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Carmakers would have to provide independent mechanics with access to information, specs04/30/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The move to pass the automotive "Right to Repair" bill has picked up another powerful Senate sponsor -- Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Chairman of the Senat...
Phone App Designed to Empower Airline Passengers
But law would need to be changed for passengers to make full use of it04/30/2010ConsumerAffairs
Phone App Designed to Empower Airline Passengers...
On the same day new rules went into effect to protect the rights of airline passengers, passengers rights advocate Kate Hanni launched a new application to help passengers keep tabs on their flight.
Hanni, Executive Director of FlyersRights.org, said the app will empower passengers by providing real time data on the status of their flights via GPS.
But there's just one problem. You aren't allowed to turn on your cell phone while in flight. The app is also available for PCs, but unless you flight happens to offer WiFi, you won't have a way to access the information when you need it most.
"It is essential that airline passengers are empowered with the latest applications and in-flight technology to ensure that the airlines are accountable and full compliance with the new 3 Hour Tarmac Rule, going into effect today at the Department of Transportation," said Hanni. "Passengers in the U.S. should be allowed to avail themselves of in-flight connectivity and technology to capture, record, and transmit information vital to the enforcement of their new rights."
With the new application, available on FlyersRights.org , the GPS component of the iPhone will be able to pinpoint a passenger's location and the passenger will confirm location.
The passenger will be able to input their airline and flight information into a centralized database and update their status in terms of delays or cancellations while in flight. Passengers also will be able to take photos, video and audio recordings and attach them to the record in real time.
Ban remains in House version of bill
The House of Representatives version of the FAA bill, passed last year, contains language that would ban the use of cellular communications and VoIP on commercial aircraft in U.S. airspace. The recently passed Senate version of the FAA legislation contains no ban. Currently, 20 international air carriers, flying to 72 nations around the world are equipped with in-flight cellular service -- with over 2.3 million passengers a month flying on aircraft with the service. Hanni thinks the U.S. should follow their example.
"The enforcement and protection of rights of people around the globe have become increasingly dependent upon the transmission of data and images in real time thanks to cellular technology," Hanni said. "Rather than ban it outright, Congress should allow the FAA and the FCC to evaluate the use of in-flight voice service and connectivity as a valuable tool for passengers in the U.S. taking into account potential benefits to consumers and the real world experience of its deployment throughout the rest of the world."
Since 2005, the FAA has been considering easing the cell phone ban. The agency told Congress five years ago that each airline would have to demonstrate conclusively that every model cell phone would present no interference on every model aircraft in use.
New Hope Settles Loan Modification Suit
Company allegedly reneged on promise to help underwater homeowners04/30/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
A New Jersey-based loan modification company has agreed to pay $10 million to settle charges that it defrauded homeowners who were behind on their mortgage...
A New Jersey-based loan modification company has agreed to pay $10 million to settle charges that it defrauded homeowners who were behind on their mortgages. Two of the company's agents also agreed to pay damages, and will have their licenses revoked.
The payment by New Hope Property LLC stemmed from a lawsuit alleging that the company took money from struggling consumers and then failed to deliver on promises that it would help rescue their struggling mortgages. The company charged the money up front, which is illegal in New Jersey.
The company rebuffed consumers who sought refunds once they realized the company was not going to help them, and at one point tried to shut down its website, according to the suit. Additionally, the company allegedly gave consumers the false impression that it was associated with the Hope Now Alliance, the non-profit foreclosure prevention program set up by the government and certain lenders in 2007.
Under the settlement, two of New Hope's former agents agreed to pay damages and to have their mortgage solicitor's registrations revoked. Brian Mammoccio and Donna Fisher, both New Jersey residents, are on the hook for $1.2 million and $250,000, respectively. Fisher also agreed to have her lender's license revoked, and both are barred from ever again applying for any license from the Department of Banking.
The office of New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow, which brought the suit, said in a statement that New Hope defrauded "thousands of victims nationwide." Dow framed the settlement as a warning shot aimed at other fraudulent loan modification companies.
"This is an important outcome, one that should send a clear message to anyone who may be tempted to seek profit in the financial misery of others during these tough times," Dow said. "This company, and these individuals, made money by selling false hope to trusting people during their darkest financial hour. It is appropriate that their professional licenses are revoked, and that they will never again be permitted to operate in our state."
The suit, filed in March 2009, charged New Hope with violations of the Consumer Fraud Act, state advertising regulations and the Debt Adjustment and Credit Counseling Act.
ConsumerAffairs.com has heard from scores of consumers who say they were defrauded by New Hope, several of whom lost their homes as a result. As James of New Castle, Delaware, wrote last June:
"We filed to do a loan modification to get out of a variable rate mortgage. They informed us not to make any payments and the mortgage company also said they would not accept any ... [A]fter calling for months and being told our file was under review by the mortgage company and new hope, all of a sudden I called for 2 weeks straight not getting any return calls and one day finding out they were a scam, by now our mortgage was very behind. and we are out our fee and possibly our home."
Earlier this month, ConsumerAffairs.com reported that many consumers with modified mortgage agreements are still struggling to make their payments. According to a government audit, the number of homeowners with new agreements who have again fallen behind now stands at 2,879, up from around 1,000 in January. All together, around seven million consumers are currently behind on their mortgages, according to government estimates.
Consumer-Protection Lawsuit Filed Against Colorado Loan Modification Company
Company's ad campaign implied it was a partner of the federal government, suit says04/30/2010ConsumerAffairs
Consumer-Protection Lawsuit Filed Against Colorado Loan Modification Company...
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has filed a consumer protection lawsuit against American Mortgage Consultants, its owner, Oliver Paul Maldonado, and its principal employee, Santiago Fabian Pineda, on suspicion of defrauding consumers seeking loan modifications and foreclosure relief.
According to the complaint, filed in Denver District Court, American Mortgage Consultants used deceptive advertisements to attract approximately 170 consumers to the loan modification company from January 2009 through March 2010. The company and Maldonado are suspected of using deceptive telephone marketing, direct mail, radio advertisements and Web marketing to attract consumers.
Federal connection implied
According to the complaint, Maldonado also used video of President Barack Obama and materials from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to give consumers the impression that American Mortgage Consultants was affiliated with or partnering with the federal government.
The company and its owner are suspected of charging these consumers $2,500 in upfront fees for its services, which is illegal under Colorado law. American Mortgage Consultants strands accused of doing little if anything to help its customers renegotiate or modify their home loans beyond shipping off their loan modification applications to an Ohio-based company.
"Consumers should always be suspicious of any guarantees a loan modification company makes about being able to keep you in your home or reduce your loan payments," Suthers said. "American Mortgage Consultants' activities were especially troubling because they did virtually nothing for their 'customers' beyond taking their money."
Proceed with caution
Suthers encouraged consumers facing foreclosure to obtain free help from the Colorado Foreclosure Hotline at 1-877-HOPE (4673) before hiring a company to modify your home loan. If consumers are still interested in hiring a loan modification company, Suthers encourages them to bear in mind:
It is illegal in Colorado for a loan modification or renegotiation company to charge you an upfront fee. Loan modification companies can only charge you once their services are completed.
Consumers should be wary of any company that tells you to stop making your loan payments or to stop working with your lender. Failing to make payments could result in a foreclosure.
Never ignore communication from your lender at the behest of a loan modification firm. Most lenders have loan modification programs that can help you save your home. In some cases, all a borrower has to do is contact his or her lender and provide some current financial information.
If a company promises to get rid of your debt, they are making a promise they cannot keep.
Check out any loan modification company you are considering hiring. The Better Business Bureau maintains ratings of businesses. Any company with an "F" rating should be avoided.
Recognizing the problems foreclosure relief and loan modification scams present to consumers, the FTC is working to slam the door on these operations.
Baltimore Nursing School Charged With Deceptive Marketing
School not acredited to provide training, state says04/29/2010ConsumerAffairs
Baltimore Nursing School Charged With Deceptive Marketing...
Some students signed up with Associated National Medical Academy in Baltimore, in hopes of earning a nursing degree. But the training they received did not qualify them to work as nurses, according to Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler.
Gansler has charged MALMILVENTURES, LLC, d/b/a Associated National Medical Academy, with unfair and deceptive trade practices in connection with their offer of nursing training services to consumers.
Associated National Medical Academy offers consumers who are interested in becoming either a licensed practical nurse or a registered nurse a "10 Month Accelerated Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Program" and a "12 Month Registered Nurse (RN) BSN Bridge Program."
However, according to the state's charges, Associated National Medical Academy has not obtained the necessary approvals from the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) and the Maryland State Board of Nursing to offer such services in the State of Maryland. The Division further alleges that Associated National Medical Academy's nursing programs will not qualify consumers to become licensed in Maryland as either a LPN or RN.
On June 26, 2009, the MHEC sent the company a letter directing it to "immediately cease and desist offering training in Maryland" and to refund payments that the company had collected from Maryland consumers. Despite receiving that letter, according to the charges, the company continued to offer and sell nursing programs to Maryland consumers and has not refunded any of the payments received from consumers.
"We charged this company and its owners with taking advantage of consumers looking to become licensed nurses in Maryland," Gansler said. "Consumers should always check with state licensing boards to verify licensing requirements of educational institutions prior to paying any fees up front to a training school."
Maryland's Consumer Protection Division's Statement of Charges seeks an injunction, restitution for consumers harmed by the business practices, investigation costs, and a civil penalty.
Consumers Should Always Ask 'What's The Catch?'
Businesses offering perks and free stuff have to pay for it some way04/29/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Consumers Should Always Ask 'What's The Catch?'...
The quickest way to become disillusioned with a purchase is to base it on the seller's offer of some attractive perk. The deal hardly ever ends up being as attractive as you think it is.
A case in point is that tempting credit card offer. Consumers have begun to see solicitations from banks offering triple miles and rewards programs with airlines and hotels. How can they be doing that, you ask, since the new credit card law has severely cut into their interest income?
Exactly. The Wall Street Journal recently noted that most of these "high-perk" cards now carry an annual fee. Of course, if the card already has an annual fee, the fee on the new card is higher. For example, Barclays PLC is currently marketing a new "Visa Black" card with 24-hour concierge services. The annual fee is $495.
Keeping in mind that businesses don't become profitable by giving things away will usually help a consumer avoid a bad decision such as falling for a "free" of "trial" offer. The offer always comes with multiple strings attached and usually enrolls the consumer in an on-going "membership" program that will hit his credit or debit card each month.
Be especially leery, for example, of a company that says it will give you one of its products free because it is so confident you will like it, that you will buy more of the product.
Quick way to go out of business
No enterprise could stay in business very long doing that. Odds are they would attract only people who want something for free and have no intention of ever buying a product.
The marketer's real motive becomes apparent when you discover the product isn't really free. You are required to pay a small fee -- sometimes just $2 -- to cover shipping and handling. And of course, you must pay the small fee with your credit or debit card.
Once the company has your credit or debit card, they can place other charges on it at will, leaving it to you to dispute them. Even if they explain to you that you are enrolling in a "trial" program, they are ultimately in control because you've turned over access to your credit or bank account. If you cancel the trial in a timely manner, they can always say you didn't cancel quickly enough.
One way to test whether a product is really "free" is to tell the marketer that, instead of paying by plastic, you will send them a money order for the amount requested. No marketer would accept that, since it would prevent him or her from charging you more later on.
In the midst of a recession it's tempting to be swayed by promises of something for free, since everyone is trying to save money as much as possible. But recognizing the truth in the cliche's "there's no free lunch" and "you get what you pay for" will help you stay out of trouble.
Colorado Man Draws 32 Year Sentence for Running Ponzi Scheme
Scammer took consumers in Colorado and 15 other states for more than $10 million04/29/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Colorado Man Draws 32 Year Sentence for Running Ponzi Scheme...
A Colorado man has been sentenced to 32 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $5 million in restitution for his role in a multi-state Ponzi scheme.
The Statewide Grand Jury indicted 31-year-old sentenced Jason T. Brooks in June 2009 on suspicion that he accepted more than $10 million from investors in Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer and Weld counties and residents in 15 states outside of Colorado as part of a Ponzi scheme.
Brooks took in the money allegedly to invest in an electronics resale business, but used new investors' money to pay "interest" to other investors. He also used the money for personal expenses, including $1.5 million for personal gambling.
"This sentence underlines not only the severity of this Ponzi scheme, but also my office's dedication to vigorously prosecute white collar crime in Colorado," said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. "The severity of Mr. Brooks' scheme also should serve as a warning sign for Colorado consumers who might find themselves faced with unusual or strange-sounding investments."
Suthers encouraged consumers to be aware of several red flags that, according to SaveAndInvest.org and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), should tip them off that an investment opportunity could be a scam:
• Consumers should beware of investment opportunities offered for a limited time only. Legitimate investment opportunities should not require a decision in a matter of hours.
• If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is: Investments offering large returns with virtually no risk do not exist. There are no sure things in the investment world.
• If the person pitching you on an investment is unregistered with FINRA that should send up a red flag.
• When a broker or person pitching you on an investment cannot describe how a fund or investment product works, that, too, should be a warning sign. Someone selling you an investment product or opportunity should be able to give you a clear description of how it works and the associated risks.
• An investment should always have accompanying documentation. If an investment product or opportunity does not have documentation or a stock ticker symbol, it might be a scam.
We learned over the past couple of years exactly how financially devastating Ponzi schemes can be as we followed the Bernie Madoff saga, which saw investors drained of billions of dollars.
If you believe you have been defrauded in a securities scam, contact the Securities and Exchange Commission Office of Investor Education and Advocacy (1-800-732-0330 or 202-772-9295).
BRP Recalls Ski-Doo Snowmobiles04/28/2010ConsumerAffairs
BRP Recalls Ski-Doo Snowmobiles...
Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. is recalling about 1,500 Ski-Doo snowmobiles. The drive pulley bolts on the snowmobiles can break due to oil contamination during the assembly process. This can cause debris to come off the vehicle and act as projectiles, posing a laceration hazard to riders or bystanders.
BRP has received three reports of projectiles flying off of the snowmobiles, including one report of a minor foot injury.
The recall involves Ski-Doo model year 2009-2010 SKANDIC SWT V-800 and model year 2010 GSX 1200, GTX 1200, MXZ 1200, and Renegade 1200 Snowmobiles. The model name and number are displayed on the engine compartment and the serial number is on the right side of the vehicle below the seat on the frame.
The snowmobiles were sold at Ski-Doo dealerships nationwide from July 2008 through February 2010 for between $8,000 and $9,000. They were made in Canada and Finland.
Consumers should stop using these snowmobiles immediately and contact their local Ski-Doo snowmobile dealer to schedule a free repair. All known owners of the recalled snowmobiles have been directly notified about this recall by mail.
For additional information, call BRP at (800) 366-6992 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or visit the firms Web site at www.brp.com.
The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
FDA Approves New Asthma Treatment Device
First such device to use radiofrequency energy04/28/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
FDA Approves New Asthma Treatment Device...
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a new type of medical device to treat asthma in certain adults, the first device to use radiofrequency energy as part of the therapy.
The Alair Bronchial Thermoplasty System is intended for patients ages 18 and older whose severe and persistent asthma is not well-controlled with inhaled corticosteroids and long-acting beta agonist medications.
The device is composed of a catheter with an electrode tip that delivers a form of electromagnetic energy, called radiofrequency energy, directly to the airways. A controller unit generates and controls the energy.
Inflammation causes the airways of people who have asthma to swell and narrow, making breathing difficult. The Alair system treats asthma symptoms by using radiofrequency energy to heat the lung tissue in a controlled manner, reducing the thickness of smooth muscle in the airways and improving a patient's ability to breathe. To benefit, patients will require multiple sessions targeting different areas in the lungs.
"The approval of the Alair system provides adult patients suffering from severe and persistent asthma with an additional treatment option for a disease that is often difficult to manage," said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., J.D., director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health.
The FDA based its approval on data from a clinical trial of 297 patients with severe and persistent asthma. The trial showed a reduction of severe asthma attacks with use of the Alair system.
The FDA is requiring a five-year post-approval study of the device to study its long-term safety and effectiveness. The device manufacturer, Asthmatx, will follow many of the patients who were enrolled in the clinical trial and enroll 300 new patients at several medical centers across the United States.
Possible side effects during the course of treatment may include asthma attacks, wheezing, chest tightness or pain, partially collapsed lung, coughing up blood, anxiety, headaches, and nausea. The Alair system is designed to reduce the number of severe asthma attacks on a long-term basis. However, there is a risk of immediate asthma attacks during the course of the treatment.
The Alair system is not for use in asthma patients with a pacemaker, internal defibrillator, or other implantable electronic device. Also, those patients with known sensitivities to lidocaine, atropine, or benzodiazepines should not use the device. Alair has not been studied for success in retreatment of the same area of the lung. Currently, patients should not be retreated with the Alair system in the same area of the lung.
Toyota Recalling Older Sequoia SUVs
Recall affects early production units of 2003 model04/28/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Toyota Recalling Older Sequoia SUVs...
Toyota, which has already recalled the Lexus GX 460 SUVs sold in the U.S. to fix a stability-control issue, is now recalling 50,000 2003 Toyota Sequoias to address a stability issue.
The recall comes a couple of weeks after the Lexus recall, but nearly a year and a half after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a probe, in response to 50 complaints about unexpected braking.
Toyota says the VSC system can help control a loss of traction in turns as a result of front or rear tire slippage during cornering. In vehicles without the upgrade, the VSC system could, in limited situations, activate at low speed for a few seconds after acceleration from a stopped position and, as a result, the vehicle may not accelerate as quickly as the driver expects.
There have been no reported injuries or accidents as a result of this condition, according to Toyota.
Toyota said it instituted a running production change during the 2003 model year and published a Technical Service Bulletin to address this issue when it was first identified in fall 2003. Since that time, Toyota said it has been responding to individual owner concerns by replacing the Skid Control Engine Control Unit (ECU) in Sequoias impacted by this condition. Of the approximately 50,000 vehicles included in this recall, approximately half have already been serviced under warranty.
"Toyota is committed to investigating customer complaints more aggressively and to responding quickly to issues we identify in our vehicles," said Steve St. Angelo, Toyota chief quality officer for North America. "As a result, we are voluntarily launching this recall to ensure that as many 2003 Sequoias as possible are serviced to the full satisfaction of our customers."
Starting in late May, Toyota will begin mailing letters to all 2003 Model-Year Sequoia owners included in this recall, including owners of vehicles that have been previously serviced.
If a customer has previously paid to replace the Skid Control ECU for this specific condition prior to receiving a letter, Toyota says the customer should mail a copy of their repair order, to the following address for reimbursement consideration: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., Toyota Customer Experience, WC 10, 19001 South Western Avenue, Torrance, CA 90509.
Supreme Court Allows Vioxx Shareholder Suit to Proceed
Unanimous opinion says suit was timely filed04/28/2010ConsumerAffairs
Supreme Court Allows Vioxx Shareholder Suit to Proceed...
By Jon Hood
April 28, 2010
The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday gave the green light to a securities fraud suit alleging that Merck made misleading statements about the safety of the now-defunct arthritis drug Vioxx, causing financial harm to the company's shareholders.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood applauded the decision, which resulted from a case brought by the Public Employees Retirement System (MPERS) of Mississippi and other plaintiffs.
"Rather than rewarding defendants for concealing their wrongful conduct, the Court's decision today will help ensure that defrauded investors will get their day in court, and have their claims decided on the merits," Hood said.
Vioxx was withdrawn from the market in 2004 after it was linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The suit, brought by Merck shareholders, accuses the pharmaceutical giant of making false statements suggesting that the drug was safe, setting the stage for a plunge in stock prices when it was pulled off the market. Merck shares fell 27% on the day the withdrawal was announced, and continued to decrease for several months afterwards.
The court's decision focused on whether the suit was timely filed within the statute of limitations. Most civil cases can only be brought for a certain amount of time; after that, the litigation window shuts and lawsuits are no longer an option.
The law says that shareholders have two years to bring an action alleging that they lost money due to a company's false or misleading statements. Merck initially argued that the statute of limitations had already run, pointing out that the complaint was filed in November 2003, and that the plaintiffs should have been aware of Vioxx's blooming troubles in September 2001. That was when the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued its first warnings that Vioxx potentially posed serious risks.
That argument held water with a federal judge in New Jersey, who dismissed the suit in 2007. But the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, ruling that the two-year period begins only when the plaintiffs have actual knowledge that the company was misleading shareholders.
Court upheld Third Circuit
The Supreme Court agreed with that view, holding that the statute begins to run when the plaintiffs did in fact discover, or when a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have discovered 'the facts constituting the violation' -- whichever comes first. The court further said that the 'facts constituting the violation' include the fact of scienter, 'a mental state embracing intent to deceive, manipulate or defraud.'
Many statutes of limitations are tolled -- or stopped -- when the plaintiffs can demonstrate that the defendant fraudulently concealed the behavior for which they are being sued. Thus, for example, a medical malpractice plaintiff may be able to extend the statute of limitations if he can show that his doctor was aware of the alleged negligence and actively tried to conceal it from the patient. The elements necessary to satisfy the fraudulent concealment exception vary, and many statutes of limitations are governed by state law.
The unanimous opinion, already a rare sight, was especially remarkable given the subject matter of the case. Six of the current nine justices were appointed by Republicans, typically not viewed as a party with a special fondness for class action lawsuits.
A statement by Merck Executive Vice President and General Counsel Bruce Kuhlik describes the company as disappointed in today's decision but said it believes that the allegations in the complaint are unfounded and will continue to defend itself vigorously.
Merck has good reason to fight the suit as aggressively as possible. The company already paid nearly $5 billion into a settlement fund for patients who say they suffered heart attacks or strokes as a result of taking Vioxx.
Merck, the world's second-largest drug company by sales, has reported around $40 billion in revenue since last November.---
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is not related to reporter Jon Hood.
Message from Yahoo! may look authenic, but it's not04/28/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
The email that arrives in you inbox looks very official. It carries the familiar Yahoo! Mail logo and has a heading that warns, "Your Account Will Be Block...
Airline Consumer Protection Rules Set to Take Effect
Regs govern a variety of items regarding tarmac delays, including lack of food, toilets04/28/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Airline Consumer Protection Rules Set to Take Effect ...
You can say goodbye to the endless hours of squirming on a runway-bound airliner on which there's no food and the toilets are out of order.
A new rule takes effect Thursday that will put a halt to lengthy tarmac delays on domestic flights and provide additional consumer protections to the flying public. "Airline passengers deserve to be treated fairly," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, "and this new rule will require airlines to respect the rights of their customers."
Under the new rule, U.S. airlines operating domestic flights may not permit an aircraft to remain on the tarmac at large and medium hub airports for more than three hours without deplaning passengers. The only exceptions are for safety or security reasons or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.
U.S. carriers operating international flights departing from or arriving in the United States must specify -- in advance -- their own time limits for deplaning passengers, with the same exceptions applicable.
Carriers are required to provide adequate food and potable drinking water for passengers within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories and, if necessary, provide medical attention.
While some have said the new rule could lead to large increases in the number of canceled flights, the Department of Transportation (DOT) doesn't expect that to be the case. "Everyone knows the rules going in -- the passengers and the airlines," LaHood said. "We expect carriers to take steps to avoid tarmac delays and cancellations by adjusting their schedules and providing timely information to passengers. A little extra planning will minimize disruptions while ensuring that passengers are not trapped aboard airplanes indefinitely."
The rule limiting tarmac delays was adopted in response to a series of incidents in which passengers were stranded on the ground aboard aircraft for lengthy periods.
Stories of delays have taken on legendary proportions.
Bethany of Kingwood, TX, wrote ConsumerAffairs.com of being stuck on a Continental Airlines flight going from Houston to New York LaGuardia. "Because of weather problems in NYC, traffic was diverted to Dulles in Washington, D.C. Of course, the airlines assume no responsibility for weather delays; however, our plane also had mechanical difficulties. Long after other planes were back in the air, we sat first on the plane for nearly four hours and then in the terminal."
And then there was the straw that broke the camel's back.
To prevent further occurrences, the rule also:
Prohibits the largest U.S. airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights, subjecting those that do to DOT enforcement action for unfair and deceptive practices;
Requires U.S. airlines to designate an airline employee to monitor the effects of flight delays and cancellations, respond in a timely and substantive fashion to consumer complaints and provide information to consumers on where to file complaints;
Requires U.S. airlines to adopt customer service plans and audit their own compliance with their plans; and
Prohibits U.S. airlines from retroactively applying material changes to their contracts of carriage that could have a negative impact on consumers who already have purchased tickets.
In addition, beginning at the end of July, airlines will be required to display on their website flight delay information for each domestic flight they operate.
DOT says plans further protections for air travelers in the coming months. Among the areas under consideration are relating to disclosure of baggage and other fees, and full-fare advertising.
Court Throws Out Katrina, Rita Insurance Settlement
Plaintiffs' counsel accused of improperly combining cases04/27/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Court Throws Out Katrina, Rita Insurance Settlement ...
An intramural dispute between two plaintiffs' attorneys caused a Louisiana state court to toss a $35 million settlement reached on behalf of victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, leaving some of those plaintiffs without compensation for the time being.
The unanimous decision from the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals concerned the settlement of cases brought against Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance. The suits accused the company of failing to cover hurricane victims settlement offers within 30 days of receiving a claim, as required by law.
According to the court, the settlement constituted an unacceptable "end-run" against a second class action, to the potential detriment of that suit's plaintiffs.
The decision grew out of an increasingly heated feud between attorneys on both cases, Orrill v. AIG and Oubre v. Louisiana Citizens. Orrill was brought on behalf of Katrina victims whose claims weren't addressed on time, while Oubre covered victims of both Katrina and Rita. The suits' overlapping class definitions mean Katrina victims could potentially take part in both.
But in October 2008, with the Oubre case set to go to trial, the Orrill plaintiffs reached an agreement with Louisiana Citizens. The settlement was approved in March 2009, and the Orrill class was expanded to include victims of both Katrina and Rita -- essentially swallowing the entire Oubre class, in effect nullifying that suit.
The Oubre lawyers, upset about having their class snatched out from under them, cried foul, and said the Orrill agreement was a raw deal. Although that settlement was nominally for $35 million, only $13 million of that amount was actually expected to be distributed to the class. Five million would go to class counsel, and the remaining $18 million would go back to Louisiana Citizens.
Despite its relatively dull factual foundation -- this is about two insurance class actions, after all -- the increasingly bitter legal standoff had a distinctly Louisiana flare, to the point that, in late 2008, a fight broke out in an Orleans Parish court.
The appeals court noted that the Orrill lawyers essentially reached a settlement for clients they never represented, since the case was originally brought only on behalf of Hurricane Katrina.
"This Court ... finds it curious that Citizens negotiated with Orrill counsel to settle all outstanding claims, when, at the time of the settlement negotiations, Orrill counsel did not represent all outstanding claimants," the court wrote.
John Wortman, Citizens' CEO, said the company is "kind of looking at our options at this time, but we'll most likely appeal."
In the meantime, the Oubre case netted a $92.8 million settlement, which works out to $5,000 per plaintiff. An appeal on that case is set for May 3.
Scammers Impersonating Mississippi State Officials
A new wrinkle in the "emergency" scam04/27/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Scammers Impersonating Mississippi State Officials...
If you should get an email from the governor of your state, asking if you could lend him some money to help him deal with an overseas emergency, trust us, it's not really the governor sending the email.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood reports email scammers are "hijacking" email addresses of well-known public officials and using it to con consumers.
"It's not a new scam, but of course these con artists continually tweak their techniques in order to fool even the most astute consumers," Hood said. "In several recent reports, the cons have spoofed the email addresses of some of Mississippi's elected officials who reported the crime to our office. We are looking into these specific instances, but our immediate best reaction is to warn consumers that it is going on and urge them to be cautious."
In the recent reports, the spam email claims that the public official is overseas and is in need of money because the official has lost his through some sort of accident. The recipient is then instructed to send money immediately to Western Union in London.
Most disturbing, says Hood, these emails aren't being sent to people at random. They are going to people who seem to have some connection to the official, suggesting the scammer has penetrated the official's computer security.
"We are looking into it, but we do know that somehow these criminals have also accessed the official's email address book, so the victims don't necessarily consider it out of the ordinary to be receiving email correspondence from the official," said Hood.
The scam, in its traditional form is known as the "emergency scam" because the criminal always tries to use the scare of an emergency situation to force the victim to respond quickly. It has also developed the nickname of the "grandparent scam" as the cons often target grandparents while pretending to be their grandchild in the middle of a crisis, perhaps a car accident or needing bail money. The grandparent is told to act quickly and to keep the correspondence a secret.
"Everyone should look with suspicion at any unsolicited emails that seek to play on your emotions and your pocketbook," said Hood. "Always protect your personal information and keep your anti-virus software up-to-date."
Attack of the 'Zombie' Trans Fat!
Bob Evans, White Castle, & Long John Silver's still using trans fat, despite known danger04/27/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Attack of the 'Zombie' Trans Fat!...
Artificial trans fat is not dead -- not completely anyway.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says the heart-stopping substance has come staggering "zombie-like out of the culinary graveyard" and points out that Bob Evans, White Castle, and Long John Silver's are all still using artificial trans fat in French fries, onion rings, hotcakes, and other foods.
The largest fast-food chains have dropped the powerful promoter of heart disease; it has been forced out of restaurants in New York City, California, and other jurisdictions; and has been increasingly hard to find in supermarkets since trans fat labeling went into effect in 2006.
But while McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Starbucks, and other big chains have phased out their use of partially hydrogenated oil (the source of artificial trans fat), CSPI says other America's chain-restaurants have yet to get the memo.
"Bob Evans, White Castle, and Long John Silver's are now the roguish outliers among the restaurant industry," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Many Americans might have thought that the era of artificial trans fat was over. At these chains, it lives tragically on." The three chains, with total sales of $3 billion a year, range between the 39th- and 51st-biggest in the country.
Trans fat promotes heart disease by raising one's LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, which clogs arteries, while lowering one's HDL, the "good" cholesterol that guards against heart attacks.
The Institute of Medicine recommends consuming as little trans fat as possible, while still eating a healthy diet, and the American Heart Association advises people to limit trans fat to no more than 2 grams per day. Since small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in milk and beef, that doesn't leave much room for trans fat from artificial sources, according to CSPI.
At Bob Evans, the fries aren't the problem; it's the pancakes: An order of Stacked & Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes has seven grams of trans fat; a standard order of three unadorned Bob Evans Buttermilk Hotcakes has nine grams.
At White Castle, even Harold and Kumar might look askance at the French fries, onion chips, and onion rings, which have between two and 10 grams of trans fat per order, depending on the product and the size, says CSPI.
CSPI said it was particularly disappointed to find that trans fat still lurks at Long John Silver's. That chain, owned by Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, knows better, according to the group. KFC phased trans fat out of its fried foods in 2006, four months after CSPI filed a lawsuit against the chain. Taco Bell also phased out artificial trans fat several years ago.
Nevertheless, at LJS, battered fish and shrimp has between 2.5 and 4.5 grams of trans fat; a side order of cryptic "Crumblies" has four grams; and every single meal on the chain's Dollar Stretcher menu has artificial trans fat, ranging from the Small Golden Fries (2.5 grams) to the Two Jr. Fish and Fries (seven grams), CSPI charges.
"The FDA has all the scientific evidence and legal authority it needs to send partially hydrogenated oil to the chemical boneyard quickly and permanently, but it has failed to do so," Jacobson said. "Banning it would save thousands of lives annually."
Consumers Victimized By Car Dealerships Receiving Over $100K in Restitution
Dealers sold former rental cars as new without informing customers of prior use04/27/2010ConsumerAffairs
Consumers Victimized By Car Dealerships Receiving Over $100K in Restitution...
Customers of two New York auto dealerships that misrepresented used cars for sale are about to come into some money.
The office of New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo says the dealerships, without telling customers, sold cars that had been used principally as rental vehicles. As a result, those customers will be receiving more than $100,000 in restitution.
Additionally, Cuomo's office says it reached an agreement with a now-closed Centereach dealership that failed to refund thousands of dollars in deposits for vehicles that were never ultimately sold.
In the first case, an agreement with Cuomo's office calls for JM Hyundai in New Rochelle and Legacy Infiniti of Lynbrook to refund ten percent of the purchase price to 75 customers who unknowingly bought cars that had previously been used as rental vehicles, which is a violation of New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law.
JM Hyundai paid $90,246.40 and Legacy Infiniti paid $19,254.30 in restitution. The checks were sent to customers April 23. Additionally, the two dealerships paid penalties and costs to the state (JM Hyundai: $22,500; Legacy Infiniti: $5,000).
Cuomo's office also has reached an agreement with Centereach's now-defunct Middle Country Motors and its owner Keith Chaikin, after the dealership failed to refund thousands of dollars in deposits for vehicles that were never ultimately sold.
An investigation found that the dealer required substantial deposits from customers who sought financing. In instances where the consumer's financing was denied, the dealership illegally kept the deposits or failed to return the money in a timely manner. The dealership closed in January 2010.
The agreement requires Middle Country and Chaikin to refund deposits that have not yet been returned and pay $12,000 in penalties and costs to the state. Consumers who believe they are owed a deposit from Middle Country Motors have until May 26, 2010 to file a complaint and may do so by contacting the Attorney General's Suffolk Regional Office at 631-231-2424 or Nassau Regional Office at 516-248-3300.
"Buying a car is a major purchase and consumers should expect honesty and integrity, not fraud and deception, from these dealerships," said Cuomo.
States Sue Extended Auto Warranty Companies
US Fidelis, Credexx Corp. accused of deceptive sales practices04/27/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
States Sue Extended Auto Warranty Companies...
Eight states and the District of Columbia have filed lawsuits against a pair of extended auto warranty companies, alleging an array of deceptive advertising, marketing, and sales practices used to mislead consumers into purchasing motor vehicle service contracts.
The filings allege US Fidelis, formerly National Auto Warranty Service, of St. Louis, MO, and Credexx Corporation of Irvine, CA, dba Auto One Warranty Specialists (Auto One), made false and misleading statements in connection with the sale of extended auto warranty plans in violation of several state statutes, including state and federal no-call laws.
Consumers have filed hundreds of complaints against the companies, saying the consumers did not actually need the service contracts for their vehicles, the contracts did not cover needed repairs and/or that the consumers wanted to cancel their contracts but were unable to get refunds.
"These companies misled consumers by marketing and selling 'extended warranties' that were actually service contracts," Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said. "Service contracts are not warranties as defined by law and do not have to meet the same standards. Consumers spent hundreds and thousands of dollars under the false belief that they were buying comprehensive warranties, when that was not the case."
According to the lawsuits, the companies represented to consumers they were selling extended warranties to cover just about anything mechanical that can go wrong, when in fact they offered and sold service contracts covering only certain repairs. The suits also allege the companies falsely represented themselves as offering products on behalf of the manufacturer of the consumers vehicle and falsely indicated the consumers existing warranty was about to expire.
Every time a company tricks consumers into purchasing a phony product, it sheds a negative light on the business community, said Kansas Attorney General Steve Six. The Attorney Generals office is committed to protecting consumers and giving Kansans confidence in knowing they are dealing only with reputable firms. If youre breaking the law in the name of making the sale, we will come after you.
In addition to the multi-state cases, Attorney General Cordray filed a lawsuit in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas charging Auto Repair Warranty, Inc. (ARW), a Cleveland-based company, with misrepresenting its products.
ARW charged consumers up to $2,500 for its service contracts, which it claimed included "bumper to bumper" coverage. But the company failed to explain that certain repairs were excluded and denied claims for repairs that should have been covered. ARW has since gone out of business, leaving consumers with service contracts that they have paid for, but which have no value.
States suing US Fidelis include Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. The attorneys general of Idaho, Kansas, North Carolina and Washington filed lawsuits against Auto One.
Kansas is also alleging US Fidelis and Credexx violated the Kansas No Call act with aggressive telemarketing techniques and robo-calling. In addition, the US Fidelis suit alleges US Fidelis instructed consumers to push 8 to be removed from our lists but would instead simply disconnect the call.
Violations of our No Call act demonstrate how important it is to strengthen this law, said AG Six. That is why my office introduced the Robo-Call Privacy Act this year to establish a comprehensive restriction on robo-calls in Kansas, including both commercial and political calls. Unfortunately, the Legislature has failed to act on this much needed bill.
The Attorney Generals Office is asking for restitution for all Kansas consumers, investigative fees and over $75,000.00 in civil penalties for violations of the Kansas Consumer Protection Act. The cases were filed in Shawnee County District Court. As many as nine states filed lawsuits today, and more states are expected to file in the near future.
FTC Warns Against Interest Rate Reduction Scams
Agency cites a wave of 'robocallers' pitching scheme to consumers04/26/2010ConsumerAffairs
FTC Warns Against Interest Rate Reduction Scams...
You pick up the phone on the second ring and wait for what seems like several seconds before someone responds to your greeting. But you find you aren't talking to a human, but a recorded sales pitch promising to lower your credit card interest rate.
The best advice, says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), is to just hang up, saying most of these offers are scams. And consumers are being inundated with them, according to the FTC.
In a new consumer alert, Credit Card Interest Rate Reduction Scams, the FTC says consumers have just as much clout with their credit card issuers as these companies do. It urges consumers to avoid paying middlemen, and negotiate directly with the credit card companies.
The companies behind the sales pitches claim to have special relationships with credit card issuers. They guarantee that the reduced rates they offer will save you thousands of dollars in interest and finance charges, and will allow you to pay off your credit card debt three to five times faster. They claim that the lower interest rates are available for a limited time and that you need to act now. Some even use money-back guarantees as further enticement.
The FTC says the companies behind these robocalls can't do anything for you that you can't do for yourself -- for free. You have just as much clout with your credit card issuer as these companies, and you are just as likely to get turned down for a rate reduction regardless of their promises or supposed efforts to negotiate on your behalf. Indeed, FTC investigators found that people who pay for these services don't get the touted interest rate reductions, don't save the promised amounts, don't pay off their credit card debt three to five times faster, and struggle to get refunds.
The FTC says that if you're looking to reduce the interest rate you're paying on your credit card purchases, your best bet is to handle it yourself for free: call the customer service phone number on the back of your credit card and ask for a reduced rate. Be calm, patient and persistent. And if you are tempted by the promises in a rate reduction robocall, the FTC says hold off -- and hang up. Don't give out your credit card information. Once scammers have your data, they can charge your credit card for their own purchases or sell the information to other scammers. Don't share other personal financial or sensitive information like your bank account or Social Security numbers. Scam artists often ask for this information during an unsolicited sales pitch, and then use it to commit other frauds against you. Be skeptical of any unsolicited sales calls that are recorded, especially if your phone number is on the National Do Not Call Registry. You shouldn't get recorded sales pitches unless you have specifically agreed to accept such calls, with a few exceptions. See New Rules for Robocalls. If your number is on the National Do Not Call Registry, a telemarketer may call you only if you have agreed to accept calls from the company the salesperson works for, if you have bought something from the company within the last 18 months, or if you have asked the company for information within the last three months. To report violations of the National Do Not Call Registry or to register your phone number, visit DoNotCall.gov or call 1-888-382-1222.
Homebuyers Still Plagued by Mortgage Fraud
Increase shows up in Arizona, Midwest04/26/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Homebuyers Still Plagued by Mortgage Fraud...
The housing market has yet to fully recover from its devastating recession, and fraudulent mortgage officers aren't doing anything to inspire confidence. In fact, the problem of mortgage fraud continues to get worse, according to a report by the Mortgage Asset Research Institute, a division of LexisNexis.
Reported incidents of mortgage fraud and misrepresentation by professionals in the mortgage industry increased by seven percent from 2008 to 2009, according to the report. While the pace has slowed since the 2007-2008 increase of 26 percent, the continued increase is believed to be attributed to better industry reporting and policing.
The 12th Periodic Mortgage Fraud Case Report examines the current state of residential mortgage fraud and misrepresentation in the US committed by professionals, based on data submitted by LexisNexis' Mortgage Asset Research Institute subscribers.
Florida, ranked number one in 2006 and 2007, has moved back into first place in the country for mortgage fraud and misrepresentation after being displaced in 2008 by Rhode Island. Florida also has close to three times the expected amount of reported mortgage fraud and misrepresentation for its origination volume. Rhode Island is not ranked on the Top-Ten list for 2009 because the state's sample size did not meet the minimum requirements set for the survey.
New York moved into second place, followed by California, Arizona, Michigan, Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia, Illinois, and Virginia. This is the first appearance on the report top-ten list for New Jersey and Virginia.
Not going away
"The data suggests that in 2009 there was a seven percent increase in the number of incidents of fraud reported to the LexisNexis Mortgage Asset Research Institute on top of the 26 percent increase reported in 2008. While this is a noticeable increase, we believe that mortgage fraud is significantly understated, even during times of massive origination volumes," said Jennifer Butts, LexisNexis Mortgage Asset Research Institute manager of Data Processing and co-author of the report.
"Lenders are facing hurdles with compliance, loss mitigation and staving off additional financial losses due to poor loan performance," said Denise James, LexisNexis Risk Solutions director of Real Estate Solutions and co-author of the report.
"This is not to say that mortgage fraud is going away; it is still a serious problem, and new trends continue to emerge. It remains critical for those in the mortgage industry to reassess their processes, work together by sharing information and reporting incidents of fraudulent activity, and ready themselves for more complex schemes in order to continue the fight against mortgage fraud," said James.
The top fraud incident type in 2009 - representing 59 percent of all reported fraud types - was application misrepresentation. This is the sixth year in a row it has topped the list.
In second place were frauds related to appraisal and valuation misrepresentation, which increased from 22 percent of reported misrepresentation in 2008 to 33 percent; with an 11-percent increase, this is the most notable increase in reported fraud types in 2009.
Additional documented fraud types included, in order of volume, verifications of deposit, verifications of employment, escrow or closing costs, and credit reports. Overall there has been a slight downward trend in total application fraud and misrepresentation moving from a high of 67 percent in 2005 to 59 percent in 2009.
"The information contained in LexisNexis Mortgage Asset Research Institute's 2009 Report serves as yet another wakeup call for the industry on the status and continued presence of mortgage fraud," said Darius Bozorgi, president and CEO of Veros. "We at Veros have been following these developments for years and based on our own analysis and experience we agree with the findings contained in the report. Fraud increases risk exponentially, and the industry must meet this threat head-on using all available intelligence and tools. Fortunately, the tools are increasing in availability and sophistication to address the challenges posed by perpetrators."
The report also found that:
• Arizona has moved into the top five for the first time;
• Eight of the top ten states are in the eastern half of the country;
• New Jersey and Virginia made their first appearance in the top ten for loans originated in 2009; and
• The states with the highest concentration of appraisal fraud and misrepresentation nationwide are all Midwestern States -- Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan.
Organic Industry Watchdog Calls for USDA Crackdown on Labeling Abuses
Claims prominent brands using 'organic' in their name when products don't qualify04/26/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Organic Industry Watchdog Calls for USDA Crackdown on Labeling Abuses...
While the organic label is the gold standard of eco-labels on food packages, one major loophole in the federal organic standards remains -- and an organic industry watchdog wants it closed.
Companies are tightly regulated in terms of their use of the word "organic" on food packaging, but some businesses are deceiving customers by using the words "Organic" or "Organics" in their company name on food that does not legally qualify as organic.
"Companies are getting away with using the word 'organic' in their company name, listed prominently on food packages, even if the product they're selling isn't certified organic," explains Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. "These companies are taking advantage of the good name and reputation of organics, without going the extra mile to actually source all organic ingredients in their products."
The Wisconsin-based farm policy research group sent a formal legal complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) National Organic Program, and a second similar complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), highlighting labeling improprieties with three food brands; Oskri Organics, Organic Bistro and Newman's Own Organics.
These companies sell products that the Institute claims do not qualify to bear the "USDA Organic" seal, yet may appear organic to consumers based on the prominence of the word 'Organic' in their brand name.
Oskri Organics sells a variety of foods, including fruit preserves, nutrition bars and tahini (sesame butter). However some of their products, the group charges, contain no certified organic ingredients. Thus, the Institute maintains, these products are no different from conventional foods, yet many consumers are presumably being unethically led to believe they are organic based on the company name, displayed on product packaging.
Organic Bistro sells frozen entrees made with organic vegetables, but uses non-organic chicken and turkey. "There is certainly no shortage of organic chicken or organic turkey, which are, obviously, more expensive than conventional meats," said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia's co-director. "By using conventional ingredients to cut costs, yet displaying the word "Organic" so prominently on their packages, Organic Bistro is unfairly competing with truly organic companies that commit to sourcing organic meat."
Newman's Own Organics sells some certified organic products and some that only qualify for the "made with organic" label (70 percent organic content), yet uses the term "Organics" in their name -- on all food packages, the group states. Newman's Own Organics, founded by the late actor Paul Newman and his daughter Nell, is a prominent company in the natural/organic marketplace and respected for the generous donations of their profits to charity.
Newman's Own Organics Newman-O's cookies contain conventional sugar, conventional canola oil and conventional cocoa, yet the webpage displays the "USDA Organic" seal and states: "Like our other products, Newman-O's are certified organic by Oregon Tilth." Yet, according to the Institute, these products do not legally qualify to bear the word "Organic" or the "USDA Organic" seal on their packaging.
"Newman-O's, a product similar to Nabisco's Oreo cookies, are not organic, yet consumers are led to believe that they are," says Vallaeys. "Products that contain conventional ingredients, which are freely available in organic form, would never qualify for the USDA Organic seal. We think it's time for the USDA to crack down on corporations gaming the system by putting the word "Organic" or "Organics" in their company name."
Calls place by ConsumerAffairs.com to Newman's Own for comment were not returned.
This issue is up for discussion at the semiannual meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a citizen panel set up by Congress to advise the USDA. But The Cornucopia Institute contends USDA already has the authority, under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and current organic regulations, to take action against the misuse of the word "Organic" in company names. And, the public-interest group stated, "The FTC clearly has the authority to crack down on deceiving labeling claims."
"Current organic standards specify that processed foods that are represented as 'Organic' must contain 95-100 percent organically produced raw or processed agricultural products," said Vallaeys. The only minor ingredients allowed that are not certified organic must be unavailable in organic form and approved by the NOSB. "By naming themselves 'Organic Bistro' or 'Newman's Own Organics,' these companies are attempting to circumvent the standards, representing their products as organic without meeting the organic labeling standard."
Other companies that offer both conventional and organic products have eliminated the term "Organic" from their company name or company logo on their non-organic packaging.
Although Dean Foods' WhiteWave division took a lot of heat last year when it introduced its first non-organic dairy products under the Horizon label, the giant dairy conglomerate no longer uses the term "Organic" in its name or on its brand logo for its new "Natural" product line.
"Deceptive labeling practices, like putting organic in a company or brand name, hurts the ethical competitors and the entire organic food industry by blurring the meaning of the word "Organic" for consumers," added Kastel. "Consumers should be able to trust that any food package with the word "Organic" displayed prominently is truly certified organic, contains predominantly organic ingredients, and meets the letter and spirit of the law."
The battle over what does and does not qualify as "Organic" is nothing new. Just last year, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit regarding such labeling on milk.
Role Reversal for Boomers: Caring For Your Aging Parents
There comes a time when adult children must be a parent to their parents04/26/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jan Yager, Ph.D.
Role Reversal for Boomers: Caring For Your Aging Parents...
Except for the years when my father was serving in World War II, my parents were inseparable during their 54-year marriage. Then, 14 years ago, Dad died at the age of 80 of a brain tumor.
My mother, who was just 73 at the time, was pretty much self-sufficient for about a decade after that. She still played tennis, drove her car, and got together with friends and neighbors, including fellow retirees from her years as a kindergarten teacher who met monthly for lunch. After a few years, Mom had a new romantic partner as well.
Then, about four years ago, my sister and I got the call. It was the call to which many baby boomers who have an aging parent can relate. Who makes the call can vary. It can come in many forms -- a phone call, a letter, an e-mail, or even someone making a comment. It is that defining moment, that wake up call if you will, the one where you can no longer deny that your parent needs help.
Whether the call is from a physician, a sibling, a spouse or romantic partner, a friend, a neighbor or, in some cases, from the police or even the fire department, it is that call that distinguishes the moment when you go from being an adult child to someone who will now have to be the parent to your parent.
Giving Up the Car
For many of us, the first big change in our parents independence occurs when it becomes prudent for him or her to stop driving. (See, Seniors in More Severe Auto Crashes Than Younger Drivers which reports on a study conducted at Kansas State that analyzed the driving patterns of those aged 65 and over.
Parents who live in an urban setting, where driving was rarely an issue, may find it has become more difficult for them to take public transportation because of diminished mobility or increased feelings of insecurity around strangers. It is often left to the Boomer to help his or her parents to get around. And thats just the beginning.
Seek Out Help
If you find yourself becoming your parents caregiver, it may be useful to invest some time and money in meeting with an eldercare or geriatric manager or counselor. They can guide your parent or you through the world of senior care that you and your parent or parents are now entering.
Linda A. Ziac, president of the Caregiver Resource Center, has been working in the eldercare field for 35 years. She emphasizes that no two situations are the same. Ziac gets calls from adult children who are trying to get things in place but their parent refuses to talk about it, as well as calls from seniors from 60 to 90 saying that they want to explore help for themselves.
You can find a local eldercare manager or counselor the same way you would find any trusted professional: ask friends, your own physician, or senior services in your own or your parents community for referrals. Then perform due diligence checking out their credentials, testimonials, or websites. Usually there is an initial consultation for a fee and if additional services are requested, you would negotiate with the eldercare specialist what assistance will be needed and what it will cost.
Becoming Your Parents Advocate
One of the best gifts you can give to your aging parent or parents is to become their advocate. This is especially important if a parent starts to have a diminished capacity and can no longer deal with such everyday activities as walking, feeding or dressing oneself, making phone calls, or cooking.
As eldercare counselor Ziac points out, there is a big difference between being your parents advocate and helping and taking over in a way that makes the parent feel worse. Ziac says, There has to be a conversation between the senior and the family to honor the wishes of the senior. They cant just come in and dictate what the right thing is to do.
Even if the final decision about what your parent wants to do is up to him or her, you can still help by doing some research. For example, if your parent has vision challenges such as macular degeneration, you can explore if there are free services for the visually impaired in your community. Volunteers may be available to read to your parent on a regular basis for one to two hours a week.
As long as your parent is still self-sufficient and able to get to the programs and participate in activities, or has a caregiver to help out as needed, you can explore senior centers in your parents community to see what she or he might want to participate in.
Getting a Geriatric Assessment
If you suspect that your parent has Alzheimers or another kind of dementia, you might want to get a detailed geriatric assessment through a hospital or a neurologist. This will give you a starting point of how your parent is currently functioning as well as suggestions about what medical or social services your parent would benefit from. One such program is run by the Center for Healthy Aging at Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut.
The assessment is conducted by the Geriatric Health Team which consists of a geriatrician, who is a physician, board certified in geriatric medicine, a geriatric nurse practitioner, a pharmacist, a gerontologist, and a social services liaison. (Your parent would first be seen and evaluated by an internist who would make the determination that your parent should be referred to a neurologist or geriatric assessment center.)
Housing and Caregiver Considerations
Author Mike Campbell has spent more than 18 years in the senior housing and care industry including visiting hundreds of nursing homes or assistant living residences on behalf of his former employers. He also comes to this topic from a personal perspective. Campbell and his siblings, all of whom live in Ohio, and his mother, who is 81 and living in Florida, are deciding where she should live since her second husband died. (Campbells father died suddenly at age 57 of a heart attack.)
In his book, When Mom and Dad Need Help, Campbell identifies nine basic housing options that seniors and their Boomer children need to consider:
(1) parents moving in and living with you;
(2) adult day services, a community-based option, with your parent still living in their same home;
(3) home care services, while still in the same home;
(4) moving to an independent community with supportive services;
(5) assisted living communities;
(6) stand-alone Alzheimers dementia communities;
(7) nursing care facilities;
(8) Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs)which offer all of these levels of care on one single campus; and
(9) hospice, the final option.
Campbell says there are pluses and minuses for each option. One concern is cost but another key factor is the staff. According to Campbell, You want to have adequate staff and adequate training.
In assisted living and nursing care residences, the recommended maximum staff to resident ratio varies depending upon the shift. For the morning (7 a.m. to 3 p.m.) shift, Campbell suggests that the maximum assisted living ratio should be 10 residents to one direct care staff. In a nursing home, Campbells maximum recommended ratio is 5 direct care staff to one resident.
In addition to finding out the staffing ratio, you and your parent will also want to tour any residences that your parent is considering. Here are some questions you want answered:
• What is the ambiance of the residence?
• Are activity rooms in use?
• What is the dining area like?
• Is the food up to the standards that you and your parent were expecting?
• What will this residential option cost?
• Are there any additional fees beyond the daily room rate and meal charges that you should know about such as charges for various types of assistance, from administering medications to escorting to meals or activities, as well as any one-time or recurring activity fees?
• How long is the lease and what, if anything is the obligation for payment of the monthly rent if there is an extended hospitalization or death that requires breaking the lease?
• How friendly are the staff and fellow residents?
• Is there an emergency system in place if your parent falls and cant get to the phone such as pull cords in the apartments that connect to the front desk or to 911?
Hopefully your parents will have already taken care of the major legal issues such as having an irrevocable or revocable trust, a will, a durable power of attorney, and a health care directive. (See A Legal Wake Up Call for Boomers for a discussion of these key legal concerns.) You should look at these legal and estate issues from your parents perspective. It may be helpful to consult with the family attorney or an elder care attorney on these matters.
As Carolyn L. Rosenblatt, who was a nurse for 10 years, a lawyer for 30 years, and who is now an elder care advisor and author of The Boomers Guide to Aging Parents, says, Everyone needs to have a durable power of attorney for finances and a health care directive for health.
Everyone Ages Differently, On Their Own Timetable
At the assisted living residence where Mom now lives, there is a petite healthy woman who is 103 years old. Everyone points to that woman as a role model of aging. On the one hand, it is very comforting to know that someone could be 103 and still be in excellent shape, walking on her own, and needing minimal assistance with everyday self-care.
But, on the other hand, it is a false standard by which all others are compared. For one thing I have learned most about aging is that there is a very wide disparity in how or when someone loses their mobility, develops dementia, suffers from chronic pain, arthritis, or contracts life threatening diseases like heart disease or cancer. Therefore, its important to keep the focus on the abilities and challenges of each senior rather than making him or her feel unfairly compared to someone else who seems to be faring much better even at a more advanced chronological age.
I have also learned that seniors deal with the changes they are going through in unique ways. Some become very angry and resentful, looking back at the way things were; others are accepting and positive. Excessive and ongoing depression and sadness in seniors, however, is not necessarily a normal part of aging; it is treatable. If your parent is showing signs of chronic depression, seek out a geriatric social worker or counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist for help. (See Depression Not a Normal Part of Aging by Fred Cicetti).
Meeting Your Aging Parents New Relationships
As your parents life changes, they may also be forming new friendships or even romantic relationships, which may be an adjustment for you. For example, 49-year-old Brenda, whose mother died suddenly in 2008 after 51 years of marriage, said it was a challenge dealing with a new stepmother for her and her siblings.
It wasnt a few weeks before my father was looking for a new wife, said Brenda, and he was quite open about his desires, even before my mothers funeral. He did not want to be alone and he was going to make sure that was not the case for the rest of his life. Within five months, he was online dating, and he quickly found someone who looked exactly like my mother. It was comforting and disturbing all at the same time. Within 17 months, he was remarried. All has gone well with the marriage, however a couple of my siblings have had great difficulty with the transition to having a stepmother.
Health Care Issues
Coping with the myriad of healthcare issues is a large part of the aging process and can take a lot of time and attention. Although some parents will be fit and self-sufficient even into their 90s or beyond, others will have one or more health concerns that require your time.
With the advancement in medicine today, conditions that seemed a part of aging that just had to be endured are now treatable even if not curable. For example, there are medications that internists can prescribe for incontinence; urologists may even have additional treatment suggestions including surgical procedures, to minimize or eliminate this as a health care issue. Research advances in treating any number of age-related health care problems, such as macular degeneration, dementia, arthritis, depression, or hearing loss. You may also want to find local or even out-of-state experts who can help.
How Are They Going to Pay?
As elder care advisor and lawyer Rosenblatt points out, One of the biggest problems we have as Boomers is that many parents did not plan on living this long and have outlived their money. That leaves the question, how is your parent going to pay for their care?
You may want to hire an elder care attorney or specialist with whom you can have a family meeting to weigh the various options. If your parents got long term care insurance in their 50s or 60s, that is one possible option; if they are already in their 70s or 80s or older, it is probably too late to buy such insurance. Since your parents are over 65, they will have Medicare, but Medicare may not pick up all the healthcare expenses.
Your parent might want to look into the feasibility of buying gap insurance which covers some or all of the difference between what healthcare costs are reimbursed by Medicare and the actual costs. (Because of the recently-passed health care reform bill, you may want to check with an elder care expert about what is changing for senior healthcare.)
If your parent needs to go into a nursing home, or if you need a nurse to care for your parent in his or her home, you might want to find out if your parent is eligible for Medicaid to cover some or all of the costs. Since this is an extensive requirement and application process that varies from state to state, you might want to hire an elder care attorney to help your parent with this.
Acceptance and Perspective
Recently I asked my mother, who now needs continual care since she has mobility, vision, and memory issues, if her situation is hard on her. No, she answered, much to my surprise. Thats good to hear, I replied with relief. Then she continued, with absolute clarity and certainty, It makes me feel loved.
I learned so much in that exchange with my mother. I was looking at her situation as an outsider rather than as the one who has resigned herself to the walking and memory challenges that are part of my mothers new world. I also did not understand that she views her situation from a very different perspective than I do. I am a young 61-year-old. My mothers world is now mostly made up of other seniors with physical and mental challenges of their own who are in their 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond.
Caring For Ourselves
We Boomers also have to remember that its okay to turn to other family members, romantic partners, friends, or even local support groups if we need help in our caregiver role. (See Managing the Stress: Tips for the Caregiver at the AARP website.
It Will Never Happen To Me!
I try hard to make time for Mom by visiting her regularly and calling often. I like to think that I wont be so dependent on my children when I am that age. Not me! I jokingly tell my sons, who are now ages 20 and 24, that when their father and I are in our late 80s, well be traveling around the world in a hot air balloon, joyfully independent and healthy.
However, deep down inside I can hear a little voice telling me that my mother and every other senior dealing with the tough physical and mental challenges of growing old probably had that same dream and hope when they were my age. It is a reminder to live our dreams as fully as possible while we still can because aging and all that entails is happening to all of us.
- AARP Membership association for anyone over 50 with articles and resources about caring for your aging parents including a related PBS video that can be played online.
- National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers Membership association for elder care managers.
- National Family Caregivers Association Educational and advocacy group that offers free membership to all family caregivers.
- National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys An association that represents attorneys with specialized training in elder law issues. Includes a searchable directory.
Books and Articles
- Hugh Delehanty and Elinor Ginzler, Caring For Your Parents: The Complete AARP Guide. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2006.
- Sheryl Garrett, editor. Caring for an Aging Parent. Chicago, IL: Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2005.
- Paul and Lori Hogan, Stages of Senior Care. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010.
- Jan Yager, Ph.D., Friendships: When to Hold em and When to Fold reprinted from Caring Today magazine
Suit Says NJ Wal-Mart Had Unwritten 'No Spanish' Policy
Complaint seeks damages for six Hispanic former employees04/25/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Suit Says NJ Wal-Mart Had Unwritten 'No Spanish' Policy...
A group of former Wal-Mart employees in New Jersey have filed suit against the retail conglomerate, alleging that they were fired after they complained about their store's unwritten 'No Spanish' policy.
The suit is brought on behalf of no fewer than six individuals who worked at a Wal-Mart in Essex County, in northern New Jersey. The plaintiffs who ranged in position from a greeter to a supervisor were all fired despite performing their duties in a satisfactory manner, according to the suit.
The suit alleges that, although the store did not have a written policy prohibiting or restricting its employees from speaking Spanish in the workplace, management continually admonished, ordered or otherwise harassed [the plaintiffs] from speaking Spanish in the workplace. According to the complaint, the plaintiffs complained to management, but nothing was done to address the situation.
Some allegations are even more egregious. Rosa Knezevich, a cashier at the store until April 2008, says she was also admonished for speaking Spanish at work. But the final straw, according to the suit, came in March 2008, when Knezevich found out that she was expecting, and that hers was a high-risk pregnancy.
Knezevich asked, pursuant to doctor's orders, that she be allowed to forgo assignments detrimental to her health. Rather than grant the accommodation, Knezevich says, Wal-Mart fired her. Another of the plaintiffs, Marciel Alvarado, had a similar experience, according to the complaint.
Nothing new for Wal-Mart
The suit is just the latest in a long line of wrongful termination actions and allegationsagainst the nation's largest retailer.
Just last month, Wal-Mart settled a gender discrimination lawsuit for $11.7 million. That action alleged that Wal-Mart denied women entry-level jobs, instead placing less-qualified men in those positions.
In December, Wal-Mart paid $40 million to settle a Massachusetts class action alleging that it cheated employees out of overtime and meal breaks. A year earlier, 63 consolidated class actions alleging similar actions settled for $640 million.
And in March 2009, the company paid $17 million to a group of African-American men who say they were denied a job because of their race.
The New Jersey plaintiffs say that the store's no-Spanish policy embarrassed, humiliated and demeaned them, and fostered a hostile work environment based on [their] Hispanic heritage.
The complaint charges Wal-Mart with unlawful termination, unlawful retaliation, constructive discharge, an unlawful hostile work environment, and, for the two pregnant plaintiffs, a failure to accommodate. It also charges John Doe, an unidentified manager, with intentional infliction of emotional harm and aiding and abetting.
The suit says that Wal-Mart's conduct has caused the plaintiffs to suffer economic, emotional and psychological damage of up to $25 million, and seeks both compensatory and punitive damages, as well as compensation for attorneys' fees.
California Program Protects Kids from Lead Exposure in Their Homes
Contractors License Board provides information on new federal lead standards04/24/2010ConsumerAffairs
California Program Protects Kids from Lead Exposure in Their Homes...
The California Contractors State License Board (CSLB) is making it easier for home and rental property owners to get information about federal lead-safety standards that took effect this week. Any remodeling or demolition in housing, childcare facilities or schools constructed in or before1978 must be done by a contractor who has United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA)-accredited training and certification as a renovator.
The regulations were put into effect to safeguard children from lead exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control, children with high levels of lead in their bodies can possibly suffer from brain and nervous system damage, behavioral problems, slowed growth, and hearing problems.
Numerous scientific studies show lead is more dangerous to babies and young children because they are more likely to put their hands and objects with lead dust in their mouths, their growing bodies absorb more lead, and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to leads potentially damaging effects.
Visitors to CSLBs website can then link to basic information about lead in homes and a link to the US EPA website that lists licensed California contractors who have completed training and certification as renovators.
According to federal law, all contractors who disturb lead-based paint in a six square-foot area or greater indoors, or a 20-square-foot area outdoors must have renovator training and certification. In addition, contractors must provide the US EPAs Renovate Right pamphlet to residents or facility operators before a remodeling or demolition begins. They must also provide information to families with children who attend a child care facility or school where such a project is taking place.
The US EPA fine for contractors who violate the requirements is $37,500 per day. The law does not apply to individuals that undertake renovation or demolition work in their own home.
If an inspector or risk assessor certified by the California Department of Public Health determines that a building constructed before 1978 is lead-free, the certification is not required for contractors working on that particular building.
CSLB recommends you only hire licensed contractors to work on your home. In addition to not complying with this new lead-safety requirement, unlicensed contractors do not have workers compensation insurance which could leave a home owner liable if a worker is injured on their property. CSLB licensees are also required to have a $12,500 bond, which can help protect the home owner if something goes wrong with the project. Since 2005, all contractors applying for a new license or changing or adding to their license classification have been required to pass a criminal background check.
The health and safety of your family should not be left to chance, said CSLB Registrar Steve Sands. It only takes a few minutes to check the CSLB website to see whether your contractor is licensed, and to ensure they have the proper training if they are going to be disturbing lead paint on your property.
CSLB urges consumers to follow the tips below when hiring a contractor:
Be especially hesitant when approached by someone offering home improvement services door-to-door.
Verify the contractor's license by checking online at www.cslb.ca.gov, or via CSLBs automated phone system at 1-800-321-CSLB (2752), and ask to see a photo identification to make sure youre dealing with the correct person.
Don't pay more than 10% down or $1,000, whichever is less. There is an exception to this for about two dozen contractors who have special bonds for consumer protection that are noted on the CSLB website.
Don't pay in cash, and don't let the payments get ahead of the work.
Check references, and get at least three bids and a written contract before your project begins.
Contact CSLB if you have a complaint against a contractor.
The Contractors State License Board operates under the umbrella of the California Department of Consumer Affairs. More information about hiring contractors is available on the CSLB website or by calling 800-321-CSLB (2752). CSLB licenses and regulates California's almost 310,000 contractors. In fiscal year 2008-09, CSLB investigated more than 20,000 complaints and helped recover nearly $36 million in ordered restitution for consumers.
Stingy Fundraiser Banned In Washington State
Company accused of duping Jaycees chapters and donors04/24/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Stingy Fundraiser Banned In Washington State...
A for-profit fundraiser that solicited donations for Jaycees chapters and other charities throughout Western Washington, as well as fake charities, will no longer solicit donations under a settlement with the Washington Attorney Generals Office.
In its lawsuit, the Attorney General accused Charitable Assistance Group, Inc., of Seattle, and its predecessor, Direct Funding, Inc., of violating state consumer protection and charitable solicitations laws. Also named as defendants were three company officials and solicitors: Justin McGuinn and his father, Joseph Michael McGuinn, both of Seattle, and Jennifer Bartlett aka Virginia Bartlett, of Vancouver.
The defendants had contracts to solicit donations for the Washington Junior Chamber (Jaycees) and Jaycees chapters in Renton, Kirkland and Vancouver; as well as the Firefighters Assistance Fund, Vietnow National Headquarters dba Veterans Now, Veterans Charitable Foundation and the Disabled Police Officers Guild of America.
We believe the defendants duped the Jaycees and individual donors by misrepresenting how contributions would be spent, said Assistant Attorney General Shannon Smith. The defendants were stingy and kept most of the money for themselves. Under this settlement, they agree to no longer solicit for any charity in Washington.
The states complaint accused the defendants of misrepresenting how donations were spent, creating an impression that paid solicitors were volunteers for the charities, soliciting for organizations that werent registered as charities with the Secretary of States Office and failing to submit required reports to the Secretary of States Office.
The defendants also were accused of soliciting donations to purchase Spinoza Buddy Bears to distribute to hospitalized children in the Puget Sound, despite lacking authorization from the toys manufacturer. And they were accused of soliciting for a number of fake charities such as the Northwest Firefighters.
According to records filed with the Secretary of States Office, only 9 percent of the $183,814 in charitable donations raised by the defendants went to their clients. In 2007, the defendants returned only 5 percent of the $319,723 they raised.
As a condition of the settlement, all of the defendants have agreed not to solicit charitable contributions in the state of Washington.
Defendant Joseph McGuinn violated a 1996 settlement that restricts his ability to solicit donations. In that case, McGuinn and his wife, while operating a fundraising company known as Diamond Vision Consulting and Tri-Star Promotion Corporation, were accused of falsely claiming promotions were authorized by the Seattle Seahawks and local police and firefighter organizations.
Plaintiffs accuse Linden Labs of taking back 'land'04/24/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
A group of gamers has filed a class action lawsuit against the creator of Second Life, accusing the company of taking away the plaintiffs' ownership rights...
Inflation hawks say they should, especially when it comes to food costs04/23/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Should Consumers Worry About Inflation?...
Convict Charged With Dealing Fake Viagra
Federal prisoner was serving time for health care fraud04/23/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Phu Tan Luong, also known as Peter Luong, 55, and his daughter, Helene Ngoc Bich Luong, 26, were charged in a criminal information filed last week in Unite...
An Orange County, California, convict currently doing a 10-year federal prison stretch for health care fraud has been charged with distributing misbranded drugs called "Vitalex" that were marketed as "all-natural" versions of sexual enhancement drugs such as Viagra.
Phu Tan Luong, also known as Peter Luong, 55, and his daughter, Helene Ngoc Bich Luong, 26, were charged in a criminal information filed last week in United States District Court.
The criminal information contends that Luong and his daughter used a company called Vitapro, Inc. to deliver into interstate commerce misbranded drugs called Vitalex for men and Vitalex for women. The drugs were advertised and labeled as "herbal sexual enhancement supplements" and "all-natural" versions of Viagra, Cialis or Levitra.
However, these "supplements" actually contained an unregulated drug -- an Acetildenafil-analog -- which is similar to those found in brand-name erectile dysfunction drugs and which pose a serious health risk . The Luongs allegedly obtained the components of Vitalex from China and shipped the drugs from Orange County throughout the United States and to other countries.
Five years ago, Phu Tan Luong was convicted of 35 counts of health care fraud and five counts of money laundering in connection with a medical supply company he owned called United Medical Supply that submitted fraudulent claims to Medicare for enteral nutrition, motorized wheelchairs and hospital beds that were not medically necessary and, in many cases, never delivered.
He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for his role in the scheme that caused Medicare to suffer approximately $14 million in losses. Using money generated by the United Medical Supply scheme, Phu Tan Luong started Vitapro, and, with the help of his daughter, continued to run the business after he started his prison sentence in late 2006.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), armed with a search warrant in April 2008, seized a large amount of the Vitalex products and packaging from the Vitapro business and Luong family residence. While the FDA shut down the Vitapro business, Vitalex products continue to be sold over the Internet.
"The FDA-Office of Criminal Investigations is fully committed to investigating and supporting the prosecution of those who may endanger the public's health and safety by manufacturing and selling unsafe products to be used on an unsuspecting public," said Thomas Emerick, Special Agent in Charge, FDA-Office of Criminal Investigations, Los Angeles Field Office.
The Luongs are each charged with one count of delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of a misbranded drug, a misdemeanor offense that carries a statutory maximum sentence of one year in federal prison.
Helene Luong is believed to be in Canada. Phu Tan Luong, who is currently in a federal prison facility in Pecos, Texas, is expected to be returned to Southern California for an arraignment on June 7.
The world of sexual enhancement products can be fraught with danger. A major producer of such products recently announced it was expanding a recall after the FDA found many of them were unapproved.
What You Should Know About Hip Replacement
Communication with your doctor is key04/23/2010ConsumerAffairs
What You Should Know About Hip Replacement...
Age and activity take a toll on joints, and with baby boomers now entering the "senior" population, total joint replacements are on the rise. While knee replacements are the most common, the demand for hip replacement is also steadily increasing.
Over the years total joint replacement has evolved into a way to relieve pain and restore function to joints that have been damaged or destroyed by arthritis or injury. In many cases, joint replacement makes it possible for patients to resume their active lives, say the Adult Reconstruction and Joint Replacement experts at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Although the best weight-bearing surface is human cartilage, when the damage is too great, manmade materials, in the form of an artificial joint, become an option. Before undergoing a joint replacement procedure, it's important for people to learn from their doctor, what is involved in the surgery and to have realistic expectations.
The team at Hospital for Special Surgery, whose surgeons specialize in hip replacements and knee surgeries, emphasize that it is a major operation. Hip replacement also can be life-changing for someone who is debilitated by severe joint damage.
One of the important developments in hip replacement is the number of options available for artificial joints. Patients considering hip replacement surgery should consult with their surgeon to work with them in selecting the right type of implant design and material. When planning for surgery, the doctor and patient should consider a range of factors, such as the patient's age, weight, bone strength, the shape of the person's bones, as well as a patient's lifestyle and activity level.
Type of implants
Today, a new joint can be made out of polished metal or ceramic, with some featuring a combination of plastic liner and cobalt-chrome or titanium backing.
Metal and plastic
Metal and plastic implants are the most commonly used hip replacements. One of the most often used bearing surface combinations is metal on polyethylene, a form of plastic that provides marked durability.
Ceramics are used in total joint replacements, specifically to provide more wear-resistant bearing surfaces. Because of their hardness, ceramics can be polished to a very smooth finish and remain relatively scratch resistant while in use. Ceramic bearings are more subject to fracture than other materials. Most patients whose active lifestyles subject them to repetitive impact are not good candidates for ceramic bearings, nor are patients with high body weight.
Metal-on-metal implants have been developed to function without a plastic piece inserted between them. These implants do not wear out as quickly as the plastic/metal versions and work well with young, active patients. There is concern that normal use may result in the release of microscopic metal particles that can lead to inflammation and loosening. Tests have also found elevated levels of metal ions in the blood but so far it hasn't been shown that these levels result in harm.
Although researchers are constantly seeking ways to improve implant design and durability, today there is no clear-cut kind of implant that is viewed as superior. Most surgeons will agree that the decision about joint implant materials is individual and should be decided by the patient and doctor together.
"I always spend a lot of time with my patients going over all the options and listening to them to learn what their needs and expectations are," said Dr. Mark P. Figgie, chief of the Surgical Arthritis Service at Hospital for Special Surgery. "The patients find the time we spend together talking about their needs and expectations invaluable. Once this process is completed and I feel that they are sufficiently informed, it is always up to the patient to decide."
Consumer Group Urges Antitrust Action Against Google
Consumer Watchdog says possible Justice Department action could include breakup of Internet giant04/22/2010ConsumerAffairs
Consumer Group Urges Antitrust Action Against Google...
April 22, 2010
California-based Consumer Watchdog is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to launch a broad antitrust action against Google. Such actions, the group says could include breaking the Internet giant into separate companies.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, John M. Simpson, consumer advocate with the nonpartisan, nonprofit group, praised the DOJ for its opposition to the Google Books case and the Federal Trade Commission's intense investigation of the proposed $750 million acquisition of AdMob.
However, the group said it is time to move beyond a reactive approach and "actively restrain Google's broader ability to abuse both users and advertisers."
"Such action could include breaking Google Inc. into multiple separate companies or regulating it as a public utility," the letter said. "Google exerts monopoly power over Internet searches, controlling 70 percent of the U.S. market. For most Americans -- indeed, for most people in the world -- Google is the gateway to the Internet. How it tweaks its proprietary search algorithms can ensure a business's success or doom it to failure."
Consumer Watchdog said Google subsidizes its other businesses by the monopolistic prices it is able to maintain because of its dominance in search.
Consumer Watchdog recommended a variety of remedies:
One possibility, it said, would be to break Google into different companies devoted to different lines of business. Search could be separated from advertising. Gmail and its new social networking service, Buzz, could be spun off as a separate entity as could YouTube, a Google acquisition that the consumer group says should have been denied at the time of merger. Enterprise applications could be another separate business.
Google's importance as a gateway to cyberspace requires a maximum degree of openness and transparency with the potential for government regulation. Consumer Watchdog argues that Google's monopoly position and importance to the Internet means that the company should be regarded as a public utility and regulated. It recommends designing a variety of regulations to open up Google's ad platform to enable other competitors to compete. Consumer Watchdog also says rules could be crafted to create greater transparency in the operation of Google's ad platform to enable parties to negotiate more effectively -- for example by providing greater visibility into the maximum amount of the highest bid, how many search terms are shown per page, and how Google's "quality score" is derived and applied. The group says little, if any, of this information is currently public and contends openness would contribute to consumer choice and options as well as foster competition.
Another remedy would be to force Google to disgorge its "monopolistic gains" through the imposition of financial penalties. Consumer Watchdog points out that the payment would have to be significant enough to affect Google's future behavior and suggests tying the amount to paying back consumers for monetizing their private information and content without compensating them.
"The pending actions in the Books case and AdMob deal are important and must be pursued to their conclusion," the letter concluded. "It is, however, past time to act against Google's monopolistic and pervasive power over the entire Internet."
In a statement distributed to the news media, Google spokesman Adam Koracevich said "we totally understand that with size and success comes scrutiny. "But he suggested that little could be done to assuage the consumer group. "Given their track record, even if we broke Google in half tomorrow, Consumer Watchdog would probably insist that we split halves into quarters."
Indoor Tanning May Be an Addictive Behavior
Could lead to substance abuse, depression and anxiety, study suggests04/22/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Indoor Tanning May Be an Addictive Behavior...
To the list of food, alcohol and sex addictions you can add another activity - tanning.
A report in the April issue of Archives of Dermatology suggests people who have used indoor tanning facilities may meet criteria for addiction and may also be more prone to anxiety symptoms and substance use.
"Despite ongoing efforts to educate the public about the health risks associated with natural and non-solar UV radiation, recreational tanning continues to increase among young adults," the authors write. "In addition to the desire for appearance enhancement, motivations for tanning include relaxation, improved mood and socialization."
Given these reinforcements, repeated exposure to UV light may result in behavior patterns similar to those observed with substance-related disorders, the authors note.
Catherine E. Mosher, Ph.D., of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, and Sharon Danoff-Burg, Ph.D., of University at Albany, State University of New York, recruited 421 college students for their study in 2006.
Two written questionnaires typically used to screen for alcohol abuse or substance-related disorders were modified to evaluate students for addiction to indoor tanning. Participants were also assessed using standardized measures of anxiety, depression and substance use.
Among 229 participants who had used indoor tanning facilities, the average number of visits during the past year was 23. A total of 90 (39.3 percent) met criteria for tanning addiction on one measure and 70 (30.6 percent) met criteria on the other. Students who did meet these criteria were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and use of alcohol, marijuana and other substances than those who did not.
"If associations between affective factors and indoor tanning behavior are replicated, results suggest that treating an underlying mood disorder may be a necessary step in reducing skin cancer risk among those who frequently tan indoors," the authors write. "Researchers have hypothesized that those who tan regularly year round may require more intensive intervention efforts, such as motivational interviewing, relative to those who tan periodically in response to mood changes or special events."
The authors of the study say further research is needed to the usefulness of incorporating a brief anxiety and depression screening for individuals who tan indoors. "Patients with anxiety or depression could be referred to mental health professionals for diagnosis and treatment," they conclude.
As noted above, the possibility addiction is just one of the problems linked to UV exposure. Earlier this year, the Indoor Tanning Association settled a skin cancer case with the Federal Trade Commission.
Scammers Posing As Debt Collectors Rattle Consumers
Debts are bogus, but caller has victims' Social Security numbers04/22/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Scammers Posing As Debt Collectors Rattle Consumers...
Consumers have recently reported a rash of phone calls from a man claiming to be collecting on a debt to a payday lender and threatening criminal charges if they don't pay up.
Since most of the consumers say they have never had a payday loan, they would normally brush it off as an obvious scam attempt, except for one thing. This man, consistently described as rude and having a foreign accent, has their Social Security number, email address and the name of their employer.
Tarra of Carrolton, Mich., said she received a threatening voice mail on her answering machine and quickly returned the call.
"I returned the call to figure out what was going on only to reach another person with the same accent," Tarra said. "He stated his name was Mark was I was being sued and requested to be able to read the affidavit to me without any interruption. Right before reading the affidavit he read me my social security number and my email address."
Other consumers also note an aggressive, threatening tone.
"He told me an investigation team will be coming to my job at 11 am in the morning and talking to my employer about the matter. He also said that I would have to pay thousands of dollars for all charges, fees, etc," Chanae, of Camden, N.J., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Then he stated that I can take care of this matter if I send him a authorized letter stating that I will allow him to charge my visa $545.33. That's when I knew something was fishy."The consumers say the caller claimed they owed a debt to Instant Cash USA, whose website identifies it as an online payday lender. Kate, an Instant Cash USA customer service rep, who asked that we not publish her last name, says the company has been inundated with emails from terrified and baffled consumers.
"I have called them myself, claiming to be one of the 'debtors' they contacted," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I was advised it was not Instant Cash, but a "INSTA Cash" they were representing. They, of course gave me very little information on my 'supposed debt.'I explained that to the woman who emailed me for help. She then contacted Insta Cash, and they, too, knew nothing about it."
Consumers, of course, have federal protections against aggressive debt collectors, and in the case of scam attempts, can simply hang up. But there is great cause for worry when a scammer reveals that he has your Social Security number and other sensitive information. Jay Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Centerin San Diego, says that security could have been breached any number of ways.
Your information is out there
"How many doctors have you gone to? How many dentists? Have you ever applied for a mortgage? If so, all your information is sitting in files where anyone with access to it can take it an sell it," Foley told ConsumerAffairs.com.
What should these consumers do to protect themselves? First of all, they shouldn't fall for the shakedown scam and give the caller any money. If the debt is legitimate, they are entitled to receive all documents in writing.
More importantly, says Foley, they should move quickly to protect their identities by first getting a free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com and checking to make sure no unauthorized activity is taking place.
"They should also call all three credit reporting agencies and place fraud alerts on their account," he said. "A fraud alert is good for 90 days, then they should renew it for another 90 days."
A fraud alert contacts the consumer anytime someone tries to open any kind of credit account using his or her identity. The numbers for the credit reporting agencies are:
Equifax (888) 766-0008
Transunion (800) 916-8800
Experian (888) 397-3742
The Identity Theft Resource Center operates a toll-free consumer hotline to advise people on identity theft matters. That number is (800) 400-5530.
FTC accused companies of making false promises that they would improve credit scores04/22/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Credit 'Repair,' Mortgage 'Relief' Firms Fined $7.5 Million...
Senate Debates 'Loophole' In Health Care Law
Door left open for big rate increases before law takes effect04/21/2010ConsumerAffairs
Senate Debates 'Loophole' In Health Care Law...
By Mark Huffman
April 21, 2010
In the rush to pass health care legislation this year, Congress created at least one provision that even the law's backers say needs to be changed.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has authored a bill that she says would close an "enormous loophole" in the new federal law. As written, she says the law would allow health insurance providers to rapidly raise rates on health benefit policies that Americans will soon be required to buy.
The Feinstein bill calls for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners ("NAIC") to write key definitions of what constitutes an "unreasonable" rate increase and to assess the value of current state regulations. Amendments are needed to assert that HHS has the sole authority to determine the definitions that will make or break the law. The bill must also assure that direct federal regulation is used only as a fallback when states fail to develop adequate regulation and review of health insurance rates.
However, Consumer Watchdog, a California-based consumer group, says the health care law "fix" doesn't go far enough. In fact, the group says the bill as written the bill would give too much power to the insurance industry over defining "unreasonable" rates that could be blocked.
"Senator Feinstein should be commended for proposing legislation to close a gaping loophole in the federal health reform law," said Jerry Flanagan of Consumer Watchdog." As written, nothing in the health reform law prevents insurers from dramatically increasing rates in advance of the law's requirement that Americans must buy insurance policies or face tax fines."
History repeating itself?
Consumers, in fact, witnessed a similar occurrence last year when Congress passed credit card reforms in May, but didn't implement the new law until this past February. Credit Card companies spent the intervening seven months raising rates and implementing other soon-to-be prohibited activities.
Consumer Watchdog sees problems by designating NAIC as the official referee when it comes to insurance rates.
"NAIC is a private organization that is not subject to the transparency and public participation rules of a government body, is funded in large part by the insurance industry, and NAIC members enjoy a 'revolving door' of job opportunities in the industry thanks to the organization's close ties to insurance companies," Flanagan said. "The insurance industry's dominance of the NAIC will allow it to game the regulatory system through complicit regulators and undefined standards that industry actuaries are expert in manipulating."
Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) called the lack of state "prior approval" of rate increases a "gaping hole" in health care reform. Under a "prior approval" system, insurance companies must receive approval from state regulators for rate increases before they go into effect.
Consumer Watchdog says the Feinstein Bill would establish a federal rate authority to review rates and take corrective action, including blocking rates or requiring rebates, only in states that do not have the authority or capability of doing so on their own. A better approach, it says, would be frontline state regulation of health insurance rate increases with strong federal fallback if states fail to act just as envisioned by the legislation.
Study: Added Sweeteners Increase Heart Risk
Researchers say consumers getting too much added sugar in their diets04/21/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Study: Added Sweeteners Increase Heart Risk...
April 21, 2010
The Institute of Medicine this week urged limits on the sodium content in processed food, warning Americans are getting too much salt in their diet. Emory University researchers suggest added sweeteners need a closer look as well.
Their study, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, analyzed U.S. government nutritional data and blood lipid levels in more than 6,000 adult men and women between 1999 and 2006. The study subjects were divided into five groups according to the amount of added sugar and caloric sweeteners they consumed daily.
Researchers found that people who consumed more added sugar were more likely to have higher cardiovascular disease risk factors, including higher triglyceride levels and higher ratios of triglycerides to HDL-C, or good cholesterol.
"Just like eating a high-fat diet can increase your levels of triglycerides and high cholesterol, eating sugar can also affect those same lipids," said study co-author Miriam Vos, MD, MSPH, assistant professor of pediatrics, Emory School of Medicine.
Increased sugar consumption
"In the United States, total consumption of sugar has increased substantially in recent decades, largely due to an increased intake of 'added sugars,' defined as caloric sweeteners used by the food industry and consumers as ingredients in processed or prepared foods to increase the desirability of these foods," Vos and colleagues note.
In the JAMA study, the highest-consuming group consumed an average of 46 teaspoons of added sugars per day. The lowest-consuming group consumed an average of only about three teaspoons daily.
"It would be important for long-term health for people to start looking at how much added sugar they're getting and finding ways to reduce that," said Vos.
The study, "Caloric Sweetener Consumption and Dyslipidemia Among U.S. Adults," was published in the April 20, 2010, issue of JAMA. It is the first study of its kind to examine the association between the consumption of added sugars and lipid measures, such as HDL-C, triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C).
The study did not look at natural sugars found in fruit and fruit juices, only added sugars and caloric sweeteners.
Give Your Dog a Bone? Not a Good Idea
Secondhand smoke also a serious health hazard for pets04/21/2010ConsumerAffairs
The FDA warns pet owners that giving your dog a bone can cause serious injuries or even death. Meanwhile, the ASPCA is warning pet owners not to smoke arou...
Remember the line from the kids song This Old Man that says give your dog a bone? It turns out thats not such a good idea. Nor is smoking around your pet.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns pet owners that giving your dog a bone can cause serious injuries or even death. Meanwhile, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is warning pet owners not to smoke around their dogs and cats.
Some people think its safe to give dogs large bones, like those from a ham or a roast, said Carmela Stamper, a veterinarian in the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA. Bones are unsafe no matter what their size. Giving your dog a bone may make your pet a candidate for a trip to your veterinarians office later, possible emergency surgery, or even death.
The FDA cited 10 reasons why bones are risky for dogs:
• They can break teeth;
• They can cause mouth or tongue injuries;
• The can become looped around a dogs lower jaw. This can be frightening or painful for a dog and may require a trip to the vets office;
• They can get stuck in a dogs esophagus;
• They can get stuck in a dogs windpipe, which can cause serious breathing problems;
• They can get stuck in a dogs stomach and, depending on the size of the bone, may require surgery to remove;
• They can get stuck in a dogs intestines. This can cause a blockage and may require surgery;
• Bone fragments can cause constipation;
• Bones can cause severe bleeding from the dogs rectum;
• Bones can cause peritonitis, a worrisome bacterial infection of the abdomen that happens when bone fragments poke holes in a dogs stomach or intestines. The FDA said peritonitis can kill a dog and must be immediately treated.
Talk with your veterinarian about alternatives to giving bones to your dog, Dr. Stamper says. There are many bone-like products made with materials that are safe for dogs to chew on.
She also reminded pet owners to always supervise dogs when they have any chew products. And always, if your dog just isnt acting right, call your veterinarian right away.
And as for secondhand smoke, the ASPCA says that a growing body of research including the Surgeon Generals Report shows there are no safe levels of exposure to secondhand smoke for humans and for animals.
Studies show that an estimated 50,000 Americans die from secondhand smoke (secondhand smoke) each year and 4 million youth are exposed to it in their homes, according to the ASPCA.
A number of studies have indicated that animals, too, face health risks when exposed to the toxins in secondhand smoke, from respiratory problems to allergies and even cancer, the group said.
Toxins from secondhand smoke can cause lung and nasal cancer in dogs, the ASPCA said. It can also cause malignant lymphoma in cats and allergy and respiratory problems in other pets.
One recent study shows that nearly 30 percent of pets live with at least one smoker a number far too high given the consequences of exposure to secondhand smoke, the ASPCA said.
To address this problem, the ASPCA and the American Legacy Foundation have joined forces to urge pet owners to kick the habit or at least smoke outside -- away from their animals.
The Washington D.C.-based Legacy Foundation develops programs to address the health effects of tobacco and says its mission is to build a world where young people reject tobacco and anyone can quit.
While most Americans have been educated about the dangers of smoking to their own bodies and their childrens, it is equally important that pet owners take action to protect their beloved companion animals from the dangers of secondhand smoke, said Dr. Cheryl G. Healton, president and CEO of the Legacy Foundation.
The ASPCA said secondhand smoke isnt the only danger pets face from exposure to tobacco products.
Nicotine found in cigarettes and other tobacco products is also highly toxic to animals if ingested, said Mindy Bough, vice-president of ASPCA Animal Poison Control A dog that accidentally eats tobacco may develop weakness, decreased breathing rate, and could possibly die. The ASPCA strongly recommends keeping your pet away from tobacco as well as secondhand smoke.
Ohio AG Calls for Stronger Protection of Seniors
Urges senior citizens to speak out against abuse and financial crimes04/20/2010ConsumerAffairs
Ohio AG Calls for Stronger Protection of Seniors: Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray has launched an effort to strengthen local protection for senior ci...
By James Limbach
April 20. 2010
Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray has launched an effort to strengthen local protection for senior citizens. Joining forces with officials from the National Association of Triads, Inc. (NATI), Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association (BSSA), Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP), Ohio Crime Prevention Association (OCPA) and Ohio Department of Aging (ODA), Cordray called upon local agencies to partner with seniors and activate Triads.
"In 2009, Ohio saw an increase in reported cases involving the exploitation of our seniors," said Cordray. "Many more Ohioans over the age of 60 fell victim to scams and abuse than in the previous year. We expect the numbers to continue to climb as baby boomers get older."
The AG pointed out that with limited law enforcement resources, it is absolutely critical that forces are combined to maximize protection. He called on community organizations, law enforcement and senior citizens to work together to strengthen prevention and response.
According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, 16,370 incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation of consumers over the age of 60 were reported in 2009, compared with 15,050 incidents reported in 2008. The incidents range from financial crimes to physical abuse and were reported in every region of the state.
"While the numbers of reported incidents are indeed climbing, by applying national estimates we know that only one in five elder abuse situations in Ohio are reported to authorities," said Cordray. "We also estimate that only 1 of 25 financial crimes against seniors are reported. These numbers are unacceptable"
Ohio, of course, isn't the only state where seniors are targeted by scammers. ConsumerAffairs.com receives complaints from coast-to-coast.
Amy of Ventura, CA, tells of a problem her grandmother with a reverse mortgage held by Bank of America. "We had looked into refinancing the loan to get it FHA insured. B of A had scammed my 91 year old grandmother into accepting a Jumbo loan that was not backed by FHA insurance and held the loan had an extremely high interest rate."
She claims that as soon as negotiations began with another company, B of A gave the case and all the documentation to "some unauthorized, unknown broker who didn't even have a legitimate phone number. There were no signed documents and no authorization for them to give the case to anyone at that point. Needless to say, there was a domino effect that has cost us thousands of dollars, delays, stress and aggravation."
Duane of Melville, NY, has a problem with Somerset Mortgage Lenders. "They give out false confirmation numbers, they send out pre-application without disclosures, they sell reverse mortgages to seniors without explaining the program in detail," he tells ConsumerAffairs.com. "They also send out just signature pages to seniors without disclosures and they send the borrower's copy one to two weeks later. They arrange HUD counseling by acting as family members. They stall and manipulate borrowers until they are desperate and have no other recourse."
To help older citizens in Ohio combat fraud, Cordray has signed a cooperative agreement that unites the partnering agencies in a statewide effort to mobilize community resources to recognize the needs of older citizens and to work to meet those needs.
"We are very pleased to have Ohio join this important national effort," said Edward Hutchison, Executive Director of the National Association of Triads. "As law enforcement budgets tighten across the country, Triads have become increasingly imperative to protecting seniors and reducing the fear of crime that they often experience."
Ohio is the 10th state to join with a statewide program.
CDC Report Shows Success in Fighting E. coli O157:H7
Agency says report highlights need for new food safety strategies04/20/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
CDC Report Shows Success in Fighting E. coli O157:H7...
The rate of a severe form of Escherichia coli diarrhea -- better known as E. coli -- significantly decreased in 2009, reaching the lowest level since 2004, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The incidence of the disease, called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O157 infection, also met the national 2010 Healthy People target in 2009. Infection with E. coli O157 is of particular concern because in five percent to 10 percent of cases the infection causes kidney failure and can be especially dangerous for children and the elderly.
The data were collected through CDC's Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, known as FoodNet, a source of information about trends in foodborne illnesses in the United States. FoodNet conducts active surveillance for nine pathogens commonly transmitted through food, and leads studies designed to help health officials better understand how foodborne diseases are affecting people.
While the 2009 rates of most of the nine illnesses that are tracked through FoodNet sustained the declines seen since FoodNet began in 1996, most have shown little change since 2004.
"The interventions begun in the late 1990s were successful in decreasing some of these foodborne diseases, but we haven't seen much recent progress," said Chris Braden, M.D., acting director of CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases (proposed). "To make additional strides against these diseases and ultimately better protect the American people from foodborne illness, CDC, our federal and state partners, and the food industry will need to try new strategies."
The report, says David Goldman, M.D., M.P.H., assistant administrator, Office of Public Health Science of the U.S. Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, "confirms our past success combating foodborne illness by setting an aggressive goal, designing an effective system to meet that goal, and relentlessly implementing it; it's time to do it again."
Following the 1993 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, the government declared O157 an adulterant, implemented Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) production systems to prevent food contamination, established FoodNet and PulseNet, and set a goal of cutting O157 illnesses in half by 2010.
The only significant decline in incidence in recent years other than for E. coliO157 was for Shigella infections. Although some Shigella infections are transmitted by food, most are probably transmitted directly from one person to another, often among children in childcare settings, rather than through food.
Vibrio infections, typically found in raw or undercooked shellfish, increased by 85 percent compared with the first three years of surveillance. While the overall number of Vibrio infections is a small percentage of all foodborne illnesses, the infection may cause severe illness or death, particularly in people with weakened immune systems.
Among the four pathogens tracked in FoodNet that have national incidence goals, Salmonella is furthest from meeting the goal. One possible reason for the slow progress in fighting Salmonella is that it is spread through a wide variety of foods, and also through non-foodborne routes.
Salmonella can be spread by poultry, meat, eggs, produce and processed foods, as well as by contact with animals like baby chicks, small turtles, reptiles and frogs.
For most of the infections, the rate was highest in children under the age of four years. People over 50 had the highest rates of hospitalizations and deaths from most foodborne illnesses, emphasizing the need for them to get diagnosed and get treatment quickly after becoming ill.
To reduce their risk of foodborne illness, consumers should assume raw chicken, meat and eggs carry bacteria that can cause illness and should not allow them to cross-contaminate surfaces and other foods.
They should also cook chicken and meat to a safe temperature as measured by a food thermometer, avoid unpasteurized milk and unpasteurized soft cheese and make sure shellfish are cooked or pressure treated before eating.
While the government works to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness, the lawsuits spawned by the outbreaks continue to wend their way through the court system.
Mississippi Uncovers Work-At-Home Reshipping Scam
Victims don't realize they are reshipping merchandise bought with stolen credit cards04/20/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
A report of a charge on a stolen credit card led to the discovery of a home business scam, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said today....
A report of a charge on a stolen credit card led to the discovery of a home business scam, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said today.
"We're still in the early phase of investigation, but the case is a reminder that the cons are out there, trying to take advantage of our residents during an economically stressed time," said Attorney General Hood. "We want to warn our residents to be careful and be alert for these types of home business scams."
The home business scam, or reshipping fraud, often starts when a person responds to an ad for a job opening, sometimes online, sometimes in print and sometimes by email. The applicant is promised a considerable amount of money to receive, repackage and mail merchandise ordered online and then ship it to a foreign address. Unknown to the person working out of their home is that the merchandise was purchased using stolen credit cards.
This photo, provided by the Mississippi Attorney General, shows some of the merchandise recovered in a reshipping scam.
The reshipping job opportunities can appear anywhere, including local newspapers and well-known job placement websites. When an applicant answers the ad, they are typically asked for personal information including their social security number and date of birth. That information is eventually used to steal the applicant's identity and perpetrate the fraud even further.
Typically, payment for repackaging arrives in the form of a third-party cashier's check. These cashier's checks will usually be for more than the amount initially agreed upon and the employer will request that the overpay be returned to them electronically.
Once the check "clears" the bank, it turns out to be phony and the reshipper is left responsible for the entire amount of the check. Additionally, the reshipper could be in trouble with the law for repackaging and shipping merchandise purchased with stolen credit cards.
In the recently-discovered case, operating from a Jackson home, the homeowner stated that he was just trying to earn some extra money when he responded to a job offer by email. The scam was uncovered when the owner of a stolen credit card reported the unauthorized charge to the Jackson Police Department, who asked for assistance from the Attorney General's Office before visiting the home where the reshipping scam was occurring.
One out-of-state business owner who had shipped merchandise in the local reshipping scam told the Attorney General investigator working the case that he had been saved $2,400 by busting up the operation. Another business employee said they were in the process of shipping out more items and were spared that added potential loss.
If you see an ad for a home business opportunity that promises easy and high income, be wary. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Never give out your personal information to a person you don't know or a company you have never heard of.
Be skeptical of any opportunity that doesn't pay a regular salary or engages a foreign company.
Research a company by checking with the Federal Trade Commission, Better Business Bureau or the Attorney General's Office.
"This is a very lucrative business for the con artists," said Attorney General Hood. "Our best defense is to educate our residents so they don't fall prey."
Toyota Recalls 9,400 2010 Lexus SUVs
Company says it has fix for flaw highlighted byConsumer Reports04/19/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Toyota Recalls 9,400 2010 Lexus SUVs...
Toyota has announced the recall of 9,400 luxury SUVs less than a week after Consumer Reports highlighted what it called a "dangerous flaw" in the vehicle.
Toyota Monday said it would recall the 2010 Lexus GX 460 models sold in the United States to address an electronic throttle issue.
"With the news from Consumer Reports that our 2010 GX 460 did not pass its "Throttle Lift-Off" test, we immediately stopped selling the vehicle and commenced vigorous testing to identify and correct the issue," Toyota said in a statement.
"Today, I'm happy to announce that we have developed a remedy that will be quickly implemented to help address customer concerns," said Mark Templin Lexus Group Vice President and General Manager.
"We will be voluntarily recalling all 2010 GX 460s that have been sold in order to update the Vehicle Stability Control system. We will begin implementing this program in the next two weeks and our dealers will be reaching out to customers shortly to set up appointments to make this modification."
Lexus said it is confident that the update will make the performance of the GX even better for our customers. The company also said it will provide a courtesy vehicle to anyone who has purchased a 2010 GX 460 and has concerns about driving it until the recall work has been completed.
On April 13 Consumer Reports issued a rare "Don't Buy" rating for the 2010 Lexus GX 460, calling the high-end SUV unsafe. Just hours later, Toyota responded by asking dealers to withhold sales of the GX 640. The magazine says the vehicle performed poorly during standard emergency handling tests.
"When pushed to its limits on our track's handling course, the rear of the GX we bought slid out until the vehicle was almost sideways before the electronic stability control system was able to regain control," the publication said on its Web site. "We believe that in real-world driving, that situation could lead to a rollover accident, which could cause serious injury or death. We are not aware, however, of any such reports."
Toyota said customers who have any questions or concerns should contact their local Lexus dealer or Lexus Customer Satisfaction at 1-800-25LEXUS or 1-800-255-3987."
Pennsylvania Sues Travel Firms for Deceptive Promotions
Companies allegedly offered free gifts with lots of strings attached04/19/2010ConsumerAffairs
Pennsylvania Sues Travel Firms for Deceptive Promotions...
Vacation and travel promoters often entice consumers with "free" offers, but it pays to inspect those offers carefully. The word "free" is increasingly used as bait for unsuspecting consumers.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the attorney general's Office has filed a consumer protection lawsuit against a travel business from the Philadelphia area that is accused of using deceptive or misleading "free" promotions to market vacation packages. Also included in the enforcement action is a Pittsburgh area tour operator that closed suddenly, leaving more than 100 consumers unable to complete their travel plans.
Together, the two businesses owe consumers more than $163,000, the commonwealth says.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett filed a civil lawsuit against DreamWorks Vacation Club/Five Points Travel, of Montgomery County, along with company President Daryl T. Turner, of Cherry Hill, N.J.
Corbett said DreamWorks is accused of using "free gifts" to lure consumers to vacation club sales presentations, including offers of round trip airline tickets, hotel accommodations, restaurant gift cards, free gas coupons and other incentives.
"Consumers either did not receive their 'free' items or were later told that they would have to pay various fees in order to use them - making them anything but free," Corbett said. "Additionally, DreamWorks allegedly failed to disclose limitations and restrictions on the vacation packages they were selling, required consumers to waive their right to cancel contracts and misled consumers by using the names and trademarks of airlines, hotels, car rental agencies and other well-known businesses without authorization."
To date, the attorney general's office has received complaints involving DreamWorks Vacation Club and Five Points Travel from 52 consumers who are owed more than $139,000.
The lawsuit seeks restitution for all consumers along with civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation of Pennsylvania's consumer protection laws (up to $3,000 for each violation involving a senior citizen). The lawsuit also seeks a permanent injunction preventing Turner or his businesses from operating vacation sales companies in Pennsylvania or soliciting consumers for any travel-related purpose.
Seniors groups targeted
Corbett said the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection has also filed suit against Bonnie and Bruce Butler of Allegheny County, who owned and operated Shangri-La Vacations, Tours R Us and Senior Tours of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
According to the lawsuit, the Butlers marketed their tour business to various church and senior groups throughout southwestern Pennsylvania, selling bus trips and travel packages until the company abruptly closed in September 2008.
Corbett said more than 140 consumers have filed complaints with the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection, involving $24,000 in deposits and down payments that have not been refunded.
"The Butlers took up-front payments but failed to make the necessary travel arrangements, leaving a long list of consumers empty-handed," Corbett said.
The lawsuit seeks restitution for all consumer victims along with civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation of Pennsylvania's consumer protection laws (up to $3,000 for each violation involving a senior citizen). The suit also asks the court to prohibit the Butlers from operating any travel sales business until all restitution and penalties have been paid.
In Schools Near Traffic, A Is for Asthma
Kids' exposure to pollution at locations other than home appears to influence asthma risk04/19/2010ConsumerAffairs
In Schools Near Traffic, A Is for Asthma...
Children attending schools located in high-traffic zones have a 45 percent increased risk of developing asthma -- even though time spent at school only accounts for about one-third of a child's waking hours, according to new research.
Asthma is the most common chronic childhood illness in developed countries and has been linked to environmental factors such as traffic-related air pollution.
"While residential traffic-related pollution has been associated with asthma, there has been little study of the effects of traffic exposure at school on new onset asthma," says Rob McConnell, professor of preventive medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine.
"Exposure to pollution at locations other than home, especially where children spend a large portion of their day and may engage in physical activity, appears to influence asthma risk as well," he ads.
The study appears online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
The study drew upon data from the Children's Health Study (CHS), a longitudinal study of children in southern California communities that was designed to investigate the chronic effects of air pollution on respiratory health.
Using a group of 2,497 kindergarten and first grade children who were asthma-free when they entered the study, researchers examined the relationship of local traffic around schools and homes to diagnosis of new onset asthma that occurred during three years of follow-up.
Traffic-related pollution exposure was assessed based on a model that took into account traffic volume, distance to major roadways from home and school and local weather conditions.
Regional ambient ozone, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter were measured continuously at one central site in each of the 13 study communities. The design allowed investigators to examine the joint effects of local traffic-related pollution exposure at school and at home and of regional pollution exposure affecting the entire community.
Researchers found 120 cases of new asthma. The risk associated with traffic-related pollution exposure at schools was almost as high as for residential exposure, and combined exposure accounting for time spent at home and at school had a slightly larger effect.
Although children spend less time at school than at home, physical education, and other activities that take place at school may increase ventilation rates and the dose of pollutants getting into the lungs, McConnell notes. Traffic-related pollutant levels may also be higher during the morning hours when children are arriving at school.
Despite a state law that prohibits school districts from building campuses within 500 feet of a freeway, many southern California schools are located near high-traffic areas, including busy surface streets.
"It's important to understand how these micro-environments where children spent a lot of their time outside of the home are impacting their health," McConnell says. "Policies that reduce exposure to high-traffic environments may help to prevent this disease."
Parents whose children are diagnosed with asthma are well advised to seek treatment for them as soon as possible. A recent study found that delaying treatment can carry serious consequences.
Consumers complain of illegal, abusive conduct as collectors defy federal, state enforcers04/19/2010ConsumerAffairs
Ringstaff said she had endured months of humiliation at the hands of debt collectors who made calls and disclosed her debt to relatives and employer....
Frustrated Motorists Sue OnStar
Consumers left without trusted service after analog-to-digital switch04/19/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Frustrated Motorists Sue OnStar...
OnStar, the satellite service designed to offer roadside assistance and all-around peace of mind, is facing a class action lawsuit from a group of consumers whose service was permanently suspended after analog cell phone networks were turned off in 2008.
The networks were shut down on January 1, 2008, as part of the Federal Communications Commission's transition from analog to digital communications. Armand Pepper, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, received a letter in 2007 informing him that his OnStar system would stop working at the end of the year, and that OnStar wouldn't be able to provide an upgrade.
Pepper, who is bringing the suit on behalf of a group of Honda owners, says he had no idea that the system would be rendered obsolete when he first purchased his Acura in 2003.
"OnStar and the companies using OnStar were continuing to represent it was viable to purchase," Pepper's lawyer, Roger Craig, told the Naples News. "They were supposed to offer people an opportunity to upgrade and they didn't do that."
Craig added that several individuals had been involved in an accident and thought their OnStar system was functioning properly at the time. "Evidently, that happened a few times," Craig said.
While OnStar is currently only available on cars manufactured by General Motors, Honda and Toyota used to install the equipment on some of their vehicles.
Pepper wasn't the only one that OnStar left out in the cold. At the time of the analog shutoff in 2008, ConsumerAffairs.com reported that scores of GM customers suddenly discovered that their OnStar systems had been shut off , and that there was no chance of receiving an upgrade.
"I've since found out that it can't be upgraded, repaired, modified, adapted or anything else," wrote Julie of Austin, Texas. "Now I have a rear view mirror with buttons that continually remind me I have a broken part in my car that GM refuses to repair."
The situation is particularly troubling given the security that OnStar ostensbly offers its subscribers. The prduct's website describes it as an "in-vehicle safety and security system created to help protect you and your family on the road." Among the system's features are roadside assistance, access to an emergency hotline, and "automatic air bag deployment response" -- which alerts authorities when the car's air bags have deployed.
Pepper's suit is brought on behalf of "all individuals and entities who, as of December 31, 2007, either owned or leased a Honda vehicle originally sold or leased on or after August 8, 2002 and equipped with analog-only OnStar equipment." The complaint estimates that "there are thousands of OnStar subscribers"in Pepper's position. The suit alleges breach of warranty, violations of various consumer protection statutes, and violations of the Magnuson-Moss Act, which governs warranties.
New Medicare Phone Scam Targets Seniors
Scam crops up in West Virginia, Kentucky04/19/2010ConsumerAffairs
McGraw says a call to the 866 number used by the Medicare scammers as their caller ID reaches a recording confirming that it is being used in the Medicare ...
Beware of a phone call from someone claiming to be a representative of Medicare. In reality they're just trying to steal your identity.
West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw has raised the warning, saying he's received reports from citizens of his state, and has learned that seniors in neighboring Kentucky have also been targeted.
The scheme targeting Medicare seniors relies on the telephone, not the Internet. The fraudulent phone calls -- identified as originating from 866-234-2255 -- claim to represent a Medicare or Social Security Office and ask consumers for personal information so that new Medicare cards can be issued.
When people refuse to provide the requested information, a phony supervisor comes on the line to say that the information must be provided to remain enrolled in the Medicare program. The thieves then use information collected to steal victims' identities and remove funds from accounts through checks or electronic transactions.
McGraw says a call to the 866 number used by the Medicare scammers as their caller ID reaches a recording confirming that it is being used in the Medicare spoof.
McGraw says consumers should check caller ID on incoming calls and avoid giving out personal information including policy numbers, date of birth, social security numbers, credit card numbers or bank account information over the phone or on the internet - especially when speaking with or replying to email from strangers.
"Be suspicious of any requests you get asking for personal or financial data," McGraw said. "Never offer information. Always verify the identity of the person on the other end of the phone or emailing you. And remember that scammers will typically just hang up if confronted or threatened with a call to the police or attorney general."
Thieves use similar methods for a tax refund scam in which fake IRS phone calls or emails ask for personal and banking information so that the consumer supposedly can receive an additional tax refund. McGraw reminds consumers that the IRS does not solicit personal information via e-mail. McGraw said it's just the latest scam that is targeting senior citizens.
How Boomers Are Deciding Where to Live for the Rest of Their Lives
What to consider, as well as some suggestions, in making this important decision04/19/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jan Yager, Ph.D.
How Boomers Are Deciding Where to Live for the Rest of Their Lives...
One question most Boomers ask ourselves is where do we want to live for the rest of our lives? Should we stay or should we go? If we do decide to move from the home where we raised our kids, or, if we didnt have kids, where we lived for the last 20 or 30 years, should we move to a warmer climate, to someplace less expensive, to another city, to a 50+ age-restricted community, or even to another country?
With life expectancy increasing into the 70s and 80s, and an ever-increasing number of the population even living into their 90s and beyond, where to live after 50 is no longer an academic question. It might be where youll be spending another few decades.
I spoke with a number of experts as well as Boomers and others who have made dramatic moves, and what comes through loud and clear is that whatever you decide to do, this is not a decision to be taken lightly or frivolously. It is a major life change and it will have an impact not on just you and your significant other but on your children, grandchildren, your career -- if you want to or have to continue working -- as well as on your extended family and friends.
Plus, right now its a tough housing market. You may not be able to sell your condo or house at a price that makes sense if you can even sell it at all. Since it could take a couple of years to figure out whether or not you even want to move and, if you do, where you might want to go, you may want to start the planning process now.
If You Decide to Stay
If you are happy where you are, you are not alone. Eight out of ten Boomers say they want to stay where they are, says Nancy Thompson, who has been a communications manager for the last eleven years at AARP, the association for those 50+ with 40 million members. And if you want to stay in the same community, you may want to consider if the home or apartment where you now live will suit your needs as you age.
Here are some of the qualities of a user-friendly home which means that it will still work for you if you develop a kind of limitation that might require using a walker or a wheelchair:
no step entry
ability to work in the kitchen in a seated place or standing
being able to reach and work the cabinets and appliances from a seated position or an upright one
bathroom on the main level.
Thompson says there are a number of considerations when thinking about where to live out your life, such as:
The type of community you want to live in (rural, suburban, or urban)
Its location (near where you are, another state, another country)
The type of house or apartment
Cost of living
Health care affordability
Whether you are able to completely retire or do you need to keep working, at a job or in a self-employed capacity?
Proximity to your children, grandchildren, or friends.
As far as the community is concerned, here are some of the user friendly qualities of what Thompson says Boomers may want to seek out:
Can you walk comfortably to everything you need or will you have to drive or at least have access to transportation?
Will you have regular access to such places as the library, grocery store, or restaurants?
Is it a neighborhood that allows you to engage with other people in the kinds of things you want to do?
Those are the broad strokes of basic issues behind a move but there are even more factors that you and your partner might want to add to your own list.
George H. Schofield, Ph.D. is an organizational psychologist and former corporate vice president of a major bank in San Francisco. When he decided it was time to relocate from the city where he and his wife had both lived and worked and had raised their two children, now grown with children of their own, he knew he wanted to continue working.
So, five years ago, at the age of 60, he made what he calls a template or list of what would be important to him in the new location where he and his wife would spend the rest of their lives. Schofield, whos also the author of After 50 Its Up to Us, said he wanted a major airport within an hour, access to the ocean, to meet friendly people who would welcome them in, great health care, and to be near universities. He said the politics and the arts associated with the new community were other factors.
Since Schofield traveled a lot for business, whenever he was on a business trip, he would check out a potential community. Then, a year ago, to their friends amazement, the Schofields left San Francisco and moved to Sarasota, Florida, an area where they knew no one but it had everything they wanted; and they are very pleased with their new community.
Teresa Luetjen-Keller is a relocation and transition expert whose company is called Orella Moves, LLC. She shares her list of other relocation options that seem to be popular today for Boomers:
Lewes, Delaware if you want the beach life and low taxes, yet still have easy access to Baltimore, Philly and New York metro areas
Raleigh, North Carolina and its suburbs if you want milder weather and access to higher education, renowned medical facilitates, and a strong arts scene
Austin, Texas offers warm weather, music, music, music, a college and technology town
Boulder, Colorado Rocky Mountains and outdoor activities, still a strong economy with good job opportunities in various sectors.
To that list, AARPs Nancy Thompson adds Portland, Oregon, which she says has a light rail system that enables you to go around the entire city on public transportation, and Bostons Beacon Hill area. It has a village with a concierge system that enables seniors who live independently to get everything from home health care, transportation, or other services with just one phone call to the village office.
For more examples of communities to consider, see Mark Huffmans Retiring Boomers Flock to Rural Areas.
The Expat Scene
There is also a growing trend among boomers to live out their lives in other countries. Melinda Bates, who worked for President Clinton for eight years as the Director of the White House Visitors Office, decided at age 59 to move to Mexico.
Bates shared with me how she initially discovered her new home: I happened to see a television program that mentioned Rosarito Beach, Baja California, Mexico, just south of San Diego. They interviewed a number of Americans, standing with big grins on their faces, on wide, sandy beaches. The sun shone on their faces as they talked about how much they loved living in Mexico, the great people, the ocean, and how far their dollars went. I looked at my boyfriend and said, Lets go there! and and so we did.
Bates is pleased with her decision. She explains, I like Mexico very much and Im really glad we came here. I always wanted to live on the ocean and here the same blue Pacific that rolls up on the shores of Santa Monica lies right outside my patio too only here its affordable! My two-bedroom, two-bath oceanfront house would have cost $5-7 million in Malibu. Here it was $275,000 and that was at the top of the market. Now a similar house can be had for just around $200,000 or less.
Kathleen Peddicord is another advocate of moving out of the United States as a relocation choice. Peddicord, author of How to Retire Overseas and founder of www.LiveandInvestOverseas.com, moved to Panama with her husband and their ten-year-old son. Her twenty-one year-old daughter lives in New York City but she visits her family regularly especially since her boyfriend now works for Peddicords company.
Peddicord has found that the two issues that most often deter those who are considering moving out of the country are leaving family and healthcare.
Its hard to walk away from grandchildren, she says. On the healthcare front, in her book she discusses various healthcare insurance options including buying the insurance locally or a policy that provides international coverage, which may be more expensive.
Peddicord also discusses in her book in greater depth the top 14 retirement areas around the world. The favorites she suggests Boomers consider are: Ecuador, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and southwestern France.
However, you dont have to go outside the country to get what Bates and Peddicord found. I spoke with a number of enthusiastic Boomers who bragged about joyful places to consider moving to within the U.S. For example, Wende Gray, who is 61, loves her hometown of Bethel, Maine where she lives with her 63-year-old husband. Its a community they adore and that they are going to be sticking it out there as they age.
Cathy Severson, a 58-year-old retirement life planning coach, traded the high cost of living in Los Angeles for Prescott, Arizona, where the cost of housing made the move financially appealing. So far, she and her husband are loving it.
Deborah Stephens, who has teenage children, traded in Silicon Valley for Bloomington, Indiana after 28 years of living and working in the Bay Area. Stephens says the move wasnt easy and it was a risk but the rewards have been priceless.
Living on the Road
We Boomers have always been an adventuresome group so it should come as no surprise that many of us have turned into nomads in our later years. My husbands friend from college, and his wife, are Boomers who sold all their possessions a couple of years back and took up fulltime life on the road with just an RV as their home.
Ramona Creel, although not a Boomer, has been living, and working, in an RV with her husband for the last two years; she offers some insights into the RV lifestyle. Creel is a professional organizer who used to run an ecommerce organizing site but she sold it since it was a 24-hour commitment; she now prefers being a professional organizer and coach who works with people in person whenever she lands in a particular community or by phone and via e-mail. Her husband is a web designer so he can work from anywhere as long as they have an internet connection and we take our internet connection with us.
Obviously, this is not a lifestyle that would suit everyone.
Creel says you have to be prepared to live in a very small space. And you cant be attached to your stuff. Youre not going to bring a whole house full of crap while you travel, she said. You have to be the kind of person who is good at dealing with spur of the moment changes in plans. And its really only for those who are child free, or for Boomers whose kids are out of the house. The only people I see doing this with children are those on vacation for a week.
Easing Into It
No matter what your preference, first take a vacation, or try renting, to get a better feel for the lifestyle youre considering whether its overseas, on the road, or in the next city over. Then ask yourself, Are you thrilled with the place and this way of life or do you find you cant wait to get back home?
Bob Mauterstock and his wife Mary left behind his career of 30 years in Hartford, Connecticut as a certified financial planner to begin a new career as an elder care advisor, speaker, and author. Mauterstock is the author of Can We Talk? A Financial Guide for Baby Boomers Assisting their Aging Parents.
Three years ago, he and his wife sold their house in Glastonbury, Connecticut and got an apartment in Hartford near his company. While he stayed there Mondays through Thursdays since he was still working, his wife moved into the vacation house in Cape Cod they had bought a decade before. We love the place, says Mauterstock. We bought it with the intention that it was going to be our permanent home. Then, last December, after Mauterstock retired from his company, he joined his wife to begin his next career.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
While moving is definitely a stressful major life event, the good news is that it is only 32nd on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. That means 31 other events, such as death of a spouse, divorce or retirement, are more stressful than moving.
Speaking of retirement, whether you decide to keep working or retire may have the biggest impact on where you live. And builders are taking note of this: AARPs Thompson points out that the new 50+ communities are being located closer to metropolitan areas and the new units are being built with home offices.
Arthur Koff, who started a site offering information for retirees back in 2003, RetiredBrains.com, said in the beginning, visitors to the site were mainly looking for information on arthritis pain, memory loss, type II diabetes, and continuing their education. Now, he says, traffic is ten times what it was, but a huge percentage of people who come to the site are looking for employment.
Sharing in the decision is key
If you are a couple and you want to stay a happy couple, where you and your significant other will spend the rest of your years together is a decision that has to be a shared one. This decision is huge, as big as when or if you wanted to have children, or where you were going to live as a couple and raise those children in the first place.
Whether it takes a few months, or even a couple of years, you and your loved one need to decide jointly whether you want to stay in the same home or apartment, or if you do want to change residences, if it will be in the same community or nearby, moving to another state, across the country, or if you will even become an expat living in another country.
This joint decision can be an exciting time to learn more about each other, what you now value and what you want to do in the years ahead, whether that means being in a rural location, near a metropolitan area, 3,000 miles away in a foreign country, or starting a new career.
The good news is that whether we Boomers decide to stay put, sell everything and move into an RV, or go to another city or country, it is key that we start weighing our options and figuring out what will work better for us in ten, twenty, or thirty years down the road. Fortunately for most of us, there are many years between right now and the assisted living or nursing home decisions that we are dealing with for our aging parents.
We still have the chance to proactively make lifestyle and residential choices for our 50s, 60s, and beyond at a time when most of us are relatively healthy. Although it is easy to be in denial about the mobilityand other mental and physical challenges that may afflict us and our loved ones down the road, knowing that we have at least made some decisions with those possibilities in mind, such as how we will get around when driving is no longer an option, can be comforting.
Associations and additional resources
- AARP Provides information on places to live; AARP The Magazine also annually picks the best cities for Boomers to consider for retirement.
- American Citizens Abroad
- Association of American Resident Overseas
- Find Your Spot Not just for Boomers, asks you to take a free quiz and based on that, the site suggests 24 possibilities for you to consider living.
T Bank Agrees to Repay $5.1 Million to Scammed Consumers
60,000 consumers claimed charges processed by the bank were unauthorized04/19/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
T Bank Agrees to Repay $5.1 Million to Scammed Consumers...
T Bank, N.A., of Dallas has agreed to repay $5.1 million to more than 60,000 consumers who complained the bank processed unauthorized charges submitted by a third-party payment processor and several telemarketers and Internet merchants.
In a settlement agreement with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the bank agreed to send checks directly to scammed consumers. It also agreed to pay a $100,000 fine.
In reaching the settlement, the OCC said it "concluded that the Bank engaged in unsafe or unsound practices during the course of its relationships with the payment processor and the telemarketers and internet merchants, and unfair practices within the meaning of the Federal Trade Commission Act."
The OCC said the bank severed its relationships with the payment processor and merchants in August 2007.
The practices cited by the OCC in the settlement involved the use of remotely created checks, or RCCs, by telemarketers, internet merchants, and the payment processor that maintained account relationships with the bank. An RCC is a check that is not created by the accountholder and does not bear the accountholder's signature. Instead, the signature block of the check includes text such as authorized by your depositor, no signature required.
A large percentage of these RCCs were returned to the bank by individuals, or their financial institutions, who said the checks were never authorized or that they had never received the products or services promised by the telemarketers or merchants. In some cases, the return rates exceeded 60% of the total deposited.
In addition to the monetary components of the settlement, T Bank agreed to develop new policies and procedures with respect to RCCs, before accepting any new customers that regularly deposit RCCs.
Sears, Staples, T-Mobile Agree to Come Clean on Rebate Fees
Massachusetts presses companies to be more upfront about charges associated with rebate cards04/19/2010ConsumerAffairs
Sears, Staples, T-Mobile Agree to Come Clean on Rebate Fees...
Sears, Staples and T-Mobile have agreed to be more upfront about fees and restrictions associated with rebate cards, at least in Massachusetts, after coming under pressure from consumer protection officials in the Bay State.
The companies had previously changed the form of many of their rebates from paper checks to rebate cards. However, consumers are generally accustomed to rebates in the form of checks, and rebate cards often include fees and restrictions not associated with rebate checks.
The companies did not clearly and conspicuously announce the rebate details in advertising, an omission that created the impression that rebates would still arrive in the form of checks.
For decades rebates came in the form of a check, and that is what consumers have come to expect. To change policies without clear notification is not fair to consumers, said Barbara Anthony, the Undersecretary of the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. When you consider these cards often have fees and expiration dates attached to them, these may not be a great bargain for consumers shopping for a better deal.
After meeting with the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, Sears, Staples, and T-Mobile adjusted their rebate policies.
Sears now makes its rebate terms and conditions available to customers prior to making a selection online and in-stores. Sears has also assured the Office that no fees are assessed for accessing the rebate loaded onto cards. Additionally, Staples agreed to offer consumers a choice of check or rebate card for the majority of its rebate offers; and T-Mobile will now disclose in its ads that rebates are in the form of a rebate card, and inform customers they may request a check instead of a card or redeem the card for cash at any VISA member bank.
We appreciate and applaud the cooperation of these companies in working in good faith with our Office to ensure best practices in this important area of consumer advertising, said Anthony. This ensures consumers are aware of how they will get their rebate, and eliminate unwelcome surprises.
New state regulations took effect in Massachusetts this January that speak directly to the issue of rebate cards. The new regulations mandate retailers offering a rebate in a form that is not cash or check disclose those terms clearly and conspicuously in immediate proximity to the reference to the rebate and the advertised price.
The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation reviews print and electronic advertising periodically to check that information and details of offers are being clearly and prominently displayed. These reviews ensure consumers are being given honest advertising information, and that businesses are not skewing the marketplace through unfair practices.
Oklahoma Memorial Will Honor Pets Poisoned by Melamine
Tulsa couple donates five-acre site to honor dogs and cats felled by tainted pet food04/18/2010ConsumerAffairs
Oklahoma Memorial Will Honor Pets Poisoned by Melamine...
A grieving pet owner is creating a memorial to honor the thousands of dogs and cats that died or became seriously ill during the 2007 melamine-tainted pet food recall.
The Oklahoma woman and her husband, who lost six pets in the recall that nuked their lives, have donated five acres of land near Keystone Lake in Tulsa for the sanctuary theyve named Vindication.
The memorial is scheduled to open on June 12, 2010.
The animals that were lost or are still suffering need to be counted and acknowledged, says the woman, who wants to remain anonymous. I want people to feel like their animals did matter. This memorial is to honor the bond between animals and humans.
Creating the memorial is also the donors way of helping pet owners deal with heartbreaking loss of their beloved dogs and cats.
Such a loss can shatter someones life, she says. It devastated hers.
She and her husband lost two dogs and four cats because of melamine-tainted food.
By March 17, one day after Menu announced its recall, I had three dead animals and three who were dying slowly, the woman says. I have cleaned vomit and bloody urine and know what happens when pets die of catastrophic kidney failure. And I cant tell you how it hurts me to open my door and walk into an empty house.
But this (memorial) isnt about my loss, she adds. Its about the thousands and thousands of pet owners out who are being stabbed in the backs. There is no justice or mercy for them or their pets. And there are no safer pet foods out there. Im doing this as one grieving pet family to the rest of those out there. And I honestly feel this will help their hearts heal.
The donor plans to transform the five acres of Oklahomas ancient Cross Timbers -- covered with 500-year-old oak trees -- into a memorial garden that will feature cascading pathways lined with flowers, park benches, and handmade stones. Each stone will bear the name of a dog or cat that died or is still sick because of the contaminated pet food, the donor says.
I will make all the stones at no cost to pet owners, she told ConsumerAffairs.com. I expect I will be overwhelmed, but I felt compelled to do this for the pet people. Its time somebody did something right for them.
At the memorials entrance, the donor plans to create what she calls the Remembered 16 Circle. Shes making 16 stones to represent each of the animals that died during Menu Foods feed tests more than a month before the company announced the 2007 recall, the largest in United States history.
I gave them each a name, the donor says. They deserve to be honored. We need to lay their ghosts to rest.
The memorial will be divided into two areas -- one to honor the pets that died during the recall and the other for the dogs and cats that continue to suffer from the effects of the melamine-laced food.
Were going to show the names of the dead and tell the truth about what it costs to feed poison, the donor says. The dead wont lie; they died because of the pet food.
The donor also wants to honor the thousands of pets whose bodies are ravaged from the tainted food and the families who still struggle financially to care for their ailing dogs and cats.
Why were there no provisions made for the pets that are still sick in the lawsuits (filed in the wake of the recall)? the donor asks. Do you know the cost people are still paying for kidney failure in their animals? Its a staggering expense. Were going to collect stories about the economic devastation caused by the recall. Its costing pet owners hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The donor is all too familiar with the exorbitant costs of caring for pets with melamine-related illnesses. She and her husband planned to build a house and retire on the five acres they donated for the Vindication memorial.
But we cant afford to do that, not after all our (veterinary) expenses, she says. I guess the universe had different plans for us.
She adds: When I told my husband what I wanted to do, he said, Fine, lets do it for all the pet owners. And then he bought me a chainsaw.
Sorrow and anger
Traces of sorrow and anger are still etched in the donors voice when she talks about the heartache her family endured because of the melamine-tainted pet food.
Were still grieving, she says. It was unbearable to watch my husband hold our babies (pets) as they died. And it happened again and again.
She's furious that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didnt do more to prevent this unbelievable nightmare.
The FDA can say all they want about how they didnt know what was going on, but theyre lying through their teeth, the donor says. The FDA has intentionally inflicted pain on us.they knew melamine was flooding into the country.
The cruelties have been done to pets and their owners, she adds. The last three years have been an unbelievable nightmare for them.
The donor, however, doesnt want to continue waging a verbal battle with the FDA and others involved in the recall. Shes chosen an unconventional war tactic to address her concerns and help grieving pet owners nationwide.
Im not talking anymore, she says. Im going to be gardening. Im an unusually gifted gardener and one determined person. And Ive found peace doing this for others.
The donors generosity has already given a grieving pet owner in Rhode Island a sense of peace.
This is a gift to all the pets who suffered, says Carol V., who lost two cats because of the tainted food. It shows how many pets suffered. It makes them count for something. It means theyre not forgotten.
Carols beloved cats will never be forgotten by her family or other pet owners who tour Vindication.
The donor has finished a memorial stone for one of Carols cats, a Calico named Smudge. The 13-year-old feline died in December 2008 of renal failure.
I cried like a baby when I saw Smudges stone, Carol told us. It made me feel like shes part of something bigger.
I think she (the donor) understands the depths of sadness pet owners have endured and had to do something. And it gives me a personal sense of peace that Smudge is now part of this memorial.
Pet advocate Susan Thixton, who runs www.TruthaboutPetFood.com, also applauds the donors action and generosity.
This gift has been given to us because the donors wanted all the innocent pets to be remembered, says Thixton, the spokesperson for the anonymous donor and her husband. They wanted no one to forget why these pets died or became ill, and they wanted pet owners to have something that can never be taken away.
The donors are leaving the five acres in a trust and have set aside money in their estate to maintain the property, Thixton says. They wanted this (memorial) to go to all pet owners.
The donors are not independently wealthy people. Thixton says. They are an average family that has been shattered by pet food. They recognized that we (pet owners) have been crushed time and time again. No laws have changed, no lawsuits have been settled, (and) none responsible have been jailed.
Now, thanks to this compassionate family, all these pets will be remembered; why they died will be remembered.
Pet owners whod like their deceased or ailing dogs or cats memorialized at Vindication can fill out a form on Thixtons Web site.
God bless these pet owners, the donor says. Everything thats been done to them in the past three years dishonors them. This (memorial) is to honor them and their petsI hope it makes them feel better.
Apple Blaming iPhone Problems on Water Damage, Suit Says
Accuses company of using faulty technology to reach questionable conclusions04/17/2010ConsumerAffairs
Apple Blaming iPhone Problems on Water Damage, Suit Says...
By Jon Hood
April 17, 2010
A class action lawsuit filed Thursday says that Apple turns the tables on consumers whose iPhones suddenly stop working, blaming the problem on owner-inflicted water damage and forcing customers to settle for a discounted phone.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, says that Apple uses an unreliable Liquid Submersion Indicator to deny warranty coverage out of hand, despite the existence of a more accurate indicator built right into the phone.
Apple's standard one-year warranty -- included in the purchase price of a new iPhone -- purportedly covers defects in materials and workmanship under normal use. When presented with a defective phone, Apple is required to repair the phone at no charge, replace it with a new phone, or refund the purchase price to the consumer.
The company offers an extended two-year warranty -- also known as the AppleCare Protection Plan -- for an extra $69.
As with most warranties, Apple's lists a host of conditions not covered by the agreement, including liquid spill or submersion.
Those exceptions provide a convenient excuse for a manufacturer to dishonor its warranty obligations, as most consumers who have ever tried to return something can attest. But Apple has taken the warranty bait-and-switch game to a whole new level, according to the plaintiffs.
The iPhone's headphone jacks contain a Liquid Submersion Indicator, designed to determine whether liquid has entered the device. The complaint quotes an Apple document as explaining that the Liquid Submersion Indicator is not triggered by heat or humidity that is within the product's environmental requirements described by Apple, and that corrosion, if evident may cause the device to not work properly.
More reliable technology available
According to the suit, Apple's policy requires employees to deny warranty coverage to any iPhone whose Liquid Submersion Indicator has been activated. But the plaintiffs contend that, given the corrosion disclaimer quoted above, the indicators can't be relied on with any reasonable degree of certainty to determine whether a phone has actually been damaged by liquid.
Rather, the suit contends, the indicators could be activated by cold weather and humidity that are within Apple's technical specifications, as well as other types of moisture that should not cause damage in any event -- such as a palm that becomes sweaty after a work-out.
Moreover, according to the complaint, iPhones are equipped with more-reliable internal Liquid Submersion Indicators, whose purpose is to assist Apple service personnel in verifying whether those devices have actually been damaged due to liquid spills or submersion. But, according to the plaintiffs, Apple's policy is to deny warranty coverage for any phone whose external indicators have been activated, without even checking to see if the internal indicators have likewise been triggered.
The complaint alleges that, in May 2009, Apple began offering out of warranty service to placate the large number of consumers who were denied warranty coverage for their broken iPhones. Under that program, consumers are offered a new phone for the reduced price of $199, and are not required to extend their wireless contracts. However, the plaintiffs say that under the out-of-warranty service option, consumers are required to relinquish their current iPhone to Apple without compensation.
Making matters worse, AT&T -- currently the sole wireless provider selling the iPhone -- refuses to offer insurance for the device. According to AT&T's website, insurance costs a mere $4.99 per month and covers phones that are lost [or] stolen, or that have fallen victim to liquid damage [or] mechanical or electrical failure after the manufacturer's warranty period has expired. Although such insurance would obviously cover the phones at issue here, AT&T asserts without explanation that Wireless Phone Insurance is not available for and does not apply to ... Apple iPhone (all models).
Constance of Stockton, CA wrote to ConsumerAffairs.com in February with the exact problem described in the lawsuit:
I purchased an Iphone two years ago. It stopped working and when I took it to the Apple store in Greensboro, North Carolina, I was told that it had water damage and I would have to pay 199 for a new one. I did not appreciate the customer service because after an argument with the customer service consultant, they informed me I was eligible for an upgrade which would cost me only 99. I purchase the new phone and after 6 weeks I had problems charging up my phone.
The suit alleges, among other things, breach of warranty, fraud, unjust enrichment, and violations of the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act. The class is being represented by Fazio Micheletti LLP, a San Ramon-based law firm.
Bank accused of misleading investors in subprime mortgages04/16/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
SEC Accuses Goldman Sachs of Fraud...
Mass. Blocks Online Payday Lender
FastBucks must also make consumer restitution04/16/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Mass. Blocks Online Payday Lender...
An Internet-based payday lender that was selling high interest loans at up to 600 percent interest will no longer be able to continue doing business in the state of Massachusetts, under a settlement filed by Attorney General Martha Coakley.
The settlement prevents payday lender FastBucks from offering its high interest "payday" loans to Massachusetts consumers, and requires FastBucks to return all interest charges and fees that it assessed against Massachusetts consumers. The Attorney General's Office has already identified $35,000 in fees and interest owed to consumers, and is continuing to work to identify borrowers entitled to restitution. FastBucks will also pay $10,000 to the Commonwealth.
FastBucks, a New Mexico based lender, offers small, short-term loans to consumers via the Internet and by telephone. The loans, generally granted for a few hundred dollars or less, must be repaid within two to four weeks and used consumers' bank accounts to secure repayment of the amount borrowed.
According to the settlement, FastBucks charged an unfair interest rate on these loans, which sometimes exceeded 600 percent. When consumers were unable to repay the loan principal, fees, and interest, FastBucks extended the loans, and added additional fees and charges to the consumer debt.
The excessive interest rates charged by FastBucks are in violation of state law which stipulates that unlicensed lenders of small loans may only charge 12 percent interest.
"The inflated interest rates charged by payday lenders are unconscionable," Coakley said. "The loans offered by this company take advantage of Massachusetts residents in tough financial situations and further push them into a spiral of debt. Our office will continue to investigate and prosecute these types of unscrupulous business practices."
Under the terms of the settlement, FastBucks is prohibited from selling high interest loans in Massachusetts, and will not distribute promotional and marketing materials to Massachusetts consumers. FastBucks will also reimburse consumers for all interest and fees charged on their loans, cease all collection efforts, and request credit reporting agencies to remove these transactions from consumer credit records.
Senate Bill Would Revamp Toxic Chemicals Regulation
Measure is called a 'historic step' towards protecting children and families04/16/2010ConsumerAffairs
Senate Bill Would Revamp Toxic Chemicals Regulation...
Environmental and public health advocates are applauding Thursday's introduction of federal legislation designed to revamp the countrys outdated law governing toxic chemicals.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced what advocates called the long-awaited Safe Chemicals Act of 2010. In the House, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill) also unveiled a discussion draft of a similar proposal.
If approved, the measure would overhaul the countrys antiquated 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the way the government protects consumers from toxic chemicals.
Today marks a milestone in the fight for safer chemicals and healthy families, said Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, which represents more than 200 organization and 11 million individuals. The Safe Chemicals Act goes a long way toward bringing chemical policy into the 21st century.
The measure, however, isnt perfect, coalition members said. But they called the legislation an historic step toward protecting the public, especially children, from dangerous chemicals.
A trade group that represents the chemical industry agreed todays measure is a first step in the debate over chemical safety and regulations. But the organization said it has concerns about some provision in the bill.
Environmental and public health advocates have long urged federal legislators to revamp the TSCA, saying its obsolete, riddled with loopholes, and fails to ensure the publics safety from toxic chemicals.
The old law is as out-of-date as a polyester leisure suit, Dr. Alan Greene, M.D., Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, Stanford School of Medicine, said.
The TSCA, for example, requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test only a few hundred of the 62,000 chemicals that have been on the market since Congress adopted the law 34 years ago. That number has since grown to 80,000 chemicals. And the EPA has only partially restricted five of those chemicals.
Studies have linked many widely-used chemicals, including bisphenol A (BPA), and brominated flame retardants, to such health issues as autism, cancer, and reproductive disorders.
Health and safety advocates have also warned that developing fetuses and young children are routinely exposed and particularly vulnerable to many toxic chemicals used in the marketplace.
Our urgent concern is children exposed to harm from toxic chemicals, Maureen Swanson, with the Learning Disabilities Association of America, said today. Kids are more exposed to chemicals because theyre on the ground and put things in their mouths. Even minute chemicals at lower levels can harm a developing fetus.
But those risks are finally addressed in Lautenberg's measure, Swanson said.
We welcome this landmark legislation, she said. It's high time we closed the gap between what scientists say is safe, and what our government allows on supermarket shelves. This bill represents a major advance toward giving American families the peace of mind they've been seeking."
There are some differences between the House and Senate versions of the Safe Chemicals Act, but the legislation includes several reforms environmental and public health advocates support, including:
Requiring chemical companies to develop and make public basic health and safety information for all chemicals;
Requiring chemicals to meet a safety standard that protects vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and children;
The inclusion of a new program to identify communities that are hot spots for toxic chemicals. The program also requires the EPA to develop plans to reduce the publics exposure to those chemicals;
Expediting safety determinations and actions to restrict some of the most dangerous chemicals, including formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, and flame retardants.
The measure, however, has some shortcomings, members of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition said.
They cited three concerns in the proposed legislation:
It allows hundreds of new chemicals to enter the market and be used in products for many years without first requiring companies to show the substances are safe. This provision, they said, is contradictory to the measures key tenet of preventing dangerous chemicals from entering the market place;
It doesnt provide clear authority for the EPA to immediately restrict production and use of the most dangerous chemicals, even those that have been extensively studied and are restricted by governments around the world;
It doesnt require the EPA to adopt the National Academy of Sciences recommendations to incorporate the best and latest science when determining the safety of chemicals. The Senate bill, however, does call on EPA to consider those recommendations.
Despite these flaws, public health and environmental advocates laud the measure.
This is the strongest bill yet toward chemical reform, said the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalitions Andy Igrejas. We look forward to working with (Congressional leaders) on this legislation.
Environmental justice groups support provisions in the bill that mandate the EPA to develop action plans to reduce high exposures of toxic chemicals in certain communities.
There are many communities, especially communities of color, tribal lands, and low-income communities, where people are dying at extraordinary rates because of toxic chemical exposure, said Mark Mitchell, M.D., president of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice. This bill, for the first time, would give EPA authority to identify these communities and protect them from major sources of toxic chemicals.
The president of a trade group for the chemical industry said his members look forward to working with Congressional leaders on chemical policy reform.
Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) , said his group supports some of the provisions in the proposed bill.
We are encouraged that the Safe Chemicals Act (SCA) reflects some aspects of the principles that ACC released last year, which are mirrored by EPAs principles, he said in a statement released today. These include the need to prioritize chemicals for evaluation, a risk-based approach to EPA safety reviews, and a reduction in animal testing.
ACC members, however, are at odds with other requirements in the bill.
We are concerned that the bills proposed decision-making standard may be legally and technically impossible to meet, Dooley said. The proposed changes to the new chemicals program could hamper innovation in new products, processes and technologies. In addition, the bill undermines business certainty by allowing states to adopt their own regulations and create a lack of regulatory uniformity for chemicals and the products that use them.
Whatever version of the bill is approved, Dooley said his members are committed to ensuring all chemicals in the marketplace are safe for their intended use.
Today, Americans live safer, healthier lives thanks to the development of chemical products and technologies. We look forward to continuing a constructive dialogue with Congressional leaders to ensure that reforms to TSCA promote safety and preserve these important innovations.
The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition said there is a pretty aggressive schedule on the House version of the bill and it could move to committee for action in June or early July.
But there are no immediate plans for a Senate hearing on the bill, the coalition said.
Health Advocates Cheer Decline in Soft Drink Consumption
Taxes, media campaigns, warning labels could bring further declines, says CSPI04/16/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Health Advocates Cheer Decline in Soft Drink Consumption...
U.S consumers are drinking less soda pop, a development health advocates see as an encouraging trend in the fight against obesity and diet-related disease.
Per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks has declined for 11 straight years, according to data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation. It now stands 22 percent below its peak in 1998, according to the trade publication Beverage Digest and calculations by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Even with the declines in consumption in recent years, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dr. Pepper Snapple, and other companies produced 9.4 billion cases of sugary soda pop and energy drinks in 2009.
At the 1998 peak, when CSPI first published its Liquid Candy report, companies were producing 638 8-ounce servings of non-diet soft drinks per person. By 2009, that figure was down to 543 8-ounce servings. Still, that's about 140 empty calories a day, for every man, woman, and child in the United States.
"The recognition that soda pop promotes weight gain and disease is gaining traction, contributing to the steady decline in soda consumption," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Ten years from now, it would be great to see that Americans are drinking a can and a half a week, instead of a can and a half a day."
Besides concern over obesity, Jacobson said that the growing popularity of bottled water, the low-carb Atkins and South Beach diets, bans on soft drinks in schools, and rising unemployment rates are all partly responsible for the decline in soda consumption.
According the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Beverage Digest, the proportion of carbonated soft drinks that are non-caloric diet drinks increased from 23 percent to 30 percent between 1998 and 2009.
CSPI and other health advocates are urging state legislators to increase soda taxes where they already exist, or to institute them for the first time. A state such as California, which already imposes a small sales tax on soft drinks, could raise nearly $2 billion each year if it added a penny-per-ounce excise tax on soda.
The state could put some of that money toward the state's share of the $10 billion in medical expenses incurred each year by obese Californians. The revenues could also fund programs to encourage healthy eating and physical activity, such as media campaigns to discourage the consumption of sugary beverages.
"Reasonable taxes could help drive down consumption a bit more, particularly among children," Jacobson said. "And if those taxes could fund hard-hitting media campaigns, like the one being run in New York City, that's even better. The goal should be to restore sugary soda to what it once was -- an occasional treat in a reasonable portion, not the every-day super-sized tub."
The idea of a soft-drink tax has also come under consideration on the federal level.
Another policy approach would be to require health notices on soft-drink containers, something that in 2005 CSPI petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to do. CSPI proposed "The U.S. Government recommends that you drink less (non-diet) soda to help prevent weight gain, tooth decay, and other health problems," as one such notice.
The FDA has yet to act on that proposal.
New York Announces Suit Against SmartBuy
State charges company targets US service personnel04/16/2010ConsumerAffairs
NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo says he plans to sue SmartBuy and its affiliated companies, charging them with targeting soldiers with fraudulent and dece...
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo says he plans to sue SmartBuy and its affiliated companies, charging them with targeting soldiers with fraudulent and deceptive business practices.
Cuomo says an investigation by his office determined that the company and its affiliated lenders targeted soldiers with so-called "financing" offers of monthly payments that were actually open-ended loan agreements, costing the soldiers thousands of dollars extra for consumer electronics.
"The specific intent of this business was to target soldiers on the move, fleecing them for thousands of dollars and leaving them with little recourse," Cuomo said. "We have no tolerance for companies or individuals who take advantage of those serving in our military."
Cuomo's office sent a notice of proposed litigation to six affiliated entities, including Frisco Marketing of N.Y., LLC, doing business as SmartBuy and SmartBuy Computers and Electronics; Integrity Financial of North Carolina, Inc.; Britlee, Inc.; GJS Management, Inc.; Rome Finance Company, Inc. and Rome Finance Co. LLC, all owned and/or operated by Fayetteville, N.C.-based John Paul Jordan, Stuart Jordan and Rebecca Wirt, and Concord, California-based William Collins and Ronald Wilson.
The Attorney General's Office claims that the SmartBuy operation "engaged in illegal, deceptive and fraudulent business practices, including but not limited to fraudulently and deceptively selling electronics with financing agreements to federal employees, and in particular, military employees; violating New York State usury and banking laws by engaging in unlicensed lending and charging illegal rates of interest; and violating the State Fair Debt Collection Practices Act."
In 2008, SmartBuy's collective locations across the country brought in between $32 and $36 million, according to Cuomo. Until recently, SmartBuy operated a storefront and kiosk in the Salmon Run Mall. Once the business became aware of the Attorney General's investigation and expected legal action, SmartBuy abruptly shut down the location, Cuomo said.
Cuomo said his investigation has determined that all SmartBuy locations across the country are set up in close proximity to large military establishments and communities.
Ohio Debt Collector to Pay Consumer Restitution
Company settles charges it harassed consumers04/15/2010ConsumerAffairs
Ohio Debt Collector to Pay Consumer Restitution...
National Enterprise Systems, Inc., a collection agency, will provide $207,500 in restitution to Ohio consumers, in a settlement with that state's attorney general.
NES will also pay a comparable amount to Ohio's Consumer Protection Enforcement Fund, according to Attorney General Richard Cordray.
In July, Cordray sued the collection agency for harassing consumers when attempting to collect on debt. As a result of the agreed consent judgment filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland, NES has agreed to make changes in its debt collection practices as well as the agreed amount of payments.
"Our lawsuit outlined a laundry list of clear violations of consumers' rights," said Cordray. "With today's settlement, not only will consumers receive restitution but the company will implement new policies and procedures to prevent this from happening again. Ohioans deserve a fighting chance to pay back debt without being demeaned, deceived or harassed."
Cordray's lawsuit charged NES with engaging in practices that violated Ohio's Consumer Sales Practices Act (CSPA) and the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Some of the practices alleged included calling and harassing consumers' coworkers and family members, calling before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m., using abusive language, attempting to collect debts consumers did not owe, failing to verify debts and making unauthorized withdrawals from consumers' bank accounts.
Cordray's office has more than 390 complaints on record against NES. Consumers who filed complaints prior to the agreement may be eligible to receive $200 or more in restitution and will receive notification through the mail.
Foreclosures Keep Rising, But Why?
Report suggests system encourages mortgage servicers to foreclose04/15/2010ConsumerAffairs
Foreclosures Keep Rising, But Why?...
By Mark Huffman
April 15, 2010
U.S. home foreclosures are going up, not down. The latest quarterly report by RealtyTrac, a real estate data company, shows foreclosure actions rose seven percent in the first three months of 2010 from the previous quarter.
The question is why. Is the economy still that bad? Is the government's home modification program that inept? Is the housing market still a disaster area?
A review of the ConsumerAffairs.com complaint database for the first quarter of 2010 reveals 297 complaints containing the keyword "foreclosure." They are remarkably consistent in their descriptions of the authors' dealings with their loan servicers.
Homeowners describe what sound like stalling tactics when they detail their efforts to receive a loan modification -- documents are requested and supplied, only to be requested again. Sometimes requested over and over again. Eventually time runs out and foreclosure begins.
The Obama Administration's home modification program, begun a year ago, has achieved little in the way of results, earning it a rebuke this week from a Congressional Oversight Panel. The reason for its lack of success, and a rising number of U.S. foreclosures, might be explained in a little noted report issued last year by the National Consumer Law Center.
The report, Why Servicers Foreclose, When They Should Modify, and Other Puzzles of Servicer Behavior, suggests the problem is systemic: it is in the financial interests of the servicer to foreclose, not modify.
The important thing to understand in this process is that the servicer -- the bank or financial institution that collects your mortgage payment -- almost never owns the loan. They are simply hired to manage it for the owners, usually a pool of investors. According to the NCLC report, servicers have four ways to make money:
The monthly servicing fee, a fixed percentage of the unpaid principal balance of the loans in the pool;
Fees charged borrowers in default, including late fees and "process management fees";
Float income, or interest income from the time between when the servicer collects the payment from the borrower and when it turns the payment over to the mortgage owner; and
Income from investment interests in the pool of mortgage loans that the servicer is servicing.
Little incentive to modify
"Overall, these sources of income give servicers little incentive to offer sustainable loan modifications, and some incentive to push loans into foreclosure," the report asserts.
Make no mistake, a performing loan is better for everyone -- servicers included -- than one that goes into foreclosure. But if the loan is not performing, a servicer who is collecting fees based on the full amount of the loan thinks it is better off if the loan goes into a foreclosure than if its modified at a lesser amount. The NCLC report suggests they are correct to assume that.
The monthly fee that the servicer receives based on a percentage of the outstanding principal of the loans in the pool provides some incentive to servicers to keep loans in the pool rather than foreclosing on them, but also provides a significant disincentive to offer principal reductions or other loan modifications that are sustainable on the long term.
"In fact, this fee gives servicers an incentive to increase the loan principal by adding delinquent amounts and junk fees," the report says. "Then the servicer receives a higher monthly fee for a while, until the loan finally fails. Fees that servicers charge borrowers in default reward servicers for getting and keeping a borrower in default. As they grow, these fees make a modification less and less feasible."
In fact, if the distressed mortgage goes to modification, the servicer may be asked to waive some or all of those fees in order for the homeowner to secure the modification and stay in their home.
However, the report notes, the servicer is almost always assured of collecting their full fees if a foreclosure goes through.
"Servicers lose no money from foreclosures because they recover all of their expenses when a loan is foreclosed, before any of the investors get paid," the report states. "The rules for recovery of expenses in a modification are much less clear and somewhat less generous."
If the system is designed to encourage foreclosures, it's apparently working. Jack and Sandy of Charlevoix, Mich., said they were turned down for a modification last year but were able to secure a "short sale" in early January. The claimed the bank stalled for nearly three months.
Then on March 16, they said, the sheriff tacked a foreclosure notice to their door, their first indication foreclosure had even started. They were stunned to learn that the bank had initiated foreclosure action January 4.
Mississippi Woman Sentenced for Embezzling from Funeral Home
Gets suspended jail term for taking advantage of grieving parents04/15/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Mississippi Woman Sentenced for Embezzling from Funeral Home...
A Mississippi woman has been sentenced after being found guilty of false pretenses by taking money from grieving parents to bury their baby and after pleading guilty to embezzling from the funeral home where she worked.
Frances Powell, age 62, of Tunica, was sentenced on charges of embezzlement and false pretense by Judge Charles Webster in the Circuit Court of Tunica County.
Powell was sentenced to three years behind bars with the three years suspended, two years supervised probation and one year unsupervised probation on the false pretense charges. She also must pay $600 in restitution, court costs and a $500 fine.
On the embezzlement charge, which was prosecuted by the office of Attorney General Jim Hood, Powell entered an open plea (meaning she refused to accept the state's recommended sentence and threw herself on the mercy of the court). She was sentenced to five years behind bars with the five years suspended, with two years supervised probation, three years unsupervised probation, $5,000 restitution, court costs, a $500 fine and $250 to the Crime Victim Compensation Fund.
The sentences are to run concurrently.
The false pretense involved Powell charging $600 for an infant's funeral when she knew the funeral home did not charge for such. Powell, who was employed by the Memorial Funeral home in Tunica, kept the $600 for her own personal use.
The embezzlement involved Powell converting funeral home funds to her own use. She paid for various items, such as furniture, cosmetics and tobacco products by writing checks on the funeral home's account.
The bereaved can be easy targets for scammers. A cemetery operator in Michigan recently drew a stiff sentence for his schemes which involved the embezzlement of more than $4 million.
Seniors In More Severe Auto Crashes Than Younger Drivers
Making left turns especially dangerous04/15/2010ConsumerAffairs
Seniors In More Severe Auto Crashes Than Younger Drivers...
How old is too old to drive? No question is more likely to ignite debate among seniors as that one, with many pointing out that competence behind the wheel, not age, should be the determining factor.
Even so, researchers at Kansas State are taking a close look at the numbers, both the number of years and the number of severe accidents. They say they found most car accidents involving older drivers occur during the daytime and are more severe, often ending in injury or fatality, than those for younger populations.
With this knowledge, the researchers will follow up with a study to learn what changes can be made to improve these difficulties for older drivers.
The focus will be on countermeasures to reduce the number of crashes involving older drivers and the severity of the crashes. The objective of the research, however, is not to take the keys away from seniors. In fact, it's aimed at finding ways to keep older Americans driving longer.
"Highway safety of older drivers is an issue," said Sunanda Dissanayake, K-State associate professor of civil engineering. "If you live in an area like Kansas, there's not much public transportation, so drivers have to rely on a personal vehicle. The older population should be able to drive. It's a significant predictor of their quality of life."
Dissanayake started the project, which is funded by the Kansas Department of Transportation, in 2008 with Loshaka Perera, a former K-State graduate student in civil engineering. Dissanayake presented the research in March at the Institute of Transportation Engineers Annual Meeting.
Crunching the numbers
For the study, older drivers were defined as people 65 years and older. The researchers analyzed Kansas crash data from 1997 to 2006, which included crashes based on involvement and severity. The data were analyzed and compared among drivers aged 15 to 25, drivers aged 25 to 65, and older drivers.
"If you look at the number of total crashes in Kansas involving older drivers, it's not that much. That's because they don't drive as much as the rest of the population," Dissanayake said. "But if you look at crash involvement per mile driven, that's very high for older drivers."
The crash analysis showed that the severity of crashes for older drivers also is very high compared to the rest of the population. When looking at the categories of crash severity, older drivers have the highest incidents in fatal crashes, as well as incapacitating and non-incapacitating crashes. Older drivers also had a higher percentage of crashes occurring at intersections and accidents happening during daylight.
"That doesn't necessarily mean it's more dangerous during daytime," Dissanayake said. "It could be because older drivers do most of their driving during the daylight hours."
Most of the older-driver crashes involved colliding with another vehicle while in traffic. Few involved running off the road and hitting something, which is more common for young drivers, Dissanayake said. Right before their crashes, most of the older drivers were driving straight ahead, but a significant amount were making a left turn. Dissanayake said making a left turn is especially difficult when there is no green arrow, leaving the maneuver to the driver's judgment.
The study also identified the personal opinions and experiences of older drivers. The researchers distributed a survey for older drivers around Kansas at places like senior centers, retirement communities and churches. The results showed that more than 92 percent of the participants had more than 50 years of driving experience. Most of them reported driving cars, and 41 percent said they drove every day.
Fewer than 100 miles per month
However, the majority of older drivers said they drove less than 100 miles per month. The survey also showed that 65 percent of participants had never taken a driver education course, and 18 percent of the participants were involved in a crash in the last 10 years.
The survey also asked questions regarding the drivers' perceptions of the difficulties for different driving conditions. The participants said they don't mind driving in windy or rainy conditions, though they try to avoid driving in snow. Men reported to be more wiling to drive in bad weather compared to women.
Only 38 percent of the drivers said they are likely to drive during the night, and 39 percent said they are likely to drive on freeways. Participants also answered questions regarding factors of driving that have become more difficult as they have gotten older.
"One of the most difficult things for them is identifying the speed and distance of oncoming traffic," Dissanayake said. "This is important for making a left turn, and looking at the crash data, we see a lot of left-turn crashes."
The participants also said they have difficulty and feel less comfortable making sudden, unexpected stops while driving, as well as merging and changing lanes. Fifty percent said they would like to avoid high-traffic roads, as well as freeways and two-lane undivided highways.
One of the challenging situations that could be improved is the safety at intersections, Dissanayake said.
"In areas where there are more older drivers, I think we should always look at the possibility of having the green arrow indication at left turns," Dissanayake said. "Additionally, for driver education perhaps we need to have a closer look at the driver license renewal process, such as its frequency and what is covered."
Improved road signs
She said the fonts and sizes of road signs also could be further improved to ensure older driver safety.
"As the older population gradually increases in the United States, so will the number of older drivers," Dissanayake said. "We need to be taking steps to improve their safety while driving, which also would be beneficial to all road users."
Samsung Issues 3-D TV Warning
Viewing 3-D TV could mean problems for some04/15/2010ConsumerAffairs
Some viewers may experience an epileptic seizure or stroke when exposed to certain flashing images or lights contained in certain television pictures or vi...
April 15, 2010
Children and teenagers may be more susceptible to health issues associated with viewing in 3-D and should be closely supervised when viewing these images, consumer electronics giant Samsung warns.
According to a statement issued by the company:
Some viewers may experience an epileptic seizure or stroke when exposed to certain flashing images or lights contained in certain television pictures or video games. If you suffer from, or have a family history of epilepsy or strokes, please consult with a medical specialist before using the 3-D function.
Even those without a personal or family history of epilepsy or stroke may have an undiagnosed condition that can cause photosensitive epileptic seizures.
Pregnant women, the elderly, sufferers of serious medical conditions, those who are sleep deprived or under the influence of alcohol should avoid utilizing the unit's 3-D functionality.
Watching for problems
Samsung says anyone experiencing any of the following symptoms should stop viewing 3-D pictures immediately and consult a medical specialist:
involuntary movements such as eye or muscle twitching;
cramps; and/ or
Children and teenagers may be more likely than adults to experience these symptoms. Parents should monitor their children and ask whether they are experiencing these symptoms.
Other viewing problems
Viewing 3D television may also cause motion sickness, perceptual after-effects, disorientation, eye strain and decreased postural stability, Samsung warns. The company recommends that users take frequent breaks to lessen the potential of these effects.
If the eyes show signs of fatigue or dryness or if any of the above symptoms appear, viewers should immediately discontinue use of this device and not resume using it for at least thirty minutes after the symptoms have subsided.
Watching TV while sitting too close to the screen for an extended period of time may damage your eyesight. Samsung says the ideal viewing distance should be at least three times the screen height and recommends that the viewer's eyes be level with the screen.
Watching TV while wearing 3-D glasses for an extended period of time may cause a headache or fatigue. If you experience a headache, fatigue or dizziness, stop viewing TV and rest. 3-D glasses should not be used for any other purpose than for viewing 3-D television. Using them for any other purpose (as general spectacles, sunglasses, protective goggles, etc.) may be physically harmful to you and may weaken your eyesight.
Finally, viewing in 3-D may cause disorientation for some viewers. Accordingly, DO NOT place your TV near open stairwells, cables, balconies, or other objects that can be tripped over, run into, knocked down, broken or fallen over.
Guidelines for in-home viewing
To watch in 3-D mode you need to put the 3-D glasses on and press the power button on top of the glasses.
Turn off all fluorescent lighting and block sources of direct sunlight before watching in 3-D mode. Fluorescent lighting may cause a flickering effect and direct sunlight may affect the operation of the 3-D glasses.
Despite any apparent problems, 3-D TV seems to be the next Big Thing in consumer electronics.
Tax Scammers Pose as IRS
Approach of April 15 brings out the tax fraud schemes04/14/2010ConsumerAffairs
Tax Scammers Pose as IRS...
April 14, 2010
As taxpayers file their returns and await their refunds, Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray is warning that scammers are using IRS phishing ploys to try to steal personal information.
"This tax season, scammers are pretending to be the IRS to make their ploys seem legitimate," Attorney General Cordray said. "They're using the IRS logo to send phony e-mails with phony tax information. The real IRS won't send e-mails to discuss this information."
In one case, a Washington County consumer reported receiving an e-mail message on IRS letterhead saying the agency would send her tax refund to her credit card company. (Suspiciously, her husband, who filed jointly, did not receive this message.) To receive her refund, the e-mail said the consumer had to click on a link that said "Complete Formular."
Another consumer received an official-looking e-mail that indicated she was eligible for an additional IRS refund.
Cordray reminded consumers that the IRS does not discuss tax account information with taxpayers via e-mail and that they should watch for red flags, including:
Requests for your personal or financial information, such as your Social Security number or credit card number.
Poor grammar or illogical statements.
Links that direct you to a third party Web site (do not click on these links but rather move your mouse over the link to see the address).
Threats that you won't receive your tax refund if you don't respond.
If you receive a suspicious e-mail that claims to come from the IRS, forward it to the agency at Phishing@IRS.gov. Remember not to click on any links in the message.
Impersonating the IRS is only one of many scams that surface every year as the taxman puts the arm on American workers.
Conn. Attorney General Wants Credit Card Rates Rolled Back
Calls Federal Reserve's credit card rules 'woefully inadequate'04/14/2010ConsumerAffairs
Conn. Attorney General Wants Credit Card Rates Rolled Back...
When Congress passed credit card reform in May 2009, it didn't implement the new rules until February 2010. Most credit card companies took advantage of that lag time to jack up interest rates.
Since then complaints have poured into ConsumerAffairs.com from consumers who said they thought they were doing everything right, only to be blindsided by their credit card company.
"I always paid on time and paid more then the minimum payment," Dennis, of Caldwell, Idaho, told ConsumerAffairs.com. And to my surprise, since I had not charged anything in over a year, they closed my account and boosted my interest rate to 29.99 percent, which caused my payments to go up."
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal thinks rate hikes like these should be rolled back. In a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Blumenthal said the Fed's draft credit card rules are "woefully inadequate" and said he would like to see changes to compel rollback of recent massive interest rate increases on creditworthy consumers.
Blumenthal said card issuers should reverse all arbitrary rate increases since January 1, 2009, for creditworthy consumers.
"Once again, the Federal Reserve Board has chosen to protect the interests of Wall Street bankers at the expense of Main Street consumers -- putting concerns for bank 'safety and soundness' ahead of consumer protection," Blumenthal wrote. "The board's apparent favoritism of banks mocks the clear Congressional intent evidenced in the CARD Act to protect consumers from the abuses of credit card issuers and underscores the need for a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency that puts consumers first."
Blumenthal says the Fed should have opposed interest rate increases that credit card issuers imposed on consumers -- even some of their best customers who fully honored their credit card agreements -- before the CARD Act's effective date.
'Violates CARD Act's fundamental purpose'
"Indeed, the proposed regulations do not actually require interest rate reductions regardless of how unjustified the increase," Blumenthal wrote. "The board's failure to require interest rate reductions in these circumstances violates the CARD Act's fundamental purpose of protecting consumers from bank practices that take advantage of and gouge consumers."
Blumenthal says card issuers used the interim between passage of the CARD act and its implementation to jack up rates to as high as 30 percent on consumers, many of whom never missed a payment. Blumenthal said he has written the Fed three times since December noting that the CARD Act compels issuers to roll back arbitrary increases during the interim and urging the Fed to write rules compelling decreases.
Blumenthal said the Fed's draft rules fail to compel rollbacks by letting issuers set their own standards for interest rate reviews required by the law.
"The board's complete lack of regulatory guidance leaves banks free to perform perfunctory reviews, manipulate amorphous factors to justify rate increases, switch to different factors during the review from those used to increase rates, and otherwise deny appropriate rate reductions -- even where such reviews show a clear decline in consumer credit risk," Blumenthal said in his letter. "Under the board's proposed rules, banks are literally free to look at any factors they choose and to write their own 'policies and procedures' for doing the required reviews without any guidance from the board to ensure that the methodologies used are reasonable.
Blumenthal also took issue with the Fed for creating what he called "a gaping loophole" by exempting penalty interest rate charges from the law's requirement that all penalty fees and charges be "reasonable and proportional."
The attorney general said the Fed should establish "safe harbors" -- maximum amounts -- for penalty fees.
"In setting these 'safe harbor' limits, the board should look to the far lower amounts that community banks and credit unions currently impose -- compared to those of large banks -- as strong indicators of the maximum amounts necessary to deter cardholder misconduct and recover bank costs incurred as a result of such misconduct," he said.
New York Court Halts Mortgage Modification Scheme
Secures favorable court ruling in suit against Amerimod04/14/2010ConsumerAffairs
NY Supreme Court Justice found Amerimod & Pane engaged in fraudulent, deceptive, and illegal business practices that violated New York's consumer protectio...
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has announced a favorable decision in a lawsuit against American Modification Agency, Inc. ("Amerimod"), formerly one of the largest foreclosure rescue companies in the country, and its owner and president Salvatore Pane, Jr.
New York Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman found that Amerimod and Pane engaged in fraudulent, deceptive, and illegal business practices that violated New York's consumer protection and real property laws.
"Amerimod shamelessly victimized vulnerable homeowners, and we are pleased the court recognized this," Cuomo said. "With the Court's decision, Amerimod and its owner will no longer be able to prey on consumers in New York and across the country. My office will continue to pursue relief for those victimized by this company's practices."
In August 2009, Cuomo filed a lawsuit against New York-based Amerimod and Pane, after an investigation revealed the company routinely collected illegal upfront fees from homeowners on the brink of foreclosure and then failed to modify their home mortgage loans and lower their monthly mortgage payments as promised.
After signing up with Amerimod, consumers often found themselves in worse financial shape with respect to their mortgages. Many were also unable to obtain accurate information from Amerimod's representatives.
The Attorney General's lawsuit claimed that many of these customers were lured in by the company's false and deceptive advertising and were not provided legally required disclosures and notices when they signed on with the company. Amerimod, which was headquartered in Uniondale, New York, had more than ten branch offices throughout New York State, as well as offices in various states throughout the United States.
The Court found that the Attorney General conducted a "meticulous investigation" and introduced "a mass of testimony and other evidence" that demonstrated "Amerimod misled its customers concerning its ability to help them modify their mortgages, and did, in fact, fail to make good on its promises." The Court noted that Amerimod often failed to attend to its customers after customers paid Amerimod's fee.
The Court also found that Amerimod made numerous false claims in its advertisements, including misrepresenting the number of homes it had saved, falsely claiming to have a 90 percent to 100 percent success rate, falsely claiming to be "licensed" by a government agency, and falsely claiming that it was affiliated with "legal experts."
The Court also ruled that Amerimod violated New York's distressed property consulting statute, Real Property Law 265-b, by charging illegal, upfront fees for its loan modification services, failing to provide contracts in the language of its customers, especially Spanish, and failing to provide homeowners with the legally required notice of their right to cancel within five business days.
The decision and order holds Pane personally liable for engaging in fraudulent and illegal acts, noting that Pane appeared in numerous commercials touting Amerimod's services, approved expenditures and the content of marketing, and made multiple misleading statements to the press.
The Court permanently prohibited Amerimod and Pane from engaging in the illegal, fraudulent, and deceptive business practices and false advertising described in the Attorney General's petition. The Court also denied a request to lift a temporary restraining order obtained by the Attorney General, freezing bank accounts and other assets. Justice Goodman ordered further proceedings to determine the amount of consumer restitution, costs and fees, and civil penalties.
The Attorney General urges Amerimod customers who have not received a mortgage modification to contact their lender immediately and explore other available resources to assist them with obtaining a modification and avoiding foreclosure. Options include consulting an attorney or a government-approved housing counselor.
McAfee Tricks Customers Into Subscription Purchase, Suit Says
Companys partnership with Arpu Inc. implicated04/14/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
McAfee Tricks Customers Into Subscription Purchase, Suit Says...
McAfee -- a company that made its name providing computer security products -- tricks consumers into buying services from an unrelated third party, and gives out their banking information to complete those purchases, according to a recently-filed lawsuit.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, says that consumers who purchase security products directly from McAfees website are presented with a misleading pop-up display [that] leads them to unwittingly enroll in subscription-based services offered by a third party, Arpu Inc.
According to the suit, McAfee transmits customer credit/debit card and billing information to Arpu Inc. and receives an undisclosed fee for each consumer.
The suit alleges that McAfee fails to tell customers that they are signing up for a subscription-based service, the terms and conditions of that service, or how they can go about canceling the subscription. Additionally, customers are billed in a manner that makes the monthly $4.95 charge hard to detect, track, and terminate.
The suit quotes Arpus website as claiming that the company places ads enabl[ing] consumers to purchase products or services from an online ad with a single click, using credit card information already on file. More damning, the website notes that Arpu and McAfee partnered in 2007 in an effort to increase the latters profitability.
Now, whenever a McAfee customer completes a purchase on McAfee.com, an ad will appear for a related product or service, the site reads, according to the complaint. Interested consumers can choose to subscribe to the product or service using the billing method just entered in their recent McAfee.com purchase.
To the contrary, the suit says that consumers have no idea that theyre signing up for anything, and that McAfee disguises the purchase as just another step in the process of downloading McAfee software.
After the consumer purchases software, but before she begins downloading it, she is presented with a red button reading Try It Now, according to the suit. The pop-up provides no warning that clicking on Try It Now will lead not to the delivery of the McAfee product but rather to the purchase of a completely different product, the complaint says. Instead, all of the obvious visual cues suggest that Try It Now is a necessary step in downloading the McAfee software.
While the pop-up technically contains a disclosure that a third party is involved in the transaction, that notice is set in nearly illegible gray 6 point type set against a gray background, according to the complaint. Further, the terms of service are not provided anywhere on the pop-up.
The suit is brought as a class action on behalf of [a]ll persons in the United States who purchased products or services from McAfee Incorporated and were subsequently charged by a third party for unused and unclaimed products and services after McAfee transferred their credit/debit card and other billing information to the third-party.
Toyota Faces Subrogation Action From Insurance Firms
Insurance companies have questions about accidents involving Toyotas04/13/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Toyota Faces Subrogation Action From Insurance Firms...
If Toyota didn't have enough problems with frightened consumers, angry lawmakers, class action lawsuits, massive recalls and a potential $16 million fine, they could be answering some tough questions from insurance companies.
A subrogation is the shifting of a financial burden from one party to another. In this case, the auto insurance companies that have paid out millions of dollars over the years for accidents involving Toyotas would try to recover some of that money.
Industry sources say Allstate has notified Toyota that it has claims that it believes may be the result of a product defect. While some sources say the initial review of cases may only extend back a few months, the potential is there for a wider review.
In January Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles to repair a "sticky" accelerator pedal, which it described as the possible source of some sudden acceleration incidents. It has steadfastly insisted the electronics system is not at fault.
Both ConsumerAffairs.com and official sources like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have complaints about sudden acceleration in Toyotas that extend back to at least 2005.
USA Today quotes Mark Bunim, an attorney with Case Closure, a mediation firm, as saying subrogation actions could end up costing Toyota as much as $30 million, and the insurance companies wouldn't be the only ones getting paid. Consumers who paid deductibles involved in those claims could also get refunds.
According to USA Today, State Farm attempted to recover claims in 2007 for an accident involving a 2005 Toyota Camry. NHTSA said it had looked into the sudden acceleration complaint and closed its investigation. State Farm was not reimbursed, the newspaper said.
This is but the latest setback for the Japanese automaker, which holds around 17 percent of the US automotive market. Many of these problems have emerged since February, when Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety told ConsumerAffairs.com that the carmaker could bounce back, but only on one condition.
"For the next year they have to bat 1,000," he said. "If they make a mistake they have to correct it almost overnight."
Toyota has attempted to get the healing process started with a number of financial incentives to bring customers back into the showrooms. While it's worked so far, a protracted battle with insurance companies - who could increase consumers' rates on policies insuring Toyotas - could put the strategy to the test.
Heart Health for Boomers
What you can do to prevent, or recover from, the most common heart-related conditions04/12/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jan Yager, Ph.D.
Medical experts say heart ailments are also among the most preventable, which is why what we do in our 50s and 60s could make a big difference in whether w...
Despite all the advances in medical treatment, heart disease remains the number one cause of death in America, and Baby Boomers are of an age where heart problems seem to begin to manifest themselves.
Medical experts say heart ailments are also among the most preventable, which is why what we do in our 50s and 60s could make a big difference in whether we get heart disease. After age 65, the potential for heart disease starts to rise as you age, unless you take concerted action now.
Before we get to what you can do to prevent heart disease, lets look at two factors you cant control: whether you have a family history of heart disease, which is defined for men as having a parent or sibling who had a heart attack before the age of 55 or, for women, as having an immediate family member who had a heart attack before 65, or a congenital heart problem that youre born with. That was the case with Charlotte Libov, who is now in her 50s and the author of The Womans Heart Attack Recovery Guide. At age 40, Charlotte had open heart surgery to correct a one inch hole in her heart.
Most of the other risk factors for heart disease you can control. Those factors are:
• High blood pressure
• High cholesterol
• Being overweight or obese
As pointed out in the Do You Know the Health Risks of Being Overweight? by WIN (Weight Control Information Network ), part of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, losing 5 to 10 percent of your weight can lower your chances for developing coronary heart disease or having a stroke. (So if you are an overweight woman who weighs 165 pounds, that amounts to losing between 8 and 16 pounds.)
• Lack of exercise
• Type II diabetes (which is caused by obesity)
• Stress, anxiety, anger, and depression
Various scientific studies as summarized in Heart Healthy for Life demonstrate a link among one or more of these emotions and an increased risk at having a heart attack. (To more effectively deal with these emotions, you may need the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist rather than an M.D.)
• Smoking tobacco
Stopping smoking not only lowers your risk of heart disease but avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke lowers the risk of heart attacks in non-smokers as well.
Know your numbers
Dean Heller, M.D., a Miami, Florida-based cardiologist, is part of whats called a Know your Number campaign to help men and women to find out information that can help reduce their risk of coronary disease. What are those numbers?
They include BMI or body mass index, which will tell you if youre overweight or obese. The second number is your waist circumference, an easy number to find out just by using a tape measure. See Waist-Hip Ratio Measures Heart Attack Risks for a discussion of how to take a waist-to-hip ratio.
Researchers found that the waist-to-hip ratio is three times more accurate than BMI in predicting the risk of a heart attack.) Blood sugar is the third number; you find out your blood sugar level from a blood test that should be part of your annual medical check-up. Blood pressure is next and last but not least, are your cholesterol numbers. Your physician needs to know your LDL (the bad cholesterol), you HDL, the good cholesterol and triglycerides. Dr. Heller says, A high LDL number is the most important risk factor for coronary disease.
Medication versus lifestyle
Many of the risk factors for heart disease can be helped through a physicians prescribed medications for high blood pressure or cholesterol; keep in mind that everyone reacts differently to medications, there may be side effects, and there is a cost associated with taking a drug for the rest of your life.
Lifestyle changes may be a preferred alternative to pharmacological treatments. Thats the recommendation for lowering cholesterol by nutritionist Janet Brill, PhD., author of Cholesterol Down, a book that suggests ten simple steps to lowering your cholesterol without drugs.
Dr. Brill says, Heart disease is almost completely preventable by making simple lifestyle changes. If you dont want to take medication where you have to take a pill every day the rest of your life and possibly have side effects that are very unpleasant if not life threatening you can do it all by adding in healthy foods like eating oatmeal everyday for breakfast, snacking on a handful of almonds, and putting on your sneaks and take a thirty minute walk every day.
Recognizing warning signs
How many Boomers have died from a heart-related emergency who could have been saved if someone realized that the "indigestion" the person was experiencing was really a symptom of a heart attack and got help immediately? There are three potentially fatal heart conditions that we all need to be able to recognize, and act promptly on: heart attack, stroke, and cardiac arrest. According to Dr. Nieca Goldberg, symptoms of a heart attack include:
• Sudden chest pressure (sometimes the pressure is lower down so it is mistaken for indigestion)
• Shortness of breath
• Sudden collapse
By contrast, here are the symptoms if someone is having a stroke:
• Severe headache
• Unable to speak
• Numbness in the face
Dr. Goldberg adds that if someone is having a heart attack, giving him or her an aspirin to chew on could save the person's life. However, she cautions not to give someone an aspirin if theyre having a stroke because some strokes are caused by bleeding and aspirin could cause more bleeding.
What should you do if youre not sure if someone is having a heart attack or not? Robert O. Bonow, M.D., chief of cardiology at Northwestern University Hospital, and past president of the American Heart Association, says if youre not sure if someone is having a heart attack, Call 911. They are good at determining on the spot.
According to the American Heart Association, the warning signs for cardiac arrest are
• Sudden loss of responsiveness
• No normal breathing
At their website, the American Heart Association suggest thats If these signs of cardiac arrest are present, tell someone to call 9-1-1 or your emergency response number and get an AED [automated external defibrillator] (if one is available) and begin CPR immediately.
These life-and-death conditions listed above are part of the Act in Time campaign that the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has initiated to help save lives.
Weight, diet and exercise
One reason heart disease remains the number one cause of death in this country is the increase in obesity which has reached epidemic proportions.
Forty-eight-year-old Keith Ahrens had a heart attack three years ago; his excessive obesity was a factor. Since his open heart surgery, he has lost over 200 pounds. He discusses his journey in his book Outrunning My Shadow. Leading up to Ahrens heart surgery, he led a sedentary life, he ate all the bad foods. He had elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. Says Ahrens: Im a good example of someone on the brink of almost certain death and I fought back and came back pretty strong.
Dr. Goldberg, author of The Womens Healthy Heart Program, is head of the new Womens Heart Program, just established at New York University. She says that a heart healthy diet need not be a complicated thing. Its simply a diet that is low in saturated fats, that uses the omega 3 fats in fish, olive oil, and the polyunsaturated fats you find in safflower or soy oil. Make better food choices, says Dr. Goldberg. Trade in white flour for more complex carbohydrates, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Decreasing portion sizes will also help you lose weight.
Half an hour of aerobic activity a day is what Dr. Goldberg recommends for a healthy heart. She adds, If you want to lose weight, some studies say to increase to 45 to 60 minutes a day for as many days as you can.
An ounce of prevention
The survivors of heart attacks that I spoke with all agreed that they now wish they had taken preventive actions such as diet and exercise. Going through a heart attack, if you survive it, is a harrowing and frightening experience, The consensus is that if it does not kill you, it definitely makes you stronger, and more determined than ever to live a heart healthy life.
John Lawlor, an online strategist, had two open heart surgeries last year, when he was 64. They made such an impact on him that hes writing a book on his experiences as well as other open heart surgery patients. Lawlor is a strong advocate of patient support groups. He has learned so much, and gotten so much support from sharing his own experience with others who have gone through something similar.
Says Lawlor: As a result of my surgical experiences, which were both outstanding, and recovery I have shifted the focus of my consulting work into working with hospitals to chronicle patient success stories into content for their social media communities to benefit patients and their hospitals.
Since the risk of heart attack increases as we age, what we do now can help us to be more heart healthy in the years ahead. Give up smoking, if you havent already, move more, eat a healthier diet, and keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels within a normal range. Or, if your numbers are high, make lifestyle changes to lower those numbers in addition to taking medication under a doctors care, if that is recommended. All of these steps can help lower our risk of this preventable disease.
- American Heart Association (AHA) Started by six cardiologists in 1942, AHA has the mission to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. It is focused on research to reduce heart disease as well as educating the public.
- American Stroke Association
- Mended Hearts Non-profit membership association, affiliated with the American Heart Association, founded 50 years ago to direct help and support for heart patients and their families and caregivers.
Books and Articles
- Do You Know the Health Risks of Being Overweight? WIN (Weight Control Information Network) National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
- Esselstyn, Caldwell B., Jr., M.D., Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. New York: Avery Trade, 2008.
- Jaret, Peter. Heart Healthy for Life. Pleasantville, New York: Readers Digest Association, 2002.
Phony Foreclosure Consultants Draw Jail Time
Prosecution by California AG recovers stolen funds04/12/2010ConsumerAffairs
In a clear "warning shot" to unscrupulous loan modification consultants two California women have each been sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to re...
In a clear "warning shot" to unscrupulous loan modification consultants two California women have each been sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to repay dozens of homeowners who were charged thousands of dollars in up-front fees for non-existent foreclosure-relief services.
Marianne Curtis, 69, of Costa Mesa and Mary Alice Yraceburu, 46, of Riverdale, had operated Fresno and Orange County-based Foreclosure Freedom. The two, who pleaded guilty last month to 71 criminal counts, including grand theft, conspiracy and unlawful foreclosure consulting, will serve one year in Orange County jail and an additional four years of probation.
"Curtis and Yraceburu shamelessly exploited homeowners desperate to avoid foreclosure, charging up to $1,800 in up-front fees for loan modifications that were never delivered," said Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. "Today's jail sentences send a warning shot to loan-modification consultants: If you swindle homeowners, you face serious time behind bars."
Brown's office initiated its investigation into Curtis and Yraceburu in early 2008 after receiving a complaint from the Tulare County District Attorney. Charges were filed in Orange County Superior Court on March 19, 2009, against the defendants, and both pleaded guilty on March 24, 2010.
Brown's investigation located victims in many California towns and cities: Antelope, Avenal, Bakersfield, Crows Landing, Elk Grove, Fairfield, Fresno, Galt, Hanford, Hayward, Hollister, Kingsburg, Mendota, Modesto, Petaluma, Placerville, Richmond, Ridgecrest, Rio Linda, Sacramento, Salinas, San Leandro, Simi Valley, Stockton, Taft, Vacaville, Vallejo and Ventura.
In addition to the jail sentences, Curtis and Yraceburu were ordered to repay 36 victims a total of $32,040. If eligible victims not named in the complaint come forward, the court can order additional repayment throughout the defendants' probation term.
As a condition of their sentences, both women are also prohibited from any future work in the telemarketing and real estate industries.
Brown's investigation found that from April 2007 until February 2008, the two paid for access to foreclosure listings so they could directly solicit hundreds of homeowners underwater on their mortgages with mailers promising relief.
When homeowners called the number on the mailer, they were told their mortgages could be renegotiated to a lower monthly payment. Victims, however, were required to pay up to $1,800 in up-front fees and were instructed not to contact their lenders.
Victims were assured the company had "private lenders and specialists exclusive to their company who are very experienced in the options and methods used to renegotiate home loans," yet neither of the women who operated the company had real estate licenses, legal training or any experience in the home mortgage market.
Investigators found no evidence they had negotiated any successful loan modifications, and most of the victims were either forced into bankruptcy or lost their homes to foreclosure. Bank account records revealed the defendants took over $120,000 from unsuspecting homeowners.
Both Curtis and Yraceburu pleaded guilty to all 71 criminal counts including:
34 counts of unlawful foreclosure consulting
29 counts of grand theft
seven counts of attempted grand theft
one count of conspiracy
By law, all individuals and businesses offering mortgage-foreclosure consulting or loan-modification and foreclosure-assistance services must register with the attorney general's office and post a $100,000 bond. It is also illegal for loan-modification consultants to charge up-front fees for their services.
Non-profit housing counselors certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provide free help to homeowners. To find a counselor in your area, call 1-800-569-4287.
If you are a California homeowner who has been scammed, contact Brown's office at 1-800-952-5225 or file a complaint online.
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 other deceptive loan-modification consultants.
Last month, the attorney general won a court judgment that shut down two Orange County-based foreclosure-assistance companies, secured $1 million in restitution for victims and prohibited three individuals from ever working in the real estate industry again.With the housing industry collapse and the recession continuing to take a toll on consumers, states have intensified their crackdown on mortgage fraud.
Settlement Reached in E-Ferol Case
Decades-old case shows importance of FDA approval04/12/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
E-Ferol, was touted for its purported ability to prevent retrolental fibroplasia, a blindness caused by a vitamin E deficiency that primarily affects prema...
A settlement has finally been reached in a class action lawsuit concerning E-Ferol, the drug pulled off the market 26 years ago after it was linked to the death of over 40 babies born prematurely.
E-Ferol, introduced in 1983, was touted for its purported ability to prevent retrolental fibroplasia, a blindness caused by a vitamin E deficiency that primarily affects premature babies.
The defendants -- manufacturer Carter-Glogau Laboratories and distributor O'Neal, Jones & Feldman Pharmaceuticals -- marketed E-Ferol as a vitamin supplement rather than as a drug, a decision that the plaintiffs said was designed to avoid testing mandated for all "drugs" by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
The defendants then undertook a deceptive marketing campaign, according to the plaintiffs, leading doctors and hospitals to use E-Ferol under the impression that it had been approved by the FDA.
A few months after E-Ferol's release, doctors began to notice a disturbing pattern of side effects in babies to whom the supplement had been administered. The symptoms in these babies -- which included brain damage, blindness, and, in some cases, death -- were caused primarily by liver and kidney failure. The symptoms were so widespread that they earned the collective nickname "E-Ferol syndrome."
The case led to the conviction and eventual imprisonment of the companies' presidents, and the settlement of over 100 other lawsuits. Despite E-Ferol's high profile history, many of the plaintiffs in this case weren't even aware that their babies had received the supplement until they were informed of the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs' attorneys used hospital records to discover who had received the drug.
Art Brender, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, called the E-Ferol saga "one of the worst cases of corporate greed and malfeasance in history." He estimates that at least 80 babies died from the drug, twice what other estimates have been.
The case was a wake-up call to the public, which was largely unaware that certain supplements could reach the market without FDA testing or approval. Ted Weiss, then a New York Congressman who chaired hearings on the subject, prophetically said that the E-Ferol tragedy was "the tip of the iceberg."
Despite the 20 years that have passed since that statement, non-FDA-approved drugs continue to cause problems. Most recently, the FDA recalled Hydroxycut -- a "dietary supplement" that doesn't require FDA approval -- after it was linked to several cases of liver damage.
In addition to its overall gruesomeness, the case was notable for the bizarre circumstances surrounding its settlement. Both of the defendant companies have been out of business for nearly two decades, according to their attorney David Taylor. The corporations' liability insurance will cover the costs of the settlement.
The suit was brought on behalf of everyone in the U.S. who received E-Ferol between November 1, 1983, and April 30, 1984, including the estates or heirs of people killed by the drug. Included in the class were the parents of 42 babies who died from the drug, as well as adults who received the drug during their infancy and were harmed as a result.
Scam not yet widespread but potential for harm is great04/12/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Facebook has begun warning its users to avoid bogus links and fan pages that offer free gift cards because they are scams aimed at stealing user identities...
Scammers Prey On Misinformation About Health Reform
Pressuring uninformed consumers to buy health care policies immediately04/12/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Scammers Prey On Misinformation About Health Reform...
Scammers often follow the news headlines, crafting their schemes around real events to make them seem more plausible.
For example, after Congress passed financial "bailout" bills in 2009, scammers tried to convince ordinary Americans they too could qualify for money from the government. People who had not followed the news closely were easy prey.
Now that Congress has passed health care reform, consumers are being warn about scammers trying to convince Americans the new law requires them to buy health insurance immediately. Actually, the law does require all Americans to be insured, but the mandate does not begin until 2014.
"It comes as little surprise that the federal government's requirement that individuals buy health insurance starting in 2014 would embolden scammers to defraud people into buying it needlessly now," said Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller. "The Indiana Attorney General's Office has not yet received complaints of salespeople pushing dubious or phony health insurance policies onto Hoosiers. But the situation is ripe for fraudsters to sow misunderstandings among the public and then sell them worthless financial products."
Last week U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sent a letter to state attorneys general nationwide, warning that HHS has received reports of scammers going door-to-door selling phony insurance policies and urging people to obtain coverage during a non-existent "limited enrollment" period they falsely claim the new law created. Sebelius' letter urges state authorities to investigate any such scams if they surface.
Zoeller said the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division stands ready to investigate scams and assist anyone who has received such unsolicited sales offers. Beyond violating Indiana's own state insurance regulations, phony health insurance offers could violate Indiana's law in other ways, especially if they call consumers on the Do Not Call list, or employ robo-callers.
Too early to buy 'qualifying' policies
The new federal healthcare law passed in March contains a mandate that individuals who don't already have health coverage must purchase a commercial insurance product from a private company starting in 2014. That is when states will be required to start operating insurance exchanges where insurance companies will offer health policies that uninsured individuals can purchase.
Also, not every health insurance plan will qualify under the new legislation. A decision on which policies will and won't qualify will be made between now and 2014, but there is no way a company could sell policies now and guarantee they would meet the government mandate.
"That mandate is three years away, and while many details still are unknown, I would be extremely surprised if door-to-door salespeople would be enlisted to sell plans under this scheme," said Deputy Attorney General Abigail Kuzma, director of the Consumer Protection Division. "People who want private insurance coverage now and don't qualify for a public plan should consult with established, licensed insurance agents and obtain multiple quotes before buying any policy, even short-term."
To sell insurance policies in most states, a company must be licensed with that state.
Rates Are Going Up: What's It Mean For You?
Analysts say 30-year era of cheap interest is ending04/11/2010ConsumerAffairs
Rates Are Going Up: What's It Mean For You?...
With the arrival of spring, interest rates have begun to climb, making anything purchased on credit that much more expensive. In many ways, you can thank an improving economy.
When the economy crashed in the fall of 2008, the Federal Reserve responded by pumping huge amounts of money into the financial system. In a bid to save the big banks, which were for all practical purposes insolvent because of their vast holdings in "toxic" mortgage backed securities, the Fed loaned banks money at zero percent interest.
The policy appears to have saved the banks, which are profitable once again because there were able to borrow money at no cost, invest in bonds and pocket a nice return. At the same time, Congress approved huge expenditures to stimulate the economy. The result has been a recovering economy but a frightening accumulation of debt.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke sounded the alarm last week, warning in a speech that this huge increase in government debt threatens to eventually snuff out the economic recovery. The previous week U.S. bond auctions found fewer takers, forcing the Treasury to offer higher rates of interest.
As a result, mortgage rates are now heading higher. Freddie Mac reported last week that the average 30-year fixed rate mortgage has climbed from five percent to 5.2 percent, the highest rate in eight months.
Remember the 1980s?
For consumers over age 50, 5.2 percent still sounds like a very low mortgage rate. Those who purchased homes in the early 1980s have memories of double-digit interest rates. However, home prices were a lot cheaper back then.
A homeowner paying 12 percent on a $100,000 mortgage had a monthly payment of $1,029 with a 30-year fixed rate. Today, someone paying only 5.2 percent on a $200,000 mortgage would have a payment of $1,098. With more expensive home prices, buyers need today's historically low rates to make the payments affordable.
If interest rates are headed higher, and some analysts are predicting six percent by the end of 2010, then homes will be less affordable. That's bad news both for someone who wants to buy and those eager to sell. It may be especially bad news for sellers, since their home may lose even more value.
Interest rates on credit cards can also be expected to rise. The Fed reports the average credit card rate has now risen to 14.26 percent, the highest rate since 2001.
Fortunately for consumers, credit card companies are no longer allowed to raise interest rates on existing balances, just on new purchases. Unfortunately for consumers, most credit card companies jacked up those rates well in advance of last February, when the new law took effect.
For those who want to borrow money for any reason, the cost will likely be higher for the foreseeable future. The good news for consumers, however, is that household debt has been falling over the last two years. The Great Recession, more than anything else, has encouraged consumers to live within their means.
While rising interest rates are generally bad for the overall economy, consumers with money in the bank may stand to benefit. Interest on CDs and money market funds should continue to go higher -- which could help many seniors who have seen the interest on their savings shrink to nearly nothing in recent years.
More Than 100 Toyota Cases Consolidated
Ruling hints that personal injury cases will be included04/10/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
More Than 100 Toyota Cases Consolidated...
More than 100 federal lawsuits against Toyota have been consolidated and will be heard in the Central District of California, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) has decided. The panel, which decides whether to combine suits sharing at least one common factual issue, handed down the decision on Friday.
The factual thread running through all of the subject cases is the sudden acceleration fiasco that has plagued Toyota vehicles of varying years and models and ruined the company's once-sterling reputation for quality and safety.
The order, authored by panel chairman Judge John G. Heyburn II of Kentucky, consolidated over 100 cases alleging economic injury. The panel noted that the move would eliminate duplicative discovery; prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, including with respect to class certification; and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel, and the judiciary.
The JPML also said it was persuaded that the centralized proceedings should eventually include the related personal injury and wrongful death actions. Personal injury cases are generally less likely to be consolidated, since each involves a unique set of circumstances, but the JPML noted that discovery in all the cases will certainly overlap.
The consolidation does not include cases filed in state court, which will have to be heard individually.
The suits will be heard by Judge James V. Selna, whose courtroom is located in Orange County. The JPML praised Selna, appointed in 2003 by President George W. Bush, as a well regarded and skilled jurist. The panel noted that Selna -- who spent 28 years handling complex litigation at the high-powered firm of O'Melveny & Myers before ascending to the bench -- is well prepared for a case of this magnitude.
The decision is arguably good news for all involved. Because all of the subject cases are being heard in a single proceeding, Toyota will only have to produce discovery and witnesses once, saving the company considerable time and money.
The location is also ideal for Toyota, which is headquartered in Torrance, in nearby Los Angeles County. And Orange County, one of the few politically conservative areas of Southern California, is likely to provide Toyota with a relatively friendly jury pool. Martha Voss, a Toyota spokesperson, said in a statement that the company is pleased with the decision and the location.
While the decision is more of a mixed bag for the plaintiffs, it means that a team of high-caliber lawyers will eventually be appointed as lead counsel for the class. Long before Friday's ruling, attorneys began jockeying for an advantage in the battle for that coveted spot, which promises a hefty payout and a high profile in an already closely-followed case.
The normally obscure panel took an aw-shucks attitude toward the spotlight that the cases have shone on its work. Though these cases have attracted an unusual amount of publicity to the panel's work, in all relevant aspects, the issues here are neither dramatically different nor more complex than those we regularly resolve, the ruling said.
Besides the civil lawsuits, Toyota faces a potential fine of $16 million. That's the amount being sought by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Specifically, the Japanese carmaker was cited for failing to notify the auto safety agency of the dangerous "sticky pedal" defect for at least four months, despite knowing of the potential risk to consumers.
Approximately 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. were recalled in late January for the sticky pedal defect. The penalty being sought against Toyota would be the largest civil penalty ever assessed against an auto manufacturer by NHTSA.
Auto manufacturers are legally obligated to notify NHTSA within five business days if they determine that a safety defect exists. NHTSA learned through documents obtained from Toyota that the company knew of the sticky pedal defect since at least September 29, 2009.
That day, Toyota issued repair procedures to their distributors in 31 European countries and Canada to address complaints of sticky accelerator pedals, sudden increases in engine RPM, and sudden vehicle acceleration. The documents also show that Toyota was aware that consumers in the United States were experiencing the same problems.
"We now have proof that Toyota failed to live up to its legal obligations," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Worse yet, they knowingly hid a dangerous defect for months from U.S. officials and did not take action to protect millions of drivers and their families. For those reasons, we are seeking the maximum penalty possible under current laws."
Under NHTSA's current authority, the maximum possible civil penalty for related violations is $16.375 million. The penalty announced today relates specifically to the "sticky pedal" defect and NHTSA is still investigating Toyota to determine if there are additional violations that warrant further penalties.
For example, some Toyota drivers who have experienced sudden acceleration have expressed doubt the problem was caused by a sticky accelerator. NHTSA is still investigating whether the problem is linked to Toyota's electronics. Toyota has steadfastly denied the problem is electrical in nature.
"Safety is our top priority and we will vigorously pursue companies that put consumers at risk," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "We will continue to hold Toyota accountable for any additional violations we find in our ongoing investigation."
On February 16, NHTSA launched an investigation into the timeliness and scope of the three recent Toyota recalls and required the automaker to turn over documents and explanations related to its adherence to U.S. auto safety laws. NHTSA made a preliminary determination on the fine announced today based on a review of documents Toyota has provided. To date, Toyota has submitted more than 70,000 pages of documents, which NHTSA officials are continuing to review.
FTC Urged to Investigate 'Wild West' of Online Data Collection
Consumer Groups seek probe of real-time advertising auctions and data exchanges of personal data04/09/2010ConsumerAffairs
FTC Urged to Investigate 'Wild West' of Online Data Collection...
April 9, 2010
Three consumer protection organizations are calling on the Federal Trade Commission investigate growing privacy threats in what they term the "Wild West" online.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the Center for Digital Democracy and the World Privacy Forum want the agency to look into the "growing privacy threats" to consumers from the practices conducted by the real-time data-targeting auction and exchange online marketplace.
Increasingly and largely unknown to the public, the groups maintain, are technologies enabling the real-time profiling, targeting, and auctioning of consumers that are becoming commonplace. Adding to the privacy threat, says a new complaint filed by the groups, is the incorporation and expanding role of an array of outside data sources for sale online that provide detailed information on a consumer.
"Consumers will be most shocked to learn that companies are instantaneously combining the details of their online lives with information from previously unconnected offline databases without their knowledge, let alone consent," said U.S. PIRG Consumer Program Director Ed Mierzwinski. "In just the last few years, a growing and barely regulated network of sellers and marketers has gained massive information advantages over consumers."
Recent developments in online profiling and behavioral targeting -- including the instantaneous sale and trading of individual users -- have all contributed to what the filing termed a veritable "Wild West" of data collection.
Participating companies are employing "practices that fail either to protect consumer privacy or to provide for reasonable understanding of the data collection process, including significant variations in how cookies are stored and the outside data sources used."
For its part, the advertising industry has been anything but shy in describing the power of the new real-time online ad profiling and auction system. "...Internet ad exchanges," explains one online marketer quoted in the complaint, "...are basically markets for eyeballs on the Web. Advertisers bid against each other in real time for the ability to direct a message at a single Web surfer. The trades take 50 milliseconds to complete."
"This massive and stealth data collection apparatus threatens user privacy," the 32-page filing explains. "It also robs individual users of the ability to reap the financial benefits of their own data -- while publishers, ad exchangers and information brokers...cash in on this information."
Among the companies cited in the complaint are Google, Yahoo, PubMatic, TARGUSinfo, MediaMath, eXelate, Rubicon Project, AppNexus, and Rocket Fuel. The complaint also cites the failure of privacy policies and self-regulation to meaningfully safeguard consumers.
"FTC inaction," said CDD Executive Director Jeff Chester, "has encouraged the data collection and ad targeting industry to expand the use of consumer information for personalized advertising. The commission's failure to adequately protect the privacy of consumer transactions online, including those that involve financial and other sensitive information, is irresponsible. U.S. consumers, especially during this time of economic hardship for so many, need a commission that is proactive in protecting their interests."
Accordingly, CDD, U.S. PIRG and WPF called on the FTC to take the following actions:
Compel companies involved in real-time online tracking and auction bidding to provide an opt-in for consumer participation in such systems.
Require that these companies change their privacy policies and practices to acknowledge that their tracking and real-time auctioning of users involve personally identifiable information.
Ensure that consumers receive fair financial compensation for the use of their data.
Prepare a report for the public and Congress within six months that informs consumers and policymakers about the privacy risks and consumer protection issues involved with the real-time tracking, data profiling, and auctioning of consumer profiles.
Address the implications of potential information "redlining" of consumers, with companies deciding not to provide editorial content based on an assessment of the marketing value of a particular online consumer's behavioral data.
FTC Charges Payday Lender With Illegal Practices
Tried to claim same rights to garnishment as federal government04/09/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
FTC Charges Payday Lender With Illegal Practices...
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has charged a payday loan operation with illegally trying to garnish borrowers' wages and using other illegal debt-collection practices.
The FTC said it is taking action to both stop these practices and require the operators to surrender improperly collected money so it can be used for consumer refunds.
According to the FTC's complaint, the operators do business as Ecash and GeteCash, offering loans of up to $1,000 to be repaid from a borrower's upcoming paycheck. They require online loan applicants to check a box indicating their agreement with loan terms.
The agency maintains that these terms include an inconspicuous statement consumers often don't see, which states that their wages will be garnished to cover delinquent loan payments. The statement allegedly attempts to circumvent federal requirements, including a debtor's right to revoke a garnishment agreement.
U.S. law allows federal agencies to require employers to garnish employees' wages without a court order when the employees owe the government money. According to the complaint, in letters to employers, GeteCash tries to pass itself off as having the same collection rights as the government.
The FTC's complaint also alleges that GeteCash falsely stated that consumers knew their pay would be garnished and had an opportunity to dispute the debt. In addition, GeteCash allegedly violated the law when it told employers and co-workers about consumers' debt without their consent.
The FTC contends that, in carrying out their scheme, the operators violated the FTC Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and the Credit Practices Rule.
The defendants are Eastbrook LLC, also doing business as Ecash and GeteCash; LoanPointe LLC; Joe S. Strom; Benjamin J. Lonsdale; James C. Endicott; and Mark S. Lofgren. Eastbrook, LoanPointe, and Strom have agreed to a preliminary injunction barring them from further unlawful practices.
Don't Get Scammed By ATM 'Skimmers'
Scammers use technology to steal your card information04/09/2010ConsumerAffairs
Don't Get Scammed By ATM 'Skimmers'...
He was about to slide his bankcard through the slot when he said something made him hesitate. Instead, he gripped the slot and jiggled it, shocked that it came loose in his hand.
What he held was not the housing to the card slot but a "skimmer," a device to read the card's magnetic strip and transmit the data to a nearby thief. The thief has simply placed it over the ATM's actual card slot, hopping to steal hundreds of bankcard numbers.
Hundreds of miles away in Ohio, Attorney General Richard Cordray has received a number of reports turning up at ATM and gas pumps. He cautions all consumers to be very careful when using debit and credit cards.
"Skimmers are designed to steal debit card numbers and corresponding account information stored on the card's magnetic strip. They often are camouflaged to fit gas pumps and ATMs, and they may be equipped with hidden cameras," said Cordray. "The cameras take snapshots of debit card PIN numbers as consumers enter them. Once the scammers have acquired the account information, they use it to make unauthorized purchases and withdrawals."
Cordray said that with this scam, awareness is the best defense. It can be difficult to avoid the scam entirely, but consumers can mitigate the effects by carefully monitoring their accounts and limiting the places they use their debit cards.
Cordray suggests consumers closely watch their bank statements and track debits closely. Watch for any unauthorized withdrawals or otherwise suspicious activity.
Your chances of avoiding this scam are better if you use one ATM and one gas pump on a regular basis. That way it will be easier to track which machine has been equipped with a skimmer.
Try to use an ATM that is located in a very public place or is located inside a bank lobby. Scammers are less likely to tamper with machines in those locations.
Finally, when using your bankcard, choose the "credit card" option instead of "debit card." It will be more difficult for scammers to make unauthorized purchases without your PIN.
Skimming can occur with credit cards as well as debit cards. Because of this, consumers should pay close attention to their credit card statements to watch for any unauthorized activity.
Tainted Produce More Likely for Low-Income Shoppers
Researchers found higher levels of bacteria, mold in low-income areas04/09/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Tainted Produce More Likely for Low-Income Shoppers...
Food safety recalls and salmonella outbreaks have become more common in recent years, but tainted produce may show up in some stores more than others.
Specifically, researchers say stores frequented by low-income shoppers are more likely to have produce that can make you sick.
Researchers compared levels of bacteria, yeast and mold on identical products sold in six Philadelphia-area neighborhoods. They selected three of the neighborhoods because they had the city's highest poverty levels. In these, consumer options tended to be small markets that offered less variety in fruits and vegetables.
The result: ready-to-eat salads and strawberries sold in stores in the poorer neighborhoods had significantly higher counts of microorganisms, yeasts and molds than the same products purchased elsewhere, while cucumbers had a higher yeast count and mold and watermelon contained more bacteria.
"Food deteriorates when there is microbial growth," said study co-author Jennifer Quinlan, a professor of nutrition and biology at Drexel University. "The bacterial count is used to determine the quality of the produce and it was poorer quality, closer to being spoiled. Three of the things that had a higher bacteria count - strawberries, ready-to-go salad and fresh-cut watermelon - have been associated with food-borne illnesses."
The study appears online and in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Why some don't eat more fruit and vegetables
When your access to produce is of inferior quality, it discourages you from adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet. Part of the problem, Quinlan said, is that much of the food available in poorer neighborhoods is for sale in smaller stores that might not have the infrastructure to handle produce in the safest way.
"The food may be of poorer quality to begin with; then it may be transported to the stores and not be refrigerated properly," she said. "Large supermarkets have entire units focused on food safety, refrigeration, sanitation. While a small facility with only one or two people may not have the resources."
Although the bacteria that can cause spoilage are not the same bacteria that are dangerous from a standpoint of food-borne illness, consumers can take some important steps to ensure they get the freshest produce.
"One thing consumers can look for is that fresh-cut produce be refrigerated at the point of sale," said Shelley Feist, executive director of Partnership for Food Safety Education. "When they get fresh produce home, it's important to clean it thoroughly. Whole fresh produce should be rinsed under running tap water just before eating and produce should be kept separate from meat, poultry, raw eggs and fish to avoid cross-contamination."
Drug company allegedly conspired with pharmaceutical consulting company04/08/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Johnson & Johnson Pushed Drugs on Seniors, Suit Alleges...
Yelp Changes Ad Policies, Class Action Lawyers Take Credit
Review site says it will no longer let advertisers manipulate reviews04/08/2010ConsumerAffairs
Yelp Changes Ad Policies, Class Action Lawyers Take Credit...
Lawyers involved in a class action suit against Yelp, the popular consumer review site, are taking credit for changes Yelp is making in its advertising and display policies.
The recent modifications to the website are an important first step in the right direction for the thousands of businesses who have seen their livelihoods trampled or threatened by Yelps extortionate practices, said Jared H. Beck of Beck & Lee Business Trial Lawyers, Miami, and Gregory S. Weston of The Weston Firm, San Diego, the lead attorneys for the plaintiff businesses.
The class action suit, filed less than two months ago, charges that Yelp "runs an extortion scheme through which the companys employees call businesses demanding monthly payments, in the guise of 'advertising contracts,' in exchange for removing or modifying negative reviews appearing on the website.
Small businesses have been expressing their outrage at Yelps dirty business practices for a long time, and it is unfortunate that it took the filing of a class action to get Yelp to make even these amends. Still, there is much work left to be done through the legal process, including the looming issues of Yelps pay to play sales tactics, as well as the pursuit of substantial restitution and damages owed to the class members, the attorneys said.
The plaintiffs in the class action are Cats & Dogs Animal Hospital, Inc. of Long Beach, California; Bleeding Heart Bakery of Chicago, Illinois; Scion Restaurant of Washington, D.C.; J.L. Ferri Entertainment, Inc. of New York, New York; Sofa Outlet of San Mateo, California; Celibr, Inc.of Torrance, California; Astro Appliance Service of San Carlos, California; Wag My Tail, Inc., of Tujunga, California; Le Petite Retreat, of Los Angeles, California; and Mermaids Cruise of San Francisco, California.
The original plaintiff, a veterinary hospital in Long Beach, California, asked that Yelp remove an allegedly false and defamatory review from the website. Yelp refused and, instead, the companys sales representatives repeatedly contacted the hospital and demanded a $300 per-month payment in exchange for hiding or removing the negative review, the suit charges.
The most recent version of the lawsuit contains 39 pages detailing Yelps conduct, including the activities of its Elite Squad members, as well as several counts, or legal claims.
Also narrated in the Amended Complaint are the experiences of the newly added small business plaintiffs, each of which was also allegedly approached by Yelps representatives requesting payment in exchange for manipulating content on the businesss Yelp listing.
For example, the owner of Astro Appliance Service in San Carlos, California, was allegedly told that in exchange for becoming a paying Yelp sponsor, Yelp could control the reviews of his business, allowing his listing to shine above his competitors.
The case, Cats and Dogs Animal Hospital Inc. v. Yelp! Inc., was originally filed on February 23, 2010, and is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California before Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank. A scheduling conference has been set for April 26, 2010.
Yelp co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has called the lawsuit without merit and said that the company will fight it vigorously. In a blog entry, Stoppelman wrote that [t]he entire value of the Yelp community to consumers and businesses hinges upon that trust and we would never do anything to jeopardize it.
Stoppelman acknowledged that the site has long faced charges of monkeying around with reviews in exchange for money, but pointed out that such allegations ignore empirical evidence in favor of conspiracy theories.
Despite counter-examples to the contrary (virtually no advertiser on Yelp has a perfect reputation), extensive media explorations that end inconclusively, and the absence of any actual evidence to support this theory, this unfortunate and untrue meme has taken on a life of its own, Stoppelman continued.
Simply put, Yelp does not remove or hide negative reviews in exchange for money and Yelp salespeople do not offer to do so. Additionally, Yelp treats review content equally for advertisers and non-advertisers alike.
Vermont Retailers May Get to Set Minimum Credit Purchases
Part of merchants' attack on 'swipe' fees04/08/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Vermont Retailers May Get to Set Minimum Credit Purchases...
The Vermont State Senate approved a bill this week that would allow retailers in the state to set minimum purchases for consumers using credit and debit cards. Merchants would be free to set their own minimum, under the proposed legislation.
Businesses have pressed lawmakers for that authority because they say interchange, or "swipe" fees charged by card networks wipe out their profit margins on small purchases. Credit card networks charge retailers a fee every time a consumer uses plastic to make a purchase.
Perhaps nowhere is the classic confrontation between Wall Street and Main Street more pronounced than the conflict over interchange fees. Merchants hate them. Banks depend on them. The consumer, of course, usually ends up paying them.
The Vermont bill was modified from its original version, which would have allowed businesses to refuse to accept certain types of cards. For example, cards with generous rewards programs for consumers sometimes charge the retailer a higher swipe fee.
That provision was removed in an effort to secure passage by the Vermont Senate and improve prospects in the House. Should the measure pass the House, it must be signed by the governor in order to become law.
While Vermont is considering the limit on purchases, Congress could pick up the issue on a national level, as part of financial reform. Retail merchant associations in Washington are lobbying to eliminate or reduce interchange fees and have begun urging their members to start bringing the issue up with consumers. Some of them are.
Speedway convenience stores have started informing customers of the costs associated with using plastic. The National Association of Convenience Stores says nearly two percent of every transaction goes from local stores to big banks. In 2008, the group says, swipe fees totaled $48 billion and were storeowners' second highest cost.
The convenience store operators say they want consumers to know that when they fill up their cars with gas, part of the price they are paying goes for swipe fees, if they are using a credit or debit card. So some stations in upstate New York have begun offering a discount for gas if motorists pay with cash.
Sometimes the discounts can be as much as five cents a gallon, knocking a dollar off a typical fill-up.
Credit card networks, naturally, have a different view of interchange fees.
"Interchange is a small fee paid by a merchant's bank, also known as the acquiring bank, to the cardholder's bank to compensate the issuing bank for a portion of the risks and costs it incurs," MasterCard says on its Web site.
"For years, merchants have pursued legislation and legal action aimed at lowering or eliminating their costs of accepting electronic payments -- claiming this is to protect their customers who would see lower prices as a result," Anthony Walker, CEO of NARFE Premier Federal Credit Union, wrote in an American Banker op-ed last fall. "But what it's really about is protecting their profits and shifting costs to the general consumer."
Walker and other bankers say merchants receive huge benefits from accepting credit and debit cards and that two cents on the dollar is a small price to pay to "outsource their credit risk to financial institutions who are left holding the bag if the customer doesn't pay their bill."
Toyota Exec Reportedly Urged Company to 'Come Clean'
Detroit News publishes email saying company 'not protecting customers'04/08/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Toyota Exec Reportedly Urged Company to 'Come Clean'...
An executive in charge of public relations at Toyota urged the carmaker in mid January to "come clean" about sudden acceleration problems in its vehicles, The Detroit News reported in Thursday's editions.
The newspaper, which said it obtained an email sent by PR executive Irv Miller, quoted the Toyota executive as saying the company "was not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet."
Five days later Toyota ordered a recall of 2.3 million vehicles to repair "sticking" gas pedals.
The Detroit News reports the email was among 70,000 pages of documents turned over to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its investigation of consumer complaints about Toyota's sudden acceleration problems. Until then the carmaker was addressing the problem by having consumers remove floor mats, which it said could trap the accelerator on the floorboard of the vehicle.
Toyota has maintained from the beginning that the sudden acceleration problem had a physical cause, not electronic. The carmaker this week reiterated its contention that its cars' electronics are not causing the problem. Even so, NHTSA continues to investigate that possibility.
In the email published by the News, Miller, who was Toyota's U.S. vice president of environmental and public affairs, wrote to a colleague saying "WE HAVE A tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals," using capital letters for emphasis.
'Time to hide is over
"The time to hide on this one is over," Miller wrote.
In the email published by the News, Miller concluded "we better just hope that they can get NHTSA to work with us in coming to a workable solution that does not put us out of business."
NHTSA, meanwhile, announced Tuesday that it is seeking the maximum civil penalty of $16.375 million against Toyota in connection with incidents associated with unintended acceleration.
Specifically, the Japanese carmaker was cited for failing to notify the auto safety agency of the dangerous "sticky pedal" defect for at least four months, despite knowing of the potential risk to consumers.
Be Wary of Timeshares and Interval Plans
Scams abound; consumers must do their homework before making a commitment04/07/2010ConsumerAffairs
Be Wary of Timeshares and Interval Plans...
By Wayne Stenehjem
Attorney General, North Dakota
Have you ever thought about owning your own vacation home but been put off by the amount of time and work you will have to put into it, year round, to enjoy your twoweek vacation?
Millions of people have solved this problem by buying a timeshare or vacation plan. If you are considering purchasing a timeshare or vacation plan, do your homework before the purchase.
There are two basic options available to you: timeshares and vacation interval plans. Remember, these options should not be viewed as investments but as vacation destinations. Resale value of a timeshare or vacation interval plan may not be as high as what you paid for the plan in the first place as there are so many options available today.
Both timeshare and vacation plans require you to pay an initial purchase price and periodic maintenance fees. The initial purchase price may be made all at once, or over time; periodic maintenance fees are likely to increase every year.
When you buy a timeshare, youre purchasing the right to use a specific unit for a specific time every year, and you may rent, sell, exchange, or bequeath your specific timeshare unit. You and other timeshare owners collectively own the resort.
You can return that same week each year, or you may be able to exchange it and stay at a different resort at another destination. Owners share in the use and upkeep of the units and of the common grounds of the resort property. A homeowners association usually handles management of the resort. The total cost of your timeshare includes your mortgage payments, annual maintenance fees, taxes, travel costs, and other miscellaneous costs.
Right to use vacation interval options are a little different. The developer owns the resort and each unit is divided into intervals either by week or equivalent in points. You purchase the right to use an interval at the resort for a specified number of years, usually between 10 and 50 years.
The specific unit you use at the resort may not be the same each year. You will also have to pay an annual maintenance fee that is likely to increase each year.
Here are some tips on how to avoid timeshare scams:
Dont ever buy (or sell) on the spot. Take the time to evaluate the deal and sleep on it if necessary.
If you are offered a free gift or free tickets, be aware that most timeshare offers include a lengthy sales presentation to qualify for the gifts. If the presentation is too high pressure, leave. You have the right to leave whenever you wish. Dont let them argue with you. Excuse yourself and leave.
Read the contract and have it reviewed by an attorney. All promises made to you by the salesperson should be in the contract. If not, dont rely on those promises as they wont be enforceable. (Timeshare sales contracts often include clauses that disclaim any promises made during the sales pitch.) Make sure the contract includes clauses concerning both non-disturbance and non-performance. A non-disturbance clause ensures that you will be able to use your unit or interval if the developer or management firm goes bankrupt or defaults. A non-performance clause lets you keep your rights, even if your contract is bought by a third party.
Ask for references and follow through by calling them.
RESEARCH and EDUCATE yourself on the market and the value before making a purchase. Check the track record of the seller, development, and management company.
Ask about your ability to cancel the contract or the right to cancel. Each state has specific right-to-cancel laws, so depending on where the sales presentation/purchase is made, you should check on that states laws.
Use an escrow account if you are buying an undeveloped property. Get a written commitment from the seller that the facilities will be finished as promised.
Keep in mind cancellation issues, disputes and other potential legal issues may not be subject to the law in your state if the property is located in another state or the transaction or agreement occurred out of state.
Be wary of timeshares or vacation plans in foreign countries. If you sign a contract outside the U.S. for a timeshare or vacation plan in another country, you will not be protected by U.S. laws.
To learn more about timeshares and vacation interval plans, you may wish to contact the American Resort Development Association. However, be aware it represents the vacation ownership and resort development industries. You may reach them by calling 202-371-6700 or by visiting their website at www.arda.org.
Editor's Note: For the verbatim experiences of real consumers, see ConsumerAffairs.com's Timeshares Section.
Motorcycles With Antilock Brakes Have Fewer Fatal Crashes
IIHS: Bikes with antilocks also have lower insurance losses than those without04/07/2010ConsumerAffairs
Motorcycles With Antilock Brakes Have Fewer Fatal Crashes...
Antilock brakes for motorcycles are working as designed to reduce the chances of crashing, removing some of the risk that comes with riding on two wheels.
According to new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), bikes with antilocks versus those without are 37 percent less likely to be in fatal crashes per 10,000 registered vehicle years. A separate analysis by the affiliated Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) of insurance claims filed for damage to motorcycles backs this up.
Bike models with antilocks have 22 percent fewer claims for damage per insured vehicle year (a vehicle year is one vehicle insured for one year, two insured for six months, etc.) than the same models without antilocks.
Two additional new reports by HLDI underscore the real-world benefits of helmet laws that apply to all riders and raise questions about the safety benefits of state-mandated training for young riders. A new Institute survey of riders examines rider views of antilocks, helmets, and helmet laws.
Crash avoidance technology like motorcycle antilocks is especially important because more people are taking up riding and more are dying in crashes. Rider deaths topped 5,000 in 2008 -- more than in any year since the federal government began collecting fatal crash data in 1975.
Motorcycle registrations rose to 7.7 million in 2008 from 4.3 million in 2000, according to R.L. Polk and Company data. The upswing in motorcyclist deaths comes amid record lows for fatalities in car crashes, prompting the Institute and HLDI to look harder at measures to stem motorcyclist deaths.
"It's a troubling trend," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "No one wants to begrudge motorcyclists the opportunity to ride for fun or to get around town on a bike. As the number of new riders continues to increase, though, it's becoming more important than ever to lower the crash risk."
More antilocks for bikes
One answer might be to equip more motorcycles with antilocks. Stopping a motorcycle is trickier than stopping a car. For one thing, the front and rear wheels typically have separate brake controls.
In an emergency, a rider faces a split-second choice to either brake hard, which can lock the wheels and cause an overturn, or hold back on braking and risk running into the emergency. This is when antilocks can help by reducing brake pressure when they detect impending lockup and then increasing the pressure again when traction is restored. Brake pressure is evaluated multiple times per second, so riders may brake fully without fear of locking up. Antilocks won't prevent every motorcycle crash. They won't help a rider about to be struck from behind, for example.
Antilocks are gaining traction among manufacturers and riders. More than half of motorcycle owners recently surveyed by the Institute said they would get antilocks on their next bikes. Buyers can find them on at least 60 new models.
Institute researchers compared the fatal crash experience of antilock-equipped motorcycles against their nonantilock counterparts during 2003-08. HLDI did the same for insurance losses for the same group of motorcycles. HLDI also looked at injury claims.
Under medical payment coverage, motorcycles with antilocks registered 30 percent lower claim frequencies than bikes without this feature. Claim frequencies were 33 percent lower under bodily injury liability coverage.
"Motorcycle antilocks do make a difference," McCartt says. "They help make traveling on two wheels less risky by reducing the chance of overturning a bike and crashing. Passenger vehicles still are safer, but if you're going to ride we'd recommend getting a motorcycle with antilocks."
Helmet laws and rider training
A new HLDI analysis of insurance claims data examines the effectiveness of universal helmet laws covering all riders, and another looks at the impact of state-mandated training for young riders. Key findings include:
Motorcyclists in states that require all riders to wear helmets are less likely to file insurance claims for medical treatment after collisions, compared with riders in states without helmet laws or where the laws apply to some but not all riders. Helmets reduce head injuries, the leading cause of death among unhelmeted riders.
The frequency of insurance collision claims for riders younger than 21 is 10 percent higher in states that require riders this age to take a training course before they become eligible for a license to drive a motorcycle, compared with states that don't require training. Although this difference isn't statistically significant, it contradicts the notion that training courses reduce crashes. A potential explanation is that riders in some states are fully licensed once they finish training. This might shorten the permit period so that riders end up with full licenses earlier than if training weren't mandated.
The Institute surveyed 1,818 riders by phone in 2009 to get a picture of nationwide trends in motorcycling. More than half of riders surveyed said they believe antilocks on motorcycles enhance braking safety, compared with conventional brakes. Fifty-four percent said they would get antilocks on their next bikes.
When it comes to crashes, 43 percent said they had been in at least one. Often motorcycle crashes are blamed on other vehicles, not riders, so it is noteworthy that almost two-thirds of the reported crashes involved a single vehicle, and it was the motorcycle.
Seventy-three percent of riders surveyed said they always wear a helmet, and nine percent said they often wear one. Five percent said they never do. Riders of sport, supersport, and sport touring bikes were most likely to say they always wear a helmet.
Riders 18-29 and those 50 and older were more likely to say they always ride helmeted, compared with motorcyclists in their 30s and 40s. Fifty-seven percent of those who don't always wear helmets said they would wear them if required by state law.
About half of motorcyclists surveyed said they don't favor universal helmet laws, mainly because they want to choose for themselves. Still, 76 percent said helmets make riders safer.
In an effort to reduce motorcycle accidents, the federal government and Oklahoma State University have launched an in-depth study of motorcycle safety.
Magazine ranks everything from laundry detergent to toilet paper04/07/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
<em>Consumer Reports</em> Names the Best & Worst Home Products...
Consumers alleged false advertisements, conspiracy04/07/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
This year consumers finally have a reason to be thankful for their lawnmower: a class action lawsuit settlement that entitles scores of people to a check o...
Valero Agrees to Cut Back Tobacco Sales to Minors
It's the latest multi-state effort against convenience store cigarette sales04/07/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Valero Agrees to Cut Back Tobacco Sales to Minors...
California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. today announced a multi-state agreement with Valero Oil to stop young people from purchasing tobacco products at its convenience stores.
"For years gas station convenience stores have served as an illegal provider for underage smokers. Today, Valero has finally joined the growing list of companies that have made a commitment to prevent illegal access to tobacco," Attorney General Brown said. "Smoking remains a serious public-health problem in our country, and we need to do everything possible to keep young people from picking up the habit."
Every day, some 2,000 children begin smoking in this country. One-third of them will die of tobacco-related diseases. Nearly half of underage smokers said they bought their cigarettes at gas station convenience stores.
Attorneys General throughout the country reached this agreement after a nationwide investigation, led by Brown's office, of tobacco selling practices at convenience stores owned by or affiliated with Valero.
The agreement includes the following provisions:
• Valero retail personnel will receive training about the health risks associated with childhood tobacco use.
• Valero will administer independent compliance checks to monitor sales practices at company-owned convenience stores, to ensure they are not selling tobacco to minors.
• Vending machines, free samples, and self-service displays of tobacco products will be prohibited at company-owned stores.
• In-store tobacco advertisements will be limited to reduce youth demand for tobacco products.
• Valero will require all of its convenience store operators to notify the company if tobacco products are sold to minors in violation of state law.
• The states will continue to impose sanctions against stores that sell tobacco to minors.
There are over 900 Valero stations in California. Although Valero does not directly own or operate the convenience stores at many of those stations, it has agreed to adopt procedures designed to reduce tobacco sales to minors at all of its outlets.
Nationwide, 47% of underage youths who reported buying cigarettes said they got them at gas station convenience stores. Studies have linked retail tobacco marketing with underage smoking. In addition, many convenience stores are located near schools and playgrounds. Studies show that most adult smokers began smoking before the age of 18.
Recently, other multi-state agreements have been inked to curb the sale of tobacco to minors at gas station convenience stores, including Conoco, Phillips 66, 76, Exxon, Mobil, BP, ARCO, Chevron, and Shell, as well as retail and pharmacy outlets operated by Kroger, 7-Eleven, Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS, and Wal-Mart. Participating grocery stores include Ralphs, Safeway, and Vons.
FDA Warns Consumers about Lipodissolve Claims
Can a series of drug injections make fat go away for good?04/07/2010ConsumerAffairs
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is alerting consumers about false and misleading claims being made about products used in lipodissolve....
It sounds good: Get a series of drug injections and see pockets of fat on your body go away for good. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is alerting consumers about false and misleading claims being made about products used in lipodissolve.
Recipients of lipodissolve get a series of drug injections intended to dissolve and permanently remove small pockets of fat from various parts of the body. The process is also known as injection lipolysis, lipozap, lipotherapy, and mesotherapy.
We are concerned that these companies are misleading consumers, says Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of FDAs Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. It is important for anyone who is considering this voluntary procedure to understand that the products used to perform lipodissolve procedures are not approved by FDA for fat removal.
The drugs most regularly used in the lipodissolve injection regimen are phosphatidylcholine and deoxycholate (commonly called PC and DC, respectively). Other ingredients may also be used, including drugs or components of other products such as vitamins, minerals, and herbal extracts.
FDA is alerting consumers that:
it has not evaluated or approved products for use in lipodissolve;
it is not aware of evidence supporting the effectiveness of the substances used in lipodissolve for fat elimination;
the safety of these substances, when used alone or in combination, is unknown; and
it is not aware of clinical studies to support medical uses of lipodissolve.
In addition, FDA has reports of unexpected side effects in people whove undergone the lipodissolve procedure. These side effects include:
skin deformation; and
deep, painful knots under the skin in areas where the lipodissolve treatments were injected
On April 7, 2010, FDA announced it had sent warning letters to six medical spas in the United States -- and a cyber letter to a company in Brazil -- for making false or misleading statements on their Web sites about drugs used in the procedure, or for otherwise misbranding lipodissolve products.
The U.S. medical spas receiving warning letters make various unsupported claims about lipodissolve, such as assertions that the products used in lipodissolve
are safe and effective;
have an outstanding safety record; and
are superior to other fat-loss procedures, including liposuction.
Additionally some of the letters indicate that the companies have made claims that lipodissolve can be used to treat certain medical conditions, such as male breast enlargement, benign fatty growths known as lipomas, excess fat deposits and surgical deformities.
The U.S. companies receiving warning letters in regard to lipodissolve products are
Monarch Med Spa, King of Prussia, Pa.;
Spa 35, Boise, Idaho;
Medical Cosmetic Enhancements, Chevy Chase, Md.
Innovative Directions in Health, Edina, Minn.
PURE Med Spa, Boca Raton, Fla.
All About You Med Spa, Madison, Ind.
FDA is requesting a written response from these U.S. companies within 15 business days of receipt of the letters stating how they will correct these violations and prevent similar violations in the future. These firms were told that failure to promptly correct the violations may result in legal action.
The Brazilian firm getting a warning letter markets lipodissolve products on two Web sites: zipmed.net and mesoone.com. FDA will notify regulatory authorities in Brazil of this action. The agency has issued an import alert against the zipmed.net and mesoone.com entities to prevent the importation and distribution of unapproved lipodissolve drug products into the United States.
Spirit Airlines Charges For Carry On Bags
Discount carrier says those who travel light will pay less04/07/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Spirit Airlines Charges For Carry On Bags...
Spirit Airlines passengers who stow carry-on bags in an overhead compartment will have to pay a fee for the privilege. Bags that fit under the seat are still free.
It appears to be the latest in a trend of airlines making extra revenue on baggage. It began five years ago when airlines started charging passengers who checked more than one bag. Next came a fee for even the first bag. Now Spirit says it will charge as much as $45 for carry-on baggage.
So far, none of the other airlines have indicated an intention to follow Spirit's lead.
The airlines began to charge baggage fees about the time that rising fuel prices began to cut into operating margins. While the fees are usually between $25 and $50 per bag, they add up to significant revenue. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines collected nearly $2 billion in baggage fees in the first three quarters of 2009.
Airlines have benefited in other ways as well. The extra fees have forced passengers to travel lighter, checking fewer bags. That means less weight in the cargo hold, making each flight consume slightly less fuel. Airlines also save by having to load and unload fewer bags.
While most airlines now impose a baggage fee, not all do. In fact, Southwest Airlines has made the fact that it doesn't charge for bags a major part of its advertising, with a series of TV commercials built around the theme "bags fly free."
Spirit explains its carry-on bag fee by pointing to its low fares, saying passengers only have to pay for the services they use.
"Spirit Airlines' approach liberates customers from being forced into paying for services they do not desire or use," the airline said on its Website. "When customers are seeking the best value in travel they can choose a low fare at spiritair.com and select the services and options appropriate for their travel needs."
"In addition to lowering fares even further, this will reduce the number of carry-on bags, which will improve in-flight safety and efficiency by speeding up the boarding and deplaning process, all of which ultimately improve the overall customer experience," said Spirit's Chief Operating Officer Ken McKenzie. "Bring less, pay less. It's simple."
Spirit also introduced new fares that it says reduced its checked bag and carry-on fees for its $9 Fare Club members. The new carry-on bag fee is effective for reservations purchased after April 5, 2010, for travel August 1, 2010 and beyond, and will be available for purchase on or before July 1, 2010.
FDA Approves New Formulation of OxyContin
Designed to reduce abuse of the prescription painkiller04/06/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
FDA Approves New Formulation of OxyContin...
The Food and Drug Administration has approved a new formulation of the controlled-release drug OxyContin that has been designed to help discourage misuse and abuse of the medication.
OxyContin is made to release slowly the potent opioid oxycodone to treat patients who require a continuous, around-the-clock opioid analgesic for management of their moderate to severe pain for an extended period of time.
Because of its controlled-release properties, each OxyContin tablet contains a large quantity of oxycodone, which allows patients to take their drug less often. However, people intent on abusing the previous formulation have been able to release high levels of oxycodone all at once, which can result in a fatal overdose and contributes to high rates of OxyContin abuse. Officials say OxyContin is one of the most abused prescription drugs in the U.S.
The reformulated OxyContin is intended to prevent the opioid medication from being cut, broken, chewed, crushed or dissolved to release more medication. The new formulation may be an improvement that may result in less risk of overdose due to tampering, and will likely result in less abuse by snorting or injection; but it still can be abused or misused by simply ingesting larger doses than are recommended, the FDA said.
"Although this new formulation of OxyContin may provide only an incremental advantage over the current version of the drug, it is still a step in the right direction," said Bob Rappaport, M.D., director of the Division of Anesthesia and Analgesia Products in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "As with all opioids, safety is an important consideration."
Even with the new formulation, the FDA says prescribers and patients need to know that its tamper-resistant properties are limited and need to carefully weigh the benefits and risks of using this medication to treat pain.
According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately half a million people used OxyContin non-medically for the first time in 2008.
The manufacturer of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma L.P., will be required to conduct a postmarket study to collect data on the extent to which the new formulation reduces abuse and misuse of this opioid. The FDA is also requiring a REMS (Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy) that will include the issuance of a Medication Guide to patients and a requirement for prescriber education regarding the appropriate use of opioid analgesics in the treatment of pain.
Latest Phishing Scam Relies On Telephone Calls
Scammers 'reaching out and touching' their victims04/06/2010ConsumerAffairs
Usually that "prompt action" is supplying your date of birth, social security number, and all manner of personal information that could be used to steal yo...
By now, most Internet-savvy consumers are wise to the spam emails that look like they are from a bank or financial institution, warning that prompt action is needed to avoid losing access to an account.
Usually that "prompt action" is supplying your date of birth, social security number, and all manner of personal information that could be used to steal your identity. When we see these emails, most of us simply ignore or delete them.
So scammers appear to have reverted to an old fashioned way to phish for information. They pick up the phone and call victims. In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Tom Corbett is warning his state's residents to be on the look out for these kinds of phishing calls.
"These bogus 'security alerts' typically warn that credit card or bank accounts may have been compromised and ask consumers to respond by 'confirming' or 'verifying' their account numbers," Corbett said. "The sole purpose of these calls is to convince unwary victims to reveal their account numbers and passwords so that thieves can steal money from their bank accounts or make large purchases with their credit cards."
Corbett said identity thieves are always looking for ways to disguise their schemes and reach out to new potential victims. In the latest scam, they use live operators and automated calls disguised as communication from banks, credit card companies or other legitimate businesses.
Corbett noted that the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection has been receiving an increasing number of complaints about unwanted "account security" calls and messages all across the state.
He pointed out that legitimate businesses will not call or message consumers asking them to provide their entire account number, password or PIN number -- so any request for that level of detailed personal information should be a clear warning sign of a scam.
"While some businesses may contact consumers to alert them about potential problems with their accounts, they will not ask individuals to divulge all of their account information by phone or email," Corbett said. "If you do receive a message asking for detailed account information, contact your bank or credit card directly -- using the customer service hotline printed on your card or monthly statement -- to report the scam attempt and also to verify that your account is secure."
Corbett said that any consumer who suspects they have accidentally divulged personal information in response to a scam should immediately contact their bank or credit card company to stop any unauthorized withdrawals or charges to their accounts.
Appeals Court Strikes Down Net Neutrality
Agency lacked authority from Congress to act, judges rule04/06/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Appeals Court Strikes Down Net Neutrality...
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, has ruled the Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to impose Net neutrality regulations on Internet providers and operators of broadband networks.
The unanimous finding overturned the FCC's cease and desist order against Comcast, which had imposed measures to slow traffic to what it considered heavy users. The Court said the FCC, in issuing the order, failed to cite any specific law passed by Congress. In effect, the judges found that the federal agency could not impose restraints on Internet providers without the backing of Congress.
The decision, at first glance, would appear to be a severe setback to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's goal of enacting a sweeping Net neutrality policy covering the entire Internet. However, if Congress passes legislation upholding the Net neutrality principle, presumably the policy would pass legal muster.
Net neutrality refers to the principle that Internet content providers should have equal access to the Internet should suffer no restrictions on content, sites or platforms that may be attached. Network operators, such as AT&T, have objected to that principle, saying they have borne the cost of building and maintaining the network and should be allowed to control the amount of traffic traveling through it.
The outlook for Congressional action is somewhat uncertain. In 2006 Congress rejected a number of bills that would have granted the FCC more power to enforce Net neutrality policies. But at the time, Republicans controlled Congress.
Will it be any different now that the Democrats are in charge? Democrats have been in control for three years and so far, Net neutrality legislation remains stalled.
President Obama has consistently supported Net neutrality and his choice of Genachowski to head the FCC was seen as an additional statement of support, since Genachowski was known to be a strong proponent of the concept.
Before becoming Chairman of the FCC, Genachowski was a co-founder of LaunchBox Digital and Rock Creek Ventures. He worked as an executive at IAC/InterActiveCorp, with owns several major Web sites.
Drivers getting a sense of deja vu as oil prices surge towards $9004/06/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Is $4 A Gallon Gas In Our Future (Again)?...
Feds Seize Beehive Botanicals Creams, Capsules, Shampoos
Company allegedly claimed its products could cure and prevent disease04/05/2010ConsumerAffairs
Feds Seize Beehive Botanicals Creams, Capsules, Shampoos...
Federal authorities have seized scores of misbranded creams, capsules, and shampoos from a Wisconsin company that allegedly made false medical claims about the products.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested that U.S. Marshals seize the products from Beehive Botanicals, Inc. of Haywood, Wisconsin, alleging the items were misbranded and unapproved new drugs in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act).
The FDA said the company claimed on links on its Web site, and in labeling and promotional materials that some of the products seized could diagnose, treat, cure, and prevent such illnesses as cancer, liver or kidney disease, bone fractures, and asthma,
The company also claimed that several of its bee-derived products -- including royal jelly, bee pollen, and honey -- were proven to have antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal properties, and could be used to prevent and ameliorate a wide variety of medical conditions, the FDA said.
Those claims made the products new drugs and subject to FDA regulation, the agency said. The FDA, however, said it has not approved the products as safe and effective in treating any of the diseases or conditions the company claimed.
Despite previous requests and warnings from the FDA, Beehive Botanicals has continued to market products with unfounded medical claims, the FDA said in a statement released today.
Michael Chappell, FDAs acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, added: This seizure shows that the FDA will seek enforcement action against companies that promote therapeutic benefits of products not yet evaluated by the agency for safety and effectiveness.
In March 2007, the FDA issued a warning letter to Beehive Botanicals requesting it remove drug claims about the products from its Web site and product labeling, the agency said. The company later submitted proposed new labeling, but the FDA said it was acceptable under the Act.
During an inspection between September and October 2009, the FDA discovered the company was still making drug claims for the products through related Web sites and advised Beehive Botanicals that was not acceptable.
ConsumerAffairs.com contacted Beehive Botanicals today about the FDAs action. A woman who answered the phone said the company had no comment about the seizure. She did, however, tell us the company is considered a contract manufacturer that has handled and made bee products since 1972.
The FDA said it has not received any reports of illnesses linked to the companys products.
Only as old as you feel? Don't bet your loved ones' financial well-being on it04/05/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jan Yager, Ph.D.
Waiting until we feel old before we get our legal affairs in order could put the lives of our spouses and children in financial jeopardy....
Want a Census Job? Don't Get Swindled
You don't need to pay someone to obtain federal employment04/05/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Want a Census Job? Don't Get Swindled...
By James Limbach
April 5, 2010
We've all heard and seen the warnings about the possibility of being scammed by purported census takers who are out to steal our identities. But what about those who cheat people looking for honest work taking the government headcount?
With the U.S. Census Bureau filling thousands of temporary, part-time jobs as 2010 Census takers, job seekers should steer clear of anyone who tells them they need to pay in order to get information on how to apply for work on the Census, or any federal job. No one can "guarantee" a federal job in exchange for a fee.
In a new consumer publication, 2010 Census Job Scams , the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides detailed information about applying to become a U.S. Census taker, and it tells consumers how to access all federal job announcements.
2010 census job scams
Some fraud artists are making false statements to job seekers about the availability of census taker positions and other federal job opportunities, and improperly charging fees to assist job seekers in finding jobs. These scammers advertise online and in the classified sections of newspapers, offering -- for a fee -- to help job hunters find and apply for federal jobs. Some fraudulent companies even try to confuse consumers by using names that sound official -- like the "U.S. Agency for Career Advancement."
All federal positions are announced to the public through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's USAJOBS .
The FTC says you never have to pay for information about job vacancies or employment opportunities with the U.S. government. Moreover, federal agencies never charge application fees or guarantee that an applicant will be hired. If positions require a competitive examination, hiring agencies typically offer free sample questions to applicants who sign up for the exam.
Applying for a position
If you're interested in becoming a U.S. Census taker, here's how to apply:
• call the toll-free jobs hotline at 1-866-861-2010 (TTY: 1-800-877-8339);
• use the interactive map at 2010.census.gov to find the local phone number of the census office nearest you; or
• visit the Census job site for the latest open positions in your area (2010.census.gov/2010censusjobs).
You may qualify to be a census taker if you:
• are fluent in English. Bilingual speakers also are encouraged to apply.
• are a U.S. citizen
• are a legal permanent resident, or non-citizen with an appropriate work visa, and you have a bilingual skill for which no qualified U.S. citizens are available
• are at least 18 years old
• have a valid Social Security number
• take a written test of basic skills -- 28 multiple-choice questions designed to measure the basic skills and abilities required to perform a variety of census jobs
• have a valid drivers license
• pass a background check
• commit to four days of training. You will be paid for training days. Training can be held during daytime hours as well as during evening and weekend hours.
Most hiring will take place this spring. Census taker job offers depend on the availability of work in your community, your test score, language skills, veterans' preference, and the number of hours you are available to work each week. Job offers are made by the local Census Office.
As the recession drags on, the FTC is going after scammers who take advantage of those searching for jobs in an environment of high unemployment.
Phony Debt Collectors On The Prowl
Consumers told they owe money, even though they don't04/05/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
Phony Debt Collectors On The Prowl...
The phony debt collector scam appears to be making a comeback. Officials in at least one state have seen a recent rise in reported fraudulent and threatening debt-collection calls.
"Consumers need to be extremely careful when they receive calls concerning debts they do not believe they have incurred," said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, whose office has seen a rise in complaints over the last two weeks.
The scam works like this: a scammer contacts consumers at random, or maybe from a "sucker's list," and pretends to be a debt collector. According to the rash of complaints in Colorado, the calls are coming from "unknown" phone numbers or "000-000-0000."
According to the complaints, the alleged debt collectors are threatening consumers with lawsuits or "showing up at their place of work" unless they pay off an alleged debt. The calls claim that consumers have incurred hundreds or thousands of dollars in debt but can settle for a significantly lower sum.
The collection calls have informed consumers that they, the collection agency, are in possession of consumers personal identifying information, including their Social Security numbers.
In almost all cases, these "debts" are bogus, but many consumers are so rattled by the call and the aggressiveness of the pitch they end up supplying a credit card or bank account number.
Colorado and many other states have debt collection laws that provide consumers with abundant protections aimed at keeping them safe from aggressive or unfair collection practices. When dealing with debt collection agencies, phony or real, remember:
• If a collection agency or debt collector threatens you in any way, hang up and file a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General in your state.
• If a collection agency or debt collector declines to provide you with a record of the debt, hang up and file a complaint.
• If you dispute a debt a collection agency attributed to you in a timely fashion, the collection agency must provide some proof that you actually owe the debt before contacting you again.
• If you would like to have a collection agency stop calling you at work or home, you must send a letter to the collection agency. A phone call is not sufficient. Once a collection agency receives your letter, they are barred from contacting you.
• If you inform a debt collector that you are not the subject of the debt, it must stop calling you.
• You do not have a right to make partial payments unless the collection agency agrees to such an arrangement.
• When dealing with debt collectors, keep copies of all of your correspondence, including any payments.
• After you have asked a debt collection agency to stop contacting you, for whatever reason, it may contact you only via a lawsuit.
Free Credit Report Ads Carry New Disclaimer
Must point out product is not the Annual Free Report from the government04/05/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Free Credit Report Ads Carry New Disclaimer...
From now on, print and Internet ads for FreeCreditReport.com will have a new look. Under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, advertisers of commercial credit reporting services must point out to consumers they aren't the free service required by law.
Broadcast ads must carry the disclaimer later this year.
Federal law allows consumers to obtain free copies of their credit report from all three credit reporting agencies once a year. That free access is available at AnnualCreditReport.com, or by calling 877-322-8228.
Not necessarily free
But consumers are easily confused when they see commercials for FreeCreditReport.com and other services that sound like they're a free service.
While you can get a free copy of your Experian credit report from FreeCreditReport.com, for example, the company makes its money by enrolling you in a credit monitoring service that carries a monthly fee. Some consumers misunderstand that. Even those that don't, and try to cancel the service within the "trial" period, often have a hard time.
"I signed up for a free credit report June 8, 2009," Art, of Spring Hill, Fla., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "If you cancelled the service within seven days, there would be no charge. I cancelled the service after receiving my free reports on June 10. On June 11, my credit card was charged $14.95."
Clarity in ads
Under the Federal Trade Commission's amended Free Credit Reports Rule, which went into effect April 2, ads for these "free" offers must have clear disclosures. For example, Web sites offering free credit reports must have a disclosure, across the top of each page that mentions free credit reports, with links to AnnualCreditReport.com and FTC.gov.
The amended Rule also requires nationwide consumer reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- to delay advertising for products or services on AnnualCreditReport.com until after consumers get their free credit reports.
Broadcast disclaimer delayed until Sept. 1
The amended Rule is effective for Internet ads, with the wording of disclosures for television and radio ads taking effect on September 1, 2010.
After September 1, TV ads for credit report services must include the following disclosure in close proximity to the first mention of a free credit report: "This is not the free credit report provided for by Federal law."
The disclosure must appear at the same time in the audio and visual part of the advertisement and the visual disclosure must be at least four percent of the vertical picture height and appear for a minimum of four seconds.
Advertisements broadcast on radio must include the disclosure ''This is not the free credit report provided for by Federal law.' in close proximity to the first mention of a free credit report.
"Information in credit reports may affect whether consumers can get a loan or a job, so it is important for consumers to check their reports and correct any inaccurate information," the FTC said in a statement.
Each of the nationwide credit reporting companies is required to provide consumers with a free copy of their credit reports once every 12 months upon request.
Major Hotel Chain to Stop 'Call-Arounds'
Connecticut AG: Will put a stop to anticompetitive exchanges of price information04/05/2010ConsumerAffairs
Major Hotel Chain to Stop 'Call-Arounds'...
April 5, 2010
The La Quinta hotel chain has formally agreed to nationally cease "call-arounds" -- a potentially anticompetitive practice in which competing hotels exchange current room rate and occupancy information that can be used to fix prices.
The hotel chain operates hundreds of establishments across the country under the "La Quinta Inn" and "La Quinta Inn & Suites" names.
An antitrust investigation into the hotel industry by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal found the call-around practice is prevalent in the hospitality industry. It raises what Blumenthal's office calls "serious antitrust concerns" when competitors share current pricing and occupancy information because the information can be manipulated to raise or stabilize rates charged for hotel rooms.
A "Call-around" occurs when one hotel employee contacts competing hotels and exchanges with them information concerning their respective current room rates and occupancy rates. Such call-arounds or information exchanges generally happen multiple times daily by phone or Internet.
Sights set on entire industry
The investigation, which is continuing, has revealed that certain competitors of La Quinta have used call-around information to raise their prices on a regular basis.
"This agreement must be a wake-up call to the entire hotel industry -- signaling that call-arounds to set room prices are illegal and must be stopped," Blumenthal said. "I commend La Quinta for leading the hospitality industry and voluntarily stopping this potentially problematic practice."
Blumenthal says his office is investigating several national hotel chains that engaged in call-arounds, which he contends "interfere with the competitive market -- potentially fixing prices and increasing costs for consumers." He says he expects additional hotel companies will follow La Quinta's lead and cease anticompetitive call-arounds.
The agreement with LQ Management, LLC and La Quinta Franchising, LLC prohibits the hotel chain from engaging in call-arounds throughout the United States. Blumenthal says the La Quinta companies will cooperate with his antitrust investigation.
How it works
The call-around practice is typically conducted as follows:
Hotels have a "call-around list" of hotels within a close proximity geographically that directly compete for hotel guests;
The competing hotels engage in regular communications, typically by telephone with the hotels on their lists, two or three times daily to exchange each hotel's non-public current occupancy rate, and the standard rate currently being charged for rooms to be occupied that same day; and
The hotels contemporaneously record the information provided by other hotels.
La Quinta's agreement to end call-arounds covers all of the company's hotels nationally. The prohibition does not prevent hotels from reviewing commercially available reports and information, communicating with any other hotel or motel on behalf of a specific guest seeking to relocate, or communicating with any other hotel/motel to accommodate guests in the event of a state of emergency, disaster or similar situation.
Colon Cleanse Debt Collectors still at work
That 'free trial sample' produces nothing but headaches04/02/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Colon Cleanse Debt Collectors Still at Work...
Colon Cleanse 3000, which sparked numerous consumer complaints throughout 2009 for its "free trial offer" that turned into expensive shipments of unordered product, is now triggering a new wave of complaints.
Consumers who disputed the unauthorized charges last year are now receiving calls from collection agencies demanding payment of the unauthorized charges.
"Today, in the mail, I get not one but two collection notices from two different collection companies stating I owe money for the product," Yolette, of Colorado Springs, Colo. Told ConsumerAffairs.com last month.
Yolette said she received the unordered product last July and returned it in the box it was shipped in, unopened and marked "return to sender."
"Interesting that they wait eight months to take this action and not once in the past eight months have they every billed me. If this hits my credit report I am going to hire an attorney. This charge is false and this attempt to get money from me is illegal."
Sean, of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, said he ordered the "trial product" seven months ago and cancelled almost immediately. He thinks one scam has segued into another.
"I just received a collection letter from Healthy Online Services on their behalf," he told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Ok, Colon Cleanse 3000 is out of business. They are now sending letters to all their past customers under a new business name trying to scare them into paying."
Colon Cleanse 3000 stopped advertising and stopped taking orders last year. Sean suspects that Healthy Online Services is simply the old company under a new name.
"Healthy Online Services represents themselves as a third party collector, but after a few phone calls I found out they are in-house. From there I did some research, and I suspect it's actually just the same company," Sean said.
When Sean demanded that Healthy Online Services produce a proof of purchase and information about the debt, he said he got nowhere with the debt collector.
"I repeated that I was disputing the debt and they were required to give me all information regarding the company, and I should not need to go online to get it," Sean said. "At that he told me that he did not have any information. So I stated that if he did not have the information and refused to provide the information, that this is not a valid debt that he could collect on and that I would contact the attorney general should any further action be taken. He was then able to magically check my account and see that it was indeed cancelled and apologized for the trouble."
Sean may have uttered the magic words when he said "attorney general." For others in a similar situation, reporting a suspected scam to your state attorney general's office should be a first step. The attorney general is probably the one government official scammers actually fear.
Colon Cleanse 3000 was advertised on radio and the Internet, promising consumers a free trial-sized bottle. However, to receive the "free" bottle consumers had to pay $2 for shipping, using a credit or debit card. By the time the consumer received the "free" bottle, their credit cards had often been charged more than $80 for a full bottle.
Consumers should never pay for a "free sample" of anything, as it is usually a ruse to obtain a credit or debit card number. With that information, the company can put any charges on the card and force the consumer to dispute it.
To read more complaints about Colon Cleanse 3000, click here.
New Jersey-based Telephone Fundraisers Banned from Soliciting Donations
Consumers tricked into believing all donations would help local police, firefighters, and vets04/02/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
New Jersey-based Telephone Fundraisers Banned from Soliciting Donations...
The operators of a New Jersey-based telemarketing scheme will pay a record $18.8 million and leave the charitable donation business to settle charges that they violated a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) order.
Civic Development Group, LLC; CDG Management LLC; and owners Scott Pasch and David Keezer are accused of misleading consumers to believe they were donating directly to legitimate charities serving police, firefighters, and veterans. In fact, only a small slice of the donations actually went to these charities.
The civil penalty is the largest ever in an FTC consumer protection case and the agency says it should deter others from violating Commission orders and from deceiving consumers and harming legitimate charities.
"This scheme packed a one-two punch: it deceived the people who donated, and it siphoned much-needed funds from police, firefighters, and veterans groups," said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The court's final settlement order packs a one-two punch of its own: a record-breaking financial penalty for violating an FTC order and a lifetime ban on soliciting charitable donations."
"Firms and individuals should not mislead the public when soliciting donations for charitable organizations," said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. "The Justice Department will take action when a telemarketer violates an FTC order and takes unfair advantage of the generosity of donors by providing only a small fraction of donations for the charitable purposes for which they were intended."
Under the settlements, the defendants are permanently banned from telemarketing and soliciting charitable donations, and prohibited from making false claims about anything they sell.
Defendants Pasch and Keezer are required to turn over numerous assets to a court-appointed liquidator. Pasch will surrender a $2 million home; paintings by Picasso and Van Gogh valued collectively at $1.4 million; a guitar collection valued at $800,000; $270,000 in proceeds from a recently sold wine collection; jewelry valued at $117,000; three Mercedes, a Bentley, and various other assets. Keezer will turn over a $2 million home, a Range Rover, a Cadillac Escalade, and a Bentley, among other assets.
According to the complaint, Civic Development Group's telemarketers deceived consumers by telling them that they worked directly for the charities they called about, and that "100 percent" of the consumers' donations would go to those charities.
Group has shady history
The FTC first sued Civic Development Group in 1998, charging that telemarketers working for the company's corporate predecessor misled consumers by falsely claiming that their donations would be used locally to buy bullet-proof vests and provide death benefits for deceased officers' surviving family members.
In 2007, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a second complaint referred by the FTC, which alleged that the defendants had violated the prior FTC order. The complaint charged that the defendants tried to circumvent state and federal telemarketing regulations by mischaracterizing themselves as "Professional Management Consultants" who were operating independently from Civic Development Group.
In fact, they continued hiring, firing, managing, and paying the telemarketers. The telemarketers, in turn, continued to falsely tell consumers they worked directly for the charities, which received "100 percent" of the donations collected. In fact, the charities received only 10 to 15 percent of the donations, and the balance went to Civic Development Group, the complaint stated.
And, just over a year ago, Civic Development was among 17 telemarketers sued by the state of California.
In addition to the other settlement provisions, the defendants must take reasonable steps to ensure that their employees comply with the settlement, and comply with standard FTC record-keeping and reporting requirements.
To keep from getting scammed by "charity" solicitors, here are some tips to remember before making a donation:
Ask how much of the donation will actually go to the charity (as opposed to the solicitor).
Always get an address, phone number and contact name.
Beware of sound-alike names.
Ask questions, read and listen carefully to all of the information that is presented to you.
If you donate, do not give cash.
Be skeptical of excessive pressure for on-the-spot donations.
Do not give credit card numbers or personal information over the phone.
Call your state attorney general's Office to check on a charity's status.
State and federal governments have been working together to put an end to such charity telemarketing scammers.
Going Out of Town? Don't Tell All Your Online 'Friends'
Kentucky burglary blamed on Facebook post04/02/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Going Out of Town? Don't Tell All Your Online 'Friends'...
It's spring break time and that can spell trouble for those who widely advertise their travel plans on Facebook, MySpace or other social networking sites, Attorney General Jack Conway warns.
Conway's warning follows a recent burglary believed to be prompted by a woman who posted on Facebook that she and her fianc were leaving home for the evening.
I have warned kids across Kentucky to think before they post and that same message applies to adults as well, said General Conway. This is an important reminder of the dangers that exist on the Internet and that the people you meet online arent always as they seem.
The victim reportedly believes the burglary suspect was among her more than 500 Facebook friends who received the message that she would be gone for the evening. General Conway says it is always important to consider whether someone could use the personal information you have posted against you.
What you post online can not only jeopardize your safety, it can jeopardize your employment, admission to a college or personal relationships with friends or family, said General Conway. The words and images you post on the Internet are reflective of you and may be available for years to come.
Investigators in General Conways Cybercrimes Unit caution that even posting something as simple as your birth date could be used by identity thieves, spammers or even stalkers.
Cyberpredators can easily use your birth date, address or even your interests or hobbies to find out additional information about you or to become an online friend. The less personal information you put on a social networking site, the better, said Bill Baker, an investigator/branch manager of the Attorney Generals Cybercrimes Unit.
Conway offers these tips:
Tips for Parents
• Be a friend to your child on social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace.
• Ask to see their profile page to make sure it does not contain personal information that could compromise their safety.
• Monitor your childs online activities and keep kids out of chat rooms unless they are monitored.
• Keep the computer in a public area of the home such as a family room or kitchen.
• Warn your child to never meet in person someone they have met online.
Tips for Kids
• Protect your password and make sure you really know who someone is before you allow them to be an online friend.
• Put everything behind password protected walls, where only friends can see.
• Blur or morph your photos a bit so they wont be abused by cyberbullies or predators.
• Dont post anything your parents, principal or a predator couldnt see.
• Remember, what you post online stays onlineforever.
• Not everyone you meet online is who they say they are.
Filmmakers Accuse Scores of Film Piracy
Tens of thousands of consumers named in individual suits04/01/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Jon Hood
Filmmakers Accuse Scores of Film Piracy...
A group of filmmakers has taken legal action against 20,000 individual consumers, accusing them of downloading and sharing copyrighted material without permission. The lawsuits, filed over the past few weeks in federal court in Washington, D.C., are an especially aggressive attempt to stem the ever-present piracy problem facing the film and music industries.
The filmmakers are being represented by the U.S. Copyright Group (USCG), a company whose mission is to stop movie copyright infringement and make illegal downloaders pay damages for the content they have stolen, according to its website, aptly named SaveCinema.org.
USCG describes itself, somewhat sketchily, as technology companies and a conglomeration [of] intellectual property law firms [that] work hand-in-hand with each other, and claims that it is owned by intellectual property lawyers with well over seventy combined years of legal and technical experience.
The company makes no bones about its strategy of pursuing exorbitant settlement amounts in an effort to deter future piracy. Research suggests that once a copyright infringer is forced to pay settlement damages far in excess of the actual cost of the stolen content, he will never steal copyrighted material again, USCG's website explains.
The suits are a two-step process. First, USCG files a so-called John Doe suit, in which the defendant is only identified by his or her IP address. The company then issues a subpoena to the appropriate internet service provider to match the address with a real, live defendant. According to USCG's website, the company sends out cease & desist letters demanding payment of damages before it fully pursues the suit.
Among the plaintiffs are the producers of the films Steam Experiment, Far Cry, Uncross the Stars, Gray Man, and Call of the Wild 3D. And the litigation is apparently just beginning; USCG has announced plans to file more lawsuits against 30,000 consumers who allegedly pirated five other films.
As internet access and online social networking have expanded in recent years, musicians and filmmakers have become increasingly frustrated by the extent to which consumers can enjoy their work for free. The first real shot across the bow came in 2000, when rock band Metallica filed suit against the popular music-sharing website Napster. The site was eventually forced to shut its doors, with legal download sites -- most notably iTunes -- taking its place.
In 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America began filing suit against individuals it said were stealing music over the internet.
The Association racked up 35,000 filings before abandoning its efforts in 2008, due in large part to the suits' damaging effect on its image: among the defendants were young children and struggling single mothers. One of those single mothers, Jammie Thomas-Rasset, was ordered in June to pay nearly $2 million after she was convicted of illegally downloading 24 songs to a music sharing website. The award amounted to $80,000 per song.
In any event, piracy is likely to become an even bigger problem in the coming decades. A 2006 study by the Motion Picture Association of America found that film studios lost $6.1 billion per year to piracy, a figure 75% higher than previous estimates of $3.5 billion annually. Additionally, the studies showed that pirates were disproportionately young -- in the United States, 71% were between the ages of 16 and 24, leaving them plenty of time to wreak more havoc.
Minnesota Sues Three Online Payday Lenders
Firms accused of bypassing state's strict lending rate caps04/01/2010ConsumerAffairsBy Mark Huffman
Minnesota Sues Three Online Payday Lenders...
Minnesota is one of the handful of states with interest rate caps, effectively keeping payday lenders at bay. But three lenders who used the Internet to do business with Minnesota residents have landed in court.
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has filed three separate lawsuits against online payday lenders whose fees exceeded the interest rates allowed under state law and otherwise failed to comply with state licensing rules and consumer protections.
The lawsuits were filed against Eastside Lenders, LLC of Delaware; Global Payday Loan, LLC of Utah; and Jelly Roll Financial, LLC of Utah. None of the three companies has a license with the Minnesota Department of Commerce that allows them to make small consumer loans to Minnesota residents, Swanson says.
All three companies charge borrowers $30 in interest for a $100 two-week loan, which is a 782 percent annual interest rate. In addition, Eastside's website offers loan repayment periods as short as eight days, providing for the annualized interest rate on a $100 eight-day loan to be 1,368 percent.
Global Payday's website offers loan repayment periods as short as four days, providing for the annualized interest rate on a $100 four-day loan to be 2,737 percent.
Swanson and Dana Badgerow, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota, said the current economy has led many people to look for instant payday loans on the Internet. A payday loan is a short-term, high-interest loan, often under $500, targeted at borrowers who need money between paychecks.
The contract generally requires the borrower to pay back the loan in 14 days, or less, when the borrower's next paycheck arrives. The attorney general and BBB warned citizens to be on guard against Internet payday lenders that evade state interest rate laws and consumer protection laws by operating online without proper state licensure and that in some cases make unauthorized withdrawals from consumers bank accounts.
"Many people are in a tight spot financially and looking for help, but Internet payday lenders that purposefully evade state laws can make a tough financial situation even worse," Swanson said. "People who take out payday loans from unregulated Internet lenders hope to borrow a small amount of money that they'll repay soon. But the high interest rates, recurring finance charges, and other traps can cause the amount of the loan to explode until it becomes unmanageable."
Minnesota payday lending laws contain several consumer protections. For example, for loans less than $350, Minnesota law caps the fees that may be charged on a sliding scale as follows: $5.50 for loans up to $50; 10 percent plus a $5 fee on loans between $50 and $100; 7 percent (minimum of $10) plus a $5 fee on loans between $100 and $250; and 6 percent (minimum of $17.50) plus $5 fee on loans between $250 and $350.
For loans between $350 and $1,000, payday lenders cannot charge more than 33 percent annual interest plus a $25 administrative fee. In addition, payday lenders must itemize their fees and interest charges in their contracts, and state law prohibits certain unfair contract terms.
AeroSys Rapped on Inefficient Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps
DOE says models violate minimum efficiency standards, orders removal from market04/01/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
AeroSys Rapped on Inefficient Air Conditioners and Heat Pumps...
The Department of Energy (DOE) has ordered AeroSys, Inc. to stop distributing two product models -- one air conditioner and one heat pump -- that DOE testing found to consume more energy than allowed under federal efficiency standards.
This marks the first time DOE has told a company or manufacturer that it must halt the distribution of products that fail to meet minimum conservation standards, and follows an investigation into whether AeroSys has been selling products that violate minimum appliance efficiency standards.
The department "will act aggressively to remove any products from the market that are violating national appliance standards," said DOE General Counsel Scott Blake Harris. "We will continue to take the steps necessary to protect American consumers and the environment from wasteful and inefficient appliances."
DOE subpoenaed AeroSys's data on the energy use for certain heat pumps and air conditioners last year, before beginning independent testing on seven product models in the fall (6 air conditioner models and one heat pump).
Based on the test data, DOE has determined that the AeroSys heat pump (THHP-24T) and one of the air conditioners (THDC-30T) consume more energy than allowed under federal law. Another air conditioner (THDC-24T) was shown to meet the federal standards.
The non-compliant air conditioner fell below the minimum standard of 10.9 SEER by about eight percent, while the heat pump missed by about four percent. Testing is continuing on four additional air conditioner models (THDC-18R, THDC-18S, THDC-18T and THDC-24S) and will be complete over the next month.
Once testing is complete, DOE will determine the compliance of the remaining four models and take additional actions as appropriate.
A Notice of Noncompliance issued by DOE's Office of the General Counsel to AeroSys requires the manufacturer to respond to DOE within 15 days, detailing the steps they will take to remove the two noncompliant models from commerce in the U.S.
The company is also required to provide written notification to all businesses where the products were distributed, alerting them that the products consume more energy than allowed by law.
If the company fails to respond or effectively explain how these products will be removed from the market, the Department of Energy will seek a judicial order to prevent their sale.
Earlier this month, DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency outlined a series of steps to strengthen the ENERGY STAR program, which the government describes as "helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices."
Feds Set Aggressive Vehicle Fuel Standards
Sees average savings of $3000 over life of vehicle04/01/2010ConsumerAffairs
Feds Set Aggressive Vehicle Fuel Standards...
April 1, 2010
Vehicles on US highways have gotten more fuel efficient over the last decade but the Obama Administration thinks cars can be even more efficient.
The US Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency have jointly established new fuel economy standards for all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the US. For the first time, the rules would also set greenhouse gas reduction standards.
"These historic new standards set ambitious, but achievable, fuel economy requirements for the automotive industry that will also encourage new and emerging technologies," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "We will be helping American motorists save money at the pump, while putting less pollution in the air."
EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson agreed, calling the standards a significant step towards cleaner air and energy efficiency.
"By working together with industry and capitalizing on our capacity for innovation, we've developed a clean cars program that is a win for automakers and drivers, a win for innovators and entrepreneurs, and a win for our planet," Jackson said.
Starting with 2012 model year vehicles, the rules together require automakers to improve fleet-wide fuel economy and reduce fleet-wide greenhouse gas emissions by approximately five percent every year. NHTSA has established fuel economy standards that strengthen each year reaching an estimated 34.1 mpg for the combined industry-wide fleet for model year 2016.
The government estimates the new standard will provide the average car buyer of a 2016 model year vehicle a net savings of $3,000 over the lifetime of the vehicle, as upfront technology costs are offset by lower fuel costs.
The two government agencies say they received more than 130,000 public comments on the September 2009 proposed rules, with overwhelming support for the strong national policy.
Don't be April-Fooled by Springtime Scams
Chimney sweeps, driveway pavers among those trying to take you to the cleaners04/01/2010ConsumerAffairsBy James Limbach
As fireplaces and furnaces are retired for the season, chimney sweeping & repair scams will likely increase. "Don't ever hire a chimney sweep who shows up ...
Losing your hard-earned money to some fly-by-night operation is no joke, but with the start of spring, scammers are certainly gearing up.
"Offers for chimney repair, magazine sales, driveway paving, meter reading, and even this year's Census provide plenty of opportunity for door-to-door schemers to try to separate consumers from their money or personal information," says Connecticut Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell, Jr. "It's important that consumers be extra careful and vigilant."
As fireplaces and furnaces are retired for the season, chimney sweeping and repair scams will likely increase.
"Don't ever hire a chimney sweep who shows up uninvited," Farrell said. "Talk to friends and relatives or search the business pages to find someone who has established roots in the community. You want a chimney sweep whose word you can trust."
While chimney sweeping is not considered home improvement, the chimney sweep may find problems needing repair. Chimney repairs are home improvement, and anyone offering to perform chimney repair or replacement must have a Connecticut home improvement registration.
"A chimney sweep who finds problems shouldn't be hired to do repairs the same day," Farrell said. "It's a separate job and you should take time to find the best contractor for the job. If your chimney sweep is qualified and appropriately registered, invite him or her to provide you with a bid like any other contractor you consult. There's a three-day right of cancellation on home improvement contracts, so legitimately, no chimney work should take place for the first three days after you and a contractor sign."
Anne of Bohemia, NY, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that she had the liner in her chimney replaced by Safe-T-Check Chimney the same day the furnace was cleaned out. "Shortly after we turned off the boiler for the season and after we started using it this season we noticed soot coming from the boiler and soot mixed with water coming from the pipe leading to the chimney. Called Safe-T-Check Chimney to come and evaluate, said the problem was not theirs."
Further investigation, she says, determined that the chimney draft is too low -- the liner is 5 1/2" diameter, which is undersized. "Called Safe-T-Check again, told he would come back out to evaluate, never showed up. I am left with an unsafe chimney/draft problem. Would like $1,4000.00 refund for what I paid for."
In upcoming weeks and months traveling pavers pushing underpriced, inferior driveway paving and sealing services are likely to show up on your doorstep.
"Unsuspecting consumers can get flattened by these smooth-talking scam artists, not only losing their money, but being left with a pile of rubble where their driveways used to be," Farrell said.
Vehicles used by traveling pavers are often unmarked utility trucks and vans; salespeople circulate brochures door to door, and their sales pitch usually indicates that asphalt they have left over from a nearby job is available to you immediately, at a bargain price. High-pressure sales tactics, haphazard contracts and a request for payment in cash or personal check made out to cash, are all red flags.
"If something or someone seems suspicious, do yourself and your neighbors a favor and report it to your local police department," Farrell said. He offered the following additional tips.
Always get a signed and dated contract for the work, since it will protect you from potential damages or misunderstandings. Insist that the following items be included in writing:
• the date the contract was signed
• a start date and end date for the job
• the price, (you can request that labor and materials be broken out separately)
• the contractor's name, address and home improvement contractor number (HIC number)
• a 3-day Notice of Cancellation that allows you 72 hours to change your mind. You should also see clear instructions on how to contact the company to cancel that contract - a correct phone number, fax number, and/or mailing address must be provided.
"All of these items are required by law to be in a home improvement contract, to provide maximum protection to the consumer," Farrell said. "The three day right-to-cancel actually prevents a contractor from legally beginning the job on the day you sign the contract," Farrell said. "Don't be pressured by anyone who needs to get started right away."
Likewise, be cautious with people selling products door to door like furniture, magazine subscriptions, cleaning aids and similar items. Consumers should check with local police to be sure they know that home solicitation is taking place in town.
If you decide to buy from a door-to-door solicitor, pay with a check and make it out to the company, not to the salesman or to cash. Consumers who order products from a door-to-door salesman also have a three-day right to cancel, so be sure to get a contract or receipt with contact information in case you change your mind.
To avoid getting burned, a savvy consumer will know what to look for and what to avoid in a home improvement contractor .