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    Walnuts May Help Fight Prostate Cancer

    Animal tests show significant progress in reducing cancer development and growth

    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.



    Walnuts May Help Fight Prostate Cancer...
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    Minnesota Sues Marketer Of College Entrance Test Prep Materials

    Company used charitable appeals to sell overpriced commercial products

    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.

    Minnesota Sues Marketer Of College Entrance Test Prep Materials...
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    Bank of America to Forgive Some Mortgage Debt

    Plan could allow 'underwater' borrowers to regain some equity

    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.



    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...
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      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 advance


      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.

      Brooklyn Tour Bus Company Hit for Charging for Non-Existent Trips...
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      Minnesota Sues Two Modification 'Consultants'

      New law prohibits modification companies from taking advance payments

      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.

      Minnesota Sues Two Modification Consultants...
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      Modification Meltdowns: Nightmare on Your Street

      Homeowners find trial modifications can leave them in worse shape than before

      "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.

      Denied

      "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.

      Good candidate

      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.

      Second chance?

      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.



      Modification Meltdowns: Nightmare on Your Street...
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      IRS Warns About 'Dirty Dozen' Tax Scams

      Agency spends more time each year sniffing out illegal schemes


      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

      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: phishing@irs.gov.

      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.

      Frivolous arguments

      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.

      Zero wages

      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.

      IRS Warns About 'Dirty Dozen' Tax Scams...
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      Kevin Trudeau-Inspired Weight Loss Web Site Launched

      Site sells kits for mixing and injecting yourself with HCG

      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.

      Disclaimer

      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.

      Kevin Trudeau-Inspired Weight Loss Web Site Launched...
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      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).

      Ventus Bicycle Aerobars...
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      Boomers Looking for Work

      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:

      1. Yourself
      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

      Yourself

      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

      Goal setting

      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&eacuts, 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

      • AARP
      • 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

      How to turn age (experience) and skills (proven accomplishments) to your advantage in your job search...
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      CARD Act Could Impact Your Credit Score

      Lenders looking for ways to make up lost revenue could affect you

      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."

      Non-activity fee

      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.

      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.

      CARD Act Could Impact Your Credit Score...
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      Pinnacle Security Reaches Settlement With Illinois

      Company sued last year for deceptive marketing practices

      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.

      Restitution

      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.

      Pinnacle Security Reaches Settlement With Illinois...
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      Health Reform to Deliver Calorie Counts to Chain Restaurant Menus

      CSPI hails 'huge victory for consumers' after 7-year fight

      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.


      Health Reform to Deliver Calorie Counts to Chain Restaurant Menus...
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      Iowa Residents File Bed Bug Class Action

      Plight of Des Moines plaintiffs familiar to many


      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.



      Iowa Residents File Bed Bug Class Action...
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      California Shuts Down Fraudulent Foreclosure Relief Companies

      Victims of three alleged scams to get more than $1 million in restitution

      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.

      Additional defendants

      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.

      California Shuts Down Fraudulent Foreclosure Relief Companies...
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      Settlement Reached with Seller of Acai Berry Supplements

      Nutra Pills barred from making 'free' offers unless they really are

      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 .

      Settlement Reached with Seller of Acai Berry Supplements...
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      American Kids More Obese Than Ever

      More children affected at earlier ages, study finds


      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.

      Health risk

      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.



      American Kids More Obese Than Ever...
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      Dietary Supplement Peddler Pleads Guilty to $17 Million Fraud Scheme

      Nutrapha Research made illegal claims that its supplements could cure diseases

      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.

      False testimonials

      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.



      Dietary Supplement Peddler Pleads Guilty to $17 Million Fraud Scheme...
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      Suit: Midas 'Lifetime Guarantee' Doesn't Last Long

      Car shop chain canceled hundreds of costly contracts, class action charges

      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.



      Suit: Midas 'Lifetime Guarantee' Doesn't Last Long...
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