safe for use in food contact products, the organizations Web site states. Scientific research shows that in humans BPA is quickly metabolized in the intestines and liver and is quickly eliminated from the body. It does not accumulate in blood or tissues. When it is ingested through contact with food, it is rapidly converted into a metabolite (BPA-glucuronide) that has no known biological activity.
Although the FDA has expressed concerns about the safety of BPA in humans, the agency has not banned the chemicals use. But it supports manufacturers plans to stop making baby bottles and infant feeding cup with BPA and to find alternatives for the chemical in the linings of infant formula cans.
The agency, however, is not calling on consumers to stop using these baby products.
FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods, as the benefit of a stable source of good nutrition outweighs the potential risk from BPA exposure, the agency states on its Web site.
Questions to answer
Back in Massachusetts, Vandenberg said additional, long-term studies are needed on BPA exposure in humans and its potential health risks.
There are still scientific questions to answer, she said. We still dont know where all the BPA in our bodies is coming from. We assume most of it comes from cans and plastics, but we dont know for sure. The fact is that BPA is found in all kinds of environmental samples. I just read today that BPA has been found in beach sand and in ocean water.
Asked if the chemical should be banned, Vandenberg said: I mostly approach this from a scientific point of view. There is the strength of science in these 80 studies, which tell a story that every one of us is exposed to BPA. Its in our bodies, in the cells inside our bodies, and that is serious.
There are some who say that science supports a ban of BPA, she added. I firmly believe that we as individuals have a right not be poisoned.
What to do
Vandenberg said consumers can reduce their exposure to BPA by taking the following measures:
• Avoid canned foods or try to cut the number of canned food used by one a day;
• Eat fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible;
• Reduce or avoid polycarbonate plastic containers. One study cited in Vandenbergs analysis found the urinary concentrations of BPA among a group of college students tested for one week increased 69% when they used polycarbonate bottles. These containers may be a significant source of BPA exposure to individuals in this age group and that interventions would help lower exposure levels, the report states;
• Avoid plastic products with the number 7 stamped on the container.
• Insist that companies disclose how much BPA is in their products. Its unreasonable to expect consumers to protect themselves from BPA if there are no labels to tell people how much BPA is in the product, she said.
Vandenberg and her colleagues received financial support for their analysis from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a research fellowship from the National Research Council Brazil.
A copy of the study, Urinary, Circulating and Tissue Biomonitoring Studies Indicate Widespread Exposure to Bisphenol A can be read on the Environmental Health Perspectives Web site.
Minnesota Sues Marketer Of College Entrance Test Prep Materials
Company used charitable appeals to sell overpriced commercial products03/26/2010ConsumerAffairs
Minnesota Sues Marketer Of College Entrance Test Prep Materials...
March 26, 2010
A California nonprofit corporation that used questionable tactics to sell college entrance test preparation materials is in big trouble in Minnesota.
The lawsuit filed by Attorney General Lori Swanson against Dream Scholars Foundation claims the company misled parents into believing that their child had requested the materials, that the organization was affiliated with the child's school, and that the proceeds from their purchase would be used to make extensive scholarships to underprivileged children.
"Minnesotans are generous people who are always willing to lend a hand to help a good cause. Especially in this bad economy where so many budgets are stretched thin, people should research any organization that calls asking for money to make sure their generosity goes to reputable charities," said Swanson.
"Many nonprofits have had to do more with less money as donations have fallen and the need for their services has risen in this recession," Swanson added. "People should do their homework before responding to telemarketing solicitation calls so that their donations are used as intended."
According to an October, 2009 report by GuideStar USA, 51 percent of charities that accept public donations saw a decline in donations in the first nine months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008, and 62 percent reported an increase in demand for their organization's services.
The lawsuit claims the San Diego, California nonprofit corporation calls parents asking them to purchase test preparation software for the SAT and ACT college entrance exams for $165, often calling this amount a "donation" or "contribution." Dream Scholars also is accused of misleading parents into purchasing the software by falsely telling them that their children wanted to purchase the products and that the child's school had sponsored or endorsed the products.
Dream Scholars also enrolls parents who purchase the test preparation materials into a free "30 day trial" of its online scholarship and college entrance test "study desk" databases without adequate notice or permission, for which it charges their credit cards a $55 monthly fee unless they cancel.
In telephone solicitations, written materials, and on its website, Dream Scholars tells parents that money from their purchase will help provide scholarships to underprivileged kids. For example, in written materials, Dream Scholars states:
"Dream Scholars Foundation mission is to transform the lives of underprivileged high school students through the realization of a college education. Dream Scholars Foundation college scholarships and grants are designed to remove the financial obstacles hindering otherwise qualified and deserving students, transforming their dreams of a higher education into reality."
"Dream Scholars Foundation is a non-profit organization that depends on private contributions to fund our scholarship programs and our mission. Your purchase will help support hundreds of deserving college-bound students who aspire to learn, grow, and give back."
"The purpose of Dream Scholars Foundation is to provide financial assistance to underprivileged but academically qualified high school students. This assistance is provided through funds raised from private/corporation donations as well as through other fundraising activities."
In fact, Dream Scholars has not received 501(c)(3) or other tax-exempt status as a charity from the Internal Revenue Service and is not registered to solicit charitable contributions with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. The company earned revenue of at least $1,575,000 since it was formed in 2008.
Additionally, Dream Scholars admitted that as of November, 2009, it had not awarded any scholarships directly to students and that it made only $23,000 in charitable contributions since its inception.
The lawsuit, filed in Hennepin County District Court, accuses Dream Scholars of consumer and charities fraud and of soliciting charitable contributions in Minnesota without being registered as a charity with the Attorney General's Office.
Swanson's office is investigating other organizations that sell commercial products by using questionable charitable appeals. She issued a Consumer Alert entitled, "Phony Charity or Real One: How to Tell The Difference" to provide guidance to help people differentiate between real charities and scams. The alert notes that:
Organizations must register with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office before soliciting charitable contributions in Minnesota if they raise or plan to raise more than $25,000 anywhere or have paid staff. Before anyone responds to a telemarketing call for a donation, they should call the Minnesota Attorney General's Office at (651) 296-3353 or (800) 657-3787 to find out if the organization is registered as a charity, or they may look up the organization online at online .
Under Minnesota law, a charity that places telemarketing calls or sends written solicitations for money is required to: (1) identify itself by name and location; (2) state whether or not contributions to it are tax-deductible; and (3) provide a description of the program for which the solicitation campaign is being carried out.
Walnuts May Help Fight Prostate Cancer
Animal tests show significant progress in reducing cancer development and growth03/26/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Walnuts May Help Fight Prostate Cancer...
FDA Approves New Prostate Cancer Therapy Walnuts -- already renowned as a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that fight heart disease - have been found to reduce the size and growth rate of prostate cancer in test animals.
That word from scientists in California, who described their findings at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
"Walnuts should be part of a prostate-healthy diet," said Paul Davis, Ph.D., of the University of California-Davis, who headed the study. "They should be part of a balanced diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables."
Evidence suggests that is among the largest factors that influence a man's risk for developing prostate cancer and that tomatoes and pomegranate juice -- for instance -- may reduce the risk.
Davis and colleagues note that walnuts are a rich source of healthful substances, including omega-3 fatty acids found in more expensive foods like salmon; gamma tocopherol (a form of vitamin E), polyphenols, and antioxidants.
The scientists recently showed that walnuts could help fight heart disease by reducing levels of endothelin, a substance that increases inflammation of blood vessels. This effect was in addition to walnuts reducing levels of "bad" cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or LDL) in the blood.
Knowing that people with prostate cancer have elevated levels of endothelin, the scientists decided to test whether eating walnuts could be beneficial in prostate cancer.
"We decided to use whole walnuts in the diet because when a single component of a food linked to cancer prevention has been tested as a supplement, that food's cancer-preventative effects disappear in most cases," Davis said.
The scientists fed lab mice that were genetically programmed to develop prostate cancer the equivalent of about 2.5 ounces of walnuts per day -- equivalent to 14 shelled nuts -- for 2 months. A control group of mice got the same diet except with soybean oil. The walnut-fed mice developed prostate cancers that were about 50 percent smaller than the control mice. Those cancers also grew 30 percent slower.
The walnut-fed mice had lower levels of insulin-like growth factor-1. High levels of the protein may increase the risk of developing prostate cancer in the first place.
In an effort to understand what walnuts were doing, the scientists used gene chip technology to look for changes in gene levels in the tumor itself as well as the mouse's liver. They found that walnuts also had large, beneficial effects in both tumor and liver on genes that have been shown to be involved in controlling tumor growth.
More than 190,000 men in the United States will get a diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2010, making it the most common non-skin cancer. It claims about 27,000 lives annually.
Bank of America to Forgive Some Mortgage Debt
Plan could allow 'underwater' borrowers to regain some equity03/25/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
A reduction in principal would be of most help to homeowners who are "underwater," whose home values have declined to the point where they owe more than th...
Amid mounting pressure for mortgage bankers to cut troubled homeowners some slack, Bank of America has announced it would begin a program of reducing some homeowners' principal, not just the terms of the loan.
A reduction in principal would be of most help to homeowners who are "underwater," whose home values have declined to the point where they owe more than the house is worth.
Bank of America said the program will be limited and offered on a case-by-case basis. But it comes in response to pressure from the Obama administration for it, and all other servicers, to step up efforts to modify troubled mortgages under the federal mortgage modification plan.
Under the announced plan, Bank of America will look first at principal forgiveness -- ahead of an interest rate reduction -- when modifying certain subprime, Pay-Option and prime two-year hybrid mortgages qualifying for its National Homeownership Retention Program (NHRP). It's introducing an earned principal forgiveness approach to modifying mortgages that are severely underwater.
The program changes are designed to encourage greater customer participation in the company's homeownership retention programs.
Bank of America said it developed and launched the NHRP in 2008, in cooperation with state attorneys general, to provide assistance to Countrywide borrowers who financed their home with certain subprime and Pay-Option adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs). Bank of America removed these from the Countrywide product line upon acquiring Countrywide in July 2008, the bank said.
Targets Countrywide borrowers
The new program is targeted specifically at Countrywide borrowers, many of whom are currently underwater because of the declining real estate market and the nature of the loan.
Under one scenario, some amount of the principal might be separated from the loan and maintained in an interest-free account. As long as the borrower continued to make payments, a portion of the suspended equity would be forgiven each year until the balance is zero or the marketed recovers to the point that the homeowner has positive equity.
"At the same time earned principal forgiveness helps homeowners, it also recognizes and addresses the interests of mortgage investors by ensuring that forgiveness is tied to the homeowner's performance, reducing the probability of a future default under the modified terms, and adjusting the total amount to be forgiven in light of any gains in property values that might occur in an economic recovery," said Barbara Desoer, president of Bank of America Home Loans.
Bank of America said it expects to be operationally ready to implement the new principal reduction components of NHRP in May. The bank will identify mortgages that may be eligible for these solutions and proactively contact those customers to ascertain their interest in a modification and to request documents necessary to determine actual eligibility.
Brooklyn Tour Bus Company Hit for Charging for Non-Existent Trips
Crosby Tours failed to provide trips to more than 130 consumers who paid in advance03/25/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Brooklyn Tour Bus Company Hit for Charging for Non-Existent Trips...
A Brooklyn-based bus company accused of charging more than 130 consumers for tour bus services that were never provided and then failing to provide refunds after the company closed has run into a roadblock.
The office of New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has notified Crosby Tours, Inc. and its principals, Reed Elson, Frank P. Scarpinito and Monika Bialokur, of its intention to sue, seeking full restitution to victimized consumers as well as penalties and costs to the state. The matter is being pursued jointly with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, which will seek penalties and costs to the City.
Elson, Scarpinito and Bialokur previously worked for Biss Tours, a company that was the subject of legal action by the attorney general's office and state Department of Consumer Affairs in 2008 for refusing to refund consumers for trips that never took place.
"This tour bus company booked trips, took money, and then shut down without delivering on its promises," said Cuomo. "When customers reached out for help to the company, they were left without answers, and so today we are taking legal action."
"New Yorkers who saved their hard-earned money for well-deserved vacations deserve their money back and we are working to do just that," said New York City Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jonathan B. Mintz. "We urge New Yorkers who find themselves in a similar position to call 311 so we can help."
The investigation revealed that Crosby accepted advance payments from consumers for future tour bus services that they failed to provide. The company closed down in November 2009 without providing refunds to consumers whose trips never took place. In one instance, Crosby changed the tour pick-up time without informing consumers, causing some of them to miss the tour.
"I booked a three day tour with Crosby Tours for Nov. 26 thru 28 2009," Mary of Bronx, NY, tells ConsumerAffairs.com. "The pickup was at 9:00 AM in Manhattan at 32nd St. and 33rd St. and 5th Ave. I got there at 8:00 am. Waited until 10:30 AM. Cosby Tour bus did not come. I did not receive a call on my home phone or cell phone saying the trip was cancelled. This trip was paid with my credit card for $539.00."
After an investigation by the attorney general's office and the Department of Consumer Affairs concluded in March, Crosby's principals sent refund checks to only some of the victimized consumers. Many consumers have still not been paid refunds.
Consumers who did business with Crosby Tours and believe they were defrauded are urged to contact the attorney general's office at 800-771-7755 or the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs at 311 / www.nyc.gov/consumers.
Cuomo and Mintz urge consumers who are considering hiring a travel service or agent to consider the following tips:
Book trips with a reputable vendor. Contact the local consumer protection agencies, such as the New York State Attorney General or the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, to check if the travel business has a history of complaints. New York City residents should call 311 to check the complaint status of any business.
Double check all the details especially when vacations are booked through a third party travel agency. Get all the contact information for the trip, such as charter buses, rental car companies, hotels and airlines and then verify the arrangements.
Pay with a credit card. Many credit card companies can provide customers with refunds when there is a dispute about the services delivered. However, consumers should only provide trusted businesses with credit card information.
Get all the details of the trip in writing, including cancellation fees and the businesses' refund policy. Consider travel insurance for added protection.
Even when buying travel insurance, though, it is important to be cautious. That's another area into which the scam artists have moved.
Minnesota Sues Two Modification 'Consultants'
New law prohibits modification companies from taking advance payments03/24/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Minnesota Sues Two Modification Consultants...
Homeowners frustrated with trying to work out a mortgage modification often turn to a third party company to negotiate on their behalf. That can be a big mistake.
Several states have been cracking down on these operators lately, and in Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has sued two mortgage modification companies. In separate actions, she accused the two companies of violating a 2009 state law that prohibits companies that offer to negotiate or modify the terms or conditions of an existing home mortgage from requesting advance payments from homeowners.
"Homeowners who contact their lenders to modify their mortgages often face unreturned phone calls, lost paperwork, and other red tape. This and the bad economy have created an opening for mortgage modification companies to swoop in and take advantage of people," Swanson said.
The lawsuits were filed against American Modification Consultants, LLC of Philadelphia, Pa., d/b/a American Mitigation Consultants; and INQB8 LLC of Scottsdale, Arizona, d/b/a Discount Mortgage Relief.
A state law that went into effect on June 20, 2009, prohibits mortgage modification companies from charging fees to consumers before they deliver on the promised services. These are the first lawsuits filed under the new law.
Law targets shady operators
The law was drafted and supported by the attorney general's office to combat the problem of mortgage modification companies taking advance payments from homeowners and then disappearing, going out of business, or not delivering the promised services.
The lawsuits allege that the companies violated Minnesota law by charging advance fees to homeowners and then failed to deliver the promised services. American Mitigation Consultants charged homeowners advance fees of up to $1,250; and Discount Mortgage Relief charged homeowners advance fees of up to $3,000.
American Mitigation Consultants sent marketing solicitations to Minnesota consumers stating that they may be entitled to special modification programs as a result of the federal economic stimulus act.
"No homeowner should pay advance fees to companies for assistance in modifying the interest rate or terms of their mortgage," Swanson said.
She added that people facing financial trouble can find reputable nonprofit organizations that will help them at little or no cost.
Modification Meltdowns: Nightmare on Your Street
Homeowners find trial modifications can leave them in worse shape than before03/24/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Modification Meltdowns: Nightmare on Your Street...
"We're here to help," proclaims a headline on Fannie Mae's Web site, offering details of the Obama Administration's Making Home Affordable Program, aimed at helping struggling homeowners modify their mortgages.
Some homeowners have obviously received help, but foreclosures continue and scores of frustrated consumers have written to ConsumerAffairs.com in recent months detailing the nightmare of trying to work with various loan servicers to modify their mortgage.
"Our nightmare began in March of 2009, " said Thomas, of Winthrop, Mass. "Enclosed with our Citimortgage statement was a flyer for a home modification. We qualified because I am collecting unemployment and my income was cut in half."
Up until this time Thomas and his wife Lynne had managed to pay their $2,534 mortgage every month, and on time. Thomas said he was enrolled in a trial modification and told to pay just $1,500 a month for three months. Worried about his credit rating, Thomas said he was assured his enrollment in HAMP would protect him. But it turns out there was no protection.
"One year later, according to Citimortgage we were denied the Home Modification Program through Fannie Mae because of my unemployment benefits and are now faced with a Citimortgage 'in-house' modification," Thomas said.
Thomas and Lynne did get their payment lowered by $300. But because they made much lower payments for a year - at the direction of the servicer - the interest and late fees have been added to the principal of the loan, raising it from $289,000 to $306,000.
"Also, we were reported to all major credit agencies stating we were in foreclosure," Thomas said.
Diane, of Port Jefferson Station, N.Y. was in a similar situation last year.
Never missed a payment
In August 2009 I decided to get proactive about my mortgage," Diane told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I had never missed any payments but thought that the new HAMP program would be helpful to me to avoid ever getting behind. So, I sent in the paperwork, was pre-qualified and told to make payments of $2151 rather than the $2650 that was my usual payment."
Within a month or two Diane says she started getting letters saying that she was behind in the amount of money she owned Citimortgage.
"I paid every single payment as agreed in the trial," she said. "So I called Citi, and it turns out that the Modifications Department and the Collections Department are not related."
Diane said she was told to disregard the collection letters and keep making the trial payments. She said she was told that if she paid for three months, she would be approved and everything would be taken care of.
$8000 in back payments
But everything wasn't taken care of. Diane's permanent modification was denied. Next she got a call from collections demanding $8000 in back payments.
Keep in mind that Diane and her husband were not behind on their payments before starting the trial modification and had a good credit rating.
"No one ever said that this was a possibility, ending up behind on our mortgage, despite making all the payments," Diane said. "Had I known that, I would have kept making full payments rather than the modification payment and just waited for the paperwork to go through for the permanent modification."
Neither Thomas nor Diane probably needed a mortgage modification, though it's not hard to understand how they might think they did. While a modification is intended to help a homeowner avoid foreclosure, many consumers got the idea that the government program was available to help them because, like many in this economy, they were struggling. In early 2009, there was a lot of fear.
"I was having a hard time paying bills, but I managed," Diane admits.
A better screening process might have reduced the number of trial modifications and saved homeowners like Diane and Thomas a lot of time, trouble and heartache.
Patti of Klamath Falls, Ore., is probably more like the homeowner the modification program was designed to help.
"In November 2009, due to my husband's periodic layoffs from his employment, we fell two months behind in our mortgage payment," Patti told ConsumerAffairs.com. "The GMAC customer representative that I spoke with asked if we would apply for a mortgage modification through the Obama Making Home Affordable Program. I confirmed that we would, and a packet of paperwork arrived approximately 15 days later."
Patti says she supplied all the requested paperwork and had the presence of mind to send it USPS Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested. She knows that GMAC received the packet on December 28, 2009.
She was told she would learn in two to four weeks whether or not she was approved. Four weeks, six weeks and eight weeks went by, and she says she heard nothing about the modification. However, the collections department was very attentive.
"We have remained two months behind in our mortgage payment since we can make only one payment at a time," she said." The collection department calls twice a week, and collection letters continue even though we have explained our situation over and over again to each representative that calls."
Finally, on March 17, 2010 Patti heard about the modification request. No, it had not been acted on, she was told, because several months had passed since she sent in her paperwork, and it needed to be updated.
Several homeowners who had entered a trial mortgage modification said they were stunned to be told, on several occasions, that they were in arrears on their mortgage, while they had been making all the trial payments as instructed. In these cases there apparently has been little or no communications between the servicer's modification personnel and the collections personnel.
Since it was created last year as part of the stimulus package, the HAMP program has temporarily modified one million loans, but by the end of 2009, only 66,000 of those had been made permanent. Those who were denied were often left in even more dire circumstances. Many have already lost their homes to foreclosure.
This week Fannie Mae announced it is giving all those people who were denied a modification a "second chance." In a directive, it is requiring all of its loan servicers to consider "Alternative Modifications" to borrowers who were denied permanent modifications under HAMP.
But there is little evidence the delays and red tape plaguing the program from the beginning have been eliminated. And it remains to be seen how eager homeowners who have been through the nightmare once will want to do so again.
Ventus Bicycle Aerobars03/23/2010ConsumerAffairs
Ventus Bicycle Aerobars...
3T Cycling Srl is recalling about 325 Ventus bicycle aerobars. The two rubber hand grips on the aerobars (handle bars) can loosen or slip off during use, posing a fall or injury hazard to the rider.
Two incidents were reported to 3T involving adults with minor abrasions.
This recall involves all Ventus Ltd, Ventus Ltd 17, Ventus Ltd Gold, Ventus Ltd Track, Ventus Team and Ventus Team 17 bicycle aerobars. The recalled aerobar models were sold in one size and color for each model; Black with red stripe for the Team and black with silver stripe for the Ltd. The "Ventus" and "3T" logos are on the top side of the bar with the model name.
The aerobars were sold by independent bicycle retailers and Internet retailers nationwide sold the aerobars from January 2008 through November 2009 for about $1,200 for the Ltd. models and $1,000 for the Team models. They were made in Taiwan.
Contact BikeMine to receive a free redesigned rubber grip set and adhesive kit or information on how to bring your Ventus bar to a local retailer for a repair.
For more information contact BikeMine toll-free at 1-877-861-9125 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday or visit 3T's recall web page at www.TheNew3t.com/VentusRecall.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Kevin Trudeau-Inspired Weight Loss Web Site Launched
Site sells kits for mixing and injecting yourself with HCG03/23/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Kevin Trudeau-Inspired Weight Loss Web Site Launched...
A new Web site "inspired by" marketer Kevin Trudeau's weight loss book "is on a mission to revive the thrill of losing weight," according to a press release issued Monday.
But users had better be prepared to subject themselves to regular injections of a controversial human hormone that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says has not been proven safe or effective. There's also the requirement of subsisting on no more than 500 calories per day, a near starvation diet.
Though liberally invoking Trudeau's name in the press release, the site NaturalcuresHCG.com, never specifically mentions Trudeau or his book, "The Weight Loss Cure," by name. In fact, the "About Us" section of the Web site doesn't mention who, exactly, is behind NaturalCuresHCG.com. The site does sell "kits" and provides instructions for mixing the HCG and injecting it.
HCG stands for "human chorionic gonadotrophin, a hormone found in the urine of pregnant women. Its use as part of a radical weight loss program is nothing new.
More than a half century ago a British doctor came up with the theory that HCG injections would enable people trying to lose weight to get by on just 500 calories a day. The theory is that HCG would force fat stored in hips, waist and thighs to move through the body and be burned. However, there has never been any scientific evidence to support this claim.
People on the diet, however, are likely to lose weight, doctors say, not because of the HCG but because they are nearly starving themselves. So that weight loss can come at a steep health price. Some physicians have warned that a near starvation diet can result in the loss of not just fat, but protein from vital organs.
Since 1975 the FDA has required companies marketing HCG diets and products to state in adverting and promotion:
"HCG has not been demonstrated to be effective adjunctive therapy in the treatment of obesity. There is no substantial evidence that it increases weight loss beyond that resulting from caloric restriction, that it causes a more attractive or "normal" distribution of fat, or that it decreases the hunger and discomfort associated with calorie-restricted diets."
By the end of the 1970s use of HCG injections had just about died out, until revived by Trudeau in his 2007 book "The Weight Loss Cure They Don't Want You To Know About." Trudeau claimed the diet is an "absolute" cure for obesity, but has been suppressed for 50 years by the American Medical Association and the FDA.
NaturalcuresHCG.com provides mixing instruction, tips on selecting syringes, and sells a 23-day HCG kit for $175.
In nearly all of his books, Trudeau tells readers he is letting them in on "secrets" that a privileged elite wants to keep for itself. In other words, the information is so valuable that those who possess it don't want to share it.
"Previously these weight loss secrets were reserved only for the royal and the rich, but thanks to the recent launch of www.naturalcureshcg.com, weight loss is an accessible option for everyone," the press release states.
'They don't want you to know'
Trudeau has previously published "Natural Cures They Don't Want You To Know About," and "Debt Cures They Don't Want You To Know About." He is currently marketing a motivational/success seminar package called "Your Wish Is Your Command," which promises to reveal the secrets of success that, he says, have been closely guarded by elite groups for generations.
Most recently Trudeau was in a Chicago court, where a judge refused to give the pitchman permission to leave the country while he appealed his 30-day criminal contempt sentence. Trudeau ran afoul of U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman when he allegedly urged his supporters to flood the judge's computer and Blackberry with messages praising Trudeau's products.
IRS Warns About 'Dirty Dozen' Tax Scams
Agency spends more time each year sniffing out illegal schemes03/23/2010ConsumerAffairs
IRS Warns About 'Dirty Dozen' Tax Scams...
With the 2010 tax season in the home stretch to April 15, the Internal Revenue Service is once again cautioning taxpayers about assorted tax scams that have cropped up in recent years.
The agency this issued what it calls its "dirty dozen" list of tax scams, including schemes involving return preparer fraud, hiding income offshore and phishing.
"Taxpayers should be wary of anyone peddling scams that seem too good to be true," IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman said.
Tax schemes are illegal and can lead to imprisonment and fines for both scam artists and taxpayers, the IRS warns. Taxpayers pulled into these schemes must repay unpaid taxes plus interest and penalties. The IRS pursues and shuts down promoters of these and numerous other scams.
Among the IRS "dirty dozen:"
Return preparer fraud
Dishonest return preparers can cause trouble for taxpayers who fall victim to their ploys. Such preparers derive financial gain by skimming a portion of their clients' refunds, charging inflated fees for return preparation services and attracting new clients by promising refunds that are too good to be true. Taxpayers should choose carefully when hiring a tax preparer. Federal courts have issued injunctions ordering hundreds of individuals to cease preparing returns and promoting fraud, and the Department of Justice has filed complaints against dozens of others, which are pending in court.
To increase confidence in the tax system and improve compliance with the tax law, the IRS is implementing a number of steps for future filing seasons. These include a requirement that all paid tax return preparers register with the IRS and obtain a preparer tax identification number (PTIN), as well as both competency tests and ongoing continuing professional education for all paid tax return preparers except attorneys, certified public accountants (CPAs) and enrolled agents.
Setting higher standards for the tax preparer community will significantly enhance protections and services for taxpayers, increase confidence in the tax system and result in greater compliance with tax laws over the long term. Other measures the IRS anticipates taking are highlighted in the IRS Return Preparer Review issued in December 2009.
Hiding income offshore
The IRS aggressively pursues taxpayers involved in abusive offshore transactions as well as the promoters, professionals and others who facilitate or enable these schemes. Taxpayers have tried to avoid or evade U.S. income tax by hiding income in offshore banks, brokerage accounts or through the use of nominee entities. Taxpayers also evade taxes by using offshore debit cards, credit cards, wire transfers, foreign trusts, employee-leasing schemes, private annuities or insurance plans.
IRS agents continue to develop their investigations of these offshore tax avoidance transactions using information gained from over 14,700 voluntary disclosures received last year. While special civil-penalty provisions for those with undisclosed offshore accounts expired in 2009, the IRS continues to urge taxpayers with offshore accounts or entities to voluntarily come forward and resolve their tax matters. By making a voluntary disclosure, taxpayers may mitigate their risk of criminal prosecution.
Phishing is a tactic used by scam artists to trick unsuspecting victims into revealing personal or financial information online. IRS impersonation schemes flourish during the filing season and can take the form of e-mails, tweets or phony Web sites. Scammers may also use phones and faxes to reach their victims. Scam artists will try to mislead consumers by telling them they are entitled to a tax refund from the IRS and that they must reveal personal information to claim it. Criminals use the information they get to steal the victim's identity, access bank accounts, run up credit card charges or apply for loans in the victim's name.
Taxpayers who receive suspicious e-mails claiming to come from the IRS should not open any attachments or click on any of the links in the e-mail. Suspicious e-mails claiming to be from the IRS or Web addresses that do not begin with http://www.irs.gov should be forwarded to the IRS mailbox: email@example.com.
Filing false or misleading forms
The IRS is seeing various instances where scam artists file false or misleading returns to claim refunds that they are not entitled to. Under the scheme, taxpayers fabricate an information return and falsely claim the corresponding amount as withholding as a way to seek a tax refund. Phony information returns, such as a Form 1099 Original Issue Discount (OID), claiming false withholding credits usually are used to legitimize erroneous refund claims.
One version of the scheme is based on a false theory that the federal government maintains secret accounts for its citizens, and that taxpayers can gain access to funds in those accounts by issuing 1099-OID forms to their creditors, including the IRS.
Nontaxable Social Security benefits with exaggerated withholding credit
The IRS has identified returns where taxpayers report nontaxable Social Security Benefits with excessive withholding. This tactic results in no income reported to the IRS on the tax return. Often both the withholding amount and the reported income are incorrect. Taxpayers should avoid making these mistakes. Filings of this type of return may result in a $5,000 penalty.
Abuse of charitable organizations and deductions
The IRS continues to observe the misuse of tax-exempt organizations. Abuse includes arrangements to improperly shield income or assets from taxation and attempts by donors to maintain control over donated assets or income from donated property.
The IRS also continues to investigate various schemes involving the donation of non-cash assets including situations where several organizations claim the full value for both the receipt and distribution of the same non-cash contribution. Often these donations are highly overvalued or the organization receiving the donation promises that the donor can repurchase the items later at a price set by the donor. The Pension Protection Act of 2006 imposed increased penalties for inaccurate appraisals and set new definitions of qualified appraisals and qualified appraisers for taxpayers claiming charitable contributions.
Promoters of frivolous schemes encourage people to make unreasonable and outlandish claims to avoid paying the taxes they owe. If a scheme seems too good to be true, it probably is. The IRS has a list of frivolous legal positions that taxpayers should avoid. These arguments are false and have been thrown out of court. While taxpayers have the right to contest their tax liabilities in court, no one has the right to disobey the law or IRS guidance.
Abusive retirement plans
The IRS continues to find abuses in retirement plan arrangements, including Roth Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs). The IRS is looking for transactions that taxpayers use to avoid the limits on contributions to IRAs, as well as transactions that are not properly reported as early distributions. Taxpayers should be wary of advisers who encourage them to shift appreciated assets at less than fair market value into IRAs or companies owned by their IRAs to circumvent annual contribution limits. Other variations have included the use of limited liability companies to engage in activity that is considered prohibited.
Disguised corporate ownership
Corporations and other entities are formed and operated in certain states for the purpose of disguising the ownership of the business or financial activity by means such as improperly using a third party to request an employer identification number.
Such entities can be used to facilitate underreporting of income, fictitious deductions, non-filing of tax returns, participating in listed transactions, money laundering, financial crimes and even terrorist financing. The IRS is working with state authorities to identify these entities and to bring the owners of these entities into compliance with the law.
Filing a phony wage or income-related information return to replace a legitimate information return has been used as an illegal method to lower the amount of taxes owed. Typically, a Form 4852 (Substitute Form W-2) or a "corrected" Form 1099 is used as a way to improperly reduce taxable income to zero. The taxpayer also may submit a statement rebutting wages and taxes reported by a payer to the IRS.
Sometimes fraudsters even include an explanation on their Form 4852 that cites statutory language on the definition of wages or may include some reference to a paying company that refuses to issue a corrected Form W-2 for fear of IRS retaliation. Taxpayers should resist any temptation to participate in any of the variations of this scheme. Filings of this type of return may result in a $5,000 penalty.
Misuse of trusts
For years, unscrupulous promoters have urged taxpayers to transfer assets into trusts. While there are many legitimate, valid uses of trusts in tax and estate planning, some promoted transactions promise reduction of income subject to tax, deductions for personal expenses and reduced estate or gift taxes. Such trusts rarely deliver the tax benefits promised and are used primarily as a means to avoid income tax liability and to hide assets from creditors, including the IRS.
The IRS has recently seen an increase in the improper use of private annuity trusts and foreign trusts to shift income and deduct personal expenses. As with other arrangements, taxpayers should seek the advice of a trusted professional before entering into a trust arrangement.
Fuel Tax Credit scams
The IRS receives claims for the fuel tax credit that are excessive. Some taxpayers, such as farmers who use fuel for off-highway business purposes, may be eligible for the fuel tax credit. But other individuals are claiming the tax credit for nontaxable uses of fuel when their occupation or income level makes the claim unreasonable. Fraud involving the fuel tax credit is considered a frivolous tax claim and potentially subjects those who improperly claim the credit to a $5,000 penalty.
Fed Issues New Gift Card Rules
New regulation designed to protect consumers against 'surprises'03/23/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Fed Issues New Gift Card Rules...
The Federal Reserve Board has announced final rules that would restrict the fees and expiration dates that may apply to gift cards. The rules are expected to protect consumers from certain unexpected costs and require that gift card terms and conditions be clearly stated.
The new regs prohibit dormancy, inactivity, and service fees on gift cards unless:
• the consumer has not used the certificate or card for at least one year;
• no more than one such fee is charged per month; and
• the consumer is given clear and conspicuous disclosures about the fees.
Expiration dates for funds underlying gift cards must be at least five years after the date of issuance, or five years after the date when funds were last loaded.
The new rules generally cover retail gift cards, which can be used to buy goods or services at a single merchant or affiliated group of merchants, and network-branded gift cards, which are redeemable at any merchant that accepts the card brand.
The current rules covering gift cards have been the source of numerous complaints.
Lois of Chicago tells ConsumerAffairs.com that she activated her American Express gift card "and tried to use the $50 at a dinner out, only to find we could use only $35 and service charges had used up the rest. What a rip-off."
"I received a $25 American Express Gift Card as a gift," writes Patrick of Redondo Beach, CA. "The card was purchased the previous year and given to me a few months ago. I checked the card two weeks ago, went to use it and it was rejected. It seems that Amex has been deducting $2 a month from the card for the last several months." Patrick tells ConsumerAffairs.com that "it is almost impossible to use the card, because you have to know how much you have on the card and then pay the balance first and then swipe the card. Amex is hoping that you will just get so frustrated that you will throw away the card and they keep all the money."
It wasn't long after we received these complaints that AMEX did away with its gift card fees.
The new rules take effect August 22.
Iowa Residents File Bed Bug Class Action
Plight of Des Moines plaintiffs familiar to many03/22/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Iowa Residents File Bed Bug Class Action...
Don't let the bed bugs bite isn't just a nursery rhyme anymore. Bed bugs -- a persistent scourge until their near-eradication in the 1940s -- are back and biting in apartments, hotels, even hospitals.
The insects have reached near-epidemic proportions in the past decade, although experts are unsure as to why. A few factors are commonly cited as key to their resurgence: a built-up resistance to insecticides, more frequent long-distance travel (meaning that vacationers bring the bugs with them from across the globe), and ignorance of the bugs' existence from a generation that thought they had been wiped out ages ago.
The pests are relatively difficult to kill, and many homeowners and landlords -- unsure what is causing the mysterious itchy scabs popping up on their skin -- fail to take the steps necessary to de-infest their buildings.
A group of Iowans has decided to take action. Residents of two Des Moines apartment complexes have filed a class action lawsuit, alleging that their buildings are infested with bed bugs and that the management has failed to properly address the problem.
The buildings, Ligutti Tower and Elsie Mason Manor, are within a block of each other, and both house a considerable number of elderly and disabled residents with limited means to address the problem themselves.
The suit says that over 250 residents have suffered unconscionable and substandard living conditions as a result of the infestation, and that American Baptist Homes of the Midwest, which manages the two complexes, has been less than responsive. The company was initially skeptical of bed bug complaints and blamed the problems on residents' hygiene, according to the complaint.
The action, brought under Iowa's new consumer protection law, demands $7.4 million in damages and seeks to have the building fumigated immediately. The plaintiffs also want American Baptist Homes to warn prospective residents about the problem before renting out any apartments.
American Baptist Homes is apparently trying to atone for its errors. Dave Zwickey, the company's president and CEO, visited Elsie Mason Manor and Ligutti Tower last week after learning of the suit, and promised that management would be more proactive in addressing the problem.
Zwickey, who said that his was a faith-based, values-driven organization, promised that American Baptist Homes would mount a real-time response to the problem, and we're going to come up with something that has a high range of success. The company was considering, among other things, using propane heaters to raise interior temperatures to nearly 150 degrees, a method that effectively kills bed bugs and their eggs.
Preventing bed bug infestation
Besides filing a lawsuit, what can consumers to do prevent a bed bug infestation -- or deal with one that's well underway?
As with most things, it's easier to prevent bed bugs from nestling into your mattress than it is to drive them out after the fact. Bed bugs can be picked up in seemingly innocuous places -- public laundromats, changing room tables, even subway seats. And that new-looking mattress lying at the curb is there for a reason; steer clear of any furniture left on the street, especially if it looks too nice to be thrown away. Bed bugs nest in clothing as well, so always think twice before buying second-hand clothing or luggage.
Bed bugs are present almost everywhere, but consumers in high-infestation areas -- such as New York City -- need to be especially aware of the problem. Those consumers would do well to invest in a bed bug cover for their mattress. Several companies now produce a protective microfiber lining that zips around your mattress and protects it from bed bug infestation. Additionally, if your bed has already been attacked, the cover suffocates and eventually kills any bed bugs living inside.
It's also important to learn from the all-too-common mistakes of bed bug victims past. Don't empty out a room for several days in the hopes that the bugs will disappear. This method is actually counterproductive, as it causes the bugs to spread to other areas of the building in order to find food. Similarly, do-it-yourself insect sprays and bombs may kill a few bugs in close proximity but do little to address the problem long-term.
As for the Iowa plaintiffs, their pest problem apparently extends beyond bed bugs: the lawsuit is being brought on behalf of all tenants of Elsie Mason Manor and Ligutti Tower who were subject to infestation of bed bugs, cockroaches or rodents from 2007 until the present.
The suit also names the buildings' owner, First Baptist Housing Foundation, as a defendant.
California Shuts Down Fraudulent Foreclosure Relief Companies
Victims of three alleged scams to get more than $1 million in restitution03/22/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
California Shuts Down Fraudulent Foreclosure Relief Companies...
California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. today shut down two fraudulent foreclosure-assistance companies and secured a court judgment that prohibits three individuals from working in the real estate industry and provides more than $1 million in restitution for victims left with "false hope" after paying upfront fees for nonexistent loan-modification services.
"George Escalante, Cesar Lopez and Adrian Pomery used their loan-modification companies to sell false hope to hundreds of Californians facing foreclosure," Brown said. "This judgment shuts their companies down, locks them out of the real estate industry and pays back more than $1 million to the victims."
On July 7, 2009, Brown filed suit against two affiliated companies based in Orange County, U.S. Foreclosure Relief Corp. and H.E. Servicing, Inc., as well as their executives, George Escalante and Cesar Lopez, and legal representative Adrian Pomery. The suit was filed jointly with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the State of Missouri as part of "Operation Loan Lies," a massive federal-state crackdown on loan-modification fraud.
The joint investigation, initiated in March 2009, found that the defendants used aggressive telemarketing tactics to convince distressed homeowners to pay $1,800 to $2,800 in upfront fees for loan-modification services that included reductions in principal and lower interest rates. In sales calls, H.E. Servicing, for example, claimed it had successfully negotiated 10,000 loan modifications.
However, a full review of internal records found the company opened only 2,960 loan-modification files and completed only 311. It is estimated that California homeowners accounted for 15 to 20 percent of the company's opened loan-modification files.
Brown's judgment permanently shuts down U.S. Foreclosure Relief and H.E. Servicing and prohibits the defendants from ever working in the real estate and loan-modification industries again.
Additionally, the judgment will provide more than $1 million in relief to victims paid through frozen company funds and the sale of Escalante's jewelry, 2007 Mercedes SUV, 2007 Mercedes sedan and 2009 Toyota Tundra. Separately, Lopez declared bankruptcy in June 2009 and relinquished possession of a 2007 Cadillac Escalade SUV and 2008 BMW S Series sedan as part of those proceedings.
Under the judgment, a court-appointed independent receiver will oversee the repayment program. Victims can access more information about this program by visiting the receiver's website at www.heservicingreceiver.com or by calling: 1-866-243-8101.
The FTC's enforcement division will monitor the defendants' compliance with the judgment, and if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition and inability to pay, the judgment, in full, will become due immediately. The full judgment requires total payment of $8.6 million from Escalante, US Foreclosure Relief and H.E. Servicing as well as $3.3 million from Lopez and $3.4 million from Pomery.
While in operation, H.E. Servicing spent $70,000 a week on radio and television advertising in 100 media markets nationwide and had plans to spend an additional $10,000 to $30,000 a week with the goal of bringing in an estimated $270,000 a week in new business. A report prepared by an outside accountant found that in the first six months of 2009 alone, the company made $4.5 million in net income.
Earlier this month, Brown filed an amended complaint naming Brandon L. Moreno and his law firm, Cresidis Legal, as additional defendants in the case. This comes after investigators found that Moreno served as the legal affiliate for H.E. Servicing after Pomery departed. These defendants are not part of the judgment announced today, and Brown will continue to prosecute the case against them.
By law, all individuals and businesses offering mortgage-foreclosure consulting, loan-modification and foreclosure-assistance services must register with Brown's office and post a $100,000 bond. It is also illegal for loan-modification consultants and businesses to charge up-front fees for their services.
Non-profit housing counselors certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provide free help to homeowners. To find a counselor in your area, call 1-800-569-4287.
Brown has sought court orders to shut down more than 30 fraudulent foreclosure-relief companies and has brought criminal charges and obtained lengthy prison sentences for dozens of deceptive loan-modification consultants.
Health Reform to Deliver Calorie Counts to Chain Restaurant Menus
CSPI hails 'huge victory for consumers' after 7-year fight03/22/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Health Reform to Deliver Calorie Counts to Chain Restaurant Menus...
Tucked inside the newly-passed health reform legislation is language that will require calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus, menu boards, and drive-through displays, as well as on vending machines.
The provision applies to chains with 20 or more outlets, and requires them to provide additional nutrition information on request.
Similar measures are already in effect or are awaiting implementation in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, New York City, Philadelphia, and a dozen other localities. The federal standard will supersede the varied state and local requirements.
"Coffee drinks can range from 20 calories to 800 calories, and burgers can range from 250 calories to well over 1,000 calories," said Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. In this legislation, she says, "Congress is giving Americans easy access to the most critical piece of nutrition information they need when eating out. While it's a huge victory for consumers, it's just one of dozens of things we will need to do to reduce rates of obesity and diet-related disease in this country."
CSPI began pressing for nutrition labeling at chain restaurants in 2003. In past sessions of Congress, stand-alone menu labeling bills were introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).
New York City became the first jurisdiction to enact menu labeling, via regulations issued by the city's Board of Health, in 2006. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed California's menu labeling law in 2008, after vetoing a similar measure the year before. The National Restaurant Association dropped its longstanding objection to menu labeling last year, and actually supported the language just passed by Congress.
The measure that President Obama will sign "will do so much to give more Americans access to health care, but it also does much to help prevent disease in the first place," Wootan said. "Menu labeling at restaurants will help make First Lady Michelle Obama's mission to reduce childhood obesity just a little bit easier."
The bill exempts small businesses, and does not apply to daily or temporary specials and customized orders. It requires the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to propose specific regulations not later than one year from now. Those regulations will be finalized through a formal rulemaking process, and the FDA must make quarterly reports on its progress to Congress.
Settlement Reached with Seller of Acai Berry Supplements
Nutra Pills barred from making 'free' offers unless they really are03/22/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Settlement Reached with Seller of Acai Berry Supplements...
Attorneys for the state of Colorado have reached a settlement agreement with Nutra Pills, Inc., and its owner, Joshua D. Bezoni, to bring the Internet marketer and seller of nutritional supplements, including acai berry supplements, into compliance with state's consumer protection laws.
In addition, consumers who did business with the company over the last year will be reimbursed.
The Office of Attorney General John Suthers says it learned through its investigation that Bezoni's Arvada-Colorado-based company, which has operated under the names Golf Nutrition Sciences and GNS, used so-called "free-to-pay conversion" marketing since 2005, which resulted in consumers unknowingly incurring continuing payments for products that they initially believed were free.
According to court filings, consumers signed up for free trials of products, such as Acai Berry Edge, Acai Berry Elite and Slim Seduction, and believed at the time they placed their order that they were authorizing only the shipping and handling charges for the free trial. When the free trial arrived, however, consumers also received a two-month supply of the product and were given a limited amount of time to return the product or face a nearly $80 charge within 30 days.
That's what happened to Cathy of Locust Grove, OK. She tells ConsumerAffairs.com that she ordered Slim Seduction, which was offered for a free trial period, after which she would be billed $39.90 for each of 2 bottles and pay only 3.97 shipping at time of order.
"After trying the product for about a week and a half, decided it wasn't for me," she says. "Called and received a return authorization and confirmation numbers. Sent product back via USPS with delivery confirmation tracking service. Product was received back at GNS on 3/20/09. My account was billed 79.90 on 3/22/09. Am now in the process of trying to get ahold of someone there to get my account credited."
Additionally, if consumers failed to take any action to cancel their order and send back the two-month supply of product, they were enrolled into the company's "continuity" plan, which meant the company continued to send products to the consumer and charge the consumer nearly $80 for each shipment.
More than one thousand consumers complained that they had no idea they were agreeing to the additional charges associated with the free trial offer and that once they did realize it, it was often too difficult or too late to get a refund from the company.
Sandra of Tucker, GA, found out about that the hard way. She tells us that after receiving a sample product, for which she would be charged shipping only, she called and cancelled any future orders. "The girl told me it was cancelled and assured me I would receive no more product or charges. The next month I received a $79.90 charge on my card and was assured it would be credited (it wasn't). This month I have a $69.90 charge again. They are now $150 ahead and I still don't have any proof that they won't steal another amount next month."
The company generated $40 million in sales in 2009 -- nearly all of it a direct result of its free-to-pay conversion sales. Since the attorney general launched the investigation into Nutra Pills one year ago, the company has refunded nearly $9 million dollars to consumers and has ceased doing business.
Under the terms of the settlement, approved by a Jefferson County District Court judge, Bezoni and his businesses will be prohibited from marketing "free" products unless they are, in fact, free and not part of a free-to-pay conversion plan. Bezoni and his businesses also will be barred from enrolling consumers into continuity plans unless the terms of the plan, including the cancellation policy, are clearly and conspicuously disclosed to consumers before they sign up to receive a product and again after the transaction has been completed.
In addition, Bezoni and his businesses must obtain express authorization from consumers for all charges associated with the initial transaction, including future charges, and they must disclose when those charges will be levied. The agreement requires Bezoni and his businesses to allow consumers to cancel in the same manner that they signed up to receive a sample. It also requires Bezoni and his companies to obtain the express authorization every 12 months from consumers already enrolled in a continuity plan to remain enrolled.
Bezoni and Nutra Pills also must pay a $100,000 fine, half of which the Attorney General agreed to suspend for a period of five years barring any violation of the settlement. In addition, Nutra Pills must reimburse all consumer complainants who filed complaints since December 2006 as well as all consumers who requested but were denied refunds since December 2008.
Makers and marketers of acai berry supplements have been under increasing attack, including a salvo launched by Oprah Winfrey .
CARD Act Could Impact Your Credit Score
Lenders looking for ways to make up lost revenue could affect you03/22/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
CARD Act Could Impact Your Credit Score...
By now you've probably received a mailing from your credit card company informing you about the changes to your account.
Some of these changes are mandated by the new Credit Card Accountability and Disclosure (CARD) Act. Others aren't, and these are the ones you need to worry about.
Changes required by the CARD act are mostly positive for consumers, but have the result of cutting into lenders' profits. Lenders are trying to make up for those lost profits by implementing changes that will increase the number of fees consumers pay.
For example, some consumers have already received word from their credit card companies that they will have to pay an annual fee for the privilege of carrying the card. Once upon a time, annual fees were commonplace, but were phased out as the industry got more competitive. Unless you read the notice of this new fee, more than likely it took you by surprise.
"I was charged a $39 annual fee this year which I have never been charged since I received the card," Jeanne, a Capital One customer from Las Vegas, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "When I received my on-line statement there was $41.17 due. Explanation was there was $2.17 charged for interest on the balance for three days or whatever. I really don't understand but was told I had to pay fee and interest."
If you have a card that you rarely use, you may find that you will be assessed a "non-activity" fee, or the account may be closed unilaterally. Should that happen, it would have a negative impact on your credit score for two reasons; an account closed by the lender and a drop in your available credit.
The Federal Reserve has proposed a new rule that would prevent credit card holders from imposing an inactivity fee, as well as fees for declined transactions and multiple penalties. If approved, those changes would take effect in August.
Credit card companies may also continue the practice of unilaterally lowering customers' credit limits. They are doing this to reduce the overall amount of credit they are extending, since they must maintain sufficient capital reserves. At the same time, the credit card default rate remains high, so lenders are aggressively trying to limit their risk.
But when a credit card company lowers your credit line, it has a negative affect on your credit score. You have less credit available to you and, if you carry balances on your cards, the ratio of debt to available credit rises sharply. And, like Stacey of Otsego, Minn., you could find yourself in a Catch-22.
"Chase has arbitrarily lowered our credit line three times now, each time saying that it is because we are using to large a percentage of our credit line," Stacey told ConsumerAffairs.com. But we are not using the card! The percentage goes up because they are reducing the line."
If your cards are already close to be maxed out, the credit score damage is less than if you have little debt and lots of available credit, according to Sarah Davis, senior vice president at VantageScores, a credit data firm.
So, how should you respond to these changes? Some fed-up consumers might close their accounts, but even that action might have a negative impact on a credit score. Even when you close an account on your own, you are reducing your total amount of available credit.
"If a consumer must close an account, closing the oldest account is the least favorable option because the longer a line of credit is open, the more history a consumer has accumulated," Davis said.
Instead of closing an account, make one or two small purchases on a regular basis and pay the balance off quickly.
Although it views the Credit CARD Act of 2009 as a major win for borrowers, the Center for Responsible Lending warns credit card companies still keep you guessing by finding new ways to make money. Even with federal legislation in place, CRL says card issuers can continue to:
- Saddle you with other, often hard-to-understand charges, such as fees to get a paper statement, for purchases abroad, for having a zero balance or "account management fees" (at least one large bank has done this -- in the amount of $19 per year -- since passage of the Credit CARD Act).
- Close your account or reduce your credit limit without notice for any reason. Contact your card company if this happens to you. Under the new law they must wait 45 days before they can tack on an over-the-limit fee or a penalty rate on a newly lowered credit limit.
- Arbitrarily change any or all terms for credit cards issued to small businesses.
- 9 Raise your interest rate without limit on future purchases as long as they give 45 days notice. If you don't want the higher rate, you have the right to close the account and pay it off over five years.
- 9 Increase your minimum monthly payments, as a percentage of total balance. A major issuer made headlines in the fall of 2009 for doing this.
- Prevent cardholders from bringing disputes before a jury in court, a practice known as mandatory or forced arbitration.
- Charge whatever fee or interest rate they want.
And if it's not clear by now, consumers should realize that every communication they receive from their credit card company is important. It may contain changes to your account that can be costly if you are unaware of them.
Pinnacle Security Reaches Settlement With Illinois
Company sued last year for deceptive marketing practices03/22/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Pinnacle Security Reaches Settlement With Illinois...
Pinnacle Security, a Utah-based firm, has settled a lawsuit with the State of Illinois, which accused it last fall of deceptive marketing.
The company uses door-to-door salesmen to market its home security services, and has been the subject of numerous complaints, in Illinois and elsewhere.
"Many Illinois homeowners who signed up for home security products as a result of Pinnacle's false claims were stuck paying for services they didn't need," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "This agreement is intended to put an end to those fraudulent sales practices, require the company to police its sales force more closely and provide some relief for customers."
Rosalind, of Dalton, Ill., had a Pinnacle system installed in her home in 2009, but says she had doubts about it from the start.
"I had several alarm triggers and no response," Rosalind told ConsumerAffairs.com last December. "I never received a call when my alarm went off. I called several times to inquiry and was assured that it was working. I myself have triggered the alarm just to see if I would get a response. No response."
The settlement resolves a lawsuit the attorney general filed in October 2009, alleging the company sold home security products using deceptive sales tactics that often left unsuspecting customers locked into two separate sales contracts for security services.
According to the settlement terms, the Orem, Utah-based company is banned from misrepresenting its service terms and its affiliation with a consumer's current security company. The settlement requires Pinnacle Security to inform consumers that they may have to pay a termination fee if they currently have a contract with another home security company.
Pinnacle Security also must refrain from paying commission to sales personnel who obtain contracts through fraudulent tactics. In addition, Pinnacle Security is required to pay restitution to eligible Illinois consumers who entered into contracts as a result of unfair and deceptive sales tactics.
In her suit, Madigan charged Pinnacle Security employed a door-to-door sales force that targeted customers of other, rival home security services, and used misleading statements to convince Illinois residents that Pinnacle Security had secured strategic partnerships with rival firms like ADT or that ADT had gone bankrupt and that Pinnacle Security would be servicing ADT customers as a result.
Based on these alleged misleading statements, the sales teams would persuade consumers to sign a new contract with Pinnacle Security. In some cases, the defendant's sales force also allegedly misrepresented Pinnacle Security's rates by saying that the company would not charge consumers an installation fee and that the monthly service charge would range from a promotional rate of $21.99 to $39.
After signing new contracts with Pinnacle Security, however, consumers discovered that ADT was still in business and that no business relationship existed between the two rival companies. At that point, Pinnacle Security allegedly refused to allow consumers to cancel their contracts, leaving consumers liable to pay for both their original home security contract with ADT or another home security company and their new contract with Pinnacle Security.
Boomers Looking for Work
How to turn age (experience) and skills (proven accomplishments) to your advantage in your job search03/22/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jan Yager, Ph.D.
How to turn age (experience) and skills (proven accomplishments) to your advantage in your job search...
Looking for a job is hard work, especially in this economy where unemployment is over 10% and is expected to stay that way for some time.
Its rough on even the most confident of souls and its really hard on Boomers who on top of the usual steady stream of nos also get to hear such rejections as Sorry, youre just over-qualified, or Youre just not what were looking for. Translation: Youre too old, only were not allowed to say that. Plus, We really dont want to pay you the salary youre looking for when we can get someone half your age for a third of the money.
So whats an out-of-work Boomer to do?
Face reality: Its tough out there
The reality is that if someone 45 or over loses his or her job, its probably going to take them a lot longer to find a new job than someone younger. Therapist Nancy B. Irwin, Ph.D recommends that instead of dwelling on the gloom and doom of high unemployment, focus on how you can create or get a new job.
Thats the kind of pro-active attitude that helped Susan, 61, who was out of work for a year from 2007 to 2008, to finally land her current job as information officer for a healthcare state agency in upstate New York, which is at about the same salary and level as her last job as public relations director of a small hospital.
Chuck Wright, manager of the New York office of Stanton Chase International, an executive search firm, says one way to look at finding a job is to realize you already have one. Your new job is to find a new job, says Wright, and you have to work at it pretty hard and consistently, but there are definitely opportunities out there.
Seven key tools
The seven most important tools you can call upon to help yourself to find a new job are:
2. Goal setting
3. Doing a Boomer skills and technology assessment and overhaul
4. Revamping your resumé
5. Building and reinforcing your network past, current, and future
6. Finding (or creating) the opportunities
7. Being flexible about salary, job title, field, and even location
If you lost your job, especially if you did not see it coming, its easy to start second guessing. Why didnt I get myself another job before they gave me the axe? Although it can be productive to try to understand the dynamics behind why you lost your job as a self-learning experience, at a certain point, it turns to unproductive self-loathing.
Instead, adopt the approach of Richard S. Deems, Ph.D., founder of WorkLife Design, and author of 14 books including Make Job Loss Work for You (JIST Works, 2010). Dr. Deems suggests that you write a note to yourself dating it a year ahead. In that note you will say: I resolve that a year from now, I will call the person who let me go and thank that person because Im in a better place.
See yourself as the key initial tool in your job search. Work on your mental attitude. Get out from under the statistics about how many people are unemployed or how long its going to take to find a new job.
California-based Lisa Johnson Mandel, 51, author of Career Comeback: Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want (Hachette/Springboard Press, 2010), highlights how pivotal it is to have a positive mental attitude Almost anyone looking for a job has a defeatist attitude, says Mandel. But if you have a negative attitude, thats going to come back to you. Instead, stay focused and be optimistic. Youre going to exude what you feel inside. If you expect people to like you, theyre going to like you. Keep a positive attitude and keep your confidence up. Dont be a complainer. Be a fixer.
However, what if you cant shake a negative attitude? What if your depression over your job situation is more than just a passing thing? Psychotherapist Nancy B. Irwin, Ph.D. says there are warning signs that show you might need professional help so you can work on whatever emotional issues are holding you back in your job search:
• You have difficulty getting out of bed
• Your appetite is changing (decreasing or increasing)
• Youre letting your hygiene go
• You are vegging out in front of the TV
• Youre drinking or smoking too much
The second tool is to figure out what you want to do. Make a list of your key accomplishments and your strengths. Ask yourself, What sets me apart and what can I do better or more effectively than anyone else?
One of Dr. Irwins clients, a single 60-year-old Los Angeles-based Boomer who got laid off from her executive job working for a major TV entertainment company, made such a list noting that she liked making guacamole and she also loved dogs. Dr. Irwin says She created a new business for herself, a house and pet sitting business. She adores her job and its also quite lucrative.
Susan, who landed a job in the healthcare field after a year of unemployment, says that "Everyday I got up and made it my job to get a job. At 9 a.m., I sat at my computer. I didnt get up and watch TV and sit around and do nothing. I worked for 2 hours every morning looking for work. Then I did some exercising so I didnt become a lump. Its very easy to get discouraged. But by the sixth or seventh month, I was ready to say, Im never going to work again.
After a year of unemployment, Susan was about to go on an interview and felt so discouraged that she had to reach down inside myself and think about those acting classes I took in college thirty five years ago. How do I put my best foot forward? You have to be who you are and you have to answer their questions honestly but she also needed to exude confidence and a positive attitude that she was, indeed, the right person for the job. It worked. After a year of searching, she found a job.
As Julie Jansen, author of I Dont Know What I Want, But I Know Its Not This: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Gratifying Work (Penguin, 2nd edition, 2010), notes, You need a plan. It may be a matter of changing careers. Do the research. Do informational meetings.
Boomer skills and technology assessment and overhaul
Remind yourself that you also bring to the table decades of accomplishments, a large body of knowledge, maturity, and a network of contacts and resources developed from the various jobs you have had.
But you cannot afford to be a dinosaur if you want to compete in todays marketplace. Career coach Lisa Johnson Mandel says if you havent looked for a job within the last three years: The most important thing to remember is that everything has changed. Everything needs to be revamped: your clothes, your resum&eacut;, even your searching skills.
Technology can give Boomers an advantage in the job search and also in appearing contemporary. Organizational expert Peter Walsh, author of Enough Already: Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You (Free Press, 2009), suggests you get an online calendar and sync it with your cell phone. Make sure all of your contacts are listed in a database on your computer so you can easily and quickly find any contact you need. Establish on your computer folios for each of the jobs that you are looking for, Walsh says. In each folio, keep easily accessible resum&eacut;s, cover letters, and information about the potential employers that you are contacting rather than starting from scratch each time.
Community colleges offer courses that can help you to upgrade your tech skills and find out whats new in your field, especially if you have been out of it for a while.
Rewrite your resumé
Catherine Jewell, career coach and author of New Resumé, New Career (Alpha Books, 2010), says the trend today is toward a functional resumé rather than the traditional chronological or job duties approaches. A functional resumé presents your basic skills with achievements listed under each one, says Jewell. But I recommend that no one do only a function resumé. I always do combination resumés. Begin with the core competencies and accomplishments under each one. You end with an abbreviated job history; hiring managers want to see your year by year job history.
New Jersey-based Jason A. Docheff is a career and resumé coach whose clients include out of work Boomers. Docheff helps his clients to develop resumés that are geared to particular positions. He also helps them with business cover letters to make them highly targeted, highly impactful. You want to highlight your achievements, the challenges you faced. You want to illustrate this in a cover letter. Make the cover letter a demonstration and illustration of your value.
Build and reinforce your network past, current, and future
Experts agree: networking is one of the best ways to find out about job openings. Often called the hidden job market, it is estimated that 80% of all jobs are found through networking because most openings never even get to the headhunters or the job sites. Although networking in person is still preferred, using the online social networking tools such as Linkedin.com, Facebook.com, and Twitter.com have grown in popularity as James Limbach points out in Social Networking Explodes as Job-Search Tool.
Deb Dib, co-author of The Twitter Job Search Guide (JIST Works, 2010), says On Twitter, you can find people in your industry or recruiters and follow them and create a connection. It doesnt happen overnight. You need a strategic plan about what you want to project about yourself. Networking is a reciprocal relationship with you giving more than youre asking for. The best thing you can do is to be useful. If you find something thats interesting, post it or send it to them.
In addition to online social networking, go to local, regional, or even national association meetings or conferences as well as local breakfasts, lunches, after work events, or dinners. Pick out the events that will be attended to by the people you want to connect to. Be careful about appearing too desperate or being too direct about wanting or needing a job. Instead, work on connecting, or reconnecting, with each person you talk to as you strengthen your relationship.
Find (or create) the opportunities
Where are the jobs? Everywhere. Network so you can find out about jobs before an announcement even appears in the local newspaper or on a job site. As for jobs that get posted, apply to them as well. There are numerous online job sites, like hotjobs.com, monster.com, or indeed.com, as well as through social networking sites, especially linkedin.com.
There are other ways that you can find out about jobs, from local job fairs that are held periodically with representatives of major companies and nonprofits available to discuss job openings at their companies; watch for advertisements for job fairs in your local newspaper or online. Although not as popular as before, there are still jobs to be found in local newspaper want ads.
Visit Boomer online job search sites such as www.seniorjobbank.org or , a division of CareerBuilder.com, or associations that have job listings, as well as alumni offices of the colleges, graduate, or professional schools that you attended that offer online or in-person job search help.
Besides the general job search online sites, become familiar with the specialized sites for your industry, such as www.mediabistro.com for media (writing, pr, television) professionals, www.chronicle.com (for jobs in academia and related consulting jobs), www.healthcarejobs.org, among many others.
Be flexible about salary, job title, field, and even location
Even though it may be hard to sell your house and relocate to another area for a job, you can expand the number of miles youre willing to drive for a job and the number of hours you are willing to commute. (If you are offered a job in another location, you could rent your home until you can sell it so you can relocate for career reasons.)
Try not to get hung up on the job title you are offered although of course you have to be careful if in your particular field getting a job title that is too far below the level you used to be at, even if your salary is the same or even higher, might hurt your chances of job advancement or your job prospects if you have to search in the future.
Be open to new or different fields. Stay up on what jobs are new in your field or even what fresh fields are available and even growing. Consider how the demand for jobs is increasing in certain fields, like solar energy, elder care, and going green initiatives.
Seek out companies that actually welcome workers over 50 such as Cornell University, First Horizon National Corporation, National Institutes of Health, and S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., just a few of the 50 companies that were chosen by AARP in 2009 to be part of their Best Employers for Workers Over 50 biennial list. (See the complete list of the winners online)
The most critical message of all is not to give up. Whether you have to take a job in another field, go back to school so you can switch careers, or take temporary, freelance, or other work till the job you really want is offered to you, giving up is not something that we Boomers as a group like to do. Were doers and fighters and innovators. There are jobs to be had even if you have to hire yourself.
Resources and sources
Associations and government agencies related to Aging or the Job Search
- Boomer Careers Site developed by the state of Tennessee to help residents ages 40+ to find paid or unpaid (volunteer) jobs
- Forty Plus (Northern California chapter) Membership and dues organization founded in 1939 by Remington Rand to help former employees over 40 in their job search. Chapters are available in New York City, Northern California, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
Books and articles
- Deems, Richard S. and Terri A. Deems. Make Job Loss Work for You. Indianapolis, IN: JIST Works, 2010.
- Enelow, Wendy S. and Louise M. Kursmark. Expert resumés for Baby Boomers. Indianapolis, IN: JIST Works, 2007.
- Farr, Michael and Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D. 225 Best Jobs for Baby Boomers. Indianapolis, IN: JIST works, 2007.
- Limbach, James. New Survey Rates Job Search Methods. ConsumerAffairs.com, August 18, 2009.
- Luo, Michael. Longer Unemployment for Those 45 and Older. New York Times, April 13, 2009.
- OBrien, Sharon. Jobless News not so Bad for Boomers. About.com guide to Senior Living, November 17, 2009.
- Sims, Damon. Help Wanted: When Layoffs Hit Home. May 3, 2009, www.cleveland.com
- Whitcomb, Susan Britton; Chandlee Bryan; and Deb Dib. The Twitter Job Search Guide. Indianapolis, IN: JIST Works, 2010.
- Winerip, Michael. Time, It Turns Out, Isnt on their side. New York Times, March 11, 2010.
Job search sites
- Jobs Over 50
- USA Jobs (Federal Governments official job search site)
Dietary Supplement Peddler Pleads Guilty to $17 Million Fraud Scheme
Nutrapha Research made illegal claims that its supplements could cure diseases03/21/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Dietary Supplement Peddler Pleads Guilty to $17 Million Fraud Scheme...
A Springfield, Mo., business owner has pleaded guilty in federal court to his role in a conspiracy to fraudulently market dietary supplements over the Internet with illegal claims that these supplements could prevent, treat or cure a number of diseases. Several Web sites were used to sell more than $17.4 million worth of products in 2005 and 2006, according to Beth Phillips, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.
Charles Thao, 42, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Richard E. Dorr to his role in conspiracies to violate the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, to defraud the United States, to commit wire fraud, to commit mail fraud and to commit money laundering.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Thao agreed to dissolve his business, Nutrapha Research, LLC, and agreed not to reorganize that company under any name for similar business purposes. Nutrapha and an earlier company owned by Thao, Medycinex, purchased dietary supplements and sold them over the Internet.
Thao admitted that he and his wife, co-defendant Mai Lor, 25, also of Springfield, contracted with co-defendant Tony T. Pham, 41, of Grand Rapids, Mich., to market and distribute the dietary supplements. Co-conspirators claimed that six products sold over the Internet had been proven reliable through clinical testing for the treatment and prevention of diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, gout, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heartburn and diarrhea. In reality, no clinical testing had been performed.
Under federal law, a dietary supplement may not claim to treat, cure or prevent a specific disease or class of diseases. None of the dietary supplements sold by Thao and his co-conspirators are generally recognized, among experts qualified by scientific training and experience to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of drugs, as safe and effective for use under any of the conditions recommended in their labeling. Therefore, each of these dietary supplements is a new drug.
None of them were approved by the FDA, and their labels do not bear adequate directions for use; therefore, they are also categorized as unapproved drugs and misbranded drugs. The dietary supplements that were marketed as unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs included Diabeticine (later renamed Diamaxol, and also known as Glucolex), Digestrol (also known as Digesticine), Uricinex (also known as Uricaid), Cholestasys Rx (later renamed Cholestasys), Hyperexol and Prolipamy.
Lor pleaded guilty on Friday, Feb. 5, 2010, to her role in the conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Lor was co-owner of Medycinex. At Thaos direction, Lor also formed Bio Nutrasource, LLC, located in Springfield, to carry on the business previously conducted by Medycinex.
Pham pleaded guilty on July 2, 2009, to his role in the conspiracy to violate the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and to one count of wire fraud. Pham owned and operated Techmedica Health, Inc., located in Grand Rapids. Pham admitted that he used Techmedica to repackage, sell, market, and distribute unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs over the Internet. Web sites used by Techmedica contained materially false testimonials, product information, and identification of medical professionals.
Techmedica fabricated fraudulent customer identities using photographs purchased from Istockphoto.com. Testimonials attributed to these fraudulent identities touted the effectiveness of the unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs. Techmedica also posted one of the Istockphoto.com photographs on their Web sites to fabricate a non-existent physician, Dr. Judy Hamilton, for the purpose of lending authenticity to and endorsing product claims about Diabeticine for customers with Type I and Type II diabetes. The person identified as Dr. Hamilton was in fact a model from California. This same model's photograph was also used by Pham on another Web site to fabricate a non-existent nurse, Bethany Hunt, RN, to tout the effectiveness of the unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs.
Techmedica, through Pham, operated several Web sites using mirror image technology. When each of these Web sites was accessed from an FDA network computer, they displayed a sanitized version of the Web site containing medical claims that attempted to comply with the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. However, when each of these Web sites was accessed from a computer whose IP address could not be traced to the FDA, they displayed claims that the dietary supplements could cure, mitigate, treat, and prevent diseases, so that these supplements were sold as unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs.
By pleading guilty, Thao also agreed to forfeit to the government $17,421,059 (for which he and his co-defendants are jointly and severally liable), which represents the amount of proceeds obtained as a result of the offenses, three real estate properties in Springfield, three vehicles and the funds credited to various bank accounts.
Under federal statutes, Thao is subject to a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison without parole for conspiracy to commit money laundering, and up to five years in federal prison without parole on each of the other three conspiracy counts to which he pleaded guilty today, plus a fine up to $250,000 or twice the gross gain on each of the four counts. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled after the completion of a presentence investigation by the United States Probation Office.
American Kids More Obese Than Ever
More children affected at earlier ages, study finds03/21/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
American Kids More Obese Than Ever...
We've been told repeatedly that childhood obesity is a growing problem, but a study now suggests it's even worse than we thought.
A Kaiser Permanente study of 710,949 children and teens appears in the Journal of Pediatrics. It found that extreme obesity is affecting more children at younger ages, with 12 percent of black teenage girls, 11.2 percent of Hispanic teenage boys, 7.3 percent of boys and 5.5 percent of girls now classified as extremely obese.
It's the first study to provide a snapshot of the prevalence of extreme obesity in a contemporary cohort of children ages 2 - 19 years from a large racially and ethnically diverse population using the recent 2009 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extreme obesity definition.
"Children who are extremely obese may continue to be extremely obese as adults, and all the health problems associated with obesity are in these children's futures," said study lead author Corinna Koebnick, PhD, a research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Southern California's Department of Research and Evaluation in Pasadena, Calif. "Without major lifestyle changes, these kids face a 10 to 20 years shorter life span and will develop health problems in their twenties that we typically see in 40 - 60 year olds."
Children who are extremely obese are at higher risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease and joint problems. That makes the findings even more alarming, Koebnick says.
The study found that 7.3 percent of boys and 5.5 percent of girls were extremely obese, translating into more than 45,000 extremely obese children in this cohort. The percentage of extreme obesity peaked at 10 years in boys and at 12 years in girls. The heaviest children were black teenage girls and Hispanic boys. The percentage of extreme obesity was lowest in Asian-Pacific Islanders and non-Hispanic white children.
According to the recent CDC recommendations, extreme obesity is defined as more than 1.2 times the 95th percentile, or a body mass index (BMI) of more than 35 kilograms/meter squared. Obesity is defined as more than the 95th percentile or a BMI of more than 30 kg/m2. Overweight is defined as more than the 85th percentile or a BMI of more than 25 kg/m2.
The BMI is a reliable indicator of body fatness and calculated based on height and weight. For children, BMI percentiles are the most commonly used indicator to assess the size and growth patterns of individual children. The percentile indicates the relative position of the child's BMI number among children of the same sex and age.
"Our focus and concern is all about health and not about appearance," said study co-author Amy Porter, MD, a Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park pediatrician who leads the Pediatric Weight Management Initiative for Kaiser Permanente's Southern California Region. "Children who are morbidly obese can do anything they want - they can be judges, lawyers, doctors - but the one thing they cannot be is healthy."
Porter said the most important advice to parents of extremely obese children is that this has to be addressed as a family issue. She says it's rare to find one extremely obese child in a house where everyone else is extremely healthy.
"It's important that everyone in the family is invested in achieving a healthier lifestyle," Porter said.
Suit: Midas 'Lifetime Guarantee' Doesn't Last Long
Car shop chain canceled hundreds of costly contracts, class action charges03/20/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Suit: Midas 'Lifetime Guarantee' Doesn't Last Long...
A class action lawsuit filed earlier this month claims that Midas offered a $130 Lifetime Oil Change, then abruptly pulled the plug, leaving thousands of consumers in the lurch.
The suit, filed in Washington state court, says that the lifetime offer -- also known as Lifetime Lube-Oil Plus -- promised consumers up to four oil changes per year for as long as the consumer owned his or her car. If consumers bought a new car, they could transfer the agreement to that vehicle for a price of between $45 and $65.
Consumers who thought they were getting a good deal quickly learned otherwise in October 2009, when they received letters canceling the service effective December 31, 2010. The letter referred persons wanting more information to Midas's 800 number, according to the complaint.
The named plaintiffs, Robin Dawson and Chasity Luty, bought the Lifetime Oil Change in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Luty transferred her agreement to a new car in 2007 for an additional fee. Some consumers were even less fortunate; Midas continued offering the service until early 2009 -- just a few months before its cancellation.
Also named as a defendant is J & A Automotive, LLC, a Midas franchisee. The complaint points out that, despite the franchisee's different name, Midas's efforts to create a seamless nationwide service network have obscured the identity of its franchisees, and have led the public to believe that they were doing business directly with Midas. It also notes that Midas logos were displayed prominently on the service record card and the purchase receipt, and that none [of the marketing materials] mentioned any local franchisee.
The suit is brought on behalf of [a]ll residents of Washington State who purchased a Lifetime Oil Change from a Midas franchisee in [eleven counties] and who still own vehicles qualified to receive service under the terms of the program.
The suit includes counts for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and the Washington Consumer Protection Act.
The suit comes less than a year after California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued 22 Midas shops in California for engaging in a massive bait-and-switch scam. That action, instituted last June, alleged that Midas promised customers cheap brake specials and then charged them hundreds of extra dollars for unnecessary repairs. Some of those repairs -- which included things like brake rotor resurfacing -- were never even performed, according to Brown.
The Washington class is being represented by Matthew Metz with the Metz Law Group and Adam Berger with Schroeter, Goldmark and Bender.
Enforcement action comes under state's new Dog Law03/19/2010ConsumerAffairs
The State of Pennsylvania says it has taken action against five commercial dog breeding operations in the state, which it says were among the state's "most...
It's Vacation Rental Scam Season
Feds offer tips to avoid having your vacation spoiled03/18/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
IC3 and the FBI receive numerous complaints from individuals who have fallen victim to scams involving rentals of apartments and houses, as well as online ...
With the beginning of spring, consumers start turning their attention to vacation time and rental properties.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and the FBI receive numerous complaints from individuals who have fallen victim to scams involving rentals of apartments and houses, as well as online real estate postings. ConsumerAffairs.com hears from people who say they got burned, too.
Jewels of Cornville, AZ, tells us that her and her husband had got a vacation rental in San Diego, CA, on Craigslist from Jennifer P. G. "She told me the place was clean and the pictures showed a nice view of the bay. She told me that was the view from the living room in the apartment. So we paid 1800.00 in deposits to her."
Jewels says after a seven-hour drive, "we were appalled at what we saw. It was in the back of a hotel where there was garbage and huge rusted cargo crates right there next to the building. The steps going up to the condo were cracked and the railing was broke and there was a big drop down."
Ways consumers can protect themselves from rental schemes include:
Do not wire funds to people you do not know.
Check with your county recorder to learn who owns the property you're seeking to rent.
Call the property manager or association, if applicable, and ask about the landlord.
Ask the landlord for a rental application. It's a red flag if one is not available; most managed properties require an application.
Find out how much of a security deposit may be requested in your state. Scammers will often ask for extra money in the form of a deposit.At least one state -- New Jersey -- is taking action against those who promise but fail to deliver when it comes to vacations.
Texas Shuts Down Travel Club
Victims paid thousands for 'worthless' memberships03/18/2010ConsumerAffairs
Texas Shuts Down Travel Club...
The State of Texas has charged a Dallas-area travel firm and three of its principals with violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act by marketing worthless travel club memberships.
According to court documents filed by the state, Royal Palms Travel Inc. and All Inclusive Excursions promised prospects they would get steep discounts on travel purchases if they signed up as members of Sealand Travel club, which Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says was nothing more than a shell company.
The state maintains the memberships actually had little or no value. In response to the state's enforcement action, a Dallas County District Court issued a temporary restraining order against the defendants that prevents them from continuing to violate the law. A temporary injunction hearing is set for 2 p.m., March 30.
Among the defendants charged with legal violations were company principals Adrian D. Miller, William H. Bailey and Christy Spensberger. Other named defendants were Travel Services Inc., Funseekers Vacations Inc. and Royal Palms Travel. According to state investigators, Royal Palms Travel and a related entity, All Inclusive Excursions, unlawfully misled potential customers and relied upon improper high-pressure sales tactics to sell worthless travel club memberships.
Abbott says he's seen this kind of scheme before. It's similar, he says, to other illegal travel scams he's shut down in the past.
Lots of Restrictions
The state's court documents show the defendants lured customers to sales presentations by offering free trips, airline tickets -- even gasoline. However, seminar attendees were informed that their free trips and tickets were contingent upon paying a deposit and submitting receipts for vouchers or rebates. Customers also discovered that the "free" trips were subject to restrictions that rendered them effectively worthless.
The defendants urged other prospective customers to join Sealand Travel Club, which claimed to provide significant discounts and the lowest prices for travel. The state's enforcement action reveals those claims were false and thus unlawful, and that Sealand is an unincorporated shell company existing in name only.
The defendants routed Sealand memberships they sold customers to a mail drop at a UPS office in Kansas City, Mo. In turn, Travel Services Inc., a Delaware corporation also known as Funseekers Vacations Inc., received the forwarded Sealand memberships at an office in Litchfield, Ill.
Sealand charged its members from $2,000 to $8,000, but customers received little or nothing of value, as they were unable to book travel at lower prices than they could find without the Sealand membership. Thus, prices under the "Sealand" banner were no more discounted than ordinary prices quoted on the Internet, according to Abbott.
To prevent further unlawful conduct and prevent additional Texans from being harmed, the attorney general is seeking a temporary injunction that will extend the temporary restraining order the court granted has already granted. The Office of the Attorney General is also seeking civil penalties of up to $20,000 for each instance the defendant violated the DTPA.
Because Travel Services Inc. unlawfully failed to obtain a certificate of authority for conducting business from the Texas Secretary of State, the attorney general also charged the defendant with violating the Business Organization Code - a violation that renders the defendant liable for franchise taxes from 2008 through 2010.
Nightmare Virgin America Flight Broadcast on YouTube
Social media company CEO documents ordeal on the tarmac03/18/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Nightmare Virgin America Flight Broadcast on YouTube...
When it took Virgin America Flight 404 16 hours to get its passengers from Los Angeles to New York's JFK Airport, it was hardly the first time passengers had been trapped aboard a diverted airliner for hour after hour. However, it may have been the first such incident documented on YouTube.
Seated in seat 1A, David Martin wasn't just another passenger. He is also CEO of the social networking site Kontain.com. He immediately realized the role of the Internet to inform the world about what was going on.
He began posting status reports to his Kontain account. Using the video camera in his cell phone, he began to document what was going on around him. By the end of the ordeal, his mini documentary was rocketing around the world on YouTube.
The ordeal began Saturday when Flight 404 was unable to land at JFK because of high winds and was diverted to Stewart International Airport, 90 miles away. There, the plane sat on the Tarmac, waiting for clearance to take off again.
Meanwhile, the hours passed, with the passengers, who had just completed a long trans-continental flight, remaining cooped up in the cabin with almost no food or water. After a while, Martin said, the flight crew appeared to be losing its grip.
Martin singles out one incident in particular, when he and a fellow passenger from first class were distributing a small number of cookies to mothers with small children, seated in coach. When a woman, who had been suffering panic attacks, asked if she too could have a cookie, Martin said a nearby flight attendant "snapped" at the woman, nearly sending her over the edge.
"Everyone knew she was a very frantic woman, which is why no one said anything when she asked for the cookie. Everyone understood but the flight attendant," said Martin, in the posting.
'Tensions rising big time'
"Tensions rising big time as we are grounded and passengers are trying to get off," he said in an early post. "Virgin crew losing control of passengers. Police now onboard here," he said in a later posting.
After landing at Stewart, the airline gave passengers the option of leaving the plane and it said 20 passengers did so. After four hours on the tarmac, Virgin America officially cancelled the flight and the remaining passengers made their way to New York by bus or other air connections.
Had the incident occurred after April 28, Virgin America could have been fined up to $27,000 per passenger for a tarmac delay exceeding three hours, under a new law that takes effect April 29. As it turned out, the airline simply suffered a public relations embarrassment. A high-profile one, at that.
Martin told CNN that the CEO of Virgin America, David Kush, called him personally to apologize after seeing his YouTube video. Martin said he told the airline official he should offer passengers a complete refund of their ticket, not just the $100 credit that was originally proffered.
Kush agreed, and passengers will get their money back as well as $100
off on their next Virgin America flight.
Doctors Treating Wave of 'Boomeritis'
Mayo Clinic reminds boomers they aren't as young as they think03/18/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Doctors Treating Wave of 'Boomeritis'...
A 50-something goes for a daily jog and is jolted by back pain, or finds his weekly tennis game suddenly hampered by an arthritic knee. Orthopedic surgeons are seeing a wave of exercise-related injuries among baby boomers and have dubbed the phenomenon "boomeritis."
True, baby boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, are fitter and more athletic longer into their lives, compared with their parents' generation. They are running marathons, hitting the slopes, playing hockey, cycling the country, and more.
While staying active promotes health, at age 50 and older the body is less forgiving. Injuries can occur when people push beyond the body's capability. Typical problems include tendonitis, bursitis, stress fractures and tendon tears, such as rotator cuff injuries.
Doctors writing in the Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource offers these tips to help avoid boomeritis:
Ask your doctor first
A doctor can offer advice when a person is considering a new sport or activity. In general, it's wise to start slowly and increase gradually.
A warm-up prepares a body for activity by getting the blood flowing, raising muscle temperature and increasing the heart rate. Moderate activities, such as walking on a treadmill or cycling in a low gear, are good warm-ups. Cold muscles are more prone to injury.
Past age 40, joints, tissues and muscles may not be as flexible as they once were. Stretching after exercise, when muscles are warm, can help prevent injury and may improve performance.
Alternating different types of activities works various muscle groups, which helps muscles adapt to new activities. A balanced fitness program should include cardio work, strength training and flexibility exercises, such as yoga, and exercises such as Pilates that target the core muscles.
Compressing hours of heavy activity into the weekend sets the stage for injury. A better approach is aiming for 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise daily.
Listen to your body
Boomers may not be able to tolerate the same sports or participate as long or as intensely as they could when they were younger. Significant stiffness or strain indicates too much intensity.
Don't overdo it
A rest period or a rest day after an intense workout can help avoid injury. A good rule is to increase activity by no more than 10 percent each week, for example, adding one mile a week to reach a 10-mile-per-week walking regimen.
FCC’s Broadband Plan: Who’s for It—and Against It
Mid-sized broadband providers may have the most to gain03/18/2010ConsumerAffairs
FCC’s Broadband Plan: Who’s for It—and Against It...
By Marian Wang, ProPublica
March 18, 2010
Since the FCC formally revealed its plan to expand broadband access on Tuesday, the idea has been generally well-received. And really, what’s there to protest so far? The plan’s stated goal is to connect “100 million households to affordable 100-megabits-per-second service, building the world’s largest market of high-speed broadband users and ensuring that new jobs and businesses are created in America.” It also stresses making broadband faster and more powerful.
So far the only group consistently cited as being the “loser” in all of this is the National Association of Broadcasters, which has expressed reservations about losing its portion of the airwaves to make room for the broadband providers. But which industry players stand to win big if the plan moves forward? Here’s what the Post reported on this point:
Mid-size broadband providers, such as TW Telecom and Cbeyond, are shaping up to be the plan’s biggest beneficiaries, gaining access to more subscribers and the rights to federal funds to expand their networks. Makers of network equipment, such as Cisco, and creators of Web-based content, such as Google, could also experience significant boosts in their business. And cellphone carriers could reap big gains from a proposal to allocate a large chunk of airwaves for the next generation of smartphones and portable devices.
The Post went on to draw a distinction between midsize and major providers:
Major providers, such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon Communications, would gain broader subscriber bases, but they could be forced to share their wireless and fixed-wire networks with smaller rivals, exposing them potentially to stiffer competition.
These major providers, while they’re now giving statements of tentative support to the press—with caveats advocating less regulation—are the same ones who’ve beenpushing for this kind of proposal for years.
A letter the providers sent to lawmakers in July 2008 details their support. In the letter (PDF), AT&T and Verizon urged Congress to enact legislation to expand broadband access. The letter’s 31 signatories included major broadband providers, but also groups as wide-ranging as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, American Association of People with Disabilities, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which was the largest lobbying group in the entertainment industry in 2009, also signed on to the letter. Comcast, also one of the biggest lobbyists in the industry, signed on too. Since the FCC announced its plan, both the cable lobbying group and Comcast executives have already written blog posts detailing how they would like the FCC to implement it. Together, the three top groups—in third, the National Association of Broadcasters, which has its concerns about the plan—spent nearly $40 million on lobbying in 2009.
And for concerned consumers, the Post points out that the plan “only sets the goal of ‘affordable’ broadband services,” but does not tackle prices through rules or caps.
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Toyota Faces Class Action Demanding Full Refunds
Suit ups ante from smaller-scale actions filed earlier03/17/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Toyota Faces Class Action Demanding Full Refunds...
In the less than three months since Toyotas reputation for safety imploded, the company has been hit with dozens of class action lawsuits and personal injury suits from angry owners.
But on Monday, a group of consumers took litigation against the carmaker to a new level, demanding a full refund in separate cases filed in Washington state and Arizona.
When we talked with Toyota owners, they all voiced the same desire -- to drive the car back to the lot, hand them the keys and pick up a check, said Steve Berman, the lawyer handling the cases. Fortunately, we think the law allows for exactly that solution, and we are asking the courts to make it happen.
Many of the class actions filed so far have focused on the recalls devastating effect on resale values -- affected Toyotas have lost between six and 15 percent of their total value since the recall was announced in January. That plunge stands in contrast to values for other brands of used cars, which have actually increased in value. A number of suits against Toyota are demanding a cash payment equal to the amount of the decline.
Berman, of Seattle-based Hagens Berman Sobol Shaprio, takes issue with that relatively small-bore approach.
I don't know of any parent who would be willing to put their kids in a potentially unsafe car in exchange for a few hundred bucks, he said.
A statement by Hagens Berman reiterates that stance, asserting that Toyota produced vehicles so profoundly flawed with safety defects, and completely botched the recall process, that the only remedy is for owners to return the cars to Toyota.
The suits are being brought on behalf of all residents of Washington state and Arizona who own a recalled Toyota. The firm said it expects to eventually file additional cases in other states across the country.
Plaintiffs seek revocation
The plaintiffs seek to revoke their acceptance of the sales contract, and contend that Toyota breached its express warranty because the vehicles sold to Class Members were not fully operational, safe, or reliable. The class also asserts that Toyota exacerbated the breach by failing to provide safe automobiles after the problems were acknowledged.
Both suits allege breach of express warranty, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, unjust enrichment, and violations of the warranty-governing Magnuson Moss Act. In addition to a full refund, the plaintiffs are seeking consequential damages, including the costs associated with purchasing safer vehicles, and an injunction prohibiting the sale of cars with a propensity for sudden acceleration. In the event that the full refund is not granted, the class is seeking damages equal to the diminution in value as a result of the defects.
The suits, if approved, would have a devastating economic effect on an already-battered Toyota. The decreased-value suits alone could put the carmaker on the hook for at least $3 billion. A San Diego court will decide next week whether to consolidate over 100 separate Toyota class-actions into a single case.
Arkansas Sues Health Discount Marketer
Company allegedly told consumers they were buying health insurance03/17/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
A health discount card is not health insurance, a distinction sometimes lost on consumers, especially if the marketer intentionally misleads them....
A health discount card is not health insurance, a distinction sometimes lost on consumers, especially if the marketer intentionally misleads them. The State of Arkansas accuses one company of doing exactly that.
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel sued Consumer Health Benefits Association, alleging that the company tells potential clients it offers health insurance, but instead only offers a health discount card with limited benefits.
The Florida-based actively markets its health discount card as a health insurance plan through telemarketing sales calls placed to Arkansas consumers, according to McDaniel. The attorney general's lawsuit alleges that CHBA falsely implies that the card they offer is health insurance.
Additionally, the suit charges CHBA overstates the benefits available to Arkansas consumers and also states that many medical providers accept the card as a discount for services. Actually, many providers do not have agreements with CHBA to honor the card.
In addition, McDaniel says the company failed to register to do business before operating in the State, which is required by Arkansas law.
Cards marketed nationwide
CHBA markets its card nationwide and McDaniel says it has enrolled approximately 1,800 Arkansas consumers since 2003. The company typically charged customers a non-refundable enrollment fee of $119 and a monthly fee of between $119.95 and $149.95 to participate in the discount card program.
After receiving the company's card in the mail and attempting to use it, many Arkansas customers cancelled the card within one month of enrollment and approximately 79 percent cancelled within six months of enrollment.
"This discount card does not provide Arkansans with the protections they were promised," McDaniel said. "This company is blatantly taking advantage of consumers who are seeking affordable health insurance."
ConsumerAffairs.com has received many complaints about CHBA over the years, many similar to the ones McDaniel says he has received in Arkansas.
"I was told this was insurance, Sandra, of Winchester, Va., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "My doctors told me they had never heard of it. They called and found out it was a very complex discount plan. I contacted Virginia State Corporation Commission and was informed they are not licensed to do business in Virginia."
McDaniel seeks an injunction to stop the deceptive solicitations in Arkansas, as well as restitution for Arkansas consumers who purchased the discount card. The Attorney General also seeks civil penalties against CHBA under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Health Related Cash Discount Card Act.
Many NYC Funeral Homes Deny Consumers Pricing Information
Consumers encouraged to know their rights to funeral pricing information03/17/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Many NYC Funeral Homes Deny Consumers Pricing Information...
A two-month long investigation of the sales practices of New York City funeral homes finds may of them are playing fast and loose with city regulations.
Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Jonathan Mintz says the inspections of 579 funeral home resulted in 87 businesses being charged with a total of 275 violations. That works out to a compliance rate of 85 percent. The charged funeral homes could face more than $230,000 in fines.
Manhattan funeral homes had the highest compliance rate, with only five percent receiving violations. Brooklyn had the lowest compliance rate, with 26 percent of businesses receiving violations.
"Coping with the death of a loved one is stressful enough, so planning a funeral should be as simple and easy as possible," said Mintz. "New Yorkers have strong legal rights to make purchasing funeral arrangements a straightforward process, including the right to get clear and complete pricing information on a price list by the entrance to a funeral parlor or even over the telephone."
Approximately three quarters of the violations issued, resulting from both in-person and undercover phone interviews, charged funeral homes with pricing deception including failing to have retail prices and price lists visible, failing to provide prices over the phone, and not disclosing that consumers may use or bring in a casket from a third party.
Another top violation included illegally displaying the least expensive caskets separately and more unpleasantly than other, more expensive caskets.
New York City isn't the only area with problems.
Undercover inspections by Federal Trade Commission investigators in nine states and the District of Columbia found significant violations of Federal Trade Commission consumer protection rules at 52 of 175 funeral homes they visited during 2009. The agency's Funeral Rule, enacted in 1984, gives consumers important rights when making funeral arrangements. Key provisions of the Rule require funeral homes to provide consumers with an itemized price list at the start of an in-person discussion of funeral arrangements, as well as a casket price list before consumers view any caskets. The Rule also prohibits funeral homes from requiring consumers to buy any item, such as a casket, as a condition of obtaining any other funeral good or service. By requiring itemized prices, the Rule enables consumers to compare prices and buy only the goods and services they want.
Avoiding the pitfalls
Dealing with the death of a loved one? Follow these tips:
• Get a price list. By law, the customer is entitled to a general price list when conducting arrangements either in person or over the phone. This list should include the prices for all services and merchandise regularly offered by the funeral home. Consumers have a right to this information before they commit to using a specific funeral home, so they should try to obtain multiple lists and compare prices.
• Don't pay illegal or unnecessary fees. Funeral homes can charge a fee for cash advance items or services, and merchandise the funeral home pays directly to a third party, such as fees for the cemetery or crematory, death certificates and clergy. The funeral home cannot profit on these items. If you choose, you may be able to pay for cash advance items directly.
You may be charged:
• a custodial care fee, which charges the customer for the days the body is being held, though no services are being performed.
• a transfer of remains fee, which covers transportation of the body from the place where the death occurred to the funeral home.
• You have the right to switch funeral homes at any time. You will need to pay for any services that have already been performed and for which you have given approval. The funeral home must allow the transfer of the body to another funeral home, even if you haven't paid yet. It may not hold the body in exchange for payment.
• Get a receipt. Regardless of who pays for cash advance items, be sure to get a receipt for these items. When you have made all the decisions regarding the funeral, you should receive an itemized statement of services and merchandise, a detailed outline of the specific goods and services you have chosen and the price of each item as well as the total cost. This must include cash advance fees.
• If you have your own casket, the funeral home is required by law to let you use it.
• Embalming is not required by law in New York State. If you do not want embalming, you have the right to choose an arrangement that does not require you to pay for embalming such as direct cremation or direct burial. If you select certain funeral arrangements, such as viewing or an open casket, embalming may be required by the funeral home. This information must be included on the general price list.
Although consumer complaints about funeral homes are fairly rare, they do exist. And, as you might expect, seniors are primary targets.
Colorado Man Indicted, Accused of Foreign Exchange Scam
EquityFX allegedly defrauded investors of nearly $700,00003/17/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Colorado Man Indicted, Accused of Foreign Exchange Scam...
March 17, 2010
A Colorado man has been indicted on suspicion of violating securities fraud laws while he was being prosecuted in an unrelated securities fraud case, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers announced.
According to the indictment, Hamilton Alan Bird operated a Nevada-based company, EquityFX, Inc., which pitched consumers on foreign exchange currency trading investments that promised high rates of return. Much of the investment money Bird collected, according to the indictment, was used to pay his own personal expenses, to pay out to other investors and to show false profits.
Between January 2006 and September 2008, Bird, according to the indictment, accepted funds totaling up to $100,000 from individual investors in Colorado as well as Arizona, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Texas. Bird allegedly collected approximately $690,000 from his victims.
This case is remarkable not only for its breadth and the number of investors affected, but also because Mr. Bird perpetrated a portion of this fraud while criminal proceedings were pending against him in a securities fraud case brought by the Attorney Generals Office, Suthers said. We look forward to presenting our case in Colorado Springs.
During the course of the scheme, Bird is suspected of failing to make proper disclosures to investors, including information about the losses on the money he actually invested in foreign currency. Bird also failed to disclose that the Office of the Attorney General had obtained an indictment against him alleging securities fraud on May 12, 2006 and that Colorado Division of Securities had filed a lawsuit against him on Feb. 3, 2005 for violations of the Colorado Securities Act.
Bird pleaded guilty on March 14, 2008 to one count of securities fraud, a class-three felony, and one count of theft, a class-three felony, in the Office of the Attorney Generals case. An El Paso County District Court sentenced him in September 2008 to 24 years in prison. A Denver District Court entered a $12.6 million judgment and injunction against Bird in May 2007 as a result of the Colorado Division of Securities case.
Which Is Better, Store Brand or Name Brand?
Private label products provide a way to stretch budget03/17/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Which Is Better, Store Brand or Name Brand?...
When you go down almost any grocery aisle, you're likely to be confronted with a choice in most product categories. There will be an advertised brand you've heard of, and right next to it a brand you haven't.
Is one better than the other?
There probably isn't a lot of difference between the two products. In fact, both products may have come out of the same food manufacturing plant.
For example, ConAgra spends millions of dollars to promote its Peter Pan peanut butter. But it also produces Great Value peanut butter, Wal-Mart's store brand. While there might be slight differences in the two products, the differences are likely to be subtle.
Store brands usually cost less than name brands for one simple reason; a manufacturer spends lots of money advertising its name brand product and that cost gets passed along to the consumer. A store brand doesn't carry that marketing cost and further benefits from the chain store's massive distribution power. The store can sell it for less and still make money.
Chalk it up to the power of advertising that U.S. consumers have traditionally favored nationally advertised brands. At least they did until the Great Recession, when value conscious shoppers decided to try more and more store brand products.
The Food Marketing Institute's 2009 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report shows consumers have switched to "private label," or store brand products, and have also begun buying fewer processed food products.
Not only can some consumers not tell the difference between a store brand and a nationally advertised brand, sometimes they might even prefer it. In 2005 a double-blind nationwide taste by Meyers Research found that participants preferred the taste of private-label products over advertised brands by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. A Consumer Reports taste test in 2009 achieved similar results.
Now that consumers have found they can also save money on these brands, some experts don't expect a return to better known advertised brands once the economy improves.
"Shopping habits have changed, and consumers will likely continue to remain thriftier than in past years," said Molly Jensen, assistant professor of marketing in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.
That prediction is backed up by a 2009 study by GfK Roper, that found 91 percent of shoppers who say they switched from buying name brands to buying store brands during the previous year will continue buying the store brand after the recession ends. Based on a poll of 800 grocery shoppers, the survey cited quality as a major factor in influencing their purchase decisions.
Jensen says American consumers generally have not held private labels in high regard, especially compared with European consumers, who actually prefer them. Until recently there was only about 40-percent household penetration of private labels, meaning that on any given day, one would find private-label products in only 4 out of 10 households.
Recently, however, projections are up to 60-percent penetration of private-label products into American homes. Jensen speculates that when consumers are able to go back to branded products, they will have found that many of the private-label products were of equal or higher quality.
"A simple perusal of grocery aisles in any store will confirm an increase in private-label variety," she said. "Stores are introducing a variety of new categories with private-label products, including organic eggs, gourmet crackers, single-serving powdered drinks and household cleaners."
Canadian Meat Company Sued Over Recalls of Deli Meats
Lawsuit claims company failed to warn consumers of possible hazard03/16/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Canadian Meat Company Sued Over Recalls of Deli Meats...
Canadian meat company Siena Foods is facing a class action lawsuit over its recent recalls of listeria-infected deli meats. The suit, filed Monday, alleges that Siena knew of the food's "potential toxicity" but failed to warn consumers.
The suit concerns four recent recalls of Sienna deli meats, beginning in December and continuing through last week. The filing comes just a day after the Ontario Ministry of Health said five listeriosis-caused deaths were not related to the recalled Siena meat.
Fourteen Ontario residents have been diagnosed with listeriosis this year alone, with two cases definitively linked to recalled Siena meat. However, Ministry of Health spokesman Andrew Morrison told the Toronto Star that "preliminary indications" show that the meat is not linked to any of deaths from the disease.
Tony Merchant isn't buying it. The high-profile plaintiffs' lawyer knows a bit about listeriosis himself. His firm -- the Merchant Law Group -- led a successful class action against Maple Leaf, another Canadian food producer, after the company recalled 243 types of prepackaged meats. That recall followed an August 2008 listeria outbreak that infected dozens of people and killed at least 12.
"When the Maple Leaf situation was emerging, there was that same indecision," Merchant said, referring to Ontario's announcement that the recent illnesses were not caused by Siena products. "Then there was a change of view that it was Maple Leaf-related."
Siena plagued by recalls
Either way, Siena doesn't have a great track record. The company recalled its cacciatore salami in December after it tested positive for listeria. It recalled its cotto cooked ham on Thursday, and on Friday the government expanded that recall to include coppa and prosciuttini cured meats.
Merchant has been contacted by dozens of potential plaintiffs already, and told the Star that he expects the case to "snowball." Merchant said that business owners would likely join the suit if they have suffered financial harm as a result of the recall.
Canada's food inspection process has come under scrutiny following the recalls. The food inspectors' union claims Canadian facilities are typically inspected after 16 hours of operation, compared with the 12-hour increments mandated in the United States.
The Canadian government switched to 12-hour shifts after complaints from south of the border, according to the union. A leaked union memo tends to confirm that account, showing that union members have been working overtime since November to meet the 12-hour policy.
Listeria is rare but deadly; the overt form of the disease carries a 25 percent mortality rate (versus one percent for salmonella). Listeria is especially dangerous because infected foods may not look or smell contaminated. Symptoms of listeriosis include high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, and nausea. Pregnant women should be especially vigilant; they often experience mild symptoms but the bacteria can cause premature or stillbirth.
The infected Siena meats were not sold directly to consumers until January 11, 2010. However, consumers who bought ham from a deli counter and are unsure of the brand should check with the store to see if their product is contaminated.
2010 Jeep Commanders, Grand Cherokees Recalled03/16/2010ConsumerAffairs
2010 Jeep Commanders, Grand Cherokees Recalled...
Chrysler Corp. is recalling 2010 model-year Jeep Commanders and Jeep Grand Cherokees. They may have been built with an improperly-manufactured rear track bar, the company said. Reduce vehicle stability could result, increasing the risk of a crash.
Dealers wil inspect the rear track bar and replace it if defects are found when the recall begins during April 2010.
Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403 about campaign number K05.
Consumers may contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY: 1-800-424-9153) or at www.safercar.gov.
Blockbuster's New Late Fees Make Encore
Some consumers say they were taken by surprise by the new policy03/16/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Blockbuster Video quietly reinstated late fees, with a whole lot less fanfare than when they did away with them 5 years ago. As a result, several consumers...
At the beginning of this month, Blockbuster Video quietly reinstated late fees, with a whole lot less fanfare than when they did away with them five years ago. As a result, several consumers report being taken by surprise.
"Nobody in Blockbuster told me or my fiance of any new policy," Kelli, of Union City, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It wasn't posted anywhere in the store prior to the policy change and we didn't receive any sort of notice by mail, email, or recorded message. Nothing at all."
Kelli is upset because the late fee on videos she returned was charged to her debit card, which the company had on file. The charge, she said, put her in an overdraft position, costing an additional $35 from her bank.
When they complain, consumers say they are told by Blockbuster that they should have received a letter explaining the change, and that a notice is printed on the receipt.
For its part, Blockbuster said it is simply changing its policy to align it with its competitors. Since March 1, the company has begun adding a $1 a day late fee on videos and games up to 10 days.
If the customer still hasn't returned the item after 15 days, they're charged for the purchase of it, which can be as little as $4.99 or as much as $29.99. If the consumer returns the DVD within the next 30 days, they get a store credit for the purchase, minus $10 in late fees.
"We think this is very forgiving. You have 45 days to bring it back. It's similar to what Redbox does," Michelle Metzger, Blockbuster spokeswoman, told the Dallas Morning News.
Blockbuster competitor Redbox charges customers $1 a day. If the customer hasn't returned it in 25 days, they're charged a maximum of $25 and given ownership of the DVD.
Netflix doesn't charge a late fee, per se, but customers who don't return a video are assessed an $8.99 monthly fee until the DVD is returned. If the consumer reports the video as lost, they are charged a $14 fee.
Blockbuster, which has struggled financially in recent years, views the move as way to promote stability.
FCC Provides Tool To Check Internet Speed
Agency plans to make sure advertised speeds are accurate03/15/2010ConsumerAffairs
FCC Provides Tool To Check Internet Speed...
How fast is your Internet connection? Not how fast your ISP says it is, how fast is it really? The Federal Communications Commission suggests you test it and is providing a tool to do just that.
It's all part of the government agency's National Broadband Plan, allowing Internet users to check ISP speed claims and allow consumers to report areas where broadband is not available.
"Transparency empowers consumers, promotes innovation and investment, and encourages competition," said Chairman Julius Genachowski. "The FCC's new digital tools will arm users with real-time information about their broadband connection and the agency with useful data about service across the country. By informing consumers about their broadband service quality, these tools help eliminate confusion and make the market work more effectively."
The Consumer Broadband Test measures broadband quality indicators such as speed and latency, and reports that information to consumers and stores the data at the FCC. The mobile version -- the FCC's first mobile app -- is available through the Apple and Android app stores. The fixed version is available at www.broadband.gov.
Two popular broadband testing tools are used in this beta version -- the Ookla, Inc. Speed Test and the Network Diagnostic Tool (NDT) running on the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) platform. In the future, the FCC anticipates making additional broadband testing applications available for consumer use. The Commission does not endorse any specific testing application.
The Broadband Dead Zone Report enables consumers to submit the street address location of a broadband "Dead Zone" where broadband is unavailable for purchase. The Broadband Dead Zone Report form is available online. Consumers can also submit availability information by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Those who lack online access can call the FCC at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-TELL-FCC), send a fax to 1-877-627-7460, or mail the information to:
Federal Communications Commission
Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
ATTN: Broadband Dead Zone Reporting
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, D.C. 20554
The FCC says the new tools help it gather data to analyze broadband performance and availability on a geographic basis across the US. Use of the tools is voluntary, the agency says, and it pledges to protect the personal privacy of consumers utilizing these tools, and will not publicly release any individual personal information gathered.
The National Broadband Plan also contains a series of recommendations aimed at helping consumers understand the gap between actual broadband speeds delivered and the maximum speed tiers advertised.
Working recommendations include a scientific third-party study on actual broadband performance, a working group to help inform standards for broadband speeds, and further proposals on disclosure needs for fixed broadband services, such as a "digital label."
Feds' Dream of Universal Broadband a Nightmare for Broadcasters
But overall economic and societal impact could overcome any short-term costs03/15/2010ConsumerAffairs
Feds' Dream of Universal Broadband a Nightmare for Broadcasters...
Analysis by James R. Hood
March 15, 2010
Talk about infrastructure and most of us think of bridges, roads and so forth. But for most of the past 100 years or so, the infrastructure that has budged the needle on the nation's econometer is the communications infrastructure. In an global information economy, after all, nations lacking a robust communications network are at a serious disadvantage.
It's popular to dismiss government regulation as something that holds back economic progress -- but sometimes it works the other way. Look back a century or so and the lack of a nationwide telephone network was a big problem not only for rural dwellers but for Sears, Roebuck & Co. and other budding etailers dreaming of the day when customers could order a new wheel barrow by placing a simple telephone call.
The ever-encroaching federal government and pointy-headed state bureaucrats got into the act and before you knew it, telephone companies had to provide a minimum level of service throughout the area they were licensed to serve -- and had to connect every caller to every other potential caller. We take that for granted now, but it's a lot more complex than it sounds.
As is customary in governmental circles, various fees and taxes were imposed on telephone service. Sure, some went to fight the Spanish-American War but others supported the Universal Service Fund which subsidized service in sparsely-populated and geographically-challenged regions.
Pretty soon, no one thought it remarkable that every wide spot in the road had a telephone booth. Some even had two.
Similar government "intrusions" helped establish radio and television broadcasting as sustainable businesses that provided news and entertainment but, equally important, kept the economy humming by whetting folks' appetites for shiny new cars and shiny big teeth.
And as everyone knows by now, the packet-switching that is at the heart of the Internet was dreamed up by the Pentagon agency known as DARPA.
And even though tea sippers and coffee gulpers alike are still suffering indigestion from the bail-out of the nation's financial services sector, the feds are up to their old tricks again. This week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) -- an agency with a past so checkered it could be used as a chess board -- is set to roll out a new broadband policy that's likely to be as far-reaching in its societal and economic impact as the telephone network, transcontinental railroad and Interstate highway system combined.
Simply put, the United States today is a Third World country when it comes to telecommunications. Those who live in hollers, on mountaintops or way out yonder on some wind-swept prairie probably have telephone service but it's not very likely they'll have broadband Internet service or a usable 3G cell phone signal. Dial-up was OK a decade or two ago but is woefully inadequate today, as the Web moves increasingly to video and other bandwidth-hungry applications that entertain, inform and employ us.
Even in densest Manhattan, Chicago or San Francisco, finding an available Wi-Fi connection can be tricky. It can get pretty dull sitting around the dentist's office with nothing to read but 1998 Road & Track magazines.
Although it's not being officially released until Tuesday, much of the FCC's plan has already leaked out, as things tend to do in Washington, regardless of the state of the infrastructure. The goal is to bring affordable broadband to the 93 million Americans who don't have it. Among the highlights:
Raising Internet speeds to 100 megabits per second, 25 times the current average;
Blanketing the country with wireless broadband; and
Building a nationwide emergency communications system for police, fire and government;
One ox goared
Those familiar with the radio frequency spectrum will ask where all this wireless data fits into the already-crowded airwaves. The FCC's answer is to lop off a big chunk of spectrum now used by television broadcasters.
Television, after all, is so 20th Century. It's a one-way street. Nothing interactive about it. It's not the least bit sticky. This view, needless to say, doesn't go down too well over at Channel 5 but the writing is already on the wall for broadcasters, who no longer enjoy watching the dismal slide of newspapers into penury, now that radio and television advertisers are following print advertisers to the Web.
Chances are something will be worked out to comfort the broadcasters, a well-organized lobby if ever there was one. Most likely, the spectrum space will be auctioned off to telecom and broadband providers, with a sizeable slice of the proceeds going to the broadcasters.
With Congress and much of the electorate in a self-induced frenzy over health care legislation, it's likely the FCC's dream -- or pipe dream, if you prefer -- won't be widely noted. An optimist might say that would increase its chances of passing into reality. Given the enormous benefits that it could produce, that would be about the best outcome one could hope for.
Digging Out of Debt and Surviving the Downturn
How Boomers can turn around the reversals of fortune in time for retirement03/15/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jan Yager, Ph.D.
Economic woes are impacting more than our wallets or dreams of retirement. Here are some suggestions to help get you back on track financially....
Economists say that, technically, the recession is over and the economy is starting to move again. But for millions of Baby Boomers, the pain is still with us, including double-digit unemployment, investment portfolios that have climbed back to 1999 levels, and home values that have shrunk to 30-40% lower than just three years ago.
And what about all that credit card debt weve been amassing? In previous years, so many depended on year-end bonuses to pay it off. But for most of us, those bonuses have either been frozen or eliminated along with our companys matching 401(K) contributions.
These economic woes are impacting more than our wallets or dreams of retirement. Theyre affecting our health as well. A study by AARP found that one in five adults aged 45 or older said they had health problems related to their financial troubles.
So whats a Boomer to do? Short of selling your house or apartment and living in your car or moving in with your parents (or your adult children), here are some suggestions to help get you back on track financially.
Stop Living Beyond Your Means
Youve heard it before but its a harsh reality that bears repeating: if you dont have it, dont spend it! Thats a lot easier said than done. To some spenders, saying stop living beyond your means is like telling an alcoholic to stop drinking so much or a smoker to stop smoking. Overspending has become an addiction; its one very tough habit to kick.
If this describes you or a loved one, there are places to go for help, such as DA (Debtors Anonymous), an international free self-help program based on the same 12 step principles as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). If you prefer to work individually on these spending challenges, try going to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or even a financial therapist, which is a relatively new discipline that includes therapists who have an expertise in money issues.
Pare Down to the Necessities
When Ann Farrells Fortune 100 clients pulled back on hiring her to lead training programs for their employees, Ann and her family tightened their belts. Were very fortunate, says Ann, who lives and works in Chicago, and whose husband still had his management job at a manufacturer and marketer of trucks and diesel engines. We had to give up luxuries, not necessities. But we got more frugal. We started to eat-in more. Our entertainment is a lot more family time versus going out to plays or musicals. Ann adds, I cant tell you the last time I walked into a mall or a store.
JoAnn Hines, who runs a company called Packaging Diva, has found that choosing private label brands can save her and her family as much as thirty percent for certain products. If youre trying to save money, try new things, says Hines.
Paring down to the necessities also means learning to say no more often to your kids when they ask for non-essentials, or asking a child, teen, or adult child to pick a less expensive alternative, and that can be very hard to do. But there are economic realities that the entire family has to face (depending, of course, on the age and maturity of each child and what, and how much, about what is going on financially with your family is appropriate to share).
Get Clarity by Making a Budget
A budget will help you see how much money you actually need each month. It will also provide you with transparency about your spending habits. List every single thing that you need to spend money on each month to survive: mortgage or rent; food; gas for your car; landlines or cell phones; local transportation for commuting to work; and so forth.
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), founded in 1951, makes it easier to create a working budget with its online budget worksheet. Be very cautious about credit counseling agencies, by the way. Many are not what they seem.
Once you have a budget of what you are spending, note which expenses are necessities or have tos and which ones are luxuries or wants. See how many wants you can cut down on, or cut out completely, whether its eating out regularly or buying fashionable new clothes when last years will do, until your financial situation is back on track.
Pay Down Your Credit Card Debt
The only way to get ahead is to change your lifestyle, notes Gregory J. Kurinec, CEA, a financial advisor at Benton Financial Group, Inc. in Naperville, Illinois, who works with Baby Boomers. After stopping unnecessary spending, continues Kurinec, throw as much money as possible at your debt. This is the advice that you need to hear and act on if you are one of the 46.2% of American families carrying a credit balance of $7,000 to $8,000 in credit card debt paying an APR (annual percentage rate), on average, of 14.9% according to LowCards.com. (If you miss a payment, or your credit score is poor, which is the basis upon which APR is determined, your APR can be as high as 29%.)
Find a way to pay it down, says Ben Woolsey, Director of Marketing and Consumer Researcher at CreditCards.com, a site which enables consumers to compare and contrast the various cards that are being offered. (It does not cover credit cards offered by local credit unions, which need to be explored at the community level. You can search for a local credit union at www.creditunion.coop.)
It can be overwhelming if you have a lot of debt on a lot of cards so the best way to start is to choose the card with the highest interest rate, focus on that one, and pay that one off, adds Woolsey. Then go on to the next highest interest rate card. This is a proven strategy of chipping away at a massive amount of credit card debt. In just couple of years, it is possible to get rid of $40,000 to $50,000 of credit card debt. But it does require discipline and focus and putting all your discretionary income toward paying down the credit card debt.
You should, however, still make at least the minimum payment, or as much as you can afford, on any of your other outstanding credit card balances with lower APRs.
If you think the APR that a particular credit card company is charging you is too high, you can call the customer service department at the credit card company and ask them to lower it. Have your reasons for making this request clear in advance including telling them youve been a good customer, that you will move the balance to another company, if you do plan to actually do that, as you plead for mercy. Unfortunately, the outcome is up to the discretion of the credit card company and they can say no. (See Credit Tips and Tricks for more information.)
Declaring bankruptcy is an option, but this is not a step to be taken lightly. There are immediate and long-term consequences to declaring bankruptcy. If this is an option you want to consider, make sure you consult an expert in this field who will help you weigh the pros and cons of taking this step. (For more information, talk with a trusted attorney; some basic information, which is not a substitute for legal advice, is available at www.bankruptcyinformation.com.)
New credit card regulations in the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 can be very helpful.
Keep One Credit Card with a Low APR for Emergencies or Travel
Allow yourself one credit card for emergencies or for travel-related expenses (such as renting a car). If you have paid off your other cards and do not plan on using them again, cancel those cards yourself. Woolsey of creditcards.com points out that your credit card score will not be adversely impacted if you cancel a credit card, but it might be if a bank cancels it because you have not been using it. (To curtail bank-initiated cancellations, use your active cards at least once every couple of months, but make sure you pay the balance off when the bill arrives so you do not fall back into credit card debt.)
Use a Debit Card for Daily ExpensesUsing a debit card, also known as a bank or check card, for your everyday purchases is one way to avoid credit card debt, since it is tied to your checking account. To avoid large overdraft charges if you come up short occasionally, link your debit card to a second account (an overdraft account). This will help you to have a smaller, one-time overdraft fee, instead of multiple fees. Or, consider using a credit card to cover the shortfall. As long as you pay off the credit card charge the next month and do not incur credit card interest charges, you may avoid overdraft penalties. (AARP has more information on the pros and cons of debit cards.)
Generate More Revenue as You Spend Wisely
If there is noticeable gap between the amount of money you usually spend and your typical monthly income, whether you have been making up the short fall by relying on credit cards or dipping into any emergency or savings funds that you do still have, here are suggestions for how to generate more revenue so you can get in the black again:
If you are out of work, reinvent yourself to get a job. If your first job is not covering your economic needs, now that the job market has improved, go for a higher salaried job, get a second one or take on freelance work. (Watch for a column devoted to job-hunting help for Boomers in an upcoming column.)
Add a new product or market to diminish the impact if you lose one type of client or business. Thats what Ann Farrell did when her corporate clients temporarily dried up. Using her executive coaching tools and technology, Farrell launched a group coaching program at www.yourcorporatesuccess.com for a monthly investment of $47 a month. It has been a great way for those in a position with no development budget and for those in transition to focus on their own development, says Farrell.
Take in a paying boarder. (If you are a homeowner or renter, make sure you are allowed to do that in your town or building.)
Hold a tag or yard sale for all the accumulated goods, art work, toys, or clothing that you no longer need but others will pay for. (Or, do it electronically by posting your items for sale on eBay or Craiglist.)
Frequent thrift shops. Dont be shy about returning or exchanging gifts you receive that you do not need or want; alternatively selectively regift to others the gifts that you receive.
Do you have any skills that you could teach, coach, or tutor? There is a market for those services. Consider bartering your skills in exchange for supplies or services that you need. Check out what regulations or tax consideration you have to be aware of. (For more information, go to National Association of Trade Exchanges.)
If your children or teens are mature enough to take on chores, you can free up more time or money by paying them an allowance for helping out with those everyday jobs.
If you have enough equity in your home, consider a home equity loan to tide you over.
Look into the benefits of refinancing your home if the lower mortgage rates would justify the cost and time involved in the process.
If you have been saving up thousands or even tens of thousands of points or miles, now is the time to finally redeem those rewards for goods, restaurant or store gift cards, hotel stays, or trips.
If you were thinking of moving anyway, sell your condo or home even if you dont get as much money for it as you might have at the height of the market.
Start to Save Again
Once you have paid off your credit card debt, you want to build up an emergency fund as well as a retirement account. Even saving just small amounts each week or each month will add up.
You can begin saving (if just in a minimal way) by signing up for one of the programs the banks are offering today. You can set it up so that every day you use your debit card, a predetermined amount of money is taken out of your account and put in a separate savings account (or you can set up an automatic deduction from your checking to savings account each month, such as $10, $20 or more). Psychologically, it can be a positive step to see money that you are saving that is free and clear.
If you get an unexpected windfall, save it rather than spend it.
But you of course want to get yourself back on track for retirement in a much bigger way than just by saving token dollars. That will require that you do what, in hindsight, you should have done, or should have done better -- planning.
Planning for Retirement
Whether you are 49 or 63, it is time to become more pro-active about your retirement. As Mark Pretorian, a Canadian-licensed investment advisor at Manulife Securities Incorporated in Ontario, says, Plan. I cant stress that enough.
Pretorian says that a good financial advisor helps you to create a retirement plan that shows you what you need to have available on the specific date that you want to retire. For more information on finding a financial advisor in the United States, go to: National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA).
The good news is that there is help out there no matter how challenging your financial situation is, or may seem, right now. While Boomers in their late 40s or 50s may have more time to get their savings accounts replenished than do those in their 60s, it is still possible to get back on track financially. Proactive steps include some belt tightening; concerted efforts to get a first, higher paying, or second job, or freelance work, if necessary; paying off credit card debt; and setting up a savings fund the more automatic, the better whether you call it your retirement account or your Third Age dream fund.
The key is not to despair but to take positive actions that will help you to get yourself and your family back on your feet financially. It may be hard to envision this now, but you may even look back on this financial downturn as the catalyst to becoming more appreciative of your family and friends as you explore more cost-effective ways to get together, have fun, travel and explore.
Resources and Sources
- Debtors Anonymous
- National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA)
- National Foundation for Credit Counseling
- Third Age
Books and Articles
- Bach, David. Start Over Finish Rich. New York: Broadway Books, 2010
- The Business Journal of Milwaukee. Survey: Downturn stress impacting health. January 2, 2009
- Chatzky, Jean. The Difference: How Anyone Can Prosper in Even the Toughest Times. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010
- Economides, Steve and Annette Economides. Americas Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007
- Mundis, Jerrold. How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously. New York: Bantam, 2003
- Orman, Suze. Suse Ormans 2009 Action Plan: Keeping Your Money Safe & Sound. Spiegal & Grau, 2009
- Pretorian, Mark, Top 5 Financial Risks Facing Seniors Today. http://www.ericksonresource.com (September 15, 2009).
Florida Cracks Down on Timeshare Resale Industry
2009 was record-breaking year for consumer recoveries03/15/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Florida Cracks Down on Timeshare Resale Industry...
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum continues to go after those in the timeshare resale industry who engage in questionable and - in some cases - fraudulent practices.
Among the actions is what the AG's office calls "a significant settlement that could yield as much as $1.3 million in consumer refunds" and the filing of a lawsuit against a major player in the state's timeshare resale industry.
McCollum also unveiled ongoing investigations into at least 17 timeshare companies and their affiliates throughout the state for deceptive trade practices.
"Florida's consumers are trying to make prudent financial decisions," the attorney general noted, "but many timeshare resale companies are blatantly scamming people by promising sales or refunds and failing to provide services even after taking hefty up-front fees."
Timeshare resale complaints have recently surpassed mortgage-related complaints as the most commonly reported consumer complaint received by the office's Consumer Hotline.
ConsumerAffairs.com has received a sizable number of complaints about the practices of timeshare sellers from consumers across the nation.
"In September of 2007 I paid Timeshares Only almost $600 to list my timeshare which was to be a one time fee and they would run the ad until it sold," says Shannon of Harrisburg, NC. "Well, I have not had one call regarding an offer for my timeshare although I have reduced the price a few times. I also decided to check the ad myself on the web site and could not find it. When I contacted them to ask why they told me I had to periodically 'reactivate it'. If I paid you a fee and you agreed to run the ad until it sold, I should not have to call and reactivate it! This business is a complete SCAM!"
"I was told by timeshares only they guaranteed to sell my timeshare or rent it," John from Baltimore writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "Well it's been over three years since they took my money and still not one call to sell or even rent. I was also promised that they would refund my money if I sold it before they did. Well I did sell it and still no refund either."
The lawsuit filed in Florida against Resales Buy Owner.com, Inc. contends the company engaged in a systematic pattern of deception that improperly induced consumers to pay up-front fees for timeshare resale services that were never provided.
According to consumer complaints, the company would indicate it either had a buyer or renter interested in the timeshare and that there would be no problem renting or selling the timeshare within 90 to 120 days. The lawsuit maintains the company merely advertised the property listings, if taking any action at all, and allegedly charged consumers' credit cards even after consumers opted not to do business with the company. The lawsuit seeks an order prohibiting the company from engaging in further deceptive conduct and seeks full restitution on behalf of victimized consumers, civil penalties and reimbursement for fees and costs.
McCollum's Office also announced a significant settlement with Virtual Group, Inc., resolving allegations the company failed to provide promised refunds to consumers. Virtual Group, which does business under the name Realty Trade, offered timeshare resale and rental advertising services to consumers looking to sell or lease their timeshare properties.
As a result of the investigation, Realty Trade has already paid over $800,000 in refunds to 799 consumers. The company will also make another $500,000 available to consumers who make new refund requests.
In addition to the litigation and the settlement announced today, in recent months, the Attorney General's Office has subpoenaed 17 timeshare resale companies and their affiliates over allegations of potentially deceptive business practices.
Common complaints about these companies involve the use of false and deceptive claims to entice consumers to pay up-front fees, including assertions that buyers are allegedly ready and willing to buy or rent the consumers' timeshare.
Companies also often allegedly fail to honor cancellation policies, misrepresent the actual services that will be provided to consumers, and fail to comply with elements of state and federal telemarketing acts.
The initiative was launched in 2009 in response to the growing number of timeshare resale complaints received by the Attorney General's Office.
Netflix Cancels Second Contest Over Privacy Concerns
Lawsuit, FTC investigation spelled end for competition03/14/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Netflix Cancels Second Contest Over Privacy Concerns...
When Netflix finally announced the winners of its three-year, $1 million contest last fall, the buzz was so great that the company wasted no time in announcing a sequel.
That contest gave consumers all over the world the chance to compete to improve the company's movie-recommendation algorithm. Contestants were given access to members' movie ratings and charged with the task of figuring out a way to more accurately suggest movies that those same users would enjoy. The contest, which ran from October 2006 to September 2009, drew 41,000 teams from 186 countries, and rewarded the winning team -- BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos -- with a $1 million check.
Given the benefit for Netflix -- Reed Hastings, the company's CEO, called the contest a big winner for the company and noted that he was getting Ph.D.s for a dollar an hour -- it only made sense that the company immediately announced a Round 2 of sorts.
But the sequel was abruptly called off even before a jackpot was announced, after a lawsuit and an FTC investigation raised concerns that the company was endangering consumers' privacy. Those inquiries grew out of a report by researchers at the University of Texas which found that the data used in the contest was actually traceable to specific consumers.
Although Netflix apparently believed the information -- which in many cases included users' subscriber numbers, ZIP codes, gender, and ages -- was anonymized, the report proved that concealing the source of such data can prove more difficult than expected.
Users' sexuality threatened
The consumer suit against Netflix highlighted the extreme consequences that can potentially result from a breach of consumer privacy. The plaintiff, identified as Jane Doe in court papers, is a closeted lesbian who is a member of a community in which that fact is not a matter of general, public knowledge, including at her children's schools.
According to the suit, Doe periodically ordered movies from the website's Gay & Lesbian section, and also searched for and rented specific titles of movies that would be considered to be 'gay-themed.' The suit chided Netflix for putting Doe's rental history at risk, and noted that such data may also reveal a member's personal struggles with issues such as domestic violence, adultery, alcoholism, or substance abuse.
Doe's suit claimed that Netflix's actions constituted the largest voluntary privacy breach to date, and said that confidential information was given away to the world freely, and with fanfare.
Netflix is hardly the first company to be humbled by online privacy issues. The proposed settlement of a lawsuit involving Google Books has been tripped up in part because of concerns that it could endanger consumer privacy. Last September, Facebook shut down Beacon, a feature that told users' friends about their activity on other sites. Privacy concerns will only grow as online services become more prevalent.
Netflix, meanwhile, has vowed to find more secure ways to improve its recommendation system.
With both the FTC and the plaintiffs' lawyers, we've had very productive discussions centered on our commitment to protecting our members' privacy, Netflix CPO Neil Hunt wrote on the company's blog. We will continue to explore ways to collaborate with the research community and improve our recommendations system so we can constantly improve the movie recommendations we make for you. So stay tuned.
Companies Get Failing Grade on Marketing Food to Children
CSPI report card says few have any policies in place at all03/12/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Companies Get Failing Grade on Marketing Food to Children...
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken a look at the way food and entertainment companies market food to children and does not like what it sees.
CSPI says that if the 128 companies it rated got a report card on their polices, three-quarters of them would get an F. The non-profit consumer group says those firms have "weak policies" or don't "have any policies whatsoever."
The highest grade, a B+, went to Mars, Inc., though the CSPI emphasized that the grade is not for the foods Mars sells, but rather for its policy on marketing to children. Mars' policy excludes marketing to children under 12 and covers most of the key marketing tactics used to reach children.
The entertainment company given CSPI's highest grade -- a B -- is Qubo, a family-friendly children's television channel delivered nationwide over ION Media Networks 59 local digital television stations. Qubo's policy is comprehensive, applying reasonably good nutrition standards to its full range of programming, according to CSPI.
One food company (Procter & Gamble, which makes Pringles) received a B, six got a B-, 17 got a C, and 7 a D. Ninety-five companies received an F.
"Despite the industry's self-regulatory system, the vast majority of food and entertainment companies have no protections in place for children," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "If companies were marketing bananas and broccoli, we wouldn't be concerned. But instead, most of the marketing is for sugary cereals, fast food, snack foods, and candy. And this junk food marketing is a major contributor to childhood obesity."
CSPI gave restaurant chain Denny's an F for marketing to children through its children's menu, which includes many nutritionally poor items; games on its Web site; and a kid's birthday club.
Lucasfilms received an F for not having a policy. Presently, Lucasfilms is licensing Star Wars toys as a premium to go with McDonald's Happy Meals, many of which are nutritionally poor.
Candy company Topps also got an F. That company makes, among other things, Baby Bottle Pop, a powdered candy sold in a miniature baby bottle, eaten by dipping a candy nipple in a sugary powder and licking it off. Over the years Topps has retained the services of the Jonas Brothers and Clique Girlz singing groups to convince children to purchase that infantilizing product, whose 140 calories all come from sugar.
Companies spend about $2 billion each year marketing foods and beverages to children. Food manufacturers and restaurants more often had policies for television, radio, print, Internet, and product placement than for digital marketing, like cell phones, iPods, and social networks, characters, games, and contests on food packages, toy give-aways with children's meals at fast-food restaurants, or branded marketing programs for schools.
Half of the entertainment companies with policies, like the Cartoon Network, apply nutrition standards to the licensing of their characters, but few have policies for their television advertising or Web site, which are the primary ways they market to children.
While 64 percent of food manufacturers that advertise to children have marketing policies, only 24 percent of restaurants and 22 percent of entertainment companies do. For Qubo's part, the company says its nutrition policy reinforces an overall message about healthy living and providing children with the foundations for self-esteem that the company promotes in popular kids' programs such as Turbo Dogs, Willa's Wild Life and Babar.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other federal agencies are expected to propose a set of nutrition criteria and other standards for foods marketed to children that they hope companies will adopt on a voluntary basis.
"If food, toy, and media companies fail to adopt those voluntary standards, they will be clanging the death knell for their self-regulatory initiative and inviting strong government involvement in food marketing aimed at kids," Wootan said.
According to the Institute of Medicine , TV commercials affect children's food choices, food purchase requests, diets, and health. And the mere act of watching commercial television is linked to obesity.
Vermont Court Holds R.J. Reynolds Accountable for Misleading Ads
Eclipse cigarette claims held deceptive and misleading03/12/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Vermont Court Holds R.J. Reynolds Accountable for Misleading Ads...
Big Tobacco suffered a big loss as Vermont Superior Court Judge Dennis Pearson found that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Companys advertising claims of a reduced risk cigarette were deceptive and misleading, in violation of Vermonts Consumer Fraud Act and a 1998 settlement agreement and court order.
This is a huge decision with national implications and Vermont has once again led the way, said Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell. The Court has ruled that companies cannot make health claims about their products unless they have the proof to back them up.
This decision also shows that the tobacco industry has to live up to the promises they made in the 1998 nationwide settlement, he said.
Reynolds said it was pleased that the judge found that the company "did not willfully violate provisions" of the 1998 tobacco-industry legal settlement with states.
"It's also important to note that in his ruling, [the judge] stated that 'the tests and studies which Reynolds did rely on were for the most part adequately, and properly performed to a reasonable scientific basis,'" the company said.
RJR marketed a non-traditional cigarette, known as Eclipse, through print and internet ads between 2000 and 2007. In his ruling, Judge Pearson found that RJR ads conveyed the impression that Eclipse cigarettes would reduce any given smokers chance of developing cancer, and that RJR did not have the scientific studies to support that claim.
He also found that RJR knew that the ads would convince consumers that there would be health benefits if they switched to Eclipse. The consequences for RJRs violations will be determined at a later time.
We applaud the courts decision which requires rigorous scientific evidence before tobacco companies can claim that any of their products are less dangerous, said Cheryl G. Healton, of Legacy. We are proud of our former Board Chair, Attorney General Bill Sorrell, for bringing this action to protect the health of Vermont citizens and which we expect will be persuasive in the courts of other states as well.
The decision follows a 5-week trial that was conducted by then-Assistant Attorney General Julie Brill and Special Assistant Attorney General Barney Brannen, with support from the Tobacco Project of the National Association of Attorneys General.
This is a groundbreaking ruling that sets a precedent for stopping the tobacco industry from making deceptive and misleading health claims, said Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free-Kids. The tobacco companies have a long history of making such claims in their efforts to addict new smokers and discourage current smokers from quitting. We applaud the State of Vermont for pursuing this very important case to protect public health.
The regulatory climate is far stricter today than it was when Eclipse was being marketed. Last June, President Obama signed legislation that gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad powers to regulate the tobacco industry. Tobacco companies can no longer legally market a product as less harmful than other products without the FDA's approval.
Salmonella Recall Spreads Quickly to Other Products
Tainted spices and ingredients used in large number of food products03/12/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Salmonella Recall Spreads Quickly to Other Products...
If you doubt how interconnected the food industry is, just look at what happens when a tainted ingredient enters the supply chain.
In January a meat processor recalled a large quantity of Italian meats because of suspected Salmonella contamination. From the start, however, inspectors believed the source was not the meat itself, but an ingredient or seasoning.
Since then companies have recalled black pepper and hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or HVP, a common ingredient used most frequently as a flavor enhancer in many processed foods. HVP, it turns out, is used in a lot of food products, including soups, sauces, chilis, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips and dressings.
The manufacturer of the affected product is Basic Food Flavors, Inc. in Las Vegas, Nevada. Only HVP manufactured by Basic Food Flavors is involved in this recall. Even so, the recall is leaving a very large footprint on the US Food Supply.
100 products and counting
More than 100 food products had been recalled by Friday and the Food and Drug Administration concedes the number could grow over the next few weeks. The FDA's recall page grows lengthier by the day.
Unfortunately, HVP is not the only tainted ingredient in the food system. While it has been associated with a strain of the germ called Salmonella Tennessee, some peppers have been named as the source of Salmonella Montevideo.
On Friday, the FDA said it has been actively investigating the supply chain of black and red pepper supplied to Daniele International Inc., of Pascoag, R.I.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 249 people have been infected with a matching strain of Salmonella Montevideo in at least 44 states and the District of Columbia. Analysis of an epidemiologic study comparing foods eaten by individuals who were sickened identified salami/salame as a possible source of illness.
Daniele International Inc. recalled a variety of ready-to-eat Italian-style meats after Salmonella was associated with its products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has posted a complete listing of the recalled products.
As a result of the investigation, the FDA said a number of spice products are now being recalled by Mincing Overseas Spice Company, Dayton, N.J.; and Wholesome Spice Company, Brooklyn, N.Y. Both supply pepper to Daniele International Inc. Based on recent test results, Mincing Overseas Spice Company and Wholesome Spice Company are conducting new recalls.
Salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. When salmonella contaminated some jars of peanut butter in 2007, the results were extremely serious.
Salmonella-tainted peanuts sold by Peanut Corporation of America were used in the best-selling Peter Pan Peanut Butter and Wal-Mart's house brand, Great Value. Beyond jars of peanut butter, the germs spread to other products that used peanut butter as ingredients.
Before it was over, ConsumerAffairs.com had received several reports of death from the tainted products, though officially, the CDC did not attribute a single death to the outbreak. Thousands of people got sick and the financial toll on ConAgra, the maker of Peter Pan, was enormous.
American Prospector SUV Tires03/11/2010ConsumerAffairs
American Prospector SUV Tires...
March 11, 2010
American Car Care Center has notified federal regulators about a noncompliance in certain American Prospector SUV tires, size 245/70R17, produced between November 15 and November 21, 2009.
These tires fail to conform to the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 139, "New Pneumatic Radial Tires for Light Vehicles." At various mileages, the subject tires may develop and exhibit tread chunking or cracking in the tread shoulder area. Tread chunks may separate from the tire casing resulting in body damage to the vehicle or the driver may lose control resulting in a crash.
ACCC will notify owners and replace the tires free of charge. The safety recall is expected to begin on or about March 11, 2010. Owners may contact Cooper Tire Customer Relations toll-free at 1-800-854-6288 or ACCC Corporate Office at 1-901-680-9927. ACCC's recall campaign number is 002.
Consumers may contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY: 1-800-424-9153) or at www.safercar.gov.
Fast Foodies Cut Back When Prices Go Up
Rising burger and fries prices could send pounds tumbling03/11/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Fast Foodies Cut Back When Prices Go Up...
Both weight and risk for diabetes are lower for people in communities where fast food prices increased.
A new study, reported in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine , also showed when prices fell, consumption, weight, and diabetes risks rose.
"These results indicate that increasing the price of fast foods and sodas can affect adult behavior, and steer them toward healthier diets, lower weight and less risk of diabetes," says senior author Barry Popkin, the Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"This study gives us strong scientific evidence that price policies, including taxes, could actually be effective at helping control obesity and the resulting chronic diseases, like diabetes," Popkin says. "Our results provide robust evidence to support the potential health benefits of taxing selected foods and beverages as a way of improving public health."
Popkin and his colleagues used data from more than 5,000 participants in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. When it started in 1985, CARDIA participants lived in four U.S. cities. In the intervening years, they have moved to 48 states.
Researchers collected information on the average prices of products, including restaurant pizza, burgers, soft drinks and whole milk in the counties in which each participant lived. Prices were adjusted to 2006 levels.
When researchers analyzed the diet, weight, and insulin levels of study participants, they found that when prices of fast foods and soft drinks went up just ten percent, participants consumed on average 7.1 percent fewer calories from soda pop and 11.5 percent fewer calories from pizza. That translates to about 56 calories a day less, which corresponds to a reduction of about 3 to 4 pounds a year per person, Popkin notes.
Those who found their fast food prices rose also gained less weight and had a lower risk for diabetes based on a test for fasting insulin.
Taxation, particularly in the form of an excise tax, could be helpful as such measures were successful in the case of smoking cessation efforts, Popkin says. "For these fast foods, taxes would represent the most effective way to reduce adult obesity that we have today, based on this research," he adds.
Popkin also notes that cigarette taxes have been found to have a much larger effect on teenage versus adult smoking and he would expect that fast food taxes on children and teens would similarly have a larger effect than on adults.
Taxes have been proposed on fast foods and soft drinks in some areas, including Detroit . In a number of countries, including Denmark and others in Europe, they are used to discourage consumption and encourage healthy diets.
Bank of America Forecloses on Wrong House, Abducts Macaw
Homeowner jumps through hoops to get bird back03/11/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Bank of America Forecloses on Wrong House, Abducts Macaw...
The housing crisis has gotten so bad, even solvent homeowners are feeling the effects.
Despite the economys recent modest strides, over 13% of homeowners are currently behind on their mortgages. And as more and more consumers default, confused banks occasionally find themselves foreclosing on the wrong house.
Thats what happened to 46-year-old Pittsburgh resident Angela Iannelli, who came home last October to find her front door padlocked. Once she finally got inside -- with the help of a bolt cutter -- she discovered that her house had been ransacked, power and water lines had been cut, floors and furniture had been damaged, and antifreeze had been poured in sink drains and toilets.
As Iannelli later discovered, Bank of America incorrectly identified her property as vacant and in default, and sent in a contractor to lock and clean out the house.
But worse, Luke was gone.
Iannelli searched the whole house, but to no avail: the contractor who secured the property had also snatched up her beloved 11-year-old blue macaw. It would be a week before Iannelli was reunited with her feathered friend.
Adding insult to injury, Bank of America was less than helpful.
When Iannelli called to complain, the bank initially told her it didnt know where Luke was. When it finally relented, it told her that she could pick up the bird from the contractor -- 80 miles away. Unsatisfied, Iannelli kept calling back, until the bank told her it was tired of her calls and suggested that she contact the police.
Iannelli has predictably filed suit, and is seeking upwards of $50,000 in damages. Her complaint, filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, says that Bank of America improperly told Snyder Property Services to enter, seize, padlock, winterize and take possession of the house, and that the banks de facto foreclosure process and seizure proceedings have caused her severe emotional distress, embarrassment and ridicule.
If you or I had done to Bank of America what Bank of America did to my client wed be in prison for 10 years, said attorney Michael Rosenzweig of Pittsburgh-based Edgar Snyder & Associates, who is representing Iannelli.
The situation is bad enough by itself, but Bank of America is facing suits from three other homeowners who allege their houses were wrongfully seized.
One couple who paid cash for their Florida vacation home found the door padlocked and the electricity shut off, causing the pipes to freeze. A Texas plaintiff also had his power shut off, meaning that the 75 pounds of salmon and halibut he had frozen in anticipation of a Halloween party was, shall we say, less than fresh.
A contrite Bank of America spokesman said the company has zero tolerance for events like those that spurred the suit, and promised that the bank will quickly review the allegations in the lawsuit, the actual events that led to them and the causes of those events, and consider any hardship that resulted.
Contaminated seasoning used on large quantity of processed food03/11/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
HVP Recall Snares 1.7 Million Pounds of Meat...
ATVs Warrant More Scrutiny, Doctors Say
Nearly 28 percent of ATV injuries involve children under 1603/11/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
ATVs Warrant More Scrutiny, Doctors Say...
Are all terrain vehicles (ATVs) expensive toys, or dangerous motor vehicles requiring a license to drive? Increasingly health officials are choosing the latter.
"I practice in Idaho, ATV ridership is very common," said Dr. Kevin G. Shea, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in pediatrics. "These vehicles can produce significant injuries in young riders, and we care for many in our community. Nationwide, there is even a rise in amputations and death from the use of these powerful vehicles."
Over the years, ATVs and motocross motorcycles have gained popularity and marketed as toys to consumers. These high-velocity machines can weigh between 300 and 600 pounds, and run on average between 25 and 60 miles per hour, while some even reach maximum speeds of 75 miles per hour.
In 2008, nearly 28 percent of all ATV-related injuries were to children younger than 16, according to Shea. There were an estimated 135,000 injuries for riders of all ages for ATV use. A majority of ATV injuries result from tipping, overturning or multiple riders.
Campbell Clinic-LeBonheur Medical Center in Memphis looked at 4,483 children in the U.S. who were injured in an ATV-related accident over a period of several years. Of those children, 332 or 7.4 percent had a spine injury. This shows a 140 percent increase in children injured, and a 368 percent increase in the number of spinal injuries from 1997, according to Dr. Jeffrey R. Sawyer, chief of pediatric orthopedic trauma at the clinic.
According to Sawyer, 76 percent of patients were male, with a mean age of ATV riders of 12.9 years old.
Multi-rider equals greater risk
Rhinos, or multi-rider ATVs are associated with great risk of primary limb amputation and significantly higher incidence of open extremity fractures compared to single-rider vehicles.
Gregg Wendell Schellack, DO, a fifth-year orthopedic resident at Loma Linda University in California, compared the injury differences between multi-rider ATVs and single-rider ATVs. A total of 110 patients were evaluated over a two-year period.
Schellack found that 39 injuries were multi-rider related, while 71 were single-rider related. Sixty-four percent of multi-rider related-injuries resulted in open fractures, while 11 percent sustained open fractures on a single-rider ATV.
Fifteen percent of multi-rider related injuries resulted in primary limb amputations while only one percent of single riders needed amputations. The relative risk of amputation for MR ATV riders was 10.9 times higher than that of standard ATV riders.
"Developing and enforcing a mandatory safety training session before these vehicles can be operated may be an important first step, Shea said. "Better education will be essential, as it is important to educate riders, parents and the public about the potential for serious injury."
While the U.S. government has announced steps to increase ATV regulation, things are moving at a slow, bureaucratic pace. The Consumer Product Safety Commission voted last October to write new rules to regulate four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles. But the rule making process will take months, if not years.
The ATV industry has proposed voluntary guidelines but safety advocates say the guidelines have been inadequate and they said today's action puts the industry on notice.
"Every year, more and more families are devastated by deaths and injuries caused by ATVs. This tragic problem continues to be in dire need of an aggressive and immediate solution," said Rachel Weintraub, Director of Product Safety for Consumer Federation of America, in a statement last year.
Are You Ready For 3D TV?
Consumers might be well advised to be cautious03/11/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
But if you showed caution in the face of HDTV, it might be prudent to continue that caution. As with any new technology, there are bound to be glitches....
If you haven't yet purchased a high definition TV, you're in luck. The HD, 3D TV sets are here.
Samsung and Panasonic have started selling their 3D sets this week while Sony's version hits the market this summer. But if you showed caution in the face of HDTV, it might be prudent to continue that caution. As with any new technology, there are bound to be glitches.
Cheaper flat screen TVs, for example, continue to be the source of constant complaints. One of the most common complaints is with the power supply. Many simply go dead after two or three years of use. Other consumers, like Frank, of Monroe Township, N.J., still have power but no picture.
"I have a Samsung LCD TV, Model LNS4692DX/XAA. With just 2.5 years of use I have audio with no video," Frank told ConsumerAffairs.com. "After looking into the problem on the Internet I came across hundreds of people posting the same problem with the same model number."
Though Samsung draws scores of complaints about its sets, so do most other low-priced manufacturers, including Vizio and Polaroid.
Samsung will employ some of the basic technology in its 3D sets that it uses in its current flat screens; that is, 3D sets will include LED, LCD and plasma screens. What's new is an optional Blu-ray player and upgraded speakers.
Samsung's 3D LED sets include the C7000, C8000, and C9000 series with screen sizes ranging from 40 inches to 65 inches. The cheapest 3D set will cost $2,000 while the top of the line will set you back $7,000. The C7000 series starts shipping right away, while the C8000 and C9000 models won't be available until next month.
Samsung's 3D sets with LCD screens will be available in May, beginning with a 46-inch screen model for $1,700. The 3D plasma TVs range from 50 inches to 63 inches, with prices from $1,800 to $3,800. They also will ship in May.
Samsung's 3D Blu-ray player offers surround sound, high-definition 1080p video playback, and eight speakers. The system will cost $900.
Partnering with Best Buy
Panasonic is partnering exclusively with Best Buy to sell its new line of 3D sets and is leading off with a 3D TV bundle for $2,900. It includes a 50-inch plasma screen set with 3D compatible Blu-ray player and one pair of 3D glasses. The company later plans to roll out 54, 58, and 65 inch versions of the bundle later in the year.
As with any new technology, early adopters may make up the lion's share of the market. For one thing, there is very little 3D content available for viewing, though broadcast networks may adopt 3D more quickly than they did HD. There's also the little issue of trust.
Experience shows that the more complex an appliance is, the more things there are to go wrong. It's hardly ever basic washing machines that break down, for example, it's usually the top of the line, with all types of programmable features, that produce the complaints from consumers.
Judging from the complaints received at ConsumerAffairs.com about TV set manufacturers, is there any reason to believe that 3D sets will perform more reliably than the current generation of flat screens? Most consumers may not want to spend $3,000 or more to find out.
High Hospital Occupancy Rate Linked To High Death Rate
Full hospital increases chances of dying by 5.6 percent03/10/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
High Hospital Occupancy Rate Linked To High Death Rate...
The higher the occupancy rate at your hospital, the less likely you are to leave alive.
That's the conclusion of a new University of Michigan Health System study that shows you have a 5.6 percent higher risk of dying in a hospital operating at near capacity.
For the study, published in the March issue of Medical Care, researchers evaluated a set of critical factors that can affect hospital deaths: hospital occupancy, nurse staffing levels, weekend admission and seasonal influenza.
Having more nurses made patients safer, decreasing risk by 6 percent. But weekend admission raised the risk by 7.5 percent and admission during widespread seasonal flu had the greatest impact by increasing the risk of death by 11.7 percent, according to the study.
Because of the size of the study, which included 166,920 adult patients admitted to 39 Michigan hospitals over three years, the findings can be generalized to hospitals nationwide, authors say.
"The study establishes that there is indeed a connection between hospital occupancy and death rates in U.S. hospitals," said lead author Peter L. Schilling, M.D., a resident in orthopedic surgery at U-M Health System. "It's important to emphasize though that this study does not identify a specific occupancy level above which patient care suffers and deaths abruptly become more common. The key occupancy level may differ for each hospital."
First study to consider all four factors
The findings are considered robust because each factor still had a significant impact even while evaluated in a model simultaneously. While this study is not the first to demonstrate that these factors are associated with in-hospital mortality, the U-M Health System is the first to compare all four at once.
"The study further establishes each factor as a major predictor of hospital deaths but the good news is that each can be modified in some way," said co-author Darrell A. Campbell Jr., M.D., chief of clinical affairs at the U-M Health System.
For instance, generally the peak flu season can be predicted and during those times, hospitals can reinforce the importance of hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes.
The impact of seasonal flu may also be diminished by improving vaccination rates in the community and among health care workers. The rate of vaccination among health care workers and high-risk patients remains surprisingly low nationwide.
Researchers calculated the occupancy of the hospitals every day for the years 2003-2006. On average, patients in the study were admitted while hospital occupancy was 73 percent of full capacity. One-third of patients were admitted on high occupancy days, at average levels of 80 percent or more.
Study patients were admitted after being seen in the emergency department for a heart attack, congestive heart failure, stroke, pneumonia, hip fracture or gastrointestinal bleeding.
"Hospital occupancy changes from day to day, so patients shouldn't try to choose a hospital based on its occupancy level," said co-author Matthew M. Davis, M.D. "But these kinds of study findings should prompt hospitals to look at the flow of patients and processes of their care teams during high occupancy times. Those are more challenging moments when more things can go wrong."
Scam Targets Mississippi Credit Union Members
Phishing attack uses cell phone calls and texts03/10/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Scam Targets Mississippi Credit Union Members...
A phishing scam targeting members of credit unions has emerged in Mississippi, and perhaps in other states. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says his office has received a number of calls from potential and actual victims.
The phishing attack targets mostly cell phones, with both calls and text messages. The messages warn victims that their credit union account has been frozen and instructs the victim to call a number to provide account information. If victims comply, the scammer steals their information.
"One consumer that called our office actually contacted the 800 number and later found that her account had been wiped clean by the phishers," said Hood. "It is important to remember that no reputable financial institution is going to send a text message or ask for your information."
Several credit unions operating within the state have been targeted.
"If you receive such a text, do not call that number," Statewide Credit Union warns in a message on its Web site. "This is a "phishing" attempt to steal your member information and to try to steal funds from your account. We will not attempt to contact you through text messaging, or ask for your member information over the phone, since we already have it."
Don't reveal personal information
Phishing scams have become a problem with the spread of the Internet. Most use email or pop-up ads to try to trick consumers, though some old fashioned scammers still use the telephone. To avoid becoming a victim:
• Do not reply to an email, pop-up, telephone or text message that asks for personal or financial information. Legitimate companies don't ask for this information. If you are concerned about your account, contact the organization using a telephone number you know to be genuine.
• Do not return the phone call to the number left in the message and never follow the Internet link to the site.
• Do not email personal or financial information. Email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information.
• Review credit card and bank statements as soon as you receive them to determine whether there are any unauthorized charges.
• Use anti-virus software and keep it up to date. A firewall helps make you invisible on the Internet and blocks all communication from unauthorized sources.
• Be cautious about opening any attachment or downloading any files from emails you receive, regardless of who sent them.
Complaint accuses site of improperly exposing personal information03/10/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
2 Classmates.com members have sued the well-known social networking site, accusing it of exposing members' personal information to unknown parties without ...
Toyota Denies Prius Recall is in The Works
Denial comes day after out-of-control Prius incident on San Diego Freeway03/10/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Toyota Denies Prius Recall is in The Works...
Toyota has issued a statement denying media reports that it plans a new recall of the 2004-2009 Prius to address the potential risk for floor mat entrapment of accelerator pedals.
"There is no new recall being planned for the Prius to address this issue," the company said in a statement Tuesday.
The report first appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
The company said the 2004-2009 Prius was part of Toyota's November 2, 2009 announcement of a voluntary safety recall campaign to address floor mat entrapment in certain Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Other models involved in this previously-announced recall include 2007-2010 Camry, 2005-2010 Avalon, 2005-2010 Tacoma, 2007-2010 Tundra, 2007-2010 ES 350, 2006-2010 IS 250, and 2006-2010 IS 350. On January 27, 2010, Toyota expanded the campaign to include the 2008-2010 Highlander, 2009-2010 Corolla, 2009-2010 Venza, 2009-2010 Matrix and 2009-2010 Pontiac Vibe.
The remedy process for these vehicles began at the end of 2009 and is occurring on a rolling schedule during 2010, Toyota said. Owners of the involved vehicles that have not yet been remedied are asked to take out any removable driver's side floor mat and not replace it with any other floor mat.
Not the mat
But the driver of that 2008 Prius involved Monday in the highly publicized runaway car incident on the San Diego Freeway says the floor mat had nothing to do with the uncontrolled acceleration in his car.
James Sikes' Prius took him on a terrifying 30 minute ride when he accelerated to pass a car and the car kept gaining speed, even though he pressed on the brakes. Sikes said he immediately looked down to see if the pedal was caught on the floor mat and said it was not.
Sikes eventually stopped his car with the assistance of a California Highway Patrol Officer, who pulled alongside and used his PA system to instruct Sikes to hit the brakes and pull on the emergency brake at the same time. With the car slowed to about 50 miles per hour, the frightened driver was able to turn off the ignition, allowing the car to roll to a stop.
While Sikes' wild ride was international news this week, another out of control Prius, with circumstances almost identical to Sikes' incident, received almost no coverage other than by ConsumerAffairs.com, when it occurred in 2005.
In October of that year, Herbert, of Battle Creek, Mich., was traveling down the highway in his Prius with the cruise control active at 55 miles per hour.
He said he found it necessary to speed up while passing a slower vehicle on the highway. That is when the problem with the Prius began.
"I let off the accelerator and pressed the brakes several times, but the vehicle continued to accelerate under full power," Herbert said. "I tried to slow the vehicle by pushing the power button, manipulating the cruise control lever, and putting the vehicle in neutral. All attempts were unsuccessful."
Herbert found himself barreling down the road with the cruise control stuck wide open, running approximately 20 miles over the posted speed limit, all the while continuing to accelerate.
Still searching for someway to slow his runaway hybrid, Herbert "elected to apply full braking force to the Prius while 'laboring' the vehicle to a standstill on the gravel shoulder of the road."
Once he had regained his composure, Herbert pushed the main power button, and the vehicle shut down. "The cabin of the Prius exhibited a strong odor reminiscent of an electrical motor smell," Herbert said.
Little interest in 2007
It is worth noting that ConsumerAffairs.com reported in 2007 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was "aware of" complaints of runaway acceleration in the popular Toyota Prius hybrid and at the time, said they were in a "monitoring mode."
"It is currently like dozens, or maybe hundreds, of other issues of this kind," an agency official said at the time.
The Toyota Product Communications office did not responded to several 2007 requests from ConsumerAffairs.com to discuss the issue of unintended acceleration in the Prius.
To date, Toyota has recalled some 6 million cars in the United State because of acceleration and braking problems. Safety Regulators have linked 52 deaths to crashes possibly caused by uncontrolled acceleration.
Bank of America Ending Automatic Debit Overdraft Fee
Responds to new Fed rules requiring banks to give consumers a choice03/10/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Bank of America Ending Automatic Debit Overdraft Fee...
Bank of America says it is ending its practice of automatically charging consumers $35 when they make a debit card purchase that exceeds the funds in their account. Under the new policy, such purchases will be declined at the point of sale unless customers have requested overdraft "protection."
"Our customers have been clear that they want to know if a purchase is going to overdraw their account," said Susan Faulkner, Deposits and Card Product executive. "Our solution is simple, clear and helps customers control their finances by reducing the possibility of over-extending themselves at the point of sale with a debit card."
Nearly all banks provide what they call "courtesy overdraft protection" to their customers, whether they want it or not. While this policy allows the sale putting the account in the red to go through, it costs the consumer $35 per overdraft.
Most consumers have said they would prefer to have the purchase declined rather than be hit with a $35 fee, often assessed on a purchase that overdraws their account by only a dollar or two.
Bank America's move is widely seen as an attempt to get out in front of new Federal Reserve regulations that will severely limit the use of overdraft fees. Under the new Fed policy that takes effect later this year, customers must be allowed to "opt in" to overdraft protection. In other words, banks can't automatically provide it.
The new Bank of America policy takes effect June 19, 2010, for new customers and in August for existing customers, the bank said. The new Fed regulations go into effect July 1.
Mandatory overdraft protection has long been a sore point with consumers, who have complained over the years that banks seemed to be exploiting any overdraft. For example, if a consumer were shopping and made five small debit purchases that all went over the amount of money in their account, the bank charged five $35 fees.
"We understand that the environment has changed, and we are changing with it," said Faulkner. "We will continue to make changes to our products, services and solutions that deliver more value to our customers by providing the clarity, control and choice they need to better manage their everyday finances."
While Bank of America's policy change is bound to please consumers, it could have an impact on the bottom line, since all banks have begun to rely on fees on customers for a big source of profits. Various financial analysts put the revenue generated by fees at between $30 billion and $40 billion per year.
Bank of America, for its part, says its new policy goes "above and beyond" the new government regulations. It is the second major bank to take this step. Citigroup has already adopted a similar policy.
Gerber Legendary Blades Recalls Machetes03/10/2010ConsumerAffairs
Gerber Legendary Blades Recalls Machetes...
Gerber Legendary Blades is recalling about 155,000 machetes. The saw side of the machete can stick in wood during use, and if the user's hand slips off the handle and slides forward across the machete blade, this poses a laceration hazard.
The recall affects about 149,000 Gator Machetes and 6,000 Gator Machetes Jr.
Gerber has received five reports of individuals cutting themselves while using the Gator Machete, all of whom required stitches. Gerber has received no reports of injuries associated with use of the Gator Machete Jr.
This recall involves the Gerber Gator Machete and Gator Machete Jr. with the original handle (see picture below). The Gator Machete is approximately 25 1/2" long and the Machete Jr. is approximately 18 3/4" long. The blade is marked with the "Gerber" trademark. The Gator Machete and Machete Jr. with a modified handle (an extended hand guard) are not included in this recall (see picture below). Consumers should visually inspect their machete to determine if it is included in this recall.
The machetes were sold at retail stores nationwide, including The Sportsman's Guide, Dick's Sporting Goods and Bass Pro Shops/American Rod & Gun, and through on-line stores from March 2007 through February 2010 for between $16 and $25. They were made in China.
Consumers should stop using the recalled machetes immediately and contact Gerber to receive instructions on how to return the machete for a free replacement machete.
For more information, contact Gerber Legendary Blades toll-free at (877) 314-9130 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT, Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site at www.gerbergear.com (pdf).
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Warnings About New Video Chat Web Site
Internet safety tips offered; new video released03/10/2010ConsumerAffairs
The site, www.chatroulette.com, gives users -- including dangerous sex offenders -- an opportunity to conduct live video chats with randomly selected parti...
There's an increasingly popular Web site out there that authorities in Texas claim poses a threat to children. The site, www.chatroulette.com, gives users -- including dangerous sex offenders -- an opportunity to conduct live video chats with randomly selected participants.
Armed with only a Web camera and Internet access, the site's users are paired with a random stranger for a video chat. Neither a login nor registration is required before young users can be face-to-face with a total stranger. Worse, users who simply click "next" are shuffled to a new video chat partner.
An undercover investigation by the state's Cyber Crimes Unit revealed startling results. Nearly half of the randomly selected users encountered by investigators immediately exposed themselves and conducted sexually explicit acts on camera.
In light of the serious threat that children will be exposed to graphic sexual conduct, parents are being urged to prohibit their kids from accessing the site. Although users are supposed to be at least 16 years old, the rule is not clearly enforced -- which means parents' preventative role is particularly important.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott reminds parents to closely monitor their children's Internet activities by using the following safety tips:
Place the computer in a public room at home so parents can monitor their children's Internet use. Do not allow computers in a child's bedroom or permit the use of Web cameras.
Make sure children know never to agree to a face-to-face meeting with someone they meet online and never to divulge personal information to an Internet stranger.
Stay informed. Surf the Internet with children or at least talk to them about the Web sites they are visiting.
Establish ground rules for children's Internet usage, including the hours they may surf and the kinds of Web sites they may visit. Post the rules near the computer.
Separately, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has released ProtecTeens Version 3.0, a completely updated Internet safety program to inform and assist parents regarding the dangers children face from sexual predators and other risks on the Internet.
ProtecTeens consists of a 25-minute video presentation, the AG's Internet Safety Manual, a Parents' Guide to Social Networking Websites, the Internet Lingo Dictionary, the Family Contract for Internet Safety, and information about parental control software.
The new video includes sections covering:
general Internet risks and safe practices;
social networking websites;
online chat and instant messaging;
cell phones and "sexting";
online gaming and virtual worlds; and
"We tend to take our electronic technology for granted these days, but if you think about the devices you use today, and the way you use them, the technology has changed considerably since we produced the original ProtecTeens program in 2005," Wasden said. "This new video addresses many of those changes in technology and includes subjects that were not even on the radar screen five years ago."
A recent study has found that chat sites and instant messaging present a huge danger to tweens and teens.
Texas Bulldog Owner Wins Verdict Against Hartz Mountain Pet Products
'Diesel' died less than 40 hours after flea and tick drops were applied03/09/2010ConsumerAffairs
Texas Bulldog Owner Wins Verdict Against Hartz Mountain Pet Products...
By Lisa Wade McCormick
March 9, 2010
A 72-year-old dog owner has won what may be a landmark decision against the countrys leading maker of pet care products and fueled the ongoing debate over the safety of topical flea and tick treatments.
A Texas jury awarded Frank Bowers $4,440.75 in the small claims court action he filed against Hartz Mountain Corporation. In this David-versus-Goliath court battle -- believed to be the first small claims court action of its kind --- Bowers alleged that Hartz Ultra Guard Pro Flea and Tick Drops caused the death of his beloved Olde English Bulldog, Diesel.
The six-member jury deliberated less than 30 minutes before reaching a unanimous decision in favor of Bowers, who was widely considered the underdog in the case.
"When the bailiff walked in the courtroom and said we have a unanimous decision, I nearly passed out," said Bowers, who represented himself in the court action. The jury said we find Mr. Bowers integrity outweighed what was presented by (Hartz) attorney. He lost an animal of value and all costs hes out are awarded to him."
I just literally went numb, Bowers added. I caught up with three jurors in the hallway after the hearing. All I said to them was: thank you, thank you, thank you. And they just said: we did our job.
Hartz told ConsumerAffairs.com that it believed the case was "without merit," but did not appeal because of the time and cost involved.
Sense of justice
For Bowers, the jurys decision brings closure and a sense of justice to an emotional issue that started at 8:30pm on August 7, 2008. On that warm summer night in Texas, Bowers applied Hartz Ultra Guard Pro Flea and Tick Drops to the 14-month-old, 68-pound, Diesel.
I nipped off the top of the tube and put it on his back, Bowers recalled. I precisely used it as directed nothing more, nothing less than directed. By early the next morning Diesel had become gravelly ill.
I went to my garage to work and I smelled this odor from excretion, Bowers said. Diesel was laying on the floor. He was shaking and having spasms of some kind. And he was passing a horrible odor of diarrhea. Bowers called his daughter, who told him to immediately take the ailing dog to the vet.
Diesels health continued its rapid decline during the ride to his vets office, Bowers said.
He continued to have bowel movements on the way. When we got to the vets office, he couldnt walk. They got one of those stainless steel tables and took him back to an exam room.
The veterinarian asked Bowers a battery of questions about Diesel, including one that caught him off guard.
The vet asked me if Id put any flea treatment on him, Bowers said. And I said: yes, last night. I told him what it was and went back to the store to get a tube to show him.
The vet, he said, took one look at the Hartz Ultra Guard Pro Flea and Tick Drops and shook his head. He said: Oh, my God. Hes going to have kidney failure.
By 4 oclock the next morning, Diesels kidneys had shut down.
He was in total renal failure, Bowers said. The vet wanted permission to euthanize him. I said you know whats best and I dont want any animal to suffer. I picked Diesel up around 7am and took him out in the country and buried him on my daughters 10 acres.
This painful chapter in Bowers' life happened in less than 35 hours from the night he applied the flea and tick drops to the morning of Diesels death.
He wanted answers
Bowers wanted answers. He wanted to know why Diesels health deteriorated so quickly.
The plain-spoken Texan went straight to the source. He called Hartz.
But they did not care to discuss this with me, Bowers said of the companys customer service representatives. They insinuated that I did something wrong. At that point, I said my dog is dead and I need you pay. Its about $4,000.
Hartz balked at his suggestion, Bowers said.
They said we wont pay that, sir. Its a risk you take when you use our products. I asked for this persons supervisor, but she hung up on me.
Bowers then sent the company a letter about Diesels death.
I got no response, he said. This irritated me. They acted like I didnt exist.
About two months later, someone (from Hartz) called me and told me it was my fault (that Diesel died) or neglect that caused the death and they were not responsible.
Bowers contacted a few attorneys to see if theyd take his case. But none wished to be bothering Hartz as there was not enough money, he said. The determined pet owner, however, didnt give up or back down.
He took matters into his own hands and represented himself in court, specifically Small Claims Court, Precinct 3, in Travis County, Texas. Consumers in the Lone Star State can seek damages of up to $10,000 in their small claims court proceedings. Texas also allows jury trials in small claims court actions.
I filed papers in small claims court, said Bowers, who lives in Austin, Texas. But the court called me a while later and said I needed to re-file my case because Hartz did not respond.
Bowers filed his case again on July 28, 2009. And this time, Hartz did respond to the court, he said. The court sent the company a registered and non-registered letter about my case. An attorney contacted the court and said she represented Hartz.
The court wanted Bowers and Hartz to resolve the case through mediation. But that process wasnt too productive, Bowers said.
I looked at the girl (Hartz attorney) square in the eyes and said: do you have a check for this amount -- $4,400? She said no. I said then this mediation is over. At this time, there is nothing to negotiate.
Bowers and Hartz attorney then went back and talked to the judge.
The judge said well have to reschedule for another appearance, Bowers said. But I told the judge that I wanted a trial by jury. She said thats your privilege. The attorney (for Hartz) didnt like it. She wanted to settle this between her and I.
Here I am -- 72-year-olds old. I have a high school education. I dont have a law degree. But I still wanted a trial by jury. The judge asked me if I thought I could get a jury verdict in my favor and I said I wouldn't be here if I didnt.
Day in court
Bowers' day in court finally arrived on January 12, 2010.
Before the trial, each side had a chance to question a pool of potential jurors.
I chose not to ask them any questions, Bowers said. But Hartz attorney kicked a few potential jurors off because they had pets. She also asked the jurors if theyd had any problems in the past with pet medications. She didnt want any pet owners or people who had problems with pet medications on the jury. There were also no vets on the jury.
In the end, a jury of three men and three women heard the case.
The trial took less than two hours, Bowers said. I wasnt able to tell the jury everything I wanted to.
The judge, for example, wouldnt allow Bowers to enter into evidence any of his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents about the adverse reactions dogs and cats have experienced from topical flea and tick products. The vets he wanted to call as witnesses also couldnt make it to court that day.
I had no witnesses, Bowers said. I was riding the brass rail by myself. And he was up against Hartz savvy attorney, who he learned had taken a special course on flea and tick products to prepare her for the case.
Hartz had all kinds of statements about flea and tick products and they had everything notarized so it could be entered into evidence, Bowers said. I didnt know I needed to do that (get documents notarized). Hartz had statements from their vets, too.
During the trial, Hartz also cross-examined Bowers about Diesels death. Hes glad they did.
Thats when I got in the information that they wouldnt let me enter, Bowers said. I entered it by blurting it from the witness box. The attorney asked me a question like how did I know it was Hartz that killed my animal? And I said Hartz has killed many other animals.
The attorney was screaming to get me to shut up and I just kept talking, Bowers added. The judge then told me to shut up. At that point, I looked at the judge and said Im sorry. And then I looked at the jury and smiled.
Used as directed?
Hartz attorney also suggested that Bowers didnt apply the flea and tick drops as directed.
They screamed that over and over, Bowers said. But I precisely used it as directed.
Hartz and other makers of fleas and tick products often cite the misuse of these treatments for adverse reactions. Pet owners, they say, may put a flea and tick product intended for a dog on a cat. Or they may apply too much flea and tick product on their pets.
Last summer, the ASPCAs Animal Poison Control Center also studied its data on topical flea and tick products. That study revealed the likelihood of severe adverse reactions was significantly less when dogs and cats were treated according to directions.
From the data we have collected, the adverse reactions tend to be mild, like skin sensations and stomach upset, the ASPCAs Dr. Steven Hansen said after the organization released its study. We dont have very many cases of true neurological issues when these products are properly used.
Bowers, however, repeatedly told ConsumerAffairs.com that he used the Hartz flea and ticks drops as directed when he applied them to Diesel. He also told us the court didnt give him the chance to cross-examine any of Hartz witnesses during the trial. I wasnt asked to, he said. I asked the judge why I could ask any questions and she said thats procedure.
The jury, however, wasnt swayed by the witnesses or documents Hartz used in its defense.
After deliberating for less than 30 minutes, the jurors ruled in Bowers favor.
I didnt know what to think when I heard that, he said, adding the $4,440 he won covers the cost of Diesel and the dogs vet bills. I was dumbfounded.
Bowers is convinced the jury sided with him because of one issue that surfaced during the trial: whether the chemical Phenothrin, which is in Hartz Ultra Guard Flea and Tick Drops, is the same or similar to the chemical Permethrin. Bowers said he argued that, according to his carnal knowledge, those two are the same chemical compound.
I kid you not, that is the thing that saved my case, he said.
Hartz vehemently disputes that contention, saying those are completely different ingredients.
The trade name for Phenothrin is Sumithrin, the companys spokeswoman, Anne Isenhower, told ConsumerAffairs.com. Permethrin is a completely different ingredient that Hartz does not use in any of our on-animal products in the United States.
Hartz also downplayed Bowers allegations and the jurys decision. This case was without merit and the allegations werent supported by evidence (presented in the trial), said Isenhower, senior vice president, with GolinHarris, Hartz public relations firm. Hartz, however, did not appeal the jurys decision because of the time and cost involved to pursue such action, Isenhower said.
Asked if Bowers case marked the first time a consumer has successfully sued Hartz over one of its topical flea and tick products, Isenhower said: Yes, we believe so. We are not aware of any verdict against Hartz flea & tick drops.
She had an identical comment when asked if Bowers case was the first small claims court victory against Hartz. Yes, we believe so. We are not aware of any verdict against Hartz flea & tick drops.
In spite of the jurys decision, Isenhower defended the safety of Hartz flea and tick products.
Weve conducted extensive analysis of the adverse event reporting on our products as well as all topic treatments in the market, she said. Although Hartz is the leader in flea and tick retail sales, we are less than three percent of all adverse effects reported to the EPA in 2008 for topical dog flea and tick treatments.
The safety of topical or spot-on flea and tick products has come under intensified scrutiny by the EPA for the past 11 months.
The agency started that probe last April, saying it had received more than 44,000 reports of adverse reactions associated with spot-on flea and tick products.
Adverse reactions reported range from mild effects such as skin irritation to more serious effects such as seizures and, in some cases, the death of the pet, the EPA said.
The agency told ConsumerAffairs.com that it planned to release its findings last fall. The EPA, however, has since delayed that release date.Due to the large amount of data and the complex technical issues associated with the review of the data, our report is not ready for public release, the agencys spokesman, Dale Kemery, told us in December 2009. "We anticipate publicly releasing the document in early 2010.
The EPA will post its findings about topical flea and tick products, and any regulatory action it may take, on its Web site.
In the meantime, animal experts recommend pet owners consult their veterinarians about which flea and tick product to use on their dogs or cats.
Back in Texas, Bowers warns pet owners to be earthly aware of any topical flea and tick products they put on their animals.
I think Ill utilize just plain soap and water, he said. I use Head and Shoulders shampoo on my dogs now. I bathe them every time I see them scratching. We used to get Myrtle Bush when I was a child growing up in Louisiana, he added. It was a natural killer of fleas.
Bowers is also keenly aware that his legal victory could have ripple effects in courtrooms across the country. He suspects his case may serve as a rallying call for other pet owners whove seen their dogs or cats suffer burns, blisters, seizures, neurological problems, or even die after using topical flea and tick products.
His case, he said, may open the floodgates for similar lawsuits nationwide.
I think this case will make pet owners wonder why they have not gone forward with their cases in small claims court, Bowers said. And if they do, my advice to them if get a trial by jury; I would never accept a non-jury trial.
The amount of money consumers can recover in small claims court varies by state. And some states do not allow trials by jury in small claims court. ConsumerAffairs.com has a comprehensive small claims court guide.
Bogus Web Site Targets Madoff Victims
Feds warn against site claiming to have $1.3 billion from 'Madoff Hideout'03/09/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Bogus Web Site Targets Madoff Victims...
The Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC), which maintains a special reserve fund mandated by Congress to protect the customers of insolvent brokerage firms, said today that it is alerting international regulators about a "look-alike" Web site for a fictitious organization that is mimicking the SIPC Web site in an apparent attempt to target Madoff victims.
The so-called International Securities Investor Protection Corporation (I-SIPC.com) copies several aspects of the SIPC Web site artwork and structural design. It is soliciting Madoff victims to submit claims, which SIPC is warning could result in phishing or other identify theft problems. The phony group claims to be based in Geneva and also maintains that it has ties to the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, among others.
In one section of the Web site, the group includes a supposed testimonial from a Madoff victim who is reported as having received funds from the organization. In a link from the homepage of the site that leads to a photo of a huge stack of U.S. currency, the group falsely claims to have collaborated with Interpol to recover $1.3 billion in Madoff money from a hideout in Malaysia.
SIPC President Stephen Harbeck said: "We know from information provided to us by individuals that this bogus group is already attempting to obtain funds and confidential financial information from investors in the U.S. SIPC wants to be as clear as possible that Madoff victims and other investors should not share any personal financial information via this Web site or rely upon it as an information source. We intend to use every available means to shut down this illicit operation.
Harbeck said that SIPC recently became an ancillary member of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) and will publish a related Investor Alert through that organization.
SIPC is looking into trademark issues and will seek to have the violator prosecuted to the extent the law allows.
In 2004, SIPC got law enforcement involved when it identified a look-alike Web site seeking to defraud investors. In 2007, SIPC prevailed in arbitration proceedings after an organization sought to register and use the www.sipc.com Web domain.
Lifelock Agrees to Pay $12 Million to Settle Federal, State Charges
Settlement bars company from misrepresenting its supposed identity-theft protection service03/09/2010ConsumerAffairs
Lifelock Agrees to Pay $12 Million to Settle Federal, State Charges...
LifeLock, Inc. has agreed to pay $11 million to the Federal Trade Commission and $1 million to a group of 35 state attorneys general to settle charges that the company used false claims to promote its identity theft protection services, which it widely advertised by displaying the CEOs Social Security number on the side of a truck.
In one of the largest FTC-state coordinated settlements on record, LifeLock and its principals will be barred from making deceptive claims and required to take more stringent measures to safeguard the personal information they collect from customers.
While LifeLock promised consumers complete protection against all types of identity theft, in truth, the protection it actually provided left enough holes that you could drive a truck through it, said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.
This agreement effectively prevents LifeLock from misrepresenting that its services offer absolute prevention against identity theft because there is unfortunately no foolproof way to avoid ID theft, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. Consumers can take definitive steps to minimize the chances of having their personal information stolen, and this settlement will help them make more informed decisions about whether to enroll in ID theft protection services.
Since 2006, LifeLocks ads have claimed that it could prevent identity theft for consumers willing to sign up for its $10-a-month service.
According to the FTCs complaint, LifeLock has claimed:
• By now youve heard about individuals whose identities have been stolen by identity thieves . . . LifeLock protects against this ever happening to you. Guaranteed.
• Please know that we are the first company to prevent identity theft from occurring.
• Do you ever worry about identity theft? If so, its time you got to know LifeLock. We work to stop identity theft before it happens.
The FTCs complaint charged that the fraud alerts that LifeLock placed on customers credit files protected only against certain forms of identity theft and gave them no protection against the misuse of existing accounts, the most common type of identity theft. It also allegedly provided no protection against medical identity theft or employment identity theft, in which thieves use personal information to get medical care or apply for jobs.
Even for types of identity theft for which fraud alerts are most effective, LifeLock does not provide absolute protection. They alert creditors opening new accounts to take reasonable measures to verify that the individual applying for credit actually is who he or she claims to be, but in some instances, identity thieves can thwart even reasonable precautions.
New account fraud, the type of identity theft for which fraud alerts are most effective, comprised only 17 percent of identity theft incidents, according to an FTC survey released in 2007.
The FTCs complaint further alleged that LifeLock also claimed that it would prevent unauthorized changes to customers address information, that it constantly monitored activity on customer credit reports, and that it would ensure that a customer always would receive a telephone call from a potential creditor before a new account was opened. The FTC charged that those claims were false.
In addition to its deceptive identity theft protection claims, LifeLock allegedly made claims about its own data security that were not true. According to the FTC, LifeLock routinely collected sensitive information from its customers, including their social security numbers and credit card numbers. The company claimed:
• Only authorized employees of LifeLock will have access to the data that you provide to us, and that access is granted only on a need to know basis.
• All stored personal data is electronically encrypted.
• LifeLock uses highly secure physical, electronic, and managerial procedures to safeguard the confidentiality and security of the data you provide to us.
• The FTC charged that LifeLocks data was not encrypted, and sensitive consumer information was not shared only on a need to know basis. In fact, the agency charged, the companys data system was vulnerable and could have been exploited by those seeking access to customer information.
"LifeLock sold Californians a false sense of security against identity theft with advertisements that were chock full of inflated claims and promises," California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. Brown said. "Today's settlement prevents the company from misrepresenting and overstating its services and reimburses LifeLock subscribers who were misled."
The Attorneys General of Alaska, Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia participated in the settlement.
LifeLock has been the target of consumer complaints, class action lawsuits and criticism from consumer and privacy activists for years.
LifeLock's co-founder and chief executive officer, Todd Davis, is so confident in the product that he shares his own Social Security number in the company's many TV, radio and print ads.
But consumer advocates and two class action lawsuits claim that LifeLock actually provides very little protection. LifeLock, based in Tempe, Arizona, works by renewing an individual's fraud alert with one of the nation's three large credit bureaus, a service which federal laws mandate any individual can do for free, usually within a few minutes over the phone or Internet.
What the fraud alert does is it basically puts a red flag on your credit report and it tells any potential creditor that if they receive an application for credit, they should take additional measures to determine that the person is the person that they're claiming to be. Typically that would be a phone call, said Paul Stephens, director of public policy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.
Fraud alerts last 90 days and then must be renewed. LifeLock charges $10 a month to make sure its customers' fraud alerts never expire a service most consumer advocates are baffled anyone would pay money for.
No one needs to pay a third party firm to assert their federal rights, Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, wrote in an e-mail. And for one hundred bucks plus each year, it is certainly not cheap to do so.
I like to think of LifeLock as being a concierge service, Stephens said Are you the kind of person who would pay somebody, for example, to do your shopping for you?
I would point out that to do the sorts of things that LifeLock does for you, you don't even need to leave your house, Stephens continued. You can get on the phone or get on your computer and do it in a couple of minutes. So I don't really see that they bring a lot of value to the consumer.
Davis didn't argue the concierge analogy in a phone interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, but said the company offers much more than the renewal service.
There are certainly steps beyond just convenience that we're doing, but one of the things that people love are those convenient steps: us renewing the fraud alerts, us being there if you have a question in a retail store when you're applying for credit, us being available 24/7, us being there in case you lose your wallet; (we will) assist canceling and renewing credit cards and helping to get a new driver's license, Davis said.
We're also doing other things like scouring the (Internet) looking for your personal information being bought or sold on the black market, Davis said. We're authenticating when someone puts in a change of address to confirm it's you.
In advertisements, the company also promises to stop junk mail, including pre-approved credit offers and provide a credit report services that again, a consumer can do for free over the phone or Internet.
$1 million 'guarantee'
The most controversial aspect of LifeLock is its $1 million guarantee.
LifeLock's $1 million guarantee is our intent to go support any member of LifeLock who might become a victim of identity theft while subscribed to our service so we that can go out and (fill) our intent to do everything the law allows us to do to help that person recover their good name, Davis said. So whether that's hiring third person personnel, whether that's covering any losses or expenses, whether it's getting accounts closed and getting new ones issued, that's what we'll do.
But two pending class action lawsuits claim that the company's $1 million guarantee is not a guarantee at all, but just a promise that the company is not actually obligated to fulfill.
There is no $1 million guarantee, said Leonard Aragon, one of the attorneys who filed a class action lawsuit against the company. If you look at the terms of the contract it very clearly says 'we won't pay consequential damages. We won't pay you directly' so there's really no way to get up into the million dollars.
What to do
Consumers who wish to sign up for the 90-day fraud alert or a credit report, can do so for free at any of the three major credit bureaus' websites or by calling them. Once one of the credit bureaus has been notified of the fraud alert, it will immediately notify the other two.
• TransUnion: (800) 680-7289
• Equifax: (800) 525-6285
• Experian: (888) 397-3742
Consumers who wish to opt out of credit offers can do so by calling the Consumer Credit Reporting Industry at (888) 567-8688 or by visiting its website.
Consumers Describe Sudden Acceleration Experiences
Could eyewitness accounts help lead to a cause?03/09/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Consumers Describe Sudden Acceleration Experiences...
Toyota, the U.S. Government, and a host of private engineering firms are hard at work trying to pinpoint the cause of the reported cases of sudden acceleration that have resulted in the recall of millions of cars.
One step might be to listen to the Toyota owners who have actually experienced the problem. In recent days ConsumerAffairs.com has received an increasing number of these stories, some from consumers who experienced the incidents years ago but are only now coming forward.
Do they shed light on the problem? That's for an automotive engineer to decide. But some of the descriptions of the incidents are highly detailed and could be relevant.
"We have a 1995 Previa. In 2007, at about 93000 miles, it would accelerate on its own inside the city and on the freeway," S.J., of Michigan, told ConsumerAffairs.com this week. "It was very scary. We used to call it the rogue vehicle with a mind of its own."
S.J took the car to a dealer who replaced one of the car's two oxygen sensors. The sudden acceleration problem stopped.
"We have not had unintended acceleration for three years, S.J. said."
This week, thinking her Previa's problem might shed light on Toyota's current problem, she called her dealer and reminded him on the oxygen sensor fix.
"He said the problem they are discussing is different- we were not even on same page," she said.
And it should be noted that the Previa is not among the recalled Toyota models, though S.J. insists uncontrolled acceleration was a problem in her vehicle until the oxygen sensor was replaced.
Minneh of Arlington, Va., experienced a sudden acceleration incident Sunday in her 2006 Prius, so the facts are still fresh in her mind.
"I was doing a three point turn," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I went halfway into the parking spot, reversed to get a better angle and then engaged drive to go forward. The accelerator pedal just went loose, as if a spring had disengaged. There was no tension at all and the accelerator pedal just fell all the way down to the floor. The car lurched forward and accelerated."
Pressing the brake as hard as she could, Minneh said the car came to a stop and missed hitting the car in the next parking spot by inches. Nancy of Norlina, N.C.
Jean of Charlottesville, Va., reports similar behavior from the accelerator in her 2002 Toyota Camry.
On September 9, 2004, as I was approaching a busy intersection, as I started across 11 lanes of traffic at a green light, the accelerator left my foot and stuck to the floor," Jean said. "The brakes did not respond, and I could not downshift or use the emergency brake. It was necessary to go around traffic in the same direction by going up onto the curb. Because nursing homes were situated on both sides of the street with a senior center on the next corner, I could not risk losing power steering by turning off the ignition. I was unable to avoid shearing off a fire hydrant, a street sign, and two small trees by the time I decided to aim for a landscaped embankment at the end of one nursing home, hoping the elevation would stop the car when I turned off the ignition at impact."
Jean said she received only minor injuries and no one else was hurt, though the car caused considerable damage before crashing. Though the incident occurred five and a half years ago, she retains the memory of it in vivid detail.
15 seconds of terror
"The entire incident from the pedal's leaving my foot to impact probably took no more than 15 seconds, if that, Jean told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Toyota of North America did not respond to my letter and no local attorney would pursue the case; all I asked was replacement of my 2-year-old car with one OTHER than a Toyota, which I will never again trust."
Three other consumers mentioned their cars' cruise control when describing incidents of sudden acceleration.
"When placing my car into "cruise control" my car would accelerate until I would press on the brake out of fear to stop it," said Julie, of Worcester, Mass. "The acceleration reached speeds of 90 mph before I stopped it for the first time."
She said the same problem occurred three or four times after that. Carol of Colorado Springs, Colo., reports a similar problem.
"I purchased a 2001 Toyota Solara. The cruise control accelerates the vehicle when used. I've been unable to use that feature," she said.
Hamid of Nagasaki City, Japan, said cruise control played a role in stopping his car's sudden acceleration.
"I experienced unintended acceleration while driving on the Highway in my 2005 Toyota Prius whilst under cruise control on May 3, 2009," Hamid told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Breaking failed to slow down the vehicle as did initial cancellation of cruise control. I tried to decrease speed with cruise control stick by holding down. Switching off cruise control button and on again followed by repeated cancellation eventually worked."
In nearly every case, the consumers reporting the above incidents were driving older Toyotas not included in the current recall. But all insist they had the problem and no one at the time would listen.
But people are listening now, and it could be that the eyewitness testimony of people behind the wheel will prove useful in tracking down the source of the runaway cars.
Unhealthy Foods Get Less Popular With Higher Price
Study supports backers of tax on high-calorie food products03/09/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Unhealthy Foods Get Less Popular With Higher Price...
Let's face it; some really great tasting food is not good for you. Eaten rarely it may cause little harm, but a steady diet of it can lead to problems.
To encourage healthier choices, some have advocated a tax on sugary soft drinks and other food products often linked to obesity. The idea is a controversial one, but new research indicates it might just have the desired effect.
A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine says adults tend to eat less pizza and drink less soda as the price of these items increases, and their body weight and overall calorie intake also appear to decrease.
"To compensate for food environments where healthful foods tend to cost more, public health professionals and politicians have suggested that foods high in calories, saturated fat or added sugar be subject to added taxes and/or that healthier foods be subsidized," the authors write as background information in the article. "Such manipulation of food prices has been a mainstay of global agricultural and food policy, used as a means to increase availability of animal foods and basic commodities, but it has not been readily used as a mechanism to promote public health and chronic disease prevention efforts."
Kiyah J. Duffey, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues assessed the dietary habits of 5,115 young adults, age 18 to 30, beginning in 1985 to 1986 and continuing through 2005 to 2006. Food price data were compiled for the same timeframe. Participants' height, weight and blood levels of glucose and insulin were also collected and a measure of insulin sensitivity was calculated.
Higher prices, lower consumption
Over the 20-year period, a 10-percent increase in price was associated with a seven percent decrease in the amount of calories consumed from soda and a 12 percent decrease in the amount of calories consumed from pizza. A one-dollar increase in the cost of soda or pizza was also associated with a lower overall daily calorie intake, lower body weight and an improved insulin resistance score, and a one-dollar increase in the cost of both soda and pizza was associated with even greater changes in these measures.
The researchers estimate that an 18-percent tax on these foods would result in a decline of roughly 56 calories per person per day. These declines would amount to weight loss of approximately 5 pounds per person per year, with corresponding reductions in the risk of obesity-related diseases, they note.
"In conclusion, our findings suggest that national, state or local policies to alter the price of less healthful foods and beverages may be one possible mechanism for steering U.S. adults toward a more healthful diet," the authors write. "While such policies will not solve the obesity epidemic in its entirety and may face considerable opposition from food manufacturers and sellers, they could prove an important strategy to address over-consumption, help reduce energy intake and potentially aid in weight loss and reduced rates of diabetes among U.S. adults."
There have been a number of proposals to raise taxes on food thought to contribute to obesity. There's been consideration of a tax on fast food in Detroit and the Senate has mulled a levy on soft drinks filled with sugar.
Pontiac Vibe Sucked Into Toyota Recall
Now-defunct car subject of Canadian class action03/09/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Toyotas breathtaking implosion has been a big boon to the long-struggling American car industry, which less than a year ago saw GM and Chrysler declare ban...
Toyotas breathtaking implosion has been a big boon to the long-struggling American car industry, which less than a year ago saw GM and Chrysler declare bankruptcy at the height of the economic downturn.
GM has been especially aggressive, offering Toyota owners $1,000 toward a new car and zero percent financing for 60 months. The automaker must be doing something right: it saw sales climb 12% in February, the fifth consecutive month that the company posted a gain.
But as GM tries to move forward, it finds itself haunted by the once-promising Pontiac Vibe, the now-defunct crossover that shared its platform with the Toyota Matrix. The Vibe has been added to the Toyota recall, and now GM has been sucked into a Canadian class action lawsuit filed on behalf of Toyota owners. Its the third Toyota-related suit filed by New Brunswick attorney Tony Merchant, an aggressive lawyer who calls himself one of Canadas most active litigators.
All of Merchants suits allege that Toyotas acceleration problem is caused by an electronic -- rather than a mechanical -- defect. Specifically, Merchant alleges that the Toyotas are equipped with an electronic throttle control system that may suddenly accelerate without driver input and against the intentions of the driver.
As a result, Merchant says that the companys fix -- a steel reinforcement bar designed to reduce the excess friction that Toyota says is causing the problem -- does not correct the design flaw and diminishes the value" of the affected vehicles.
Merchant says that the Vibe shares an electronic system with the Matrix, and therefore is susceptible to the same danger of unintended acceleration.
Although branded differently, the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix are veritable twins, according to a statement Merchant filed last week. The Pontiac Vibe is manufactured at the Toyota plant in Fremont, California.
Data supports Merchants theory
Recent reports tend to support Merchants theory that the root cause is electronic. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been contacting Toyota owners who had the steel bar installed on their vehicles. The results are disturbing: at least 10 consumers say the remedy hasnt stopped the problem.
Toyota adamantly denies an electronic defect, but that hasnt stopped NHTSA from launching its own investigation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who declared that safety is our top priority, has vowed to see the probe through to the end.
GM halted sales of the Vibe in late January, around the same time that Toyota suspended the sale of potentially affected vehicles. As part of its bankruptcy restructuring, GM agreed to retire the Pontiac brand, with the last Pontiac rolling off the line last August.
Pontiac sold just under 100,000 second-generation Vibes in the United States before pulling the plug. Whatever the outcome of the suit, Merchant is insistent that Toyotas solution doesnt lessen the danger faced by Toyota owners.
Low-tech solutions to high-tech problems simply dont work, says Merchant. Toyotas problems are extremely difficult to solve.
Boomerific: How to Live Better and Longer
15 ways Boomers can improve the quality and length of their lives03/08/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jan Yager, Ph.D.
15 ways Boomers can improve the quality and length of their lives...
As a baby boomer couple, Brenda and Gordon are yin and yang. At 49, Brenda runs marathons and loves her job as a publicist. The only medication she takes is for a hereditary thyroid condition. By contrast, her 53-year-old husband, Gordon, is overweight, has gout, high-blood pressure, and is possibly a diabetic. I worry constantly that hell die, says Brenda. In fact, if Gordon doesnt change his ways soon, doctors say he is increasing the likelihood that he will reduce his life span by as much as a couple of decades.
There is considerable talk today about living to be 100 and beyond. While that may sound like a nice number and something to aspire to, research has found that most of those surveyed didnt want to live that long. A Pew Research Group study, cited by Walter Bortz II, M.D. in his new book, The Roadmap to 100 (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010, Randall Stickrod, co-author), discovered that only 8 percent of survey respondents wanted to live to be 100. Why? The reason is that most of us still associate that age with infirmity and a very low quality of life, Dr. Bortz suggests.
Aging is inevitable and something we all start doing from the moment we are born. The good news, according to Dr. Bortz, is that only 20 to 25 percent of how we age is genetic. But the other 75 precent? Thats up to each and every one of us and depends on behaviors that we can modify, change, or control.
Here is a summary of what experts say are the top 15 ways we can increase both the quality and the length of our lives.
1. Be active.
The number one way to extend the quality and length of life, according to Cheryl Phillips, M.D., president of the American Geriatrics Society, is physical activity. It is the most powerful thing you can do to prevent muscle loss, which happens in the advanced years and leads to falls, says Dr. Phillips. Physical activity also helps to prevent dementia and cognitive impairment, and it offsets many of the causes of depression.
Dr. Bortz agrees. Exercise is the key factor, he says. Aging is not a disease. You cant cure it but you can offset it by 30 years by being fit.
Exercise does not have to involve a gym, although that is certainly one proven way to get more activity into your day. You could walk, take the stairs instead of the elevator at work, do housework, or dance. To these Dr. Phillips adds gardening, swimming, bowling, even bird-watching. At 51, Dr. Phillips runs marathons.
2. Stay connected to family and friends, with at least one confidant.
The research into longevity and friendship has discovered that having even one close friend (or relative) to confide in could extend your life by as much as ten years. Other studies have found that being connected to friends or family helps increase survival rates following breast cancer or heart attacks. The key is to avoid isolation from social connections since that leads to depression which may be linked to dementia and is associated with a diminished quality of life. This is especially important for those who retire and lose the social ties that had come with work. Even unpaid volunteer work is better than isolation. I know a retired 86-year-old educator who has been working as a tutor one day a week for more than 25 years. It helps him to stay connected.
3. Take care of your teeth.
Floss your teeth, brush them twice a day, and get regular dental checkups. Those simple actions can actually extend your life. Periodontist Dr. Sally Cram explains that untreated gum disease can cause inflammation and infection which puts you at greater risk for a heart attack or a stroke. Thats because the bacteria from your mouth causes an inflammation or thickening of the blood vessels. Signs that you have gum problems include bleeding gums, red gums, gums that are sore, loose teeth, or receding gums.
4. Get enough sleep.
Whether you need eight hours of sleep, or six, getting enough rest for your body and mind could save your life. Falling asleep at the wheel while driving or at work could lead to accidents or fatalities. Lack of sleep has also been linked to obesity, a key factor in shortening your life. Sleep is fundamental to restoring our minds and bodies. How much sleep you need varies from person to person. To determine how much sleep you need, pick a time when you do not need to wake up such as on the weekend. Do not set the alarm clock. Note how many hours you sleep when you wake up naturally. That will tell you how many hours of sleep your body needs. Then adjust your evening behavior during the week to match the number of hours you really need.
5. Keep your weight within the normal range, and eat fruits and vegetables.
Research posted on The Obesity Society website shows that being overweight is one of the major risk factors in shortening life, as well as being linked to diabetes, heart attack, cancer, osteo-arthritis, sleep apnea, hypertension and mobility issues. Losing weight, and keeping it off, will also have a positive impact on the quality of your life. For help in your weight challenge, work with your doctor or find a nutritionist to help you develop a food plan that you can follow. You could also join one of the many weight loss and maintenance programs that include regular weigh-ins and monitoring of your progress.
Your parents told you to eat your fruits and vegetables when you were growing up. Turns out, they were right (at least about that!). Living longer is more likely if you eat more fresh fruit and greens. The Okinawa study of 900 octogenarians in Japan found they ate seven daily servings of fruits and vegetables. That same study also found that they practiced a way of eating known as hara hachi bu, which means eating only until you are 80% full.
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About Jan Yager
Pep Boys Recalls Definitely Dakota Tires03/08/2010ConsumerAffairs
Pep Boys Recalls Definitely Dakota Tires...
Pep Boys has notified federal safety regulators about a noncompliance in certain Definity Dakota H/T tires, size 245/70R17, produced between November 15 and November 28, 2009.
These tires fail to conform to the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 139, "New Pneumatic Radial Tires For Light Vehicles." At various mileages, the subject tires may develop and exhibit tread chunking or cracking in the tread shoulder area. Tread chunks may separate from the tire casing resulting in body damage to the vehicle or the driver may lose control resulting in a crash.
Pep Boys will notify owners and replace the tires free of charge. The safety recall is expected to begin during March 2010. Owners may contact Cooper Tire Customer Relations toll-free at 1-800-854-6288 or Pep Boys at 1-800-PEP-BOYS (1-800-737-2697).
Consumers may contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY: 1-800-424-9153) or at www.safercar.gov.
Cooper Cyclone Radial Tires Recalled03/08/2010ConsumerAffairs
Cooper Cyclone Radial Tires Recalled...
MTBC Corporation has notified federal safety regulators about a noncompliance in certain Cyclone Radial SUV tires, size 245/70R17, produced between November 15 and December 19, 2009.
These tires fail to conform to the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 139, "New Pneumatic Radial Tires for Light Vehicles." At various mileages, the subject tires may develop and exhibit tread chunking or cracking in the tread shoulder area. Tread chunks may separate from the tire casing resulting in body damage to the vehicle or the driver may lose control resulting in a crash.
TBC will notify owners and replace the tires free of charge. The safety recall is expected to begin on or about March 15, 2010. Owners may contact Cooper Tire Customer Relations toll-free at 1-800-854-6288 or TBC Corporation at 1-800-739-7698.
More controversy over claim that mouthwash is 'as effective as floss'03/06/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
A California court has thrown out a class action suit attacking Listerines claim that its mouthwash is as effective as floss when used regularly....
Survey: More Consumers Using Food Label Info
Diet-heart disease link starting to sink in03/05/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
According to the latest FDA Health and Diet Survey, more than half of consumers often read the food label when buying a product for the first time....
The idea of checking the nutritional information on food labels finally seems to be catching on in the U.S.
According to the latest Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Health and Diet Survey, more than half of consumers often read the food label when buying a product for the first time. These consumers are also increasingly aware of the link between diet and heart disease.
In its 2008 telephone survey, the tenth since 1982, FDA interviewed more than 2,500 adults in every state and the District of Columbia. The most recent previous surveys were conducted in 2002 and 2004.
Linking diet and heart disease
Among the highlights of survey findings in regard to how diet affects health:
More U.S. consumers know of the relationship between diet and heart disease. Ninety-one percent knew of this link, an 8 percent jump from 2002. In addition, 62 percent of consumers mentioned fats as a factor related to heart disease, compared with 53 percent in 2002.
Eighty-one percent of consumers know that certain foods or drinks may help prevent heart disease or heart attacks. This result showed no change from 2002. While fruits and vegetables were most frequently linked with reducing heart disease, fewer people made this link in 2008 than in 2002.
Consumers' awareness that trans fats in the diet may raise the risk of heart disease nearly doubled over just four years, from 32 percent in 2004 to 62 percent.
Correct identification that omega 3 fatty acids may lower the risk of heart disease increased, from 31 percent in 2004 to 52 percent in 2008.
Knowledge that saturated fat may raise the risk of heart disease was stable: it was 74 percent in 2004 and 73 percent in 2008.
Evidence of the link between eating habits and heart disease has been around for a long time.
Food label highlights
Findings in regard to food labels include:
More than half (54 percent) of consumers said they read a product's label the first time they buy the product. That's a ten percent increase from 2002.
Among those who in 2008 reported they read the nutrition label the first time they buy a product:
Two-thirds use the label "often" to check how high or low a food is in calories and in substances such as salt, vitamins, and fat
55 percent "often" use the label to get a general idea of the food's nutritional content
46 percent "often" use the calorie information on the label. Thirty-four percent rarely or never use the calorie information
Thirty-eight percent of consumers said they use nutrient content claims (such as "low fat," "high fiber," and "cholesterol-free") "often"; 34 percent answered "sometimes."
When asked if they refer to the label claim of "0 grams of trans fat," 31 percent said "often" and 36 percent said "sometimes."The survey found differing degrees of trust about claims found on food labels. For example, 41 percent of consumers believe that all or most of claims such as "low fat," "high fiber," or "cholesterol free" are accurate, while 56 percent believe that some or none of them are accurate. Also, 64 percent of consumers reported seeing nutrition labeling on menus, napkins, or place mats in restaurants. About half of these consumers use this information often or sometimes. With more consumers using the information, there are calls to make nutrition labels more user-friendly.
The survey also examined eating habits. Among findings in that category were that 54 percent of consumers reported eating breakfast seven days a week, while eight percent said they skip the meal every day. In contrast, 86 percent said they eat dinner seven days a week, while one percent said they always skip it.
FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has posted findings from the survey, as well as a related fact sheet, on its Web site.
HVP used in soups, sauces, chilis, stews, hot dogs, snack foods and other processed foods03/05/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Salmonella Found in a Widely-Used Processed Food Ingredient...
New Jersey Drivers Flouting Cell Phone Ban
Poll shows texting while driving increasing03/05/2010ConsumerAffairs
New Jersey Drivers Flouting Cell Phone Ban...
March 5, 2010
New Jersey has a law prohibiting drivers from texting or talking on their cell phones while behind the wheel, but it's clear many have not gotten the message.
The evidence is in the number of tickets state police officers have written over the last two years. In the past 23 months, 224,725 citations -- an average of 9,770 a month -- have been issued to motorists for violating the state's cell phone law.
"We are making progress in our efforts to ensure that all motorists are aware of the consequences they face if they choose to talk on a cell phone or text while driving," said Pam Fischer, New Jersey's Director of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety. "Our work is far from done, though. Any cell phone conversation while driving, whether hand-held or hands-free, is distracting and dangerous, and can result in crashes, injuries, and in some cases the loss of life. For the safety of all roadway users, we must hang up and just drive."
At least 1.4 million crashes nationwide are caused each year by drivers talking on their cell phones, while a minimum of 200,000 crashes are caused by drivers texting behind the wheel, according to the National Safety Council.
In New Jersey, since 2008, there have been 3,610 crashes involving a motorist using a hand-held cell phone, resulting in 1,548 injuries and 13 deaths. During the same time period, 3,129 crashes involving the use of a hands-free device resulted in 1,495 injuries and 6 fatalities.
"These numbers are staggering, but perhaps even more disturbing is the number of crashes involving cell phone use and texting that go unreported," Fischer said. "We know that many drivers involved in a crash don't admit to these behaviors, which means that the actual number of cell phone-related crashes in New Jersey is much greater."
New Jersey's primary cell phone law went into effect on March 1, 2008. Motorists violating New Jersey's law face a $100 fine plus court costs and fees.
"The New Jersey Chiefs of Police are committed to enforcing our state's laws that help to ensure the safety of the motoring public on our roadways. Distracted driving by the use of cell phones decreases traffic safety, and is a violation of New Jersey's law. We encourage the motoring public to drive responsibly and respect the motor vehicle laws of our state," said Robert A. Coulton, President of the New Jersey Chiefs of Police Association.
Driving while texting increasing
A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll on driving behaviors conducted last year and co-sponsored by the Division of Highway Traffic Safety, found that the number of New Jersey drivers who said they sent text messages while driving increased by 40 percent between 2008 and 2009, the first year the ban was in effect.
In addition, 57 percent of those drivers under the age of 30 said that they have texted while driving, up six percent from 2008, while more than one in four drivers aged 30 to 44 said they have sent a text message, up eight percent from the previous year. Twelve percent of motorists between the ages of 45 and 60 said they have also sent text messages while driving.
"While the state's motor vehicle fatality rate continued to fall for the third consecutive year, there are still far too many people engaging in unsafe driving behaviors, including talking and texting, that contribute to a dangerous and often tragic situation on our roads," Fischer said. "If we're to reach our goal of zero fatalities, every driver must take personal responsibility for his or her actions behind the wheel, and make a commitment to safety."
Consumers Say Sudden Acceleration Problems Nothing New
Toyota, Ford, Chrysler all figure in consumer complaints of unintended acceleration03/05/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Consumers Say Sudden Acceleration Problems Nothing New...
To read the headlines, one would think the problem with cars suddenly accelerating on their own is a problem recently discovered in late model Toyotas. But reports of these occurrences have been around for years, and involved many cars other than Toyotas.
"I got into my car and turned on the ignition. I put the car in reverse. The car rocketed backward into a telephone pole," Terri Moore, of Seattle, reported to ConsumerAffairs.com back in 2005.
And it should be noted that Terri was not driving a Toyota, but a Saturn Vue. At the time, we reported that more than 20,000 consumers had complained to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of sudden acceleration since the late 1980s, when more and more vehicles were being outfitted with electronic-based controls.
In the incident described above, Moore said she put the car in drive and tried to inch away from the telephone pole she had hit, only to have the car rocket forward. NHTSA investigated many of the incidents like Moore's and concluded it was the drivers' fault. Drivers mistakenly stomp on gas pedals instead of the brakes, the agency ruled at the time.
Sorry, can't recreate the problem
"The research I have done indicates the NHTSA cannot recreate the problem," Moore said. "So NHTSA has concluded there is no problem. In the meanwhile, people are getting injured and killed."
After launching an investigation of reports of sudden acceleration in Toyotas during the early 2000s, NHTSA reported in 2004 that it was unable to find a cause for the problem. The agency said it analyzed many of the cars involved in the mishaps and found nothing abnormal with the throttle controls.
Interestingly, the 30 Toyota incidents NHTSA investigated for its 2004 involved Toyota Camry and Lexus ES models, which are among those now being recalled. Once again NHTSA pointed to the driver. The agency said sudden surges are sometimes caused by drivers who are unfamiliar with their new vehicles.
Also in 2005 Ross, of West Hollywood, reported a similar problem with his 2001 Ford Expedition, and said he got a similar shrug from the dealer.
'Jumps like a bull'
"The car, when stopped at an intersection or stoplight, will without warning, feed an unprecedented amount of gas to the engine ... The car jumps forward like a bull waiting to get out of the gates. I have my foot on the brake when this happens so I know I am not stepping on the gas. Even with my foot on the brake, the power of the engine dominates the brakes and the car jumps forward anywhere from 1 to 10 feet," Ross said.
"The fourth time it happened was severe and the car almost hit a much smaller car in front of me. If I hit them, they could have hit the pedestrians in front of them. I had a passenger and after this occurred he insisted on getting out of the car and would not ride with me again in that car," he said.
Ross said the dealer could find nothing wrong.
"They do not seem concerned that they are forcing a dangerous car back on the road. They only seemed concerned with their payment and giving me back the car," he said.
In 2008 more than 400 consumers complained to NHTSA about unintended and sudden acceleration in the Tacoma pickup. Reports to the agency documented 51 crashes and 12 injuries.
Picking on Toyota?
Nevertheless, Toyota complained in a letter to the agency that the Tacoma is the focus of hostile media coverage as well as consumers exaggerating their problems.
"Toyota believes that it is likely that many of the consumer complaints about the general issue of unwanted acceleration as well as many of the complaints about this subject that have been received by Toyota were inspired by publicity," the automaker wrote NHTSA in the 2008 letter.
Toyota suggested in the letter to safety regulators that consumers are overstating the unintended acceleration problem with the Tacoma, which the automaker described as minor engine speed changes. But a ConsumerAffairs.com reader and Toyota Tacoma owner in Weaver, Alabama reported a different story. "It was jumping forward toward my house at every engine turn. I pushed in the clutch and took out the key," he said.
Acceleration is controlled in the Tacoma by a drive-by-wire system with a computer replacing the traditional linkage between the accelerator pedal and the engine throttle-body which injects the fuel required for acceleration.
Toyota claimed the Tacoma computer can capture an error report if accelerator pedal and throttle are not working properly and the automaker said no error codes have turned up in vehicles inspected by Toyota technicians.
Toyota's popular hybrid, the Prius, has also been the source of numerous sudden acceleration complaints since the mid 2000s. In 2006 ConsumerAffairs.com reported the case of a Prius lunging out of control on a Michigan highway. At the time, the incident was the second known incident involving uncontrolled acceleration in the Prius. The driver of the 2005 Prius, Herbert of Battle Creek, Michigan, reported speeding up while passing a slower vehicle on the highway. The problem began after he passed the slower car and tried to slow down.
"I let off the accelerator and pressed the brakes several times, but the vehicle continued to accelerate under full power," Herbert said at the time.
Toyota recalled the Prius hybrids to examine the software and reported no anomalies. Yet, the reports from drivers continued to arrive at ConsumerAffairs.com. And two years later, the Office of Defect Investigation, a division of NHTSA, investigated a similar uncontrolled acceleration report in the 2008 Toyota Sienna.
"The Complainant reported that he applied the accelerator pedal to accelerate the vehicle and experienced unwanted acceleration upon release," ODI reported on its Web site.
Not just Toyota
While Toyotas have figured prominently in reports of sudden acceleration over the years, other models have also been affected.
"My wife pulled our 2004 V8 Jeep Grand Cherokee, into the day care to pick up our toddler and put the gear in park after coming to a stop," Vasanthi, of San Jose, Calif., wrote in March 2009. "The Jeep suddenly accelerated and shot forward, with her foot tightly on the brake, and went over a concrete block, through a fence and into the yard on the other side."
ConsumerAffairs.com has received sudden acceleration complaints over the years from a wide range of makes, including Kia, Jaguar, BMW and Ford. In fact, a December 2009 analysis of NHTSA complaints by Consumer Reports found Ford produced the second largest number of sudden acceleration reports after Toyota.
New Credit Card Protections Can Help Level Mountain of Debt
Four tips for wise credit use post-CARD Act03/04/2010ConsumerAffairs
New Credit Card Protections Can Help Level Mountain of Debt...
With most of the provisions of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act) now in effect, consumers are protected from universal default clauses, double-cycle billing and inequitable application of monthly payments to balances.
What those with heavy credit card debt need to do now, according to the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (AICCCA), is take advantage of the CARD Act protections and pay off those high credit card balances.
"The CARD Act is a great incentive for consumers to pay down credit card debt," said Dave Jones, AICCCA president. "Monthly payments will be applied more equitably and interest rates should remain more consistent, which will allow consumers to pay less in interest charges and more toward paying down principle balances."
AICCCA offers these four tips for wise credit use now that the CARD Act is law:
1. Stop using credit to extend your income. Decrease your spending or increase your income to begin living within your means. Adding to your credit balances every month is a vicious cycle that is difficult to break, but it is essential for financial well being to do so.
2. Pay down existing card balances quickly. Take advantage of the new provisions of the CARD Act and make a concerted effort to get your balances paid. If you have any cash-advance balances with high interest rates, your payment will be applied to that portion of your balance first, saving you money in interest charges.
3. Read all your mail from card issuers. Card issuers may make changes to existing cardholder agreements after the CARD Act goes into effect. Watch for changes to your current cardholder agreement including initiation of an annual fee, a change from a fixed-rate to a variable rate interest rate and/or new fees for an inactive account or to receive a paper statement.
4. Opt out of any changes you don't want. You can opt out of any proposed changes to your current cardholder agreement. Your account will be closed and you can pay off any balance under the original cardholder terms.
While the CARD Act does help level the playing field to a certain extent, it is important for consumers to know what it will and will not do.
Some Repaired Toyotas Still Suddenly Accelerating
NHTSA following up with owners of recalled Toyotas03/04/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Some Repaired Toyotas Still Suddenly Accelerating...
Have Toyota's record recalls solved its sudden acceleration problem? Maybe not.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is contacting Toyota owners who have taken their cars to dealers to undergo the prescribed repair and so far, 10 consumers have reported the fix hasn't ended the problem.
NHTSA made it clear the reports have not been verified but said the agency would follow up. It also said it would continue to communicate with owners of affected Toyotas.
"If Toyota owners are still experiencing sudden acceleration incidents after taking their cars to the dealership, we want to know about it," said NHTSA administrator David Strickland.
Toyota's answer to the sudden acceleration problem in a number of its most popular models has been to modify the accelerator pedal, whose design, it determined, could cause it to stick. In the U.S., Toyota has recalled more than six million vehicles and, to date, says it has made the repair to more than one million.
Denies electronic cause
Originally the company blamed the problem on floor mats, which it said could slide up and depress the accelerator pedal. The company has adamantly insisted the problem is not caused by the electrical system, but suspicion from drivers and government officials alike has leaned in that direction.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced last month that NHTSA engineers were investigating the cars' electronics as a possible source of the problem.
The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that several of the new complaints involved Camry Sedans. The paper said the owner of a 2009 Camry reported a sudden acceleration problem two days after the repair. A 2010 Camry owner reported the problem five days after the repair.
If more repaired Toyotas experience verified cases of sudden acceleration, the pressure will build on both the carmaker and government safety regulators to find the cause. NHTSA is already at work.
The agency announced that it has purchased the Toyota-made Lexus ES350 formerly owned by Rhonda and Eddie Smith, who testified before Congress last month about an unintended acceleration event that Rhonda Smith reported she experienced while driving the car in 2006.
The car was sold with 3,000 miles on it several years ago, and NHTSA has now acquired it with approximately 30,000 miles on the odometer. The Smiths' former car has been taken to NHTSA's Vehicle Research & Test Center in East Liberty, Ohio, where it is now being studied.
"Safety is our top priority," said LaHood. "NHTSA will thoroughly examine the Smiths' car as we work to get to the bottom of possible causes for sudden acceleration."
Toyota owners have complained to ConsumerAffairs.com about sudden acceleration for years, including in older models not covered in the current recall. The complaints continued this week.
"I have a 2004 Toyota 4-Runner. I have been watching and so far it is not on any recall list," Doreen, of Ellensburg, Wash., told ConsumerAffairs.com Wednesday. "My husband usually drives the car, but I myself know of three times that the accelerator has stuck even while hitting the brakes. I feel the car needs to be recalled."
Tip of the iceberg?
Is it possible that, not only have investigators not found the source of the problem, but the Toyota recall is just the tip of a safety iceberg. Consider this.
In December an analysis of NHTSA's complaint database showed that, of all the reports of sudden acceleration, 40 percent involved Toyota of Lexus models. While that's a lot, it means that 60 percent of the sudden acceleration complaints were about cars made by manufacturers other than Toyota.
Florida Man Sentenced For Nutritional Supplement Scam
Food fraud netted $7 million in ill-gotten gains03/04/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Florida Man Sentenced For Nutritional Supplement Scam...
A Boca Raton, FL., man has been sentenced to 20 years in prison in connection with the marketing of a purported weigh loss product.
U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth A. Marra sentenced Frank Sarcona, a/k/a Frank Sarcone, a/k/a Dave Johnson, 58, for conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and criminal contempt of court; conspiracy to commit money laundering; and multiple counts of substantive mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, misbranding of a food, and criminal contempt of court.
Sarcona defrauded more than 130,000 customers out of more than $7 million by claiming that the product, Lipoban, was sold in conjunction with a medical facility and clinical test.
According to court documents and statements made in court, Sarcona marketed Lipoban through newspapers, national magazines, the Internet and direct mail solicitation. Millions of letters were mailed to consumers across the U.S., inviting them to participate in what Sarcona termed "a restricted nationwide test" of a new product that would promote large weight loss without diet and exercise.
The ads created the false impression that a study was being conducted in conjunction with a healthcare clinic, the Lipoban Clinic, and that those who purchased the product would participate in that study. Virtually every customer was told that he/she was test participant #731.
Included in the mailings was a letter from Dr. Joseph Maya, the purported medical director of the Lipoban Clinic. The printed material falsely contained the statement that the "clinic" had a team of weight loss and nutrition professionals. In addition, a newsprint insert included in the mailing falsely claimed that a New York cardiologist endorsed Lipoban.
In fact, evidence introduced at trial showed the "clinic" was located at the residence of a co-defendant and later at an office in an industrial park. Dr. Jose (not Joseph, as stated in the material) Maya Behar was not licensed to practice medicine in the U.S., but only in Mexico. Dr. Maya never came to the "clinic" or performed any services for the clinic.
The "clinic" was not conducting any study nor were there weight loss and nutrition professionals on site. Further, the referenced cardiologist never endorsed Lipoban and stated that diet and exercise was essential in any weight loss program.
Sarcona funneled the monies he received from the scam into the bank account of a defunct corporation he maintained solely for personal use. Thereafter, large sums of money were withdrawn as cash or transferred into other accounts in the name of a nominee. Sarcona was given a signature stamp so that he could write checks on those accounts, and used some checks to purchase valuable real estate in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In 1999, U.S. District Court Judge Ferguson issued a final injunction (FTC v. SlimAmerica, Frank Sarcona et. al.,) prohibiting Sarcona from engaging in deceptive sales and marketing practices because of his sale of another weight loss product. Almost immediately after the injunction was issued, Sarcona started the marketing and sale of Lipoban, using the name Dave Johnson to hide his identity.
A special Web site has been established to handle victims' requests for restitution.
The SlimAmerica scam is just one example of how consumers get ripped off by weight-loss fraud perpetrators.
Barb from Mechanicsburg, PA, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that she ordered a $200.00 kit from globalweightlosscure.com. She says when she printed out the confirmation record, "there was NO INFORMATION WHATSOEVER, no phone number, address, tracking number, nothing. I emailed them constantly using the 'contact us' form with no reply, even gave them more than one email address and checked my spam. My credit card statement had the number they gave, which turns out to be fraudulent, it doesn't exist."
"Returned Weight Loss book purchased from Kevin Trudeau within 30 days of receiving it," writes Alfred from Claremont, NH. "Have not received the promised refund. This was a year ago. Saw his new commercial for his Debt Cures book so called again. After many phone numbers later, we gave up trying to reach a customer service rep."
Natasha of Madison, TN, reports ordering the Fluidity Bar and 3 Fluidity workout videos. Purchase cost of 239.70, paying in 6 payments of 39.95 (Total cost with 10 priority processing fee & 49.95 shipping is 299.65). "I received my Fluidity Bar a few weeks later from the ordering date," she tells ConsumerAffairs.com, "but the 3 workout videos were not included. I immediately called customer service and to advise that I did not receive the 3 workout videos and the order was placed to have videos sent with no cost to me. My account has been charged 3 of the 6 payments to date, and to date I have still not received the videos."
The federal government continues its efforts to crack down on unscrupulous marketers of weight-loss products, and from time-to-time even scores a victory .
Suit: Fish Oil Contains Undisclosed PCB Levels
Manufacturers' failure to warn violates longstanding California law03/04/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Dietary supplements like fish oil has attained an unrivaled status. Unlike fad drugs that flame out or quietly disappear, fish oil has steadily grown in po...
In the world of over-the-counter dietary supplements, fish oil has attained an unrivaled status. Unlike fad drugs that flame out or quietly disappear, fish oil has steadily grown in popularity. Indeed, in a February ConsumerLab.com poll, more respondents said they use fish oil than a standard multivitamin pill.
But a lawsuit filed on Tuesday says there's a dark side to the supplements that most consumers aren't aware of: many of them dangerously high levels of PCBs, a chemical linked to birth defects and several types of cancer.
The plaintiffs, led by the Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation and two environmentalists from New Jersey, tested 10 brands of fish oil supplements and found varying levels of PCBs in each; the highest level was 850 nanograms, and the lowest only 12.
But the 10 brands all had something in common: they all contained some level of PCBs, which puts them all in violation of California's Proposition 65. That law, enacted in 1986, requires manufacturers to warn consumers of exposure to any detectable amount of a listed chemical, including PCBs.
PCBs are a class of organic compound that were once common in coolant and certain electrical equipment. PCPs were banned by Congress in 1979 -- and by U.N. Treaty in 2001 -- due to their link to melanoma, liver cancer, and brain cancer, among others. Despite their three-decade hiatus from production, PCBs are still present in waterways and, unsurprisingly, in the fish that inhabit them.
Indeed, eating fish is the most common route of exposure to PCBs.
An EPA estimate from 2000 says that eating certain kinds of fish from the infamously PCB-contaminated Hudson River raises the risk of developing cancer to one in 2,500, an amount 1,000 times higher than the EPA's target level. And according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, PCBs in fish can reach levels hundreds of thousands of times higher than the levels in water.
Whether the suit has any significant effect on fish oil sales remains to be seen. Omega-3, the supplement's purportedly beneficial ingredient, is said to reduce the risk of everything from heart disease to depression to Alzheimers.
Among the defendants are Omega Protein the world's biggest producer of fish oil supplements General Nutrition Corp, Now Health Group Inc, and CVS and Rite Aid, which sell the supplements.
The Council of Responsible Nutrition, which describes itself as the leading trade association representing dietary supplement manufacturers and ingredient suppliers, jumped on the suit as ill-informed and misguided.
PCBs are ubiquitous within the environment, which means that all fish -- whether fish found in oceans and rivers or fish oil supplements -- contain at least trace amounts of PCBs, said Andrew Shao, a Senior Vice President of CRN. Shao said that the plaintiffs are attempting to frame this as a public health concern, when in reality, fish oil has enjoyed decades of safe use.
Pharmavite, another fish oil supplement manufacturer named in the suit, said that the magnitude of the science supporting the benefits of consumption of fish oil far outweighs the results of this extremely limited investigation.
Nissan Recalls More Than 500,000 Vehicles
Fuel gauge problem, source of many complaints, being addressed03/03/2010ConsumerAffairs
Nissan says the affected modles may have problems with brake pedal pins and fuel gauges. The company says it discovered a production error in the brake ped...
Recall fever appears to be catching among automobile manufacturers. On the heels of Toyota's long-running woes and GM's steering-related recall this week, Nissan has announced the recalling of 539,864 trucks, sport-utility vehicles and mini vans in North America and some Asian and European markets.
Nissan says the affected modles may have problems with brake pedal pins and fuel gauges. The company says it discovered a production error in the brake pedal pin, which could cause the pedal to disengage. It said it had three reports of that happening, but no reports of injuries.
The fuel gauge problem could cause the affected vehicles to incorrectly indicate the amount of fuel remaining in the tank. Renee, an Xterra owner from Everett, Wash., knows the problem all too well.
"We have a 2005 Nissan Xterra and am having the same fuel sensor issue as so many others," she told ConsumerAffairs.com last month. "We fill up and the gas gauge does not register."
And that's not the only problem, she says.
"The check engine light is on and this causes us to not pass emissions until it is fixed, which is a $600.00-plus issue since the gas tank needs removed to fix it."
Models affected by the pedal pin recall are the Infiniti QX56 SUV, Titan pickup truck, Armada SUV and Quest minivan. The Frontier pickup truck, Pathfinder and Xterra SUV may have the fuel gauge problem.
The overwhelming number of the recalled vehicles are in the US, with the rest in Canada, Mexico, and other international markets.
Questions Remain About 'Sensa' Weight-Loss Product
Experts say 'jury still out' regarding effectiveness03/03/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Questions Remain About 'Sensa' Weight-Loss Product...
The pitchmen claim you can eat all your favorite foods and still lose weight, by sprinkling the product onto your meals and snacks. You can "safely and effectively lose weight without feeling deprived," the product's Web site claims.
What is the principle behind Sensa? According to the Web site, a so-called Sensa "Tastant" helps trigger your "I feel full" signal, so you eat less and feel more satisfied. The company reasons that because Sensa works with your body's natural impulses, rather than against them, there are no feelings of hunger or intense cravings.
From what the people who have contacted ConsumerAffairs.com have told us, it's hard to know how well -- or if -- Sensa really works.
R. of Mountain View, CA, writes, "ordered their trial offer for Sensa in Oct. 2009 and never received it. Also they have never responded to my inquiries as to why? I lost a little bit of money; I don't think companies should be allowed to slide by on this type of scam behavior. This was my first on-line purchase. Unfortunate."
"I ordered a trial sample of this product for $4.99," Phillip of Hagerstown, MD, tells ConsumerAffairs.com, "but was unaware I would be charged an exorbitant price later for the initial portion of the product. Once I had received the first batch, I was informed -- at the bottom of an e-mail -- that I would have to send it all back within 30 days, or I would be charged an additional $89. There was no money back guarantee, so by the time I was able to try the product properly, it was too late to get a refund. There was no mention of the $89.99 charge when I ordered the trial package."
Asking the experts
Writing on the MayoClinic.com Web site, dietitian Katherine Zeratsky says "the jury is still out" on the question of whether scent-based weight-loss products such as Sensa can lead to significant, sustainable weight loss.
She notes that the developer of Sensa, Alan Hirsch, M.D., says proof of its effectiveness comes from a six-month study he conducted in which participants lost an average of 15 percent of their body weight. However, the study did not look at whether participants were able to maintain the weight loss.
"It makes more sense," Zeratsky concludes, "to skip the scents and focus on what's proven to work: reducing the calories you consume and increasing the calories you burn through exercise."
The ABC-TV news program 20/20 quotes Dr. Pamela Peeke, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and the host of "Fit for Life," as saying, "there is no scientific proof that Sensa works."
"There's no magic bullet and there's no magic sprinkle," she told 20/20 . "This isn't a diet. This is just another pet rock."
Andrea Giancoli, the school nutrition policy coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says Sensa "could be promising and very interesting," but adds "there's been no clear answer at the moment."
Giancoli tells ConsumerAffairs.com that because of this nation's obsession with weight loss, a product doesn't really have to be proven effective. "People are so eager for any kind of weight loss technique that might work, that they're willing to buy it whether there's any research or not about it."
What it comes down to she says, is that the maker of a weight loss product doesn't have to show that it works over the long term "because people are going to buy it anyway."
Massive Illegal Phone Billing Operation Halted
FTC says scam took in $19 million over five years03/02/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Inc21, a company that crammed unauthorized charges onto the telephone bills of thousands of consumers and small businesses for services they never agreed t...
An Internet services company that crammed unauthorized charges onto the telephone bills of thousands of consumers and small businesses for services they never agreed to buy has been shut down.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Inc21 and its affiliated companies sold Internet services, including Web site design services, Web site hosting, Internet directory listings, search-engine advertising and Internet-based faxing, for charges ranging from $12.95 to $39.95 a month.
The companies are accused of hiring offshore telemarketers to call prospective clients. Sometimes they offered a free trial, without explaining that consumers would have to take certain steps to avoid charges. In other cases the telemarketers said they simply were calling to verify their business contact information.
"I got my phone bill and ILD (ILD TeleServices) charged me $30.88 for some kind of Internet service that I never authorized," Christie, of Connel, WA, tells ConsumerAffairs.com. "When I called them, I was kept on hold for over 30 minutes and have not been able to dispute these charges."
"There was a 39.95 + tax charge on my local phone bill," says Amy of Byron, MN. "After calling my phone company & being referred to ILD I was told this was for Internet Yellow Pages through YP.com. ILD said they were just the billing company.
She says YP.com claimed her household had agreed to a trial offer that automatically upgraded to a billable service unless cancelled. "A recorded message prompted the recipient of their call to state their name, address, phone number, etc. & confirm that they were authorized to accept charges for our phone number," she tells ConsumerAffairs.com. That was preceeded by an agent that had promised that there was absolutely no charge for anything, at all. This is pretty deceptive to cover the call as having to do with phone service & then manipulate the call into a sales pitch w/o the recipient's knowledge."
The FTC also claims third-party billing aggregators were used to place charges on the phone bills of thousands of consumers and businesses that either:
• were never contacted at all;
• were told they were contacted only to verify business information;
• declined Inc21' s offer of Internet services; or
• were told they would receive a free trial offer, but not informed that they would be charged if they did not cancel.
In papers filed with the court, the FTC charged that Inc21 and its agents supposedly made tape recordings to demonstrate that its charges were authorized. But the agency contends that in many cases, the recordings were doctored to misrepresent the call and the consumers' responses. In other cases, the voices on the tapes are not those of the consumers who were supposedly on the calls.
The companies are charged with unfair and deceptive acts in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule.
U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup has issued a Temporary Restraining Order and a Preliminary Injunction to halt the unlawful conduct, pending trial. In his order, Judge Alsup wrote, "It was Inc21 who orchestrated this overall scheme and set in motion an army of telemarketers who committed fraud. Even if Inc21 did not approve of the fraud (and it seems likely that it did approve), the fact remains that Inc21 is responsible for organizing this engine of fraud and reaping its profits. As such, Inc21 may certainly be held accountable and the engine of fraud may be shut down by court order."
Those named in the matter are Inc21.com Inc., doing business as Inc21, Inc21.net, Inc21 Communications, Global YP, NetOpus, Metro YP, JumPage Solutions, GoFaxer.com and Fax Faster.com, Jumpage Solutions, Inc., GST U.S.A., Inc., Roy Yu Lin and John Yu Lin officers and directors of Inc21.
The FTC complaint also names Sheng Lin, the father of Roy and John Lin, as a "relief defendant" because he allegedly received funds that can be traced to the deceptive and unfair practices, and has no legitimate claim to those funds.
The practice of cramming is fairly widespread, with many states -- Florida among them -- attempting to outlaw it.
Beware of Spring Break Travel Scams
Shady operators often promise free travel as inducements03/02/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Beware of Spring Break Travel Scams...
Spring is on the way, and spring break vacations can't be that far behind. But a word of caution; spring is the time of year when travel scams come out of hibernation.
"Some unscrupulous companies take advantage of consumers' desires to get a good deal on travel," said Ohio Attorney General Cordray. "They offer 'free' vacations, cheap flights and other perks, but when consumers try to cash in, the companies invalidate the offers or simply stop responding. It is important to watch out for these deceptive bait-and-switch tactics."
In fact, the word "free" is often a tip-off that the item being pitched isn't quite on the up and up. No matter what they tell you, marketers don't make any money when they give something away free, which is why they hardly ever do it.
Cordray says that in the last two years he has received nearly 300 complaints about travel clubs and travel agencies. One consumer said she attended a sales presentation from a vacation company that promised her three days to cancel. She paid $2,500, but when she tried to cancel, she said the company ignored her calls and never refunded her money.
Another consumer said he signed a two-year membership with a travel club that promised travel amenities, including lodging, food, gas and entertainment. Despite paying $2,900 and following all the rules, the consumer said he never received the promised benefits.
Last September, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum sued Suncoast Incentives LLC, saying its offer of a travel club with unlimited free travel was nothing but a scam. McCollum charged the company enticed victims to purchase travel club memberships for thousands of dollars, but failed to provide the incentives advertised. McCollum says his suit was prompted by the more than 500 consumer complaints his office received.
Victims received advertisements for sales seminars that featured images of various commercial cruise ships. The advertisements encouraged consumers to attend the seminars and receive a free cruise. Once at the seminars, consumers were allegedly told they would never have to pay retail price for travel again if they joined the travel club. Membership fees ranged from $2,495 to $7,495, and annual renewal fees ranged from $199 to $249.
Here are some suggestions that will help you stay out of trouble when booking travel:
Check companies' reputations before you pay. Search a travel company's name on the Attorney General's and Better Business Bureau's Web sites to see if other consumers have filed complaints against the company. Check with the Ohio Secretary of State to make sure the company is registered to do business in Ohio.
Be skeptical of postcards, phone calls and e-mails that promise a free vacation. Businesses may use giveaways to persuade consumers to call and then pressure them into buying an over-priced package or travel club membership. You may be able to find better deals with a local, reputable travel agent. Other times, you will be able to save money by booking your own flights and hotel reservations through the Internet or telephone.
Don't give in to high-pressure sales tactics. If you attend a sales presentation, you may be encouraged to make a purchase on the spot. Instead, insist on time to think about the deal and do not make a payment until you have all the information you need to make a decision. Don't do business with companies that make you feel uneasy or rushed.
Guard your personal financial information. Don't give your debit card or credit card number to a company you don't know or don't trust. Some consumers report travel clubs that make unauthorized withdrawals from their accounts or refuse to let them cancel their contracts.
Read the fine print. A travel club contract may include annual fees, maintenance costs or other unexpected charges. To avoid surprises, read the contract to find out exactly how much the membership will cost and how you can cancel it. Look for exclusions or conditions that will limit your ability to get a refund.
Get everything in writing. Make sure all verbal promises are put into a written contract; otherwise, they are not guaranteed. If a company refuses to put an agreement in writing, don't sign the contract.
Pay with a credit card. When you pay with a credit card, federal law allows you to dispute unauthorized charges of more than $50 with your credit provider. You may not have the same protections if you pay with a debit card.
Stroke Incidence Rising Among Younger Adults
Seniors suffering fewer strokes03/02/2010ConsumerAffairs
Stroke Incidence Rising Among Younger Adults...
Strokes are not just an affliction of people who are older.
Data from Ohio and Kentucky presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference 2010 show more young people are having strokes while older people are having fewer.
The average age of stroke patients in 2005 was nearly three years younger than it was in 1993 -- a significant decrease, researchers said. Moreover, the percentage of people 20 to 45 having a stroke was up to 7.3 percent in 2005 from 4.5 percent in 1993.
"This is scary and very concerning," said Brett M. Kissela, M.D., the study's lead author and Associate Professor, Co-Director of the Neurology Residency Program, and Vice-Chair of Education and Clinical Services at the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute. "What was shocking was the proportion of patients under age 45. The proportion is up, the incidence rate is up."
Stroke has traditionally been considered a disease of old age, so the findings are of great public health significance because of the potential for greater lifetime burden of disability among younger patients.
Researchers examined data from the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region, which includes about 1.3 million people. But Kissela said the trend noted is likely occurring throughout the nation because the higher prevalence of risk factors such as obesity and diabetes seen in the young here are also seen throughout the country.
They recorded the age of people hospitalized for their first-ever stroke from the summer of 1993 to the summer of 1994, then compared it with calendar years 1999 and 2005.
In 1993, the average age of first stroke was 71.3 years. The average age dropped to 70.9 in 1999 and was down to 68.4 by 2005.
Researchers also found racial differences in stroke incidence. For blacks, the incidence of strokes among those over age 85 dropped significantly by 2005. For whites, the incidence decreased significantly starting at age 65 by 2005.
In both races, the incidence rates for strokes in 20 to 45 year olds increased, although the increase was only statistically significant among whites, doubling from 12 per 100,000 people to 25 per 100,000.
Kissela said it's hard to know with certainty what is driving this change, but speculated the increased prevalence of diabetes, hypertension and obesity is a major contributor.
"As physicians, we need to look for these potent risk factors even in young people," he said. "Stroke is a life-changing, devastating disease. It can affect young people, and we hope these data will serve as a wake-up call.
Kissela's study complements research showing more children are becoming stroke patients.
Payment Processing CEO Banned from the Business
Company illegally debited millions from consumers bank accounts03/02/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
CEO of payment processing company will be banned from the business as part of a settlement resolving FTC charges the company illegally debited millions of ...
The chief executive officer of a payment processing company will be banned from the business as part of a settlement resolving Federal Trade Commission charges that the company illegally debited millions of dollars in bogus charges from consumers bank accounts.
In 2007, the FTC charged the executive, Tarzenea Dixon, her company, and others with processing unauthorized debits on behalf of deceptive telemarketers and Internet-based schemes they knew, or deliberately avoided knowing, were violating the FTCs Telemarketing Sales Rule. In addition, the attorneys general of Illinois, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, and Vermont charged the defendants with violating various state laws.
The settlement frees up about $2.8 million that will be paid to victims of the company.
"It is always unfortunate when consumers fall victim to the many financial predators and schemes that are out there," said Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. "However, today we have a good story to tell. We were not only able to track down the predators, but the victims will receive restitution. These cases are tough on everyone, but thanks to the strong efforts of the many state and federal agencies involved, this one is a success story."
According to the FTC complaint, the company played a critical role in helping many of its clients carry out these illegal schemes by providing access to the banking system and the means to extract money from consumers bank accounts.
Between June 23, 2004, and March 31, 2006, the defendants processed more than $200 million in debits and attempted debits. More than $69 million of the attempted debits were returned or rejected by consumers or their banks for various reasons, an indication that in many cases consumers had never authorized the charges. In many instances, the merchants either failed to deliver the promised products or services or sent consumers relatively worthless items.
The settling defendant is Tarzenea Dixon. Her co-defendants are Your Money Access, LLC d/b/a Netchex Corp., Universal Payment Solutions, Check Recovery Systems, Nterglobal Payment Solutions, and Subscription Services, Ltd.; YMA Company, LLC; and Derrelle Janey.
In addition to permanently banning Dixon from any payment processing, the settlement order bans her from substantially aiding any marketer when she knows, or consciously avoids knowing, that it is violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The order imposes a $22 million judgment that is stayed based on her inability to pay. The full judgment will become due immediately if she is found to have misrepresented her financial condition.
Meanwhile, litigation against Janey continues. On October 28, 2008, the court entered a default judgment against the corporate defendants, Your Money Access, LLC and YMA Company, LLC, barring them from payment processing for any client whose business practices are deceptive, unfair, or abusive within the meaning of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the state consumer protection laws. The case was part of the FTCs Operation Tele-PHONEY telemarketing fraud law enforcement sweep announced in May 2008.
In December 2008, the FTC announced a settlement between the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and Wachovia Bank, N.A. to issue more than $150 million in redress checks to victims of telemarketing fraud. The checks reimbursed consumers for funds deducted from their accounts by three payment processors that maintained accounts with Wachovia, including Your Money Access.
Washington State Clears Up Window Deals
Attorney general wants more transparency in window marketing03/02/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Truman Lewis
Washington State Clears Up Window Deals...
Hoping to encourage window sellers to be transparent in their marketing, the Washington State attorney generals office reached a settlement this week with Mukilteo-based Penguin Windows.
Our case alleged that Penguins claims just didnt fly, said Assistant Attorney General Jack Zurlini. Our agreement sets out in black and white the acceptable marketing practices in the window sales industry and those bad practices that will put companies on thin ice.
In its complaint, the attorney generals office accused Penquin of misrepresenting its products, making false claims about the energy savings customers would achieve, and misleading consumers into thinking that the in-home appointments they set up with Penguin were something other than sales calls.
Penguin denied any wrongdoing as part of the settlement filed in King County Superior Court but agreed to restrictions on its marketing tactics.
Penguin Windows also does business as Statewide Energy Systems, Statewide Home Improvement, Statewide Vinyl, Statewide Windows and Statewide Window and Siding.
The states complaint says Penguins advertisement claims that its windows would save homeowners at least 40 percent on their monthly heating and cooling bills are false and that Penguin had no reasonable basis to support them. The attorney generals office alleged that the companys practice of asking homeowners to sign a letter agreeing not to cancel the sale interferes with a law that gives customers three business days to cancel a sale made during an in-home presentation.
Penguin agreed to terms that include prohibiting it from making misrepresentations to gain entry into a home, failing to substantiate advertising claims, interfering with cancellation rights and continuing in-home sales presentations after a customer has clearly stated that he or she wishes it to end.
The attorney generals office agreed to suspend $25,000 in civil penalties provided Penguin abides with consumer protection laws in the future. The company will pay $95,000 in attorneys fees and legal costs.
The case is similar to one the AG settled in September 2009 with Evans Glass, of Seattle. The offices Consumer Protection Division sent letters to more than 30 window and home siding installation businesses last fall, as part of an effort to educate them about high-pressure pitches, inflated prices and fraudulent endorsements that are illegal and have the potential to damage the industrys reputation.
Consumer Watchdog Files Anthem Class Action
Says insurer's rate hikes violate California law03/02/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
A consumer advocate group has filed suit against Anthem Blue Cross, claiming that the insurer's recent California rate hikes illegally blocked coverage to ...
A consumer advocate group has filed suit against Anthem Blue Cross, claiming that the insurer's recent California rate hikes illegally blocked coverage to scores of policyholders.
Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit, filed the class action in Ventura County Superior Court on Monday. The complaint says that Anthem, California's largest for-profit health insurer, used enormous rate hikes to force patients into lower benefit and higher deductible health coverage in violation of state law.
Lead plaintiffs Mary Feller and Randy Freed both received letters from Anthem telling them that their policies were no longer being offered to new customers and that, as a result, their premiums would significantly increase. As a consolation, Anthem assured them that they could switch to any Anthem Blue Cross individual health plan with no underwriting required.
Unfortunately, all of the alternative plans available to Feller and Freed had some combination of higher premiums, higher deductibles, and/or inferior coverage compared to their canceled plans.
Rate hikes led to death spiral
The suit alleges that Anthem's actions -- closing certain health plans to new customers without providing comparable coverage to existing members -- illegally trap those existing customers in their too-expensive policies and lead to the dreaded insurance death spiral.
That term refers to the phenomenon whereby rates go up, forcing consumers out of their current plans, which leads to a smaller pool of customers and, predictably, another rate hike. A 1993 California law prohibits insurance companies from putting customers in this situation.
Still, Jerry Flanagan, a health advocate with Consumer Watchdog, says that the practice is all too common.
It's a very profitable practice, and what we know is the insurance industry is very focused on short-term returns, Flanagan said.
Double-digit rate increases
The Fellers saw their rates jump 39%, pushing their annual premium from around $14,000 to nearly $20,000. Their 26-year-old daughter, a breast cancer survivor, also saw a 38% spike in her coverage costs.
Blue Cross has a gun to our heads, Feller said. We could either stay with our old coverage or switch to a new policy with much lower benefits. What Blue Cross did not tell us was that staying with our better policy would mean a 39 percent rate increase.
Feller's family is paying almost $25,000 a year in premiums, more than the mortgage on their home in high-end Marin County, California.
I think for the first time, we're really scared that we're going to be without health insurance, Feller said.
Ironically, Anthem's announcement last month that it would be raising premiums to as high as 39% is credited with reigniting the push for health care reform. President Obama counted himself very disturbed by the announcement, and Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, demanded a detailed justification for the hike. California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner is also investigating.
Judge Rejects Honda Civic Hybrid Settlement
Says 'coupon settlement' doesn't provide enough to plaintiffs03/01/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Last week, that argument spurred a federal judge to reject a proposed settlement in a suit involving misleading fuel economy claims about the Honda Civic H...
It's a common complaint about class action lawsuits: they invariably result in hefty attorneys' fees while providing next to nothing for the plaintiffs, for whom the suit was ostensibly brought in the first place.
Last week, that argument spurred a federal judge to reject a proposed settlement in a suit involving misleading fuel economy claims about the Honda Civic Hybrid. The agreement -- which included $3 million in attorneys' fees and left consumers with rebates for future Honda purchases -- was apparently too much for Virginia Phillips, a U.S. District Judge in the Central District of California, to swallow.
She sided with 26 attorneys general and various consumer groups who argued that the deal provided nothing of value to the class. The ruling left Washington, D.C.-based Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca, the firm representing the plaintiffs, scrambling to come up with a Plan B.
The court did not have enough information about the value of the settlement to approve the settlement, said Jonathan Cuneo, the firm's founding member. And the burden was on us. There is no question that she took, in my opinion, the objections to be serious.
Lead plaintiffs John True and Gonzalo Delgado filed the suit in 2007, taking issue with the car's advertised mileage of 51 miles per gallon on the highway and 49 in the city. In 6,000 miles of driving, True averaged only 31 miles per gallon in mixed highway/city driving. The suit was brought on behalf of owners of 2003-2008 Civic Hybrids, a class comprising over 150,000 consumers.
Settlement a marketing incentive
Under the terms of the settlement, Civic owners who were willing to trade in their car could receive a $1,000 coupon toward a new Honda; class members who wanted to keep their Civic were eligible for a $500 coupon. In either case, the coupon couldn't be used toward a certified used car or a new Civic Hybrid -- a bizarre and seemingly pointless restriction, especially considering that Civic Hybrids cost around $7,000 more than their standard counterparts.
Honda also generously agreed to provide each class member with a DVD containing tips on how to achieve better fuel economy.
To many observers, the deal seemed like a better deal for Honda than for the class.
It was essentially a marketing incentive program for Honda, according to Ted Frank, founder of the Center for Class Action Fairness, which filed a brief objecting to the settlement. So if you bought a Honda Civic Hybrid in 2008, the only relief was to get a coupon to buy another Honda. That's a benefit to Honda, certainly. It's not clear it's a benefit to the class members.
Michael Kirkpatrick, a lawyer for Public Citizen, which also objected to the settlement, said that, under the agreement, the class gives up their claims in exchange for basically nothing.
A victory for attorneys general
No fewer than 26 state attorneys general -- led by Greg Abbott of Texas -- said that the settlement didn't meet the heightened scrutiny required of coupon settlements. That standard, set forth in the 2005 Class Action Fairness Act, provides that the court may approve the proposed settlement only after a hearing to determine whether, and making a written finding that, the settlement is fair, reasonable and adequate for class members.
Indeed, a number of courts have rejected coupon settlements that give consumers a raw deal. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida summed it up well in Figueroa v. Sharper Image, a 2007 case involving the air purifier that eventually drove Sharper Image into the ground.
The court categorized the third proposed settlement agreement -- under which consumers would receive a $19 Sharper Image coupon -- as one in which class members [receive] little more than the right to purchase more products from the defendant at a discounted price.
Where the parties will go from here is unclear. Cuneo, the plaintiffs' attorney, pointed out that Judge Phillips didn't shut the door on a new, fairer proposed settlement. An amended agreement would be fine with many of the objectors too. Kirkpatrick, the Public Citizen lawyer, is hoping for a settlement that actually gives [the class] some value.
Minnesota Sues Six Debt Settlement Companies
First enforcement action under new state law orders03/01/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Minnesota Sues Six Debt Settlement Companies...
You've heard the commercials on radio and cable TV; companies promise desperate people they can help them settle their debt. What's often unsaid is these firms charge consumers hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars of upfront fees.
As the recession drags on, more and more states are taking action against these firms. In Minnesota, Attorney General Lori Swanson has filed six lawsuits against separate out-of-state companies that promised to help consumers, but left them in worse financial shape.
The lawsuits are the first filed under a state law passed last year to regulate so-called "debt settlement" firms doing business in Minnesota. The suits accuse the six companies-based in Florida, Texas, and California-of signing up Minnesota consumers without being licensed by the State, in some cases charging cash-strapped people fees of hundreds or thousands of dollars more than allowed under state law.
The lawsuits were filed against American Debt Settlement Solutions, Inc. of Boca Raton, Florida; Debt Rx USA, LLC of Dallas, Texas; FH Financial Service, Inc. of Dallas, Texas; Morgan Drexen, Inc. of Anaheim, California; Pathway Financial Management, Inc. of Garden Grove, California; and State Capital Financial, Inc. of Hallandale Beach, Florida.
Swimming in debt
"Many people owe money on their credit cards and are struggling to keep up with their bills because of the bad economy," said Swanson. "People who are swimming in debt are often desperate for a life preserver, but they should know that debt settlement companies usually just anchor them down with even more financial problems. No consumer should ever do business with an unlicensed debt settlement company."
According to the Federal Reserve, American consumers owed nearly $2.5 trillion in credit card and other consumer debt (not including home mortgages) as of November, 2009. The debt settlement industry took off a few years ago as consumers faced high levels of credit card and consumer debt and a recession that made it difficult for many people to keep up with their bills.
Debt settlement companies tell consumers to stop paying their creditors and instead place the money that would have gone to creditors in a bank account, which the debt settler will supposedly use to negotiate a reduction in the consumer's debt.
The Better Business Bureau calls the debt settlement industry one fraught with "inherent problems." Debt settlement companies often ask consumers to pay origination and monthly fees of thousands of dollars, but their recommendations often leave consumers in even worse financial shape. For example, debt settlers typically recommend that consumers stop paying their bills so that the debt settler can negotiate reduced payments with the creditors.
Ruined credit and collection lawsuits
Consumers who stop paying their bills, however, usually end up with ruined credit and often face collection lawsuits, garnishment, and debt collection calls. In addition, when a consumer stops making payments on their credit card and other bills, late fees and interest accrue, and the amount of the loan swells. Meanwhile, the debt settlers are profiting from fees that could have been used by the consumer to pay bills.
The lawsuits allege that the companies signed up Minnesota consumers for debt settlement contracts after August 1, 2009, the effective date of the new state law, without being registered with the Minnesota Department of Commerce, as required by state law. Minnesota law limits the origination and monthly fees that may be charged by licensed debt settlement firms.
Depending on the amount of the consumer's debt and the method they choose to pay the debt settler, state law generally caps the origination fee that may be charged by the debt settler at between $200 and $500 and caps the monthly fee that may be charged by the debt settler at between $50 and $75.
VoIP Users Still Voice Frustrations at Quality, Service
Magicjack, Vonage, Skype users report problems03/01/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
VoIP Users Still Voice Frustrations at Quality, Service...
You've probably seen commercials on TV for Magicjack and wondered how a company could offer telephone service for as little as $19.95 a year. It's because it's not really telephone service in the traditional sense.
Like Vonage, Magicjack uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, riding piggyback on the Internet instead of relying on a telecom network. Magicjack customers are assigned a telephone number and receive a phone jack that plugs into the USB port of their computer.
Despite the price, which is well under $2 a month, there are a number of dissatisfied customers.
"I bought a Magicjack and it worked for a couple of weeks," Monica, of Chattanooga, Tenn., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Then when I would go to use my phone, there would be no dial tone. I have chatted with them twice and the solutions they give me work for a day. The next day, no dial tone again."
Susan, of Marysville, Ohio, also reports quality problems.
"I purchased the product and received it, only to have people I called inform me that they couldn't hear me, my voice kept breaking up, their phone didn't ring when I called using the product and in the middle of several calls, the product just quit working, she said.
Still others complain that the price of using the inexpensive Magicjack is having a large pop-up ad for the company launch on your computer screen every time you make a call.
"Whenever I open my computer, anticipating the gorgeous picture I put on my desktop, I am assaulted with a big Magicjack ad immediately," Anna, of Tallahassee, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Not one of my other many programs has the audacity to perform this extremely rude behavior. And it won't go away! It is in the way of everything I do!"
Not everyone, of course, experiences these problems. James Limbach, a reporter for ConsumerAffairs.com, has been using a Magicjack as a secondary line for a couple of years now and is still fairly satisfied with it.
"It's generally good," Limbach said. "Sometimes I have to redial, but it works the first time about 90 percent of the time."
Limbach also said he has never seen the Magicjack pop-up that others have reported. He purchased his unit in 2008.
He does note that it sometimes takes several attempts to launch the program. For that reason alone, he says, he might not use Magicjack if he had to pay much more than $19.95 a year.
In researching this story, we found that ConsumerAffairs' main telephone number is provided by Vonage and an official of the Web site said there has never been an issue with quality, reliability or billing. The site also uses Skype, primarily for overseas calls, as well as Google Voice, landlines from Verizon and cell phones from every major provider.
"Cell phones are amazingly expensive compared to every other form of telecommunications," said the consumer site's president, Jim Hood. "They're the bottled water of the communications business. VoIP is tap water."
Alternatives in the VoIP sector can be more expensive, and are not immune to unhappy customers. Vonage costs $25.99 a month for unlimited local and long distance calls. But consumers report issues with it too.
"The service never works properly," Paulette, of Detroit, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I have spent many hours on the phone with them to try to resolve the issue."
Skype, based in Luxemburg, offers VoIP services, as well as video calls, and its basic cost is in line with Magicjack's. But it, too, draws its fair share of consumer complaints, mostly for its business practices instead of its technical performance.
"Skype made five unauthorized transactions through Paypal directed ACH out of my bank, each costing $25 dollars," Junart, of Dallas, told ConsumerAffairs.com.
No matter which VoIP service you try, it might not be as reliable as the traditional telephone services most consumers grew up with and now take for granted.
It's important to remember that the quality and reliability of VoIP service depends on your local Internet connection. If you have a slow or noisy DSL line, no VoIP service will work very well. VoIP usually won't work at all with satellite Internet connections or dial-up Internet services.
Nor should you rely on VoIP for emergency 911 service. Vonage and some other VoIP providers say they provide 911 service but others, like Skype, say very clearly that they are not a substitute for a landline and should not be used for emergencies.Consumers need to decide for themselves whether the low cost and added flexibility of VoIP is an acceptable trade-off for possible reliability issues. A wise choice would be to try to VoIP service for a month or two before getting rid of any other telephone service you might have.