1. Home
  2. News
  3. 2010
  4. March

News in March 2010

Browse by year


Browse by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    Pennsylvania Shuts Down Five Puppy Mills

    Enforcement action comes under state's new Dog Law

    The State of Pennsylvania says it has taken action against five commercial dog breeding operations in the state, which it says were among the state's "most..

    Doctors Treating Wave of 'Boomeritis'

    Mayo Clinic reminds boomers they aren't as young as they think

    A 50-something goes for a daily jog and is jolted by back pain, or finds his weekly tennis game suddenly hampered by an arthritic knee. Orthopedic surgeons are seeing a wave of exercise-related injuries among baby boomers and have dubbed the phenomenon "boomeritis."

    True, baby boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, are fitter and more athletic longer into their lives, compared with their parents' generation. They are running marathons, hitting the slopes, playing hockey, cycling the country, and more.

    While staying active promotes health, at age 50 and older the body is less forgiving. Injuries can occur when people push beyond the body's capability. Typical problems include tendonitis, bursitis, stress fractures and tendon tears, such as rotator cuff injuries.

    Doctors writing in the Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource offers these tips to help avoid boomeritis:

    Ask your doctor first

    A doctor can offer advice when a person is considering a new sport or activity. In general, it's wise to start slowly and increase gradually.

    Warm up

    A warm-up prepares a body for activity by getting the blood flowing, raising muscle temperature and increasing the heart rate. Moderate activities, such as walking on a treadmill or cycling in a low gear, are good warm-ups. Cold muscles are more prone to injury.


    Past age 40, joints, tissues and muscles may not be as flexible as they once were. Stretching after exercise, when muscles are warm, can help prevent injury and may improve performance.


    Alternating different types of activities works various muscle groups, which helps muscles adapt to new activities. A balanced fitness program should include cardio work, strength training and flexibility exercises, such as yoga, and exercises such as Pilates that target the core muscles.

    Be consistent

    Compressing hours of heavy activity into the weekend sets the stage for injury. A better approach is aiming for 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise daily.

    Listen to your body

    Boomers may not be able to tolerate the same sports or participate as long or as intensely as they could when they were younger. Significant stiffness or strain indicates too much intensity.

    Don't overdo it

    A rest period or a rest day after an intense workout can help avoid injury. A good rule is to increase activity by no more than 10 percent each week, for example, adding one mile a week to reach a 10-mile-per-week walking regimen.

    Doctors Treating Wave of 'Boomeritis'...
    Read lessRead more

    It's Vacation Rental Scam Season

    Feds offer tips to avoid having your vacation spoiled

    With the beginning of spring, consumers start turning their attention to vacation time and rental properties.

    The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and the FBI receive numerous complaints from individuals who have fallen victim to scams involving rentals of apartments and houses, as well as online real estate postings. ConsumerAffairs.com hears from people who say they got burned, too.

    Jewels of Cornville, AZ, tells us that her and her husband had got a vacation rental in San Diego, CA, on Craigslist from Jennifer P. G. "She told me the place was clean and the pictures showed a nice view of the bay. She told me that was the view from the living room in the apartment. So we paid 1800.00 in deposits to her."

    Jewels says after a seven-hour drive, "we were appalled at what we saw. It was in the back of a hotel where there was garbage and huge rusted cargo crates right there next to the building. The steps going up to the condo were cracked and the railing was broke and there was a big drop down."

    Ways consumers can protect themselves from rental schemes include:

    • Do not wire funds to people you do not know.

    • Check with your county recorder to learn who owns the property you're seeking to rent.

    • Call the property manager or association, if applicable, and ask about the landlord.

    • Ask the landlord for a rental application. It's a red flag if one is not available; most managed properties require an application.

    • Find out how much of a security deposit may be requested in your state. Scammers will often ask for extra money in the form of a deposit.

    At least one state -- New Jersey -- is taking action against those who promise but fail to deliver when it comes to vacations.

    IC3 and the FBI receive numerous complaints from individuals who have fallen victim to scams involving rentals of apartments and houses, as well as online ...
    Read lessRead more

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      Nightmare Virgin America Flight Broadcast on YouTube

      Social media company CEO documents ordeal on the tarmac

      When it took Virgin America Flight 404 16 hours to get its passengers from Los Angeles to New York's JFK Airport, it was hardly the first time passengers had been trapped aboard a diverted airliner for hour after hour. However, it may have been the first such incident documented on YouTube.

      Seated in seat 1A, David Martin wasn't just another passenger. He is also CEO of the social networking site Kontain.com. He immediately realized the role of the Internet to inform the world about what was going on.

      He began posting status reports to his Kontain account. Using the video camera in his cell phone, he began to document what was going on around him. By the end of the ordeal, his mini documentary was rocketing around the world on YouTube.

      The ordeal began Saturday when Flight 404 was unable to land at JFK because of high winds and was diverted to Stewart International Airport, 90 miles away. There, the plane sat on the Tarmac, waiting for clearance to take off again.

      Meanwhile, the hours passed, with the passengers, who had just completed a long trans-continental flight, remaining cooped up in the cabin with almost no food or water. After a while, Martin said, the flight crew appeared to be losing its grip.

      Martin singles out one incident in particular, when he and a fellow passenger from first class were distributing a small number of cookies to mothers with small children, seated in coach. When a woman, who had been suffering panic attacks, asked if she too could have a cookie, Martin said a nearby flight attendant "snapped" at the woman, nearly sending her over the edge.

      "Everyone knew she was a very frantic woman, which is why no one said anything when she asked for the cookie. Everyone understood but the flight attendant," said Martin, in the posting.

      'Tensions rising big time'

      "Tensions rising big time as we are grounded and passengers are trying to get off," he said in an early post. "Virgin crew losing control of passengers. Police now onboard here," he said in a later posting.

      After landing at Stewart, the airline gave passengers the option of leaving the plane and it said 20 passengers did so. After four hours on the tarmac, Virgin America officially cancelled the flight and the remaining passengers made their way to New York by bus or other air connections.

      Had the incident occurred after April 28, Virgin America could have been fined up to $27,000 per passenger for a tarmac delay exceeding three hours, under a new law that takes effect April 29. As it turned out, the airline simply suffered a public relations embarrassment. A high-profile one, at that.

      Martin told CNN that the CEO of Virgin America, David Kush, called him personally to apologize after seeing his YouTube video. Martin said he told the airline official he should offer passengers a complete refund of their ticket, not just the $100 credit that was originally proffered.

      Kush agreed, and passengers will get their money back as well as $100 off on their next Virgin America flight.

      Nightmare Virgin America Flight Broadcast on YouTube...
      Read lessRead more

      Texas Shuts Down Travel Club

      Victims paid thousands for 'worthless' memberships

      The State of Texas has charged a Dallas-area travel firm and three of its principals with violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act by marketing worthless travel club memberships.

      According to court documents filed by the state, Royal Palms Travel Inc. and All Inclusive Excursions promised prospects they would get steep discounts on travel purchases if they signed up as members of Sealand Travel club, which Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says was nothing more than a shell company.

      The state maintains the memberships actually had little or no value. In response to the state's enforcement action, a Dallas County District Court issued a temporary restraining order against the defendants that prevents them from continuing to violate the law. A temporary injunction hearing is set for 2 p.m., March 30.

      Among the defendants charged with legal violations were company principals Adrian D. Miller, William H. Bailey and Christy Spensberger. Other named defendants were Travel Services Inc., Funseekers Vacations Inc. and Royal Palms Travel. According to state investigators, Royal Palms Travel and a related entity, All Inclusive Excursions, unlawfully misled potential customers and relied upon improper high-pressure sales tactics to sell worthless travel club memberships.

      Abbott says he's seen this kind of scheme before. It's similar, he says, to other illegal travel scams he's shut down in the past.

      Lots of Restrictions

      The state's court documents show the defendants lured customers to sales presentations by offering free trips, airline tickets -- even gasoline. However, seminar attendees were informed that their free trips and tickets were contingent upon paying a deposit and submitting receipts for vouchers or rebates. Customers also discovered that the "free" trips were subject to restrictions that rendered them effectively worthless.

      The defendants urged other prospective customers to join Sealand Travel Club, which claimed to provide significant discounts and the lowest prices for travel. The state's enforcement action reveals those claims were false and thus unlawful, and that Sealand is an unincorporated shell company existing in name only.

      The defendants routed Sealand memberships they sold customers to a mail drop at a UPS office in Kansas City, Mo. In turn, Travel Services Inc., a Delaware corporation also known as Funseekers Vacations Inc., received the forwarded Sealand memberships at an office in Litchfield, Ill.

      Sealand charged its members from $2,000 to $8,000, but customers received little or nothing of value, as they were unable to book travel at lower prices than they could find without the Sealand membership. Thus, prices under the "Sealand" banner were no more discounted than ordinary prices quoted on the Internet, according to Abbott.

      To prevent further unlawful conduct and prevent additional Texans from being harmed, the attorney general is seeking a temporary injunction that will extend the temporary restraining order the court granted has already granted. The Office of the Attorney General is also seeking civil penalties of up to $20,000 for each instance the defendant violated the DTPA.

      Because Travel Services Inc. unlawfully failed to obtain a certificate of authority for conducting business from the Texas Secretary of State, the attorney general also charged the defendant with violating the Business Organization Code - a violation that renders the defendant liable for franchise taxes from 2008 through 2010.

      Texas Shuts Down Travel Club...
      Read lessRead more

      FCC’s Broadband Plan: Who’s for It—and Against It

      Mid-sized broadband providers may have the most to gain

      By Marian Wang, ProPublica

      March 18, 2010
      Since the FCC formally revealed its plan to expand broadband access on Tuesday, the idea has been generally well-received. And really, what’s there to protest so far? The plan’s stated goal is to connect “100 million households to affordable 100-megabits-per-second service, building the world’s largest market of high-speed broadband users and ensuring that new jobs and businesses are created in America.” It also stresses making broadband faster and more powerful.

      So far the only group consistently cited as being the “loser” in all of this is the National Association of Broadcasters, which has expressed reservations about losing its portion of the airwaves to make room for the broadband providers. But which industry players stand to win big if the plan moves forward? Here’s what the Post reported on this point:

      Mid-size broadband providers, such as TW Telecom and Cbeyond, are shaping up to be the plan’s biggest beneficiaries, gaining access to more subscribers and the rights to federal funds to expand their networks. Makers of network equipment, such as Cisco, and creators of Web-based content, such as Google, could also experience significant boosts in their business. And cellphone carriers could reap big gains from a proposal to allocate a large chunk of airwaves for the next generation of smartphones and portable devices.

      The Post went on to draw a distinction between midsize and major providers:

      Major providers, such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon Communications, would gain broader subscriber bases, but they could be forced to share their wireless and fixed-wire networks with smaller rivals, exposing them potentially to stiffer competition.

      These major providers, while they’re now giving statements of tentative support to the press—with caveats advocating less regulation—are the same ones who’ve beenpushing for this kind of proposal for years. 

      A letter the providers sent to lawmakers in July 2008 details their support. In the letter (PDF), AT&T and Verizon urged Congress to enact legislation to expand broadband access. The letter’s 31 signatories included major broadband providers, but also groups as wide-ranging as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, American Association of People with Disabilities, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association.

      The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which was the largest lobbying group in the entertainment industry in 2009, also signed on to the letter. Comcast, also one of the biggest lobbyists in the industry, signed on too. Since the FCC announced its plan, both the cable lobbying group and Comcast executives have already written blog posts detailing how they would like the FCC to implement it. Together, the three top groups—in third, the National Association of Broadcasters, which has its concerns about the plan—spent nearly $40 million on lobbying in 2009.

      And for concerned consumers, the Post points out that the plan “only sets the goal of ‘affordable’ broadband services,” but does not tackle prices through rules or caps.

      © Copyright 2010 Pro Publica Inc.

      FCC’s Broadband Plan: Who’s for It—and Against It...
      Read lessRead more

      Arkansas Sues Health Discount Marketer

      Company allegedly told consumers they were buying health insurance

      A health discount card is not health insurance, a distinction sometimes lost on consumers, especially if the marketer intentionally misleads them. The State of Arkansas accuses one company of doing exactly that.

      Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel sued Consumer Health Benefits Association, alleging that the company tells potential clients it offers health insurance, but instead only offers a health discount card with limited benefits.

      The Florida-based actively markets its health discount card as a health insurance plan through telemarketing sales calls placed to Arkansas consumers, according to McDaniel. The attorney general's lawsuit alleges that CHBA falsely implies that the card they offer is health insurance.

      Additionally, the suit charges CHBA overstates the benefits available to Arkansas consumers and also states that many medical providers accept the card as a discount for services. Actually, many providers do not have agreements with CHBA to honor the card.

      In addition, McDaniel says the company failed to register to do business before operating in the State, which is required by Arkansas law.

      Cards marketed nationwide

      CHBA markets its card nationwide and McDaniel says it has enrolled approximately 1,800 Arkansas consumers since 2003. The company typically charged customers a non-refundable enrollment fee of $119 and a monthly fee of between $119.95 and $149.95 to participate in the discount card program.

      After receiving the company's card in the mail and attempting to use it, many Arkansas customers cancelled the card within one month of enrollment and approximately 79 percent cancelled within six months of enrollment.

      "This discount card does not provide Arkansans with the protections they were promised," McDaniel said. "This company is blatantly taking advantage of consumers who are seeking affordable health insurance."

      ConsumerAffairs.com has received many complaints about CHBA over the years, many similar to the ones McDaniel says he has received in Arkansas.

      "I was told this was insurance, Sandra, of Winchester, Va., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "My doctors told me they had never heard of it. They called and found out it was a very complex discount plan. I contacted Virginia State Corporation Commission and was informed they are not licensed to do business in Virginia."

      McDaniel seeks an injunction to stop the deceptive solicitations in Arkansas, as well as restitution for Arkansas consumers who purchased the discount card. The Attorney General also seeks civil penalties against CHBA under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Health Related Cash Discount Card Act.

      A health discount card is not health insurance, a distinction sometimes lost on consumers, especially if the marketer intentionally misleads them....
      Read lessRead more

      Colorado Man Indicted, Accused of Foreign Exchange Scam

      EquityFX allegedly defrauded investors of nearly $700,000

      March 17, 2010
      A Colorado man has been indicted on suspicion of violating securities fraud laws while he was being prosecuted in an unrelated securities fraud case, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers announced.

      According to the indictment, Hamilton Alan Bird operated a Nevada-based company, EquityFX, Inc., which pitched consumers on foreign exchange currency trading investments that promised high rates of return. Much of the investment money Bird collected, according to the indictment, was used to pay his own personal expenses, to pay out to other investors and to show false profits.

      Between January 2006 and September 2008, Bird, according to the indictment, accepted funds totaling up to $100,000 from individual investors in Colorado as well as Arizona, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Texas. Bird allegedly collected approximately $690,000 from his victims.

      This case is remarkable not only for its breadth and the number of investors affected, but also because Mr. Bird perpetrated a portion of this fraud while criminal proceedings were pending against him in a securities fraud case brought by the Attorney Generals Office, Suthers said. We look forward to presenting our case in Colorado Springs.

      During the course of the scheme, Bird is suspected of failing to make proper disclosures to investors, including information about the losses on the money he actually invested in foreign currency. Bird also failed to disclose that the Office of the Attorney General had obtained an indictment against him alleging securities fraud on May 12, 2006 and that Colorado Division of Securities had filed a lawsuit against him on Feb. 3, 2005 for violations of the Colorado Securities Act.

      Bird pleaded guilty on March 14, 2008 to one count of securities fraud, a class-three felony, and one count of theft, a class-three felony, in the Office of the Attorney Generals case. An El Paso County District Court sentenced him in September 2008 to 24 years in prison. A Denver District Court entered a $12.6 million judgment and injunction against Bird in May 2007 as a result of the Colorado Division of Securities case.

      Colorado Man Indicted, Accused of Foreign Exchange Scam...
      Read lessRead more

      Which Is Better, Store Brand or Name Brand?

      Private label products provide a way to stretch budget

      When you go down almost any grocery aisle, you're likely to be confronted with a choice in most product categories. There will be an advertised brand you've heard of, and right next to it a brand you haven't.

      Is one better than the other?

      There probably isn't a lot of difference between the two products. In fact, both products may have come out of the same food manufacturing plant.

      For example, ConAgra spends millions of dollars to promote its Peter Pan peanut butter. But it also produces Great Value peanut butter, Wal-Mart's store brand. While there might be slight differences in the two products, the differences are likely to be subtle.

      Store brands usually cost less than name brands for one simple reason; a manufacturer spends lots of money advertising its name brand product and that cost gets passed along to the consumer. A store brand doesn't carry that marketing cost and further benefits from the chain store's massive distribution power. The store can sell it for less and still make money.

      Chalk it up to the power of advertising that U.S. consumers have traditionally favored nationally advertised brands. At least they did until the Great Recession, when value conscious shoppers decided to try more and more store brand products.

      The Food Marketing Institute's 2009 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report shows consumers have switched to "private label," or store brand products, and have also begun buying fewer processed food products.

      Taste test

      Not only can some consumers not tell the difference between a store brand and a nationally advertised brand, sometimes they might even prefer it. In 2005 a double-blind nationwide taste by Meyers Research found that participants preferred the taste of private-label products over advertised brands by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. A Consumer Reports taste test in 2009 achieved similar results.

      Now that consumers have found they can also save money on these brands, some experts don't expect a return to better known advertised brands once the economy improves.

      "Shopping habits have changed, and consumers will likely continue to remain thriftier than in past years," said Molly Jensen, assistant professor of marketing in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.

      That prediction is backed up by a 2009 study by GfK Roper, that found 91 percent of shoppers who say they switched from buying name brands to buying store brands during the previous year will continue buying the store brand after the recession ends. Based on a poll of 800 grocery shoppers, the survey cited quality as a major factor in influencing their purchase decisions.

      Jensen says American consumers generally have not held private labels in high regard, especially compared with European consumers, who actually prefer them. Until recently there was only about 40-percent household penetration of private labels, meaning that on any given day, one would find private-label products in only 4 out of 10 households.

      Recently, however, projections are up to 60-percent penetration of private-label products into American homes. Jensen speculates that when consumers are able to go back to branded products, they will have found that many of the private-label products were of equal or higher quality.

      "A simple perusal of grocery aisles in any store will confirm an increase in private-label variety," she said. "Stores are introducing a variety of new categories with private-label products, including organic eggs, gourmet crackers, single-serving powdered drinks and household cleaners."

      Which Is Better, Store Brand or Name Brand?...
      Read lessRead more

      Toyota Faces Class Action Demanding Full Refunds

      Suit ups ante from smaller-scale actions filed earlier

      In the less than three months since Toyotas reputation for safety imploded, the company has been hit with dozens of class action lawsuits and personal injury suits from angry owners.

      But on Monday, a group of consumers took litigation against the carmaker to a new level, demanding a full refund in separate cases filed in Washington state and Arizona.

      When we talked with Toyota owners, they all voiced the same desire -- to drive the car back to the lot, hand them the keys and pick up a check, said Steve Berman, the lawyer handling the cases. Fortunately, we think the law allows for exactly that solution, and we are asking the courts to make it happen.

      Many of the class actions filed so far have focused on the recalls devastating effect on resale values -- affected Toyotas have lost between six and 15 percent of their total value since the recall was announced in January. That plunge stands in contrast to values for other brands of used cars, which have actually increased in value. A number of suits against Toyota are demanding a cash payment equal to the amount of the decline.

      Berman, of Seattle-based Hagens Berman Sobol Shaprio, takes issue with that relatively small-bore approach.

      I don't know of any parent who would be willing to put their kids in a potentially unsafe car in exchange for a few hundred bucks, he said.

      A statement by Hagens Berman reiterates that stance, asserting that Toyota produced vehicles so profoundly flawed with safety defects, and completely botched the recall process, that the only remedy is for owners to return the cars to Toyota.

      The suits are being brought on behalf of all residents of Washington state and Arizona who own a recalled Toyota. The firm said it expects to eventually file additional cases in other states across the country.

      Plaintiffs seek revocation

      The plaintiffs seek to revoke their acceptance of the sales contract, and contend that Toyota breached its express warranty because the vehicles sold to Class Members were not fully operational, safe, or reliable. The class also asserts that Toyota exacerbated the breach by failing to provide safe automobiles after the problems were acknowledged.

      Both suits allege breach of express warranty, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, unjust enrichment, and violations of the warranty-governing Magnuson Moss Act. In addition to a full refund, the plaintiffs are seeking consequential damages, including the costs associated with purchasing safer vehicles, and an injunction prohibiting the sale of cars with a propensity for sudden acceleration. In the event that the full refund is not granted, the class is seeking damages equal to the diminution in value as a result of the defects.

      The suits, if approved, would have a devastating economic effect on an already-battered Toyota. The decreased-value suits alone could put the carmaker on the hook for at least $3 billion. A San Diego court will decide next week whether to consolidate over 100 separate Toyota class-actions into a single case.

      Toyota Faces Class Action Demanding Full Refunds...
      Read lessRead more

      Many NYC Funeral Homes Deny Consumers Pricing Information

      Consumers encouraged to know their rights to funeral pricing information

      A two-month long investigation of the sales practices of New York City funeral homes finds may of them are playing fast and loose with city regulations.

      Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Jonathan Mintz says the inspections of 579 funeral home resulted in 87 businesses being charged with a total of 275 violations. That works out to a compliance rate of 85 percent. The charged funeral homes could face more than $230,000 in fines.

      Manhattan funeral homes had the highest compliance rate, with only five percent receiving violations. Brooklyn had the lowest compliance rate, with 26 percent of businesses receiving violations.

      "Coping with the death of a loved one is stressful enough, so planning a funeral should be as simple and easy as possible," said Mintz. "New Yorkers have strong legal rights to make purchasing funeral arrangements a straightforward process, including the right to get clear and complete pricing information on a price list by the entrance to a funeral parlor or even over the telephone."

      Approximately three quarters of the violations issued, resulting from both in-person and undercover phone interviews, charged funeral homes with pricing deception including failing to have retail prices and price lists visible, failing to provide prices over the phone, and not disclosing that consumers may use or bring in a casket from a third party.

      Another top violation included illegally displaying the least expensive caskets separately and more unpleasantly than other, more expensive caskets.

      Feds invesigate

      New York City isn't the only area with problems.

      Undercover inspections by Federal Trade Commission investigators in nine states and the District of Columbia found significant violations of Federal Trade Commission consumer protection rules at 52 of 175 funeral homes they visited during 2009. The agency's Funeral Rule, enacted in 1984, gives consumers important rights when making funeral arrangements. Key provisions of the Rule require funeral homes to provide consumers with an itemized price list at the start of an in-person discussion of funeral arrangements, as well as a casket price list before consumers view any caskets. The Rule also prohibits funeral homes from requiring consumers to buy any item, such as a casket, as a condition of obtaining any other funeral good or service. By requiring itemized prices, the Rule enables consumers to compare prices and buy only the goods and services they want.

      Avoiding the pitfalls

      Dealing with the death of a loved one? Follow these tips:

      • Get a price list. By law, the customer is entitled to a general price list when conducting arrangements either in person or over the phone. This list should include the prices for all services and merchandise regularly offered by the funeral home. Consumers have a right to this information before they commit to using a specific funeral home, so they should try to obtain multiple lists and compare prices.

      • Don't pay illegal or unnecessary fees. Funeral homes can charge a fee for cash advance items or services, and merchandise the funeral home pays directly to a third party, such as fees for the cemetery or crematory, death certificates and clergy. The funeral home cannot profit on these items. If you choose, you may be able to pay for cash advance items directly.

      You may be charged:

      • a custodial care fee, which charges the customer for the days the body is being held, though no services are being performed.

      • a transfer of remains fee, which covers transportation of the body from the place where the death occurred to the funeral home.

      • You have the right to switch funeral homes at any time. You will need to pay for any services that have already been performed and for which you have given approval. The funeral home must allow the transfer of the body to another funeral home, even if you haven't paid yet. It may not hold the body in exchange for payment.

      • Get a receipt. Regardless of who pays for cash advance items, be sure to get a receipt for these items. When you have made all the decisions regarding the funeral, you should receive an itemized statement of services and merchandise, a detailed outline of the specific goods and services you have chosen and the price of each item as well as the total cost. This must include cash advance fees.

      • If you have your own casket, the funeral home is required by law to let you use it.

      • Embalming is not required by law in New York State. If you do not want embalming, you have the right to choose an arrangement that does not require you to pay for embalming such as direct cremation or direct burial. If you select certain funeral arrangements, such as viewing or an open casket, embalming may be required by the funeral home. This information must be included on the general price list.

      Although consumer complaints about funeral homes are fairly rare, they do exist. And, as you might expect, seniors are primary targets.

      Many NYC Funeral Homes Deny Consumers Pricing Information...
      Read lessRead more

      Blockbuster's New Late Fees Make Encore

      Some consumers say they were taken by surprise by the new policy

      At the beginning of this month, Blockbuster Video quietly reinstated late fees, with a whole lot less fanfare than when they did away with them five years ago. As a result, several consumers report being taken by surprise.

      "Nobody in Blockbuster told me or my fiance of any new policy," Kelli, of Union City, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It wasn't posted anywhere in the store prior to the policy change and we didn't receive any sort of notice by mail, email, or recorded message. Nothing at all."

      Kelli is upset because the late fee on videos she returned was charged to her debit card, which the company had on file. The charge, she said, put her in an overdraft position, costing an additional $35 from her bank.

      When they complain, consumers say they are told by Blockbuster that they should have received a letter explaining the change, and that a notice is printed on the receipt.

      For its part, Blockbuster said it is simply changing its policy to align it with its competitors. Since March 1, the company has begun adding a $1 a day late fee on videos and games up to 10 days.

      It's yours

      If the customer still hasn't returned the item after 15 days, they're charged for the purchase of it, which can be as little as $4.99 or as much as $29.99. If the consumer returns the DVD within the next 30 days, they get a store credit for the purchase, minus $10 in late fees.

      "We think this is very forgiving. You have 45 days to bring it back. It's similar to what Redbox does," Michelle Metzger, Blockbuster spokeswoman, told the Dallas Morning News.

      Blockbuster competitor Redbox charges customers $1 a day. If the customer hasn't returned it in 25 days, they're charged a maximum of $25 and given ownership of the DVD.

      Netflix doesn't charge a late fee, per se, but customers who don't return a video are assessed an $8.99 monthly fee until the DVD is returned. If the consumer reports the video as lost, they are charged a $14 fee.

      Blockbuster, which has struggled financially in recent years, views the move as way to promote stability.

      Blockbuster Video quietly reinstated late fees, with a whole lot less fanfare than when they did away with them 5 years ago. As a result, several consumers...
      Read lessRead more

      2010 Jeep Commanders, Grand Cherokees Recalled

      Chrysler Corp. is recalling 2010 model-year Jeep Commanders and Jeep Grand Cherokees. They may have been built with an improperly-manufactured rear track bar, the company said. Reduce vehicle stability could result, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Dealers wil inspect the rear track bar and replace it if defects are found when the recall begins during April 2010.

      Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403 about campaign number K05.

      Consumers may contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY: 1-800-424-9153) or at www.safercar.gov.

      2010 Jeep Commanders, Grand Cherokees Recalled...
      Read lessRead more

      Canadian Meat Company Sued Over Recalls of Deli Meats

      Lawsuit claims company failed to warn consumers of possible hazard

      Canadian meat company Siena Foods is facing a class action lawsuit over its recent recalls of listeria-infected deli meats. The suit, filed Monday, alleges that Siena knew of the food's "potential toxicity" but failed to warn consumers.

      The suit concerns four recent recalls of Sienna deli meats, beginning in December and continuing through last week. The filing comes just a day after the Ontario Ministry of Health said five listeriosis-caused deaths were not related to the recalled Siena meat.

      Fourteen Ontario residents have been diagnosed with listeriosis this year alone, with two cases definitively linked to recalled Siena meat. However, Ministry of Health spokesman Andrew Morrison told the Toronto Star that "preliminary indications" show that the meat is not linked to any of deaths from the disease.

      Tony Merchant isn't buying it. The high-profile plaintiffs' lawyer knows a bit about listeriosis himself. His firm -- the Merchant Law Group -- led a successful class action against Maple Leaf, another Canadian food producer, after the company recalled 243 types of prepackaged meats. That recall followed an August 2008 listeria outbreak that infected dozens of people and killed at least 12.

      "When the Maple Leaf situation was emerging, there was that same indecision," Merchant said, referring to Ontario's announcement that the recent illnesses were not caused by Siena products. "Then there was a change of view that it was Maple Leaf-related."

      Siena plagued by recalls

      Either way, Siena doesn't have a great track record. The company recalled its cacciatore salami in December after it tested positive for listeria. It recalled its cotto cooked ham on Thursday, and on Friday the government expanded that recall to include coppa and prosciuttini cured meats.

      Merchant has been contacted by dozens of potential plaintiffs already, and told the Star that he expects the case to "snowball." Merchant said that business owners would likely join the suit if they have suffered financial harm as a result of the recall.

      Canada's food inspection process has come under scrutiny following the recalls. The food inspectors' union claims Canadian facilities are typically inspected after 16 hours of operation, compared with the 12-hour increments mandated in the United States.

      The Canadian government switched to 12-hour shifts after complaints from south of the border, according to the union. A leaked union memo tends to confirm that account, showing that union members have been working overtime since November to meet the 12-hour policy.

      Listeria is rare but deadly; the overt form of the disease carries a 25 percent mortality rate (versus one percent for salmonella). Listeria is especially dangerous because infected foods may not look or smell contaminated. Symptoms of listeriosis include high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, and nausea. Pregnant women should be especially vigilant; they often experience mild symptoms but the bacteria can cause premature or stillbirth.

      The infected Siena meats were not sold directly to consumers until January 11, 2010. However, consumers who bought ham from a deli counter and are unsure of the brand should check with the store to see if their product is contaminated.

      Canadian Meat Company Sued Over Recalls of Deli Meats...
      Read lessRead more

      Digging Out of Debt and Surviving the Downturn

      How Boomers can turn around the reversals of fortune in time for retirement

      Economists say that, technically, the recession is over and the economy is starting to move again. But for millions of Baby Boomers, the pain is still with us, including double-digit unemployment, investment portfolios that have climbed back to 1999 levels, and home values that have shrunk to 30-40% lower than just three years ago.

      And what about all that credit card debt weve been amassing? In previous years, so many depended on year-end bonuses to pay it off. But for most of us, those bonuses have either been frozen or eliminated along with our companys matching 401(K) contributions.

      These economic woes are impacting more than our wallets or dreams of retirement. Theyre affecting our health as well. A study by AARP found that one in five adults aged 45 or older said they had health problems related to their financial troubles.

      So whats a Boomer to do? Short of selling your house or apartment and living in your car or moving in with your parents (or your adult children), here are some suggestions to help get you back on track financially.

      Stop Living Beyond Your Means

      Youve heard it before but its a harsh reality that bears repeating: if you dont have it, dont spend it! Thats a lot easier said than done. To some spenders, saying stop living beyond your means is like telling an alcoholic to stop drinking so much or a smoker to stop smoking. Overspending has become an addiction; its one very tough habit to kick.

      If this describes you or a loved one, there are places to go for help, such as DA (Debtors Anonymous), an international free self-help program based on the same 12 step principles as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). If you prefer to work individually on these spending challenges, try going to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or even a financial therapist, which is a relatively new discipline that includes therapists who have an expertise in money issues.

      Pare Down to the Necessities

      When Ann Farrells Fortune 100 clients pulled back on hiring her to lead training programs for their employees, Ann and her family tightened their belts. Were very fortunate, says Ann, who lives and works in Chicago, and whose husband still had his management job at a manufacturer and marketer of trucks and diesel engines. We had to give up luxuries, not necessities. But we got more frugal. We started to eat-in more. Our entertainment is a lot more family time versus going out to plays or musicals. Ann adds, I cant tell you the last time I walked into a mall or a store.

      JoAnn Hines, who runs a company called Packaging Diva, has found that choosing private label brands can save her and her family as much as thirty percent for certain products. If youre trying to save money, try new things, says Hines.

      Paring down to the necessities also means learning to say no more often to your kids when they ask for non-essentials, or asking a child, teen, or adult child to pick a less expensive alternative, and that can be very hard to do. But there are economic realities that the entire family has to face (depending, of course, on the age and maturity of each child and what, and how much, about what is going on financially with your family is appropriate to share).

      Get Clarity by Making a Budget

      A budget will help you see how much money you actually need each month. It will also provide you with transparency about your spending habits. List every single thing that you need to spend money on each month to survive: mortgage or rent; food; gas for your car; landlines or cell phones; local transportation for commuting to work; and so forth.

      The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), founded in 1951, makes it easier to create a working budget with its online budget worksheet. Be very cautious about credit counseling agencies, by the way. Many are not what they seem.

      Once you have a budget of what you are spending, note which expenses are necessities or have tos and which ones are luxuries or wants. See how many wants you can cut down on, or cut out completely, whether its eating out regularly or buying fashionable new clothes when last years will do, until your financial situation is back on track.

      Pay Down Your Credit Card Debt

      The only way to get ahead is to change your lifestyle, notes Gregory J. Kurinec, CEA, a financial advisor at Benton Financial Group, Inc. in Naperville, Illinois, who works with Baby Boomers. After stopping unnecessary spending, continues Kurinec, throw as much money as possible at your debt. This is the advice that you need to hear and act on if you are one of the 46.2% of American families carrying a credit balance of $7,000 to $8,000 in credit card debt paying an APR (annual percentage rate), on average, of 14.9% according to LowCards.com. (If you miss a payment, or your credit score is poor, which is the basis upon which APR is determined, your APR can be as high as 29%.)

      Find a way to pay it down, says Ben Woolsey, Director of Marketing and Consumer Researcher at CreditCards.com, a site which enables consumers to compare and contrast the various cards that are being offered. (It does not cover credit cards offered by local credit unions, which need to be explored at the community level. You can search for a local credit union at www.creditunion.coop.)

      It can be overwhelming if you have a lot of debt on a lot of cards so the best way to start is to choose the card with the highest interest rate, focus on that one, and pay that one off, adds Woolsey. Then go on to the next highest interest rate card. This is a proven strategy of chipping away at a massive amount of credit card debt. In just couple of years, it is possible to get rid of $40,000 to $50,000 of credit card debt. But it does require discipline and focus and putting all your discretionary income toward paying down the credit card debt.

      You should, however, still make at least the minimum payment, or as much as you can afford, on any of your other outstanding credit card balances with lower APRs.

      If you think the APR that a particular credit card company is charging you is too high, you can call the customer service department at the credit card company and ask them to lower it. Have your reasons for making this request clear in advance including telling them youve been a good customer, that you will move the balance to another company, if you do plan to actually do that, as you plead for mercy. Unfortunately, the outcome is up to the discretion of the credit card company and they can say no. (See Credit Tips and Tricks for more information.)

      Declaring bankruptcy is an option, but this is not a step to be taken lightly. There are immediate and long-term consequences to declaring bankruptcy. If this is an option you want to consider, make sure you consult an expert in this field who will help you weigh the pros and cons of taking this step. (For more information, talk with a trusted attorney; some basic information, which is not a substitute for legal advice, is available at www.bankruptcyinformation.com.)

      New credit card regulations in the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 can be very helpful.

      Keep One Credit Card with a Low APR for Emergencies or Travel

      Allow yourself one credit card for emergencies or for travel-related expenses (such as renting a car). If you have paid off your other cards and do not plan on using them again, cancel those cards yourself. Woolsey of creditcards.com points out that your credit card score will not be adversely impacted if you cancel a credit card, but it might be if a bank cancels it because you have not been using it. (To curtail bank-initiated cancellations, use your active cards at least once every couple of months, but make sure you pay the balance off when the bill arrives so you do not fall back into credit card debt.)

      Use a Debit Card for Daily Expenses

      Using a debit card, also known as a bank or check card, for your everyday purchases is one way to avoid credit card debt, since it is tied to your checking account. To avoid large overdraft charges if you come up short occasionally, link your debit card to a second account (an overdraft account). This will help you to have a smaller, one-time overdraft fee, instead of multiple fees. Or, consider using a credit card to cover the shortfall. As long as you pay off the credit card charge the next month and do not incur credit card interest charges, you may avoid overdraft penalties. (AARP has more information on the pros and cons of debit cards.)

      Generate More Revenue as You Spend Wisely

      If there is noticeable gap between the amount of money you usually spend and your typical monthly income, whether you have been making up the short fall by relying on credit cards or dipping into any emergency or savings funds that you do still have, here are suggestions for how to generate more revenue so you can get in the black again:

      • If you are out of work, reinvent yourself to get a job. If your first job is not covering your economic needs, now that the job market has improved, go for a higher salaried job, get a second one or take on freelance work. (Watch for a column devoted to job-hunting help for Boomers in an upcoming column.)

      • Add a new product or market to diminish the impact if you lose one type of client or business. Thats what Ann Farrell did when her corporate clients temporarily dried up. Using her executive coaching tools and technology, Farrell launched a group coaching program at www.yourcorporatesuccess.com for a monthly investment of $47 a month. It has been a great way for those in a position with no development budget and for those in transition to focus on their own development, says Farrell.

      • Take in a paying boarder. (If you are a homeowner or renter, make sure you are allowed to do that in your town or building.)

      • Hold a tag or yard sale for all the accumulated goods, art work, toys, or clothing that you no longer need but others will pay for. (Or, do it electronically by posting your items for sale on eBay or Craiglist.)

      • Frequent thrift shops. Dont be shy about returning or exchanging gifts you receive that you do not need or want; alternatively selectively regift to others the gifts that you receive.

      • Do you have any skills that you could teach, coach, or tutor? There is a market for those services. Consider bartering your skills in exchange for supplies or services that you need. Check out what regulations or tax consideration you have to be aware of. (For more information, go to National Association of Trade Exchanges.)

      • If your children or teens are mature enough to take on chores, you can free up more time or money by paying them an allowance for helping out with those everyday jobs.

      • If you have enough equity in your home, consider a home equity loan to tide you over.

      • Look into the benefits of refinancing your home if the lower mortgage rates would justify the cost and time involved in the process.

      • If you have been saving up thousands or even tens of thousands of points or miles, now is the time to finally redeem those rewards for goods, restaurant or store gift cards, hotel stays, or trips.

      • If you were thinking of moving anyway, sell your condo or home even if you dont get as much money for it as you might have at the height of the market.

      Start to Save Again

      Once you have paid off your credit card debt, you want to build up an emergency fund as well as a retirement account. Even saving just small amounts each week or each month will add up.

      You can begin saving (if just in a minimal way) by signing up for one of the programs the banks are offering today. You can set it up so that every day you use your debit card, a predetermined amount of money is taken out of your account and put in a separate savings account (or you can set up an automatic deduction from your checking to savings account each month, such as $10, $20 or more). Psychologically, it can be a positive step to see money that you are saving that is free and clear.

      If you get an unexpected windfall, save it rather than spend it.

      But you of course want to get yourself back on track for retirement in a much bigger way than just by saving token dollars. That will require that you do what, in hindsight, you should have done, or should have done better -- planning.

      Planning for Retirement

      Whether you are 49 or 63, it is time to become more pro-active about your retirement. As Mark Pretorian, a Canadian-licensed investment advisor at Manulife Securities Incorporated in Ontario, says, Plan. I cant stress that enough.

      Pretorian says that a good financial advisor helps you to create a retirement plan that shows you what you need to have available on the specific date that you want to retire. For more information on finding a financial advisor in the United States, go to: National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA).

      The good news is that there is help out there no matter how challenging your financial situation is, or may seem, right now. While Boomers in their late 40s or 50s may have more time to get their savings accounts replenished than do those in their 60s, it is still possible to get back on track financially. Proactive steps include some belt tightening; concerted efforts to get a first, higher paying, or second job, or freelance work, if necessary; paying off credit card debt; and setting up a savings fund the more automatic, the better whether you call it your retirement account or your Third Age dream fund.

      The key is not to despair but to take positive actions that will help you to get yourself and your family back on your feet financially. It may be hard to envision this now, but you may even look back on this financial downturn as the catalyst to becoming more appreciative of your family and friends as you explore more cost-effective ways to get together, have fun, travel and explore.

      Resources and Sources

      Books and Articles

      • Bach, David. Start Over Finish Rich. New York: Broadway Books, 2010
      • The Business Journal of Milwaukee. Survey: Downturn stress impacting health. January 2, 2009
      • Chatzky, Jean. The Difference: How Anyone Can Prosper in Even the Toughest Times. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010
      • Economides, Steve and Annette Economides. Americas Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007
      • Mundis, Jerrold. How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously. New York: Bantam, 2003
      • Orman, Suze. Suse Ormans 2009 Action Plan: Keeping Your Money Safe & Sound. Spiegal & Grau, 2009
      • Pretorian, Mark, Top 5 Financial Risks Facing Seniors Today. http://www.ericksonresource.com (September 15, 2009).

      Economic woes are impacting more than our wallets or dreams of retirement. Here are some suggestions to help get you back on track financially....
      Read lessRead more

      Florida Cracks Down on Timeshare Resale Industry

      2009 was record-breaking year for consumer recoveries

      Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum continues to go after those in the timeshare resale industry who engage in questionable and - in some cases - fraudulent practices.

      Among the actions is what the AG's office calls "a significant settlement that could yield as much as $1.3 million in consumer refunds" and the filing of a lawsuit against a major player in the state's timeshare resale industry.

      McCollum also unveiled ongoing investigations into at least 17 timeshare companies and their affiliates throughout the state for deceptive trade practices.

      "Florida's consumers are trying to make prudent financial decisions," the attorney general noted, "but many timeshare resale companies are blatantly scamming people by promising sales or refunds and failing to provide services even after taking hefty up-front fees."

      Timeshare resale complaints have recently surpassed mortgage-related complaints as the most commonly reported consumer complaint received by the office's Consumer Hotline.

      ConsumerAffairs.com has received a sizable number of complaints about the practices of timeshare sellers from consumers across the nation.

      "In September of 2007 I paid Timeshares Only almost $600 to list my timeshare which was to be a one time fee and they would run the ad until it sold," says Shannon of Harrisburg, NC. "Well, I have not had one call regarding an offer for my timeshare although I have reduced the price a few times. I also decided to check the ad myself on the web site and could not find it. When I contacted them to ask why they told me I had to periodically 'reactivate it'. If I paid you a fee and you agreed to run the ad until it sold, I should not have to call and reactivate it! This business is a complete SCAM!"

      "I was told by timeshares only they guaranteed to sell my timeshare or rent it," John from Baltimore writes ConsumerAffairs.com. "Well it's been over three years since they took my money and still not one call to sell or even rent. I was also promised that they would refund my money if I sold it before they did. Well I did sell it and still no refund either."

      The lawsuit filed in Florida against Resales Buy Owner.com, Inc. contends the company engaged in a systematic pattern of deception that improperly induced consumers to pay up-front fees for timeshare resale services that were never provided.

      According to consumer complaints, the company would indicate it either had a buyer or renter interested in the timeshare and that there would be no problem renting or selling the timeshare within 90 to 120 days. The lawsuit maintains the company merely advertised the property listings, if taking any action at all, and allegedly charged consumers' credit cards even after consumers opted not to do business with the company. The lawsuit seeks an order prohibiting the company from engaging in further deceptive conduct and seeks full restitution on behalf of victimized consumers, civil penalties and reimbursement for fees and costs.

      McCollum's Office also announced a significant settlement with Virtual Group, Inc., resolving allegations the company failed to provide promised refunds to consumers. Virtual Group, which does business under the name Realty Trade, offered timeshare resale and rental advertising services to consumers looking to sell or lease their timeshare properties.

      As a result of the investigation, Realty Trade has already paid over $800,000 in refunds to 799 consumers. The company will also make another $500,000 available to consumers who make new refund requests.

      In addition to the litigation and the settlement announced today, in recent months, the Attorney General's Office has subpoenaed 17 timeshare resale companies and their affiliates over allegations of potentially deceptive business practices.

      Common complaints about these companies involve the use of false and deceptive claims to entice consumers to pay up-front fees, including assertions that buyers are allegedly ready and willing to buy or rent the consumers' timeshare.

      Companies also often allegedly fail to honor cancellation policies, misrepresent the actual services that will be provided to consumers, and fail to comply with elements of state and federal telemarketing acts.

      The initiative was launched in 2009 in response to the growing number of timeshare resale complaints received by the Attorney General's Office.

      Florida Cracks Down on Timeshare Resale Industry...
      Read lessRead more

      FCC Provides Tool To Check Internet Speed

      Agency plans to make sure advertised speeds are accurate

      How fast is your Internet connection? Not how fast your ISP says it is, how fast is it really? The Federal Communications Commission suggests you test it and is providing a tool to do just that.

      It's all part of the government agency's National Broadband Plan, allowing Internet users to check ISP speed claims and allow consumers to report areas where broadband is not available.

      "Transparency empowers consumers, promotes innovation and investment, and encourages competition," said Chairman Julius Genachowski. "The FCC's new digital tools will arm users with real-time information about their broadband connection and the agency with useful data about service across the country. By informing consumers about their broadband service quality, these tools help eliminate confusion and make the market work more effectively."

      The Consumer Broadband Test measures broadband quality indicators such as speed and latency, and reports that information to consumers and stores the data at the FCC. The mobile version -- the FCC's first mobile app -- is available through the Apple and Android app stores. The fixed version is available at www.broadband.gov.

      Two popular broadband testing tools are used in this beta version -- the Ookla, Inc. Speed Test and the Network Diagnostic Tool (NDT) running on the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) platform. In the future, the FCC anticipates making additional broadband testing applications available for consumer use. The Commission does not endorse any specific testing application.

      The Broadband Dead Zone Report enables consumers to submit the street address location of a broadband "Dead Zone" where broadband is unavailable for purchase. The Broadband Dead Zone Report form is available online. Consumers can also submit availability information by e-mail to fccinfo@fcc.gov. Those who lack online access can call the FCC at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-TELL-FCC), send a fax to 1-877-627-7460, or mail the information to:

      Federal Communications Commission
      Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
      ATTN: Broadband Dead Zone Reporting
      445 12th Street, SW
      Washington, D.C. 20554

      The FCC says the new tools help it gather data to analyze broadband performance and availability on a geographic basis across the US. Use of the tools is voluntary, the agency says, and it pledges to protect the personal privacy of consumers utilizing these tools, and will not publicly release any individual personal information gathered.

      The National Broadband Plan also contains a series of recommendations aimed at helping consumers understand the gap between actual broadband speeds delivered and the maximum speed tiers advertised.

      Working recommendations include a scientific third-party study on actual broadband performance, a working group to help inform standards for broadband speeds, and further proposals on disclosure needs for fixed broadband services, such as a "digital label."

      FCC Provides Tool To Check Internet Speed...
      Read lessRead more

      Feds' Dream of Universal Broadband a Nightmare for Broadcasters

      But overall economic and societal impact could overcome any short-term costs

      Analysis by James R. Hood

      March 15, 2010

      Talk about infrastructure and most of us think of bridges, roads and so forth. But for most of the past 100 years or so, the infrastructure that has budged the needle on the nation's econometer is the communications infrastructure. In an global information economy, after all, nations lacking a robust communications network are at a serious disadvantage.

      It's popular to dismiss government regulation as something that holds back economic progress -- but sometimes it works the other way. Look back a century or so and the lack of a nationwide telephone network was a big problem not only for rural dwellers but for Sears, Roebuck & Co. and other budding etailers dreaming of the day when customers could order a new wheel barrow by placing a simple telephone call.

      The ever-encroaching federal government and pointy-headed state bureaucrats got into the act and before you knew it, telephone companies had to provide a minimum level of service throughout the area they were licensed to serve -- and had to connect every caller to every other potential caller. We take that for granted now, but it's a lot more complex than it sounds.

      As is customary in governmental circles, various fees and taxes were imposed on telephone service. Sure, some went to fight the Spanish-American War but others supported the Universal Service Fund which subsidized service in sparsely-populated and geographically-challenged regions.

      Pretty soon, no one thought it remarkable that every wide spot in the road had a telephone booth. Some even had two.

      Similar government "intrusions" helped establish radio and television broadcasting as sustainable businesses that provided news and entertainment but, equally important, kept the economy humming by whetting folks' appetites for shiny new cars and shiny big teeth.

      And as everyone knows by now, the packet-switching that is at the heart of the Internet was dreamed up by the Pentagon agency known as DARPA.

      Third World

      And even though tea sippers and coffee gulpers alike are still suffering indigestion from the bail-out of the nation's financial services sector, the feds are up to their old tricks again. This week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) -- an agency with a past so checkered it could be used as a chess board -- is set to roll out a new broadband policy that's likely to be as far-reaching in its societal and economic impact as the telephone network, transcontinental railroad and Interstate highway system combined.

      Simply put, the United States today is a Third World country when it comes to telecommunications. Those who live in hollers, on mountaintops or way out yonder on some wind-swept prairie probably have telephone service but it's not very likely they'll have broadband Internet service or a usable 3G cell phone signal. Dial-up was OK a decade or two ago but is woefully inadequate today, as the Web moves increasingly to video and other bandwidth-hungry applications that entertain, inform and employ us.

      Even in densest Manhattan, Chicago or San Francisco, finding an available Wi-Fi connection can be tricky. It can get pretty dull sitting around the dentist's office with nothing to read but 1998 Road & Track magazines.

      Although it's not being officially released until Tuesday, much of the FCC's plan has already leaked out, as things tend to do in Washington, regardless of the state of the infrastructure. The goal is to bring affordable broadband to the 93 million Americans who don't have it. Among the highlights:

      • Raising Internet speeds to 100 megabits per second, 25 times the current average;

      • Blanketing the country with wireless broadband; and

      • Building a nationwide emergency communications system for police, fire and government;

      One ox goared

      Those familiar with the radio frequency spectrum will ask where all this wireless data fits into the already-crowded airwaves. The FCC's answer is to lop off a big chunk of spectrum now used by television broadcasters.

      Television, after all, is so 20th Century. It's a one-way street. Nothing interactive about it. It's not the least bit sticky. This view, needless to say, doesn't go down too well over at Channel 5 but the writing is already on the wall for broadcasters, who no longer enjoy watching the dismal slide of newspapers into penury, now that radio and television advertisers are following print advertisers to the Web.

      Chances are something will be worked out to comfort the broadcasters, a well-organized lobby if ever there was one. Most likely, the spectrum space will be auctioned off to telecom and broadband providers, with a sizeable slice of the proceeds going to the broadcasters.

      With Congress and much of the electorate in a self-induced frenzy over health care legislation, it's likely the FCC's dream -- or pipe dream, if you prefer -- won't be widely noted. An optimist might say that would increase its chances of passing into reality. Given the enormous benefits that it could produce, that would be about the best outcome one could hope for.

      Feds' Dream of Universal Broadband a Nightmare for Broadcasters...
      Read lessRead more

      Netflix Cancels Second Contest Over Privacy Concerns

      Lawsuit, FTC investigation spelled end for competition

      When Netflix finally announced the winners of its three-year, $1 million contest last fall, the buzz was so great that the company wasted no time in announcing a sequel.

      That contest gave consumers all over the world the chance to compete to improve the company's movie-recommendation algorithm. Contestants were given access to members' movie ratings and charged with the task of figuring out a way to more accurately suggest movies that those same users would enjoy. The contest, which ran from October 2006 to September 2009, drew 41,000 teams from 186 countries, and rewarded the winning team -- BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos -- with a $1 million check.

      Given the benefit for Netflix -- Reed Hastings, the company's CEO, called the contest a big winner for the company and noted that he was getting Ph.D.s for a dollar an hour -- it only made sense that the company immediately announced a Round 2 of sorts.

      But the sequel was abruptly called off even before a jackpot was announced, after a lawsuit and an FTC investigation raised concerns that the company was endangering consumers' privacy. Those inquiries grew out of a report by researchers at the University of Texas which found that the data used in the contest was actually traceable to specific consumers.

      Although Netflix apparently believed the information -- which in many cases included users' subscriber numbers, ZIP codes, gender, and ages -- was anonymized, the report proved that concealing the source of such data can prove more difficult than expected.

      Users' sexuality threatened

      The consumer suit against Netflix highlighted the extreme consequences that can potentially result from a breach of consumer privacy. The plaintiff, identified as Jane Doe in court papers, is a closeted lesbian who is a member of a community in which that fact is not a matter of general, public knowledge, including at her children's schools.

      According to the suit, Doe periodically ordered movies from the website's Gay & Lesbian section, and also searched for and rented specific titles of movies that would be considered to be 'gay-themed.' The suit chided Netflix for putting Doe's rental history at risk, and noted that such data may also reveal a member's personal struggles with issues such as domestic violence, adultery, alcoholism, or substance abuse.

      Doe's suit claimed that Netflix's actions constituted the largest voluntary privacy breach to date, and said that confidential information was given away to the world freely, and with fanfare.

      Netflix is hardly the first company to be humbled by online privacy issues. The proposed settlement of a lawsuit involving Google Books has been tripped up in part because of concerns that it could endanger consumer privacy. Last September, Facebook shut down Beacon, a feature that told users' friends about their activity on other sites. Privacy concerns will only grow as online services become more prevalent.

      Netflix, meanwhile, has vowed to find more secure ways to improve its recommendation system.

      With both the FTC and the plaintiffs' lawyers, we've had very productive discussions centered on our commitment to protecting our members' privacy, Netflix CPO Neil Hunt wrote on the company's blog. We will continue to explore ways to collaborate with the research community and improve our recommendations system so we can constantly improve the movie recommendations we make for you. So stay tuned.

      Netflix Cancels Second Contest Over Privacy Concerns...
      Read lessRead more

      Companies Get Failing Grade on Marketing Food to Children

      CSPI report card says few have any policies in place at all

      The Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken a look at the way food and entertainment companies market food to children and does not like what it sees.

      CSPI says that if the 128 companies it rated got a report card on their polices, three-quarters of them would get an F. The non-profit consumer group says those firms have "weak policies" or don't "have any policies whatsoever."

      The highest grade, a B+, went to Mars, Inc., though the CSPI emphasized that the grade is not for the foods Mars sells, but rather for its policy on marketing to children. Mars' policy excludes marketing to children under 12 and covers most of the key marketing tactics used to reach children.

      The entertainment company given CSPI's highest grade -- a B -- is Qubo, a family-friendly children's television channel delivered nationwide over ION Media Networks 59 local digital television stations. Qubo's policy is comprehensive, applying reasonably good nutrition standards to its full range of programming, according to CSPI.

      One food company (Procter & Gamble, which makes Pringles) received a B, six got a B-, 17 got a C, and 7 a D. Ninety-five companies received an F.

      "Despite the industry's self-regulatory system, the vast majority of food and entertainment companies have no protections in place for children," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "If companies were marketing bananas and broccoli, we wouldn't be concerned. But instead, most of the marketing is for sugary cereals, fast food, snack foods, and candy. And this junk food marketing is a major contributor to childhood obesity."

      CSPI gave restaurant chain Denny's an F for marketing to children through its children's menu, which includes many nutritionally poor items; games on its Web site; and a kid's birthday club.

      Lucasfilms received an F for not having a policy. Presently, Lucasfilms is licensing Star Wars toys as a premium to go with McDonald's Happy Meals, many of which are nutritionally poor.

      Candy company Topps also got an F. That company makes, among other things, Baby Bottle Pop, a powdered candy sold in a miniature baby bottle, eaten by dipping a candy nipple in a sugary powder and licking it off. Over the years Topps has retained the services of the Jonas Brothers and Clique Girlz singing groups to convince children to purchase that infantilizing product, whose 140 calories all come from sugar.

      Companies spend about $2 billion each year marketing foods and beverages to children. Food manufacturers and restaurants more often had policies for television, radio, print, Internet, and product placement than for digital marketing, like cell phones, iPods, and social networks, characters, games, and contests on food packages, toy give-aways with children's meals at fast-food restaurants, or branded marketing programs for schools.

      Half of the entertainment companies with policies, like the Cartoon Network, apply nutrition standards to the licensing of their characters, but few have policies for their television advertising or Web site, which are the primary ways they market to children.

      While 64 percent of food manufacturers that advertise to children have marketing policies, only 24 percent of restaurants and 22 percent of entertainment companies do. For Qubo's part, the company says its nutrition policy reinforces an overall message about healthy living and providing children with the foundations for self-esteem that the company promotes in popular kids' programs such as Turbo Dogs, Willa's Wild Life and Babar.

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other federal agencies are expected to propose a set of nutrition criteria and other standards for foods marketed to children that they hope companies will adopt on a voluntary basis.

      "If food, toy, and media companies fail to adopt those voluntary standards, they will be clanging the death knell for their self-regulatory initiative and inviting strong government involvement in food marketing aimed at kids," Wootan said.

      According to the Institute of Medicine , TV commercials affect children's food choices, food purchase requests, diets, and health. And the mere act of watching commercial television is linked to obesity.

      Companies Get Failing Grade on Marketing Food to Children...
      Read lessRead more