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

Current Events in April 2010

Browse Current Events by year


Browse Current Events by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

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

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

    New York Court Halts Mortgage Modification Scheme

    Secures favorable court ruling in suit against Amerimod

    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.

    Misled customers

    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.

    NY Supreme Court Justice found Amerimod & Pane engaged in fraudulent, deceptive, and illegal business practices that violated New York's consumer protectio...
    Read lessRead more

    Conn. Attorney General Wants Credit Card Rates Rolled Back

    Calls Federal Reserve's credit card rules 'woefully inadequate'

    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.

    Conn. Attorney General Wants Credit Card Rates Rolled Back...
    Read lessRead more

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

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

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

      Toyota Faces Subrogation Action From Insurance Firms

      Insurance companies have questions about accidents involving Toyotas

      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.

      Both Allstate and State Farm have confirmed that their companies have begun a "subrogation" process with Toyota, though neither firm would provide much in the way of detail.

      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.

      Claim denied

      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.

      Toyota Faces Subrogation Action From Insurance Firms...
      Read lessRead more

      Heart Health for Boomers

      What you can do to prevent, or recover from, the most common heart-related conditions

      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.

      Looking ahead

      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Scammers Prey On Misinformation About Health Reform

      Pressuring uninformed consumers to buy health care policies immediately

      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.

      Scammers Prey On Misinformation About Health Reform...
      Read lessRead more

      Settlement Reached in E-Ferol Case

      Decades-old case shows importance of FDA approval

      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.

      E-Ferol, was touted for its purported ability to prevent retrolental fibroplasia, a blindness caused by a vitamin E deficiency that primarily affects prema...
      Read lessRead more

      Phony Foreclosure Consultants Draw Jail Time

      Prosecution by California AG recovers stolen funds

      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Rates Are Going Up: What's It Mean For You?

      Analysts say 30-year era of cheap interest is ending

      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.

      Rates Are Going Up: What's It Mean For You?...
      Read lessRead more

      More Than 100 Toyota Cases Consolidated

      Ruling hints that personal injury cases will be included

      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.

      NHTSA fine

      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.

      More Than 100 Toyota Cases Consolidated...
      Read lessRead more

      FTC Charges Payday Lender With Illegal Practices

      Tried to claim same rights to garnishment as federal government

      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.

      FTC Charges Payday Lender With Illegal Practices...
      Read lessRead more

      Tainted Produce More Likely for Low-Income Shoppers

      Researchers found higher levels of bacteria, mold in low-income areas

      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."

      Tainted Produce More Likely for Low-Income Shoppers...
      Read lessRead more

      Don't Get Scammed By ATM 'Skimmers'

      Scammers use technology to steal your card information

      In a Washington, DC, suburb last week, a man walked up to the Wells Fargo ATM he used a couple of times a week and something didn't seem quite right. The card slot looked different.

      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.

      Don't Get Scammed By ATM 'Skimmers'...
      Read lessRead more

      FTC Urged to Investigate 'Wild West' of Online Data Collection

      Consumer Groups seek probe of real-time advertising auctions and data exchanges of personal data

      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 Urged to Investigate 'Wild West' of Online Data Collection...
      Read lessRead more

      Vermont Retailers May Get to Set Minimum Credit Purchases

      Part of merchants' attack on 'swipe' fees

      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.

      Cash discount

      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."

      Vermont Retailers May Get to Set Minimum Credit Purchases...
      Read lessRead more

      Yelp Changes Ad Policies, Class Action Lawyers Take Credit

      Review site says it will no longer let advertisers manipulate reviews

      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.

      'Elite squad'

      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.

      'Without merit'

      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.

      Yelp Changes Ad Policies, Class Action Lawyers Take Credit...
      Read lessRead more

      Spirit Airlines Charges For Carry On Bags

      Discount carrier says those who travel light will pay less

      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."

      Bring less

      "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.

      Spirit Airlines Charges For Carry On Bags...
      Read lessRead more